Ten years before the mast

While the Reno News & Review seems new every week, a 10-year history shows the newspaper became what it is today through controversial, solid and fun journalism

Photo By Don Dondero

One of the pleasures and responsibilities of being the editor of this paper is that I also provide, as much as I can, its institutional memory. It can feel a little … weird being the guy who has to talk about how great the paper is and all the great work we do. The task has fallen to me to be the lead celebrant of our 10-year anniversary.

I believe newspapers, from the readers’ standpoint, are made of stories, pictures and personalities. I’ll try to focus on those things, but please be aware, because of space restrictions, there are behind-the-scenes people who I can’t mention: the stellar salespeople, distribution people (some of our longest-serving employees), production folks (most particularly art directors Don Button, David Jayne and Andrea Diaz-Vaughn) and corporate and office personnel. The RN&R wouldn’t have had a 10-year history without their efforts.

So, here we go. Here’s a glimpse into the history of the Reno News & Review. Believe me, it was a long time coming.

In the beginning
Every story has a prelude, and the RN&R’s prelude was Nevada Weekly. It was started in November 1993 by three dedicated journalists—Mike Norris, Bill Martin and Larry Henry—and a staff of nutjobs (including yours truly and excluding anybody who might find the term offensive and who can be better described as competent and devoted) determined to create a lively alternative news outlet in the Reno area.

We gave it a good go, but the Nevada Weekly was hanging by one financial fingernail in February 1995, when Jeff vonKaenel and Deborah Redmond, principal owners of Chico Community Publishing, Inc., the parent company of the Sacramento News & Review and the Chico News & Review, saved and renamed our weekly newspaper. The very first issue of the Reno News & Review hit the stands Feb. 22, 1995.

Mike Norris took a look at Nevada’s Wild West liquor laws in February 1995, for the first RN&R.

Volume 1: February 1995–February 1996
R.V. Scheide was the first editor of the RN&R. He took the helm of a ship staffed by an inexperienced crew and basically forced us to sink or swim. He, as much as anyone, set the editorial tone for what this paper was going to be for many years to follow. He was humorous, profane and able to tell the truth about himself and others. In part, this came from the fact that he didn’t have local connections, but it also came from the fact that he really understood the concept of the “alternative press.”

Do you recall? The Spin Doctor of Love (our love advice columnist Tracy Panzarella); Reid Walley; Connie Phillis.

Most memorable stories: “Rebels Without a Clue” told the story of Dick Carver, a Nye County commissioner who bulldozed a road and reignited the county-supremacy movement in Nevada. “The Case of David Middleton,” by Larry Henry, outlined a local murder and showed the weekly’s ability to go deeper than the day-to-day reporting of crime as performed by other local media. “Save the Mapes,” by Rick Rosaschi, was the first story in the RN&R’s long but ultimately fruitless crusade to save the Mapes Hotel. If the only measure of importance is the number of letters to the editor we received, “Silicone or Bust,” the story of Charlotte Mahlum’s battle against the breast-implant industry, took the prize.

Volume 2: February 1996–February 1997
Our second year was a rollercoaster year for the RN&R. When Scheide left to take the helm of our larger sister paper, the Sacramento News & Review, Erik Espe took over here. Espe was not, to put it gently, your typical Nevadan (but then who is?). His amazement at Reno’s way of doing things had two major impacts: It reinvigorated some older stories, like a discussion of Nevada’s tobacco politics, and allowed the staff to go deep on some investigative pieces.

Most memorable stories: The Feb. 28 issue’s “Invasion of the Tree Huggers” set the standard for cover images that got the community talking. It was a photo, taken by famed shooter Don Dondero, of three naked people standing in snow, hugging massive pines in Galena Park. The community reaction was swift: “Get those papers out of my store.” Virtually every issue was devoured from the newsstands, and T-shirts were printed. In March, we ran “Working on the Railroad,” our first cover story about how the Union Pacific/Southern Pacific merger was going to affect Reno. Yes, the trench was mentioned even then. Dennis Myers’ story, “Ousting Rosenberg,” which looked at how the good-old-boy network was struggling to keep Howard Rosenberg from taking his elected seat on the University and Community College System of Nevada Board of Regents was a benchmark in the RN&R’s tradition of being both investigative and crusading. The story, “Desperately Seeking Susan,” about Reno Gazette-Journal publisher Sue Clark-Johnson’s position on Harrah’s board of directors, raised a few eyebrows and is still brought up when discussions turn to the former publisher.

