Celebrating 21 Years of the Reno News & Review
It makes little sense, on paper, for Reno to have an alternative weekly newspaper. Alt weeklies, as they are affectionately known, have typically been influential, countercultural niche papers that catered to a small but loyal segment of readers that lived in big cities. Yet in the winter of 1993, three journalists—Mike Norris, Bill Martin and Larry Henry—decided to launch Nevada Weekly. Norris, a former investigative and political reporter at the Reno Gazette-Journal explained why he helped found the paper. “Our role at Nevada Weekly, as I saw it, was to offer a sound journalistic alternative to mainstream media, which, simply put, were not doing their jobs.”
Now, 23 years later, you hold this week’s copy of its successor in your hand. (Nevada Weekly was purchased outright by California-based News & Review in 1995.) Somehow, through multiple recessions, the rise of the internet, and a changing Reno readership, the News & Review has ridden the endless boom and bust cycles of Northern Nevada for the past two decades.
“We’re a very small market for an alt weekly,” said Reno News & Review publisher and editor D. Brian Burghart. Typically, these papers trend far left on the political spectrum as they represent only a small segment of much larger communities. But Reno’s not big enough for a paper that caters only to a liberal fringe. “Here, we had to go more toward the middle,” said Burghart. “In some ways, we represent the far right and the far left. In other ways we represent the middle in different sections of the paper.”
It hasn’t always been easy. Free papers used to be a hotbed of classified advertising for everything from used furniture to anonymous hook-ups—a market taken over by Craigslist and other online matchmakers of buyers and sellers. But the familiar masthead and red wire racks of the Reno News & Review are still sought out every Thursday in bars and coffee houses all over town.
According to Reynolds Chair of Business Journalism Alan Deutschman at the University of Nevada, Reno, some of the nation’s best reporting has been done by alternative weekly newspapers, which often become training grounds for young journalists. The News & Review has been a springboard for local journalists who have subsequently reached a national audience. UNR journalism alumna Chanelle Bessette was hired to be the conservative opinion writer for the Reno News & Review in 2012 (“Liberty Belle”) and was soon a contributor for Forbes and a reporter at Fortune Magazine. She was most recently the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Sparks Watchdog reporter.
Weekly papers tend to adapt to the culture of their communities, but almost all serve their readers in similar ways. Burghart points out that in tumultuous economic times, “We are small enough that we can get tossed around pretty easily. I don’t think the things that fuel a digital news outlet are the same things that fuel a print news outlet. For us, we only do local, so when people come to us, we’re only doing local advertisers. It has an impact on whether those advertisers get a result on their advertising.” This dedication to community is just one of six traits listed by the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, of which this paper is a member, commonly shared by alt weeklies in their mission to serve their unique, diverse, and changing communities.Local is a core value
National and international news stories attract a wider readership—and help sell to a broader range of advertisers—which is why the content of daily newspapers and news websites is globally focused. While the Reno News & Review runs only 31 pages some weeks, it fills each of those with stories that most affect its local readers. Burghart used to keep a motto on the wall of his office that read: “Local is a core value.”
“Here’s where I’ll give the News & Review credit,” said Dave Aiazzi, former Reno city councilmember and Washoe County School Board member. “They’ll let their reporters roam to write a story.” Aiazzi said he appreciates the stories that have been thoroughly researched and fleshed out, though he doesn’t feel that the stories about him were always as comprehensive. Aiazzi said that in the early days of the paper, he felt the coverage of certain issues like the ReTRAC project was “a little petty,” though he added, “later on I thought it got to be a lot more balanced.” One of the challenges of local political coverage in Reno is that reporters and their subjects can end up in the same bar. It is, after all, a small city. While Burghart and Aiazzi don’t always agree on political issues, they share a mutual personal respect. And whatever feeling Aiazzi, a Sparks native, has about the hard news, he values the local cultural coverage in the paper.
“The News & Review is the number one spot to find arts information,” said Aiazzi. “They always seem to have local bands and local artists.”
Former News & Review Editor Eric Espe feels that the paper’s coverage of the local arts and culture scene helped redefine Reno.
“There was no publication covering the arts in Reno, and we were embraced by the community for doing that,” said Espe. “That was a big shift, and it probably changed the town.”
News & Review associate editor—and former arts and culture editor—Brad Bynum is adamant that the focus remains intensely local.
