A thrilling ride

SN&R’s owner looks back to the beginning and straight on to the future

Jeff vonKaenel holds the very first copy of the paper on the left and one hot off the press on the right.

Jeff vonKaenel holds the very first copy of the paper on the left and one hot off the press on the right.

Photo Illustration by Don button

Jeff vonKaenel is SN&R co-founder, president and CEO.

On the morning of April 20, 1989, I found myself standing on the corner of 11th and K streets, watching rush-hour commuters, with a small basket of La Bou muffins and a pile of our first issue of the Sacramento News & Review in hand.

I stood there, not quite believing the day had come when I could actually hold the tangible evidence of all of our hard work. I was so proud of our first issue. I remember late nights discussing Melinda Welsh’s editorial vision to start our Sacramento paper with the idea of showing tough love for the city—a vision that avoided a boosterlike mentality. We cared about the city, but we weren’t going to be afraid to criticize it. I’d spent plenty of nights leading up to that day filled with anxiety that the paper might not succeed, that people might not read it and that advertisers might not support it.

But the result of the past months’ hard work was now a publication being offered to the busy commuters. When some people took the paper with obvious joy, I was delighted; when others dropped it in the trash, I was temporarily crushed.

Now, 20 years later, I am still thrilled every Wednesday afternoon when I see the new SN&R issue sitting in stacks in the lobby, waiting to be delivered throughout the region. Yes, I am still amazed every time a new SN&R comes out. I am so proud of the paper and the hundreds of people over the last 20 years who helped create our organization. But it’s not just pride that I feel. It’s gratitude and humility, too. Recently, an independent media audit found that SN&R reaches 441,000 readers every month. That’s more readers than ever before in our history! We’re so honored by that.

Ultimately, I cannot find words to express my personal appreciation for having been able to spend the last 20 years creating a newspaper that I love, with people who I love, for a community that I love.

I think back to that very first paper because that day was an important one in Sacramento’s history for another reason besides the launch of SN&R. A more somber event scheduled for that same day was a memorial service for longtime Sacramento Bee publisher, C.K. McClatchy.

During McClatchy’s tenure as publisher, the Bee separated from its union, dramatically improved in quality and became one of the best papers in California. Like in many other cities in those days, a very small number of people tended to make critical decisions about how the city developed on a political and cultural level. The people at that exclusive table were usually the heads of Sacramento’s largest organizations, and the McClatchy family had been firmly seated for the last 100 years.

But McClatchy’s passing represented a dramatic change to all that. Though at first it seemed there was a question of who would replace him, looking back, his death sparked a realization that without McClatchy at the head, there was actually no need for the table.

Over time, Sacramento ceased to be run by a small, elite group. Instead of only a few people in a room, ours began to evolve into a city run by enough people to fill a large auditorium—many different people speaking into many different microphones.

The success of SN&R during this period was not due to our having tremendous resources, because, believe me, we did not. Rather, it was because we were predisposed to a kind of journalism that fit the new auditorium. This came about naturally—after all, we’d never even had a chance to be at the old table. Also, we liked the idea of more and everyday people creating change and getting their voices heard—and our stories often reflected that.

And so begins our 20th anniversary year. The expected thing would be for me to review our past achievements. And though I feel that we have accomplished much over the past two decades, these are anything but certain times. With the economy collapsing around us, with the daily-newspaper world in total shambles and our paper experiencing the effects of the recession, I think it is more appropriate to talk about the present and the future rather than the past.

Like most businesses, SN&R had a bad year. We saw our advertising revenue dip substantially, and for the first time, we have had to lay off employees and dramatically scale back our costs. We have cut back enough so that we can be profitable if the economy—or more importantly, if our economy—stabilizes. But the question that keeps me, along with millions of other Americans, up at night is this: When will the economy turn the corner?

We have had our cash-flow problems lately. But just down the street, a much larger problem is looming at The Sacramento Bee. Here is a company that, at its peak, had 60 times SN&R’s revenue and a giant staff compared to ours. Now, the Bee’s stock has lost more than 99 percent of its value, and some Wall Street analysts are already saying it’s bankrupt. Half of the company’s staff have been let go, with more layoffs expected.

Occasionally, some bigwig at the Bee talks of classifieds coming back when the economy improves. But with free ads on sites like Craigslist getting better responses than ads costing hundreds of dollars in the Bee, the classifieds dollars are not coming back. And there is no known daily-newspaper economic model that will function without classifieds revenue.