Do you recall? Howard Rosenberg’s media column “MediaMan.” Howard eventually found something better to do (like run for the Board of Regents). When, in April, the RG-J threatened a lawsuit (with a letter signed by chief RG-J lawyer and now Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty) if we called our “Best of” issue “Best of Reno.” Our publisher Jeff vonKaenel fired back with an open letter to the RG-J, questioning whether the Gazette really knew if anything was best for Reno.

In 1996, Curt Gayett and Nick Budnick went out to the field to find and talked to safe-beef crusader Howard Lyman about the spread of diseased meat.

Volume 3: February 1997–February 1998
Most memorable stories: While our story “Newspapers R.I.P: Why Dailies (like the Gazette-Journal) Will be Dead by 2006,” written by vonKaenel, was a bit premature, the decrease in classified ads in daily newspapers is well-documented, and the story was undoubtedly prescient. Dennis Myers still claims “The Rich Get Richer: Corporate Welfare in Nevada,” written in March 1997, is one of his best stories. Deidre Pike’s story about a night at the Committee to Aid Abused Women’s emergency shelter won our first award, CAAW’s “Media Representative of the Year.” Erik Espe hit his stride with the story “How will the daily’s links to Union Pacific affect Reno?” which detailed relationships between Gannett’s Board of Directors and the Union Pacific Railroad. Nearly a year after the Flood of 1997, an RN&R investigation revealed that much of the infamous flood could have been avoided, pointing the finger at a law that required the dam at Tahoe be wide open while downtown Reno drowned.

Do you recall? When members of the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority Board of Directors came clean with their mismanagement of the construction of the National Bowling Stadium? More than one job was eliminated after our story “Bowled Over” was published in June 1997. (Note from Deidre Pike: “Your humble editor D. Brian Burghart is not taking full credit for his work here. This was the year that Burghart was in his finest investigative form. He doggedly pursued the federal watermaster’s role in the Flood of 1997 and was feisty as hell in pursuing the RSCVA story.")

Volume 4: February 1998–February 1999
It’s difficult to say what one person’s impact is on something as organic as a newspaper. People can look back and say this or that story started a trend that survives still in the News & Review. In retrospect, Erik Espe was more concerned with the spiritual side of things than Scheide was, encouraging stories about such topics as tai chi, relaxation and yoga. Espe also continued the RN&R’s commitment to organized labor, and in February 1998 he wrote an expose of the misnamed “Paycheck Protection Initiative” that exposed the initiative for what it was: a blatant attempt to benefit corporations and screw the little guy. Espe left in March, and he was replaced by Larry Henry as editor.Henry (you’ll recall he was one of the originals) had been working in Las Vegas for the past two years, and he came back to town ready to kick ass. I’ve known a lot of journalists over the years, and I’ve never known one as politically astute as Larry Henry. He could also drink some beer. Henry was fascinated with people, and when I think about his time as editor, I remember most the “people” stories and the political stories: Judge Mills Lane; Henry’s former employer Bob Miller; Catherine Atkins’ story, “My Mother is Black, Am I?” Also, the profile of Reno artist Walt McNamara; the battle between Judy Pruett-Herman and Mayor Jeff Griffin for control of the City Council; and the story about embattled Sparks Mayor Bruce Breslow (with the first of über-shooter David Robert’s many cover images for the RN&R). I’ll never forget that day in September when the story about the 35th Annual National Championship Air Races came out, and the pilot who was featured in the story and on the cover died in a race.

Most memorable stories: News editor Amy Paris’ “Why Should I Diet?” set the tone for all of our diet stories to follow. It was an open, honest look at the struggles both men and women experience trying to fit society’s mold of what people should look like. “The selling of Burning Man” by Rob Tocalino asked a question that really surprised many of our readers: Was Burning Man walking away from its non-corporate roots? Larry Henry’s cover story about the senatorial race between Harry Reid and John Ensign was a local-politics tour de force. Ellen Drewes took up the issue of some lame-duck Washoe County commissioners who planned to increase the sales tax by a quarter-cent, and Henry put Mike Mouliot and Sue Camp on the cover as a wanted poster.

Do you recall? The first of our devil covers featured Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn on Sept. 24, 1998. The crusade some members of the Catholic Church took against the paper because of a short story, by Laura Vlasek Boren, we published in our 1998 short-fiction contest.