“I think the arts are super important to how we view ourselves as a community, but I think it’s more important how we view ourselves locally than it is as far as our national branding recognition, because I could give a fuck about that,” said Bynum. “As far as the Reno News & Review goes, we’re not writing for those people. We’re writing for the people we see around town.”Many different voices
While the vocabulary of certain Reno News & Review articles—even some not written by Bynum—could definitely be described as “profane,” the reporting of the News & Review is often profane in the true sense of the word—treating certain topics irreverently. And this often means tearing down icons and institutions favored by local readers. Take, for example, Bynum’s 2007 article “Ten Things I Hate About Burning Man” that good-naturedly criticized some of the less appealing experiences on the playa, including the portable bathrooms, bicycle thieves and dust storms. It was not the most popular article ever to grace the News & Review, and, seven years later, still draws the ire of some would-be Burners. “I still get letters about that article,” said Bynum.
The informality of the Reno News & Review’s voice is reflective of its alt weekly beginnings. Unlike the formal distinction formed between a daily newspaper and its readers, the News & Review blurs the lines between reader and writer. Local readers are frequent contributors, not only as writers and photographers, but also as advertisers, and as unique voices in the letters to the editor and in the “Streetalk” column. Likewise, Reno News & Review contributors, reporters, editors and even the subjects of its stories, are frequently readers, and some of them have been for decades.
There are many different voices on the news and editorial staff as well. This allows them to combine the sometimes irreverent stories on local music, bars and off-beat entertainment with hard-hitting investigative journalism dedicated to keeping politicians and other influential Renoites honest.
“You’re not going to find a better watchdog than Dennis Myers,” said Bynum, a frequent champion of up-and-coming bands and local entertainers, “and you won’t find a better flufferdog than me.”
The full-time writing staff is often very critical of one another’s work, according to special projects editor Jeri Chadwell-Singley. “It’s very relentlessly honest out of necessity. We make sure everyone else’s work is as good as it can be.” The editors have developed a system of respectful but critical checks and balances. “We argue over the way things are written, the content, and the stories we choose,” said Chadwell-Singley.
The dedication to putting out the best product every week extends far beyond the newsroom. While there is a clear physical and metaphorical space between the advertising and the news staff at Reno News & Review headquarters—the advertising sales staff and the news staff are on opposite ends of a long hallway—Chadwell-Singley notes how important the advertising element is to the paper. “We have an ad team that works their asses off. They make sure we can pay the printer, and we make sure there are people reading the paper.”Points of view
Open a daily newspaper and take note of the voice and persona of a typical news reporter. By design, that voice is often distant—making note of facts and important details to convey what happened, in the most efficient way possible. (Newspapers measure space in column inches—the more real estate used by words, the less space available to sell to advertisers.) Read the entirety of a Reno News & Review, and you’ll notice a broad range of voices and styles, and much longer features. This is narrative journalism. It tells a story by moving beyond mere facts, by digging into the “how” and “why” behind these facts. But the reporters are held to the same high standards of confirming details with sources and fact-checking and verifying their reporting. And you’ll also find frequent first-person accounts of reporters documenting personal experiences for their readers. This might be as vulgar and pedantic as Brad Bynum peeing in a sensory deprivation tank (“Altered states,” September 23, 2015), Jeri Chadwell-Singley facing her fear of ophidians for “Snake Charmed,” (January 28, 2016), or Deidre Pike writing from the raw emotional state of someone watching in real-time as her own daughter deals with the loss of a close friend who died while deployed to Iraq in the U.S. Army (“An Improvised Explosive Device,” January 5, 2006).
One of the drawbacks of publishing on a weekly schedule is the fact that the News & Review cannot deal with breaking stories with the immediacy of other news outlets. Deidre Pike recalled one cover story that was particularly ill-fated in its timing.