None. Nada. Zip.

The Bee and all of the dailies across the country have found themselves in a position comparable to terminally ill cancer patients—the doctor has opened them up, seen the cancer has spread throughout the body, and very little can be done—except to close them up and keep the them comfortable until the end comes.

One of the key characteristics of newspapers like ours, however, is that, by necessity, we’re an alternative to something, in many cases, specifically to the mainstream daily. For us, the Bee’s implosion is like the planet we orbit getting sucked into a black hole. For our community, it’s not an overstatement to say that the loss of the Bee will have a horrendous impact on public discourse and civic progress.

So here we are, hitting our 20th anniversary just as the Bee collapses, just as journalism—in our community and across the country—is at a major crossroads. What will we do about it? I believe SN&R will develop a new model that works for us and our community.

I consider the News & Review to be ideally situated for the period of transition we are facing. It’s likely that journalism will move mostly online, but there still is no revenue stream strong enough to support significant journalism online. It’s similar to how there’s no system in place to support electric-battery vehicles yet, though that’s clearly the direction in which cars are headed. My idea is for us to create a model that is similar to the Prius hybrid, and head toward doing part newsprint but also offer more and more story elements and features online, with revenue generated from both.

I believe, over the next several years, SN&R will develop this new model and will be able to continue embracing our mission of committing to good journalism while helping improve our community—not a daily, but not a traditional alternative newspaper, either.

One of the natural pitfalls of an organization becoming one of the area’s largest corporate players is that the organization starts thinking like a large corporation. Issues that are important to large corporations start to take on the utmost importance. But that has not been, nor will it ever be, our goal.

If you walk around the offices of the Bee, you get a different vibe than if you walk around at SN&R, where a more unconventional, “think free” attitude prevails. Both the Bee and SN&R have reporters and editors, and both cover news and culture in the same city (though our staff is tiny compared to theirs). But if you read and compare the two papers, you get a different sense of the city—what voices are important, what voices aren’t important and what elements are critical. So even if both papers contain stories about the same issue, you essentially get a different perspective.

Part of the dilemma for a large corporation like the Bee is that it can start to exaggerate the issues reflective of large corporations. That tends to create a sense of passivity, where readers are expected to observe what they and other big companies are doing as all important. The human scale of SN&R and other alternative papers creates a different vantage point—the vantage point of individuals who are trying to make their way in the world amid those huge organizations that aren’t necessarily looking out for their best interests.

Ultimately, I am proud of the role that SN&R has played in the community in the past, and I’m looking forward to our future role, which will move, over time, further and further into an online journalistic enterprise. Here are some of the ways I believe that we can make a difference in the next 20 years:

Sustainability: To create a world that is sustainable, we need to rethink and adjust virtually every aspect of our lives. Or, to put it differently, I believe my future grandchildren and their future grandchildren trump someone’s quarterly bonus. I mean, does it really matter how high our country’s gross domestic product is if we pass on an unlivable world to the future generations?

We all know something needs to be done. What is not clear yet is how to get where we need to go.

We must figure out a way to create sustainable behavioral changes in our daily lives, and that’s why we provide weekly coverage in this area. It will be a massive undertaking to move toward sustainability, so in the Sacramento region, we plan to get the public involved in the discussion.

Over the last several years, I have met with more than 300 different individuals who are working in this realm, running our water, transportation, food, energy, health and waste systems. Believe me—they have a lot of information to share. By sharing what are the best practices, identifying key issues and revealing possibilities, SN&R can help the region make significant improvements. And by providing a natural marketplace where individuals can find “green” businesses and services and where green businesses can find their customers, we can make social change. Real social change.

Music and art: Over the past 20 years, the music scene in Sacramento has improved dramatically. When we first started SN&R, there seemed to be only a couple of bars and a few venues that featured live bands. Now, we have an extremely vibrant music scene for a town with a population our size.

Helping nurture and develop the local music and art scene has always been a major goal of SN&R. Our emphasis was always to focus our coverage on local musicians instead of Bay Area shows or out-of-town artists. In line with this, we’ve implemented the annual Sammies (Sacramento Area Music Awards) and Jammies (for youth in music, the junior version of the Sammies), started the Friday night Concerts in the Park series in downtown’s Cesar Chavez Plaza and written about many, many hundreds of local musicians and bands. Also, in our ad pages, we offered a cost-effective way for venues to reach their audiences.