Volume 5: February 1999–February 2000
When you look back at the archives of our fifth year, one thing is immediately clear; Jimmy Boegle had come aboard as news editor. Boegle, who’d interned here back in May 1996, was into sports, and we probably had more sports in the newspaper than in any year before or since: boxing, the Reno Blackjacks, UNR’s women basketball, extreme sports, women’s volleyball—the RN&R had game. Henry continued with his in-depth political stories, earning the News & Review spots on many local politicians’ dart boards. Another trend of ‘99 was our cover features of question-and-answer interviews with local casino bosses, including John Farahi, Phil Bryan and Don Carano. On a bittersweet note, Henry left the RN&R in January 2000 to spend more time with his family and to work at the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Ron Tocalino’s 1998 story, “The Selling of Burning Man,” surprised readers by asking if Burning Man was getting too corporate.

Most memorable stories: From a standpoint of a cultural trend spotter in the Truckee Meadows, the RN&R elevated literary tastes with a cover feature on The Shipping News author Annie Proulx and music stories about everything from a blues festival to the guitar wunderkind Kenny Wayne Sheppard. Amy Paris’ story about the abortion pill, RU-486, “Can Abortion Really Be This Simple?” showed that abortion, no matter how administered, isn’t a choice to make lightly. The RN&R’s expose of the campaign finances of Reno City Councilwoman Sherrie Doyle, “Paying Debts,” got an investigation launched against the politician that resulted in 16 felony indictments. [Note from Pike: “Here’s Burghart, being all humble and nameless again, when he was the one tirelessly reading through the contribution reports of local City Council candidates."]

Volume 6: February 2000–February 2001
In March 2000, I decided to call it quits, at least for the moment, wanting to try my luck as a freelance journalist. As editor, Boegle continued his emphasis on hard news coverage and social reportage, supported by the likes of Rob Bhatt, news editor, and the same stable of writers who’d made the RN&R such a force to reckon with. Bhatt was an expert environmental and news reporter. He took on the Reno Police Department in such stories as “Policing the Police,” about efforts to get Reno a police review board, examined the issue of conservation in the Black Rock Desert and closely scrutinized the mining industry.

Cultural reportage didn’t suffer, either, and some of that year’s sprightliest writing concerned such matters as raves, homophobia at schools and paganism.

Most memorable stories: The cover package for the 2000 teen issue, on June 1, with stories, poetry and art done by teens, showed this community just how positive a force our teenagers can be.

Do you recall? The Fifth Anniversary issue, published on Aug. 17, featured essays by most of the past and current staff, with an introduction and short history of Chico Community Publishing, our parent company, by Senior Editor Bob Speer.

Volume 7: February 2001–February 2002
Deidre Pike had rejoined the staff as news editor in December. In January, she detailed the murder of Western Shoshone tribal leader Glenn Wasson in the Winnemucca Indian Colony, a story that didn’t get its due in local and regional media. But she really showed her chops (and the shape of things to come) in the first issue of Volume 7. It was a piece called “Mind over Madness,” and it detailed the problems the Nevada Mental Health Institute and its new $10 million inpatient hospital had opening. But this wasn’t just some story about a bureaucratic imbroglio; it also brought in a really touching human element—not just doctors but patients.

D. Brian Burghart’s 1999 expose on Reno City Councilwoman Sherrie Doyle, “Paying Debts,” led to an investigation that resulted in 16 felony indictments.

Pike wrote at an astounding pace, penning all or part of some 20 cover stories, including “Drop-in Dilemma,” about Reno’s lack of a drop-in center for homeless people, and “Yucca-ed Up,” on President Bush’s rush to get high-level nuclear waste ensconced at Yucca Mountain. Then, too, Adrienne Rice, Carli Cutchin and Kelley Lang were churning out the copy, taking up and discussing the social causes of the day. In November, Rice’s glimpse inside “Lofty Living” at the Riverside Artists Lofts demonstrated the paper’s commitment to local arts coverage.

Most memorable stories: Catherine Atkins’ “My Summer Craniotomy” was a first-person account of undergoing brain surgery for a tumor. The cover image of her shaved head and scar stuck in the mind for a very long time.

Do you recall? The second rant issue took up such important topics as the problem of government’s non-support of unmarried straight couples, the difficulty of finding vegetarian food in a meat-eating world and apathetic rock music fans.

Volume 8: February 2002–February 2003
Pike took over as editor in October 2001, and those who are looking for the current “feel” of the RN&R can probably look here. She and her staff infused the paper with a spirit of compassion, returning the paper to a basic tenet of journalism: Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. 2002 was an election year with a white-hot Reno city election (primarily the race for mayor between Bob Cashell and Mike Robinson) and more citizens’ initiatives than you could shake a ballot at. Political coverage was very hot, and everything from pot to money for schools to how money affects elections to the anti-gay-marriage initiative filled our pages. Alternative arts, family and environmental coverage filled in the spaces between election news.