“I did a story that came out on September 13, 2001, two days after September 11th, that was called ’Burning Ban,’” said Pike. The story was about law enforcement and Burning Man officials asking a theme camp to remove a large animated plywood sign that depicted anal sex and was deemed too graphic, even by the community standards of the playa. “We were super embarrassed that that was on the cover because September 11th happened on a Tuesday while we were going into production,” Pike said. By then, it was too late to change the cover. So, on the week of September 11, 2001, the Reno News & Review hit the racks with a cover featuring a barely clad body jumping through flames and the text, “Burning Ban: In Black Rock City, almost anything goes—unless you hang something huge and homoerotic on the street corner.” (Editor Jimmy Boegle addressed the national tragedy in his Editor’s Note of that week’s issue and the next edition was devoted to the tragedy.)A real difference
One of the most important purviews of the Reno News & Review is to find and showcase a broad range of local voices. Alternative weeklies are unique in the world of journalism in this regard, as they are one of the few media outlets that regularly give the cover to local freelance journalists, giving a broad range of voices the chance to be featured for a week. Cover stories for the News & Review have been written by the likes of Caitlin Thomas, a college sex-advice columnist who wrote about her life as a stripper, and her physical and literary lust for her poetry instructor (“The Naked Truth,” March 29, 2012), and the opinion column has been given over to a wide range of voices and perspectives, including conservative freelance journalist Ken Ward who wrote about his de-facto termination from the Las Vegas Review-Journal in “A Left Hook in Vegas,” (January 16, 2003). An entire week is given up to young would-be journalists and new voices for the annual Teen Issue.
News editor Dennis Myers discussed the importance of freelancers to the News & Review. “When you’ve got a diversity of voices and eyes, you get different information.” He related this to his time spent covering the Nevada Legislature. “When the senate finance committee got its first woman member, they got different information than they got previously. She was asking different questions. … She was asking about programs, and how they affected families and children.”
While the News & Review explores a wide range of issues and topics, from the live music scene and local theater productions to family events and the outdoor culture, the paper is also known for publishing dark, often discomfiting stories not seen elsewhere. This long-form journalism allows reporters and readers to explore news events with a depth of empathy and understanding. Steve Timko’s “When Hate Comes to Town” (Sept. 20, 2015) appeared in the wake of the June 17, 2015 shootings in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Timko focused on two hate crimes that occurred in Reno—the murder of Tony Montgomery, a black teenager randomly gunned down by two skinheads on Dec. 9, 1988, and the stabbing of William Metz, a gay man, on a field at Reno High School on July 8, 1994.
How does a newspaper help to diversify and change the culture of its town? By becoming part of an ongoing conversation about its own community, which is something the News & Review has striven to do since it was Nevada Weekly.
“The belief is that newspapers can make a real difference,” said News & Review president and CEO Jeff VonKaenel, who, with his wife, Deborah Redmond, purchased Nevada Weekly 21 years ago, changing the name to the Reno News & Review. They want Reno “to have a place where different people in the community can have a dialog with each other and develop a consensus on what can be done.” VonKaenel has seen Reno change a lot in the past two decades. The town is much more inclusive and open than when the paper started, and has a much better arts scene. VonKaenel feels that the News & Review has played an important role in those progressive changes.Reporting for duty
“There was a lot of freedom to publish political news and political opinion that just wouldn’t show up in the daily,” said Espe. “and a willingness to upset people.” Espe noted that the Sacramento News & Review—part of the same three-paper chain as the Reno News & Review and the Chico News & Review—was the last paper to publish Gary Webb, the journalist who left the San Jose Mercury News after his controversial coverage of a story that alleged the CIA had helped start the inner city crack epidemic of the 1980s.
The weekly nature of the Reno News & Review provides its staff and freelance writers an almost unheard of luxury in today’s 24-hour, seven-days-a-week news cycle driven by Twitter, video clips, sound bites and online news—the ability to take the time to research, develop and write a nuanced, thoughtful, and often longer story.
“Dennis Myers political reporting is so essential,” said Alan Deutschman. “He’s such a good reporter and having that there every week, knowing he’s on the case checking out what’s happening, is so valuable.”
The local focus and unconventional nature of many of the stories drives a Thursday morning ritual that’s repeated at the 950 racks located through Reno and Sparks (and as far away as Carson City, Minden, Truckee and Lake Tahoe). No one is more familiar with the rhythm and ritual of Renoites waiting for Thursday’s News & Review than delivery driver Warren Tucker, who runs Route No. 6, including parts of the North Valleys, Sun Valley and McCarran Boulevard.
Tucker says its not unheard of for him to find people at the racks on a Thursday, waiting for a bundle of fresh News & Reviews. “As soon as I drop them off, people grab them,” he said. And while there are occasionally a few of the previous week’s issues left on a rack from time to time—Tucker takes any unread issues back to the office to be recycled—Tucker feels there are a lot of good covers, and keeps a copy of each issue for his own archives. The most popular cover Tucker has seen in recent years was the one on Jan. 23, 2014 (“Gone to Pot”) that had a large marijuana leaf prominently featured.