SN&R has also helped the local visual-arts scene grow. The development of the Second Saturday Art Walk came about almost accidentally—I was staying in the Gas Lamp Quarter in San Diego on a Friday evening and noticed there was an unusually large amount of people milling about the art galleries. After inquiring with various people, I learned that the art galleries stayed open late each first Friday of the month. When I returned to Sacramento, I discovered that we had a Second Saturday event, similar to San Diego’s First Friday, but very few galleries participated in it and even fewer people attended. So SN&R pulled together all of the galleries to participate in a collaborative art walk and developed a monthly art guide. Now we have Second Saturday, with our d’ART publication previewing the events each month in the pages of SN&R.

Another event we hope to roll out soon will be held on the third Saturday of each month. In cooperation with the city of Sacramento and the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, our hope is to take over several empty buildings along the K Street Mall, hosting multifaceted fashion events—complete with a runway—all day. In one building, local fashion designers will hold trunk shows, while in another building, local crafts artisans can display and sell their wares, and in yet another building, local youth artists will showcase their work to the background music of local high-school-aged bands. SN&R plans a monthly third Saturday pullout, which (much like d’ART) will include all of the events occurring on that day. We have invited the Downtown Plaza to participate in this event as well.

It’s these kinds of events—Second Saturdays, the Sammies and the Jammies—that can really help transform a city. Also, I believe an approach that encourages people to share their creativity is one of the most effective ways to build an audience for our museums, theaters and galleries. Those who have attended the Friday night Concerts in the Park series or the Second Saturday art walks know it, too.

Youth: We need to make Sacramento more youth-friendly, and I believe SN&R can play an important role in making that happen. Our Jammies shows, which feature high-school musicians playing a classical show at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center and a contemporary show at the Crest Theatre, have been extremely successful. We are working very hard to bring more exposure to these young musicians, as well as providing more places for them to perform.

On the contemporary side, SN&R has held our all-ages Jammies show for the past seven years. What we need is for other organizations, such as community-based or faith-based organizations, to follow the example of the Family Christian Center that set up Club Retro, an all-ages live-music venue.

Imagine if there were eight or 10 places around the region where it was safe for teenagers to listen to live music every weekend. Just imagine how many kids we could provide with an alternative to drugs and gangs. And imagine what it would do to our music scene. We at SN&R would love to both support and provide coverage for the all-ages venues for that music to be performed.

Faith: Since 9/11, I have been very active within the faith community. SN&R orchestrated an interfaith event, A Call for Unity, and we’ve established a religious section in our pages. I personally have attended more than 100 different services of all faith denominations in Sacramento.

I’ve been very impressed with the quality of people leading these organizations, the messages they’re spreading and how much they are doing not only for their members, but for the community at large. Now this begs the larger question: As people continue to search for meaning in their lives, how can we at SN&R bring the insight of different ministers, pastors, rabbis, imams, reverends and various other spiritual leaders into our paper? And how can we bring different religious organizations together?

I’m very encouraged about trying to expand this area in the paper, and I also think perhaps we can create a place where readers can find out about these organizations. The end result would be enriching for Sacramento as a whole, because as exciting as it is to see how much the faith groups are currently doing, it’s even more moving to visualize a situation where they could do more.

Health care: American health care is in a crisis. Costs are spiraling out of control, much of the care is misallocated and many people do not even have basic health coverage. While the government can and should play a major role in solving the health-care crisis, we as a community have to be involved in the solution. To do that, we need to have improved community dialogue on this subject—a discussion that involves difficult topics, such as end-of-life decisions and the actual costs, risks and benefits of treatments. Also, we need to take a frank look at other systems. I believe that the SN&R of the future will become a natural place for this community health-care dialogue.

My sense is that 2009 is going to be a transformational year. Similar to Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828, Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 and Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932, last year, we saw the election of an inspirational leader devoted to change. In a short time, we’ve experienced the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the collapse of the economy, the shock of bank-executive bonuses and an increased interest in the environmental movement—all of these leading to a transformation of America. In essence, we have the opportunity to become less focused on those with the most toys and more focused on figuring out how to fix the world we so badly screwed up.

Looking back over the past 20 years makes me proud. But I’m also excited about what we can do in Sacramento over the next 20 years. I speak for all of us at SN&R when I promise that we will do everything we can to be worthy of your ongoing support.