Most memorable stories: Carli Cutchin’s “Living Through Chemistry,” about how people cope with heroin addiction, didn’t stoop to judgment but was able to address the issues of two men’s lives of drug addiction. In the wake of child-rape allegations against Catholic priests, “Father Figures” showed what can happen when more than 30 alternative newsweeklies work together to tell a story of national import. In January, Pike produced one of the best works of her stellar career, “Showdown in Crescent Valley,” about the plight of Western Shoshone sisters Mary and Carrie Dann, who’d had a lifelong battle with the federal government to continue their ranching lifestyle.

Do you recall? Lorrie Baumann, editor of The Battle Mountain Bugle, made some offhand comments to Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten about her town and lost her job for it. Lucas John Helder, the so-called Mailbox Bomber, got busted outside of Reno and brought the national media to town with him. [Pike: “Burghart was the Nevada stringer for Time magazine at the time but didn’t hesitate to write a cover story about the Helder media circus for the good ol’ RN&R."]

In 2003, former RN&R arts editor Carli Cutchin talked to teens about abstinence education, still a hot topic.

Volume 9: February 2003–February 2004
After returning to the paper as news editor in July 2002, I was given the unenviable task of following in Pike’s footsteps as editor in December. She graciously agreed to stay on as a contributing editor, while she began her new career as a university instructor.

The early part of 2003 was a turbulent time in the office, with no news editor and Carli Cutchin announcing her intention to vacation in Europe for a month before starting on her master’s degree in religious studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Miranda Jesch stepped up to the plate to fill Cutchin’s shoes. Despite having little experience in journalism, she kicked off her tenure here with the cover story, “This Dog’s Life…” on the fate of a black-and-white pit bull, No. 214 at Reno Animal Services, which earned her a first-place award in the Nevada Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest.

In September, we called on Pike for another special project. The three RN&R papers, Las Vegas CityLife and the Tucson Weekly (now led by Jimmy Boegle) combined resources to send her to Cancun, Mexico, to cover the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization meeting.

Most memorable stories: “The Tao of Steve” told the story of troubled rocker Steve Foht. Michael Burgwin told his own story as a homeless person in the story, “Down But Not Out in Reno.”

Do you remember? A cover with yours truly portrayed me as Henry VIII holding a turkey leg. [Pike: “Burghart’s story about his adventures on the Atkins diet was one of his most entertaining."]

Volume 10: February 2004–February 2005
It’s almost too close for perspective, but Volume 10 of the RN&R seemed to recommit us to some of our core values: supporting minorities, covering the environment and political coverage. “The Immigrant Gap,” “Open for Business” and “Reno’s Social Fabric” took up issues of the Hispanic culture in Reno; “Power Play,” “Making Recycling Pay,” “Requiem for a Lake” and “Dawn of a Day Without Coal” considered humankind’s role and impact on the planet. Veteran journalist Dennis Myers returned to the paper as news editor in March. In 2004, there were too many political stories to even begin to list them. Political cover stories included “The Big Issue,” Junk Lawsuits,” “Citizen Reid” and “No More Years.” While Jesch had a great run here, the long search and eventual selection of Kris Vagner as arts editor continues the RN&R’s tradition of sophisticated arts coverage.

Most memorable stories: “Teens Talk About Teens” was a combined effort of local teenaged journalists and the RN&R staff. “Requiem for a Lake” by Brian Bahouth beautifully told the story of the probable end of Walker Lake, and “Alien Odyssey” by Brad Summerhill told of the birth of his son, that baby who appeared on all the Washoe Med commercials.

Do you remember? Larry Balz appeared on the cover, apparently stuck in a Port-a-Potty, thanks to the magic of Photoshop. The April Fools’ Issue was the first issue of the Weekly World News & Review, which featured a goblin, Lady Di and a creature in the Sparks Marina. A hornier version of President Bush on the cover, “No More Years,” ended up posted in many a college student dorm room—but also got the RN&R kicked out of a few businesses.

Is that really all there is? Can 10 long years really be boiled down to a page or two of text and pictures? No, not really. If you want to see what the RN&R is really all about, keep an eye on us for the next 10 years. The newspaper will continue to improve and grow. If one thing is apparent from a look back at the last 10 years, it’s the reason, despite all the social, financial and personnel changes, the paper never seemed to lose quality: We all stand on the shoulders of giants.

Deidre Pike contributed to this article.