“I don’t think I had any returns that week,” he said.Speak truth to power
On the way home from work one day, D. Brian Burghart saw a phalanx of police cars parked at a crime scene. “Either a cop had killed somebody, or somebody had killed a cop,” Burghart said. The scene sparked a curiosity in Burghart about how often there were law enforcement-related killings in Washoe County. His journalistic instincts soon led him far beyond the local records and he eventually launched the Fatal Encounters database, a national effort to catalog and document all people killed in interactions with law enforcement nationwide, and one that has sparked similar efforts by the FBI, the Guardian, and the Washington Post, and garnered national attention, including Burghart’s appearance on The Daily Show. While Fatal Encounters is a project that Burghart worked on during his off time, he gives his credentials and experience at the Reno News & Review a great deal of credit for its growing success, and in 2014, the paper ran a series of six related “Fatal Encounters” stories which won several national awards as well as the Nevada Press Association’s “Story of the Year” award.
Perhaps one of the most notably effective stories of the last few years was Dennis Myers’ revelation of state legislator Ira Hansen’s inflammatory columns from the archives of the Sparks Daily Tribune (“On Paper,” November 20, 2014). Myers’ investigative reporting—aided by Andrew Barbano’s additional coverage of Hansen’s past racist, sexist, and homophobic comments—led to Hansen subsequently declining the post of speaker of the Nevada Legislature, and Myers and the News & Review received national coverage, including in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
“As it stands now, today, the Reno News & Review is the best newspaper in the state of Nevada—and I can defend that ’til the cows come home,” says Sparks Tribune columnist and blogger Barbano, who adds that Dennis Myers is currently the best journalist working in the state of Nevada. “You look at what Dennis and Brian have done in recent years, nobody’s done what they have done, which is why I nominated the News & Review for the NAACP’s highest award last year and was one of the co-presenters of it.”
Speaking truth to power is not always about knocking public figures from pedestals however. Myers has proven numerous times that an equally, if not more powerful and exemplary kind of journalism is restorative, rather than destructive in nature.
“I’ll tell you the two accomplishments I’m proudest of here,” said Myers. “I was able to give two men back their reputations.” One was a Nevada attorney and candidate for the Nevada Supreme Court named John Mason who had claimed for years that he’d played guitar for the 1960s rock band the Surfaris (“True Story”, August 26, 2004). Mason was plagued by allegations that his rock guitarist story was fabricated, and those charges made it all the way to the front page of the Wall Street Journal. It turns out that Mason was hired as an official Surfari for a tour, as the original recording members were high schoolers, and not old enough to go on the road. It was only through careful research—Myers tracked down former producer Donnie Brooks, among others, to verify Mason’s earlier claims—that Myers was able to prove that Mason had indeed been telling the truth.
The second man whose reputation Myers restored was Dr. Edward Crippen, the Nevada Health Officer in the late 1960s. Acting on a tip from a retired nurse, Crippen discovered that Fallon’s water supply had high levels of arsenic. The city fathers, concerned about tourism, were furious that Crippen submitted a formal report detailing the tainted water, and they started a chain of events that led to Governor Paul Laxalt convening the Nevada Board of Health to fire Crippen on February 26, 1969. Crippen, who managed to have a successful career elsewhere despite his high-profile termination, had never had his story fully told until Myers related it, nearly 40 years later (“Blinded to Science,” March 1, 2007). “He and his family were literally thrilled,” said Myers. Crippen died about six months after publication of the story vindicating him.The next 10
As a rule, journalists are reluctant to make predictions about the future. It’s not in their nature—they’re used to following leads and tracking down stories to get at the underlying truth in things. The Reno News & Review is in a unique position in Nevada’s changing news landscape. The Reno Gazette-Journal has seen a steady decline in its circulation. (Down from a high of 60,000, the paper now averages under 30,000 on weekdays. The News & Review now averages over 28,000 weekly.) In addition, the Gazette-Journal has been reducing its reporting staff with many long-time reporters having taken buyouts or having been laid off. This means the next few years will be full of opportunities for the Reno News & Review—and many great challenges. Will the News & Review try to fill the news hole left behind by a shrinking daily newspaper? What will the dialog turn to next? Cultural changes? A thriving tech economy?
Check back in 10 years when this paper drops into the racks on a Thursday morning and see where the Reno News & Review, and the town that has supported it for 21 years, has ended up.