Liberating business

A reprint from SN&R’s 10th anniversary issue in 1999

Since no anniversary issue of SN&R would be complete without some insight from former staff member Curt Guyette, and in keeping with our usual spare-no-expense philosophy, we dispatched an ace correspondent to find him in Detroit. It wasn’t hard. The first floor of his office building at the Motown alternative where he now works is a bar with a bad reputation. At his insistence, we conducted the interview there—a bit apprehensively, we must admit, since it was barely noon—as we repeatedly sampled the local microbrews (toxins in the river water give ’em an added kick, he promised).

Mr. Guyette, before coming to work at SN&R, you had previously worked at smaller dailies here in Northern California. What was it like coming to work for an alternative?

Liberating. But there was some adjustment. Having had the “objectivity” mantra beaten into my head in journalism school and then working for the mainstream press, it took some getting used to. But it didn’t take long. Once my editor, Melinda Welsh, explained the concept—that there is a difference between being fair and being objective, and that what she wanted was for me was to forget about being objective, because that’s bullshit, and to worry about being fair—everything just fell into place. So that, and the fact that I didn’t have to pass any drug tests to get the job, was really wonderful. And please call me Curt.

Curt, the paper was just a year and a half old when you started working there. What was that like?

Odd. The offices were spartan. Me and Lori Will, who was entertainment editor at the time, shared a windowless space the size of a broom closet. We called it the cave. She was so short, her feet dangled from her chair. So I came in one night with a hack saw and cut the legs off her desk. After she left to make her fortune designing Web pages in Seattle, we had to put 2-by-4s under her desk so someone else could use it. It’s probably still in someone’s office like that.

Because we were struggling to survive as a paper, the pressure to produce was intense. Not just the editorial people, but advertising, production, everybody. We were perpetually short-staffed for the amount of work that needed to be done. But we shared this sense of purpose, that we were all in it together, and the whole staff was a really fun group of people. Like me, a lot of them appreciated the fact that they didn’t have to pee into any bottles before getting the job.

Why do you think the paper has been such a success?

Well, first of all the owners, Jeff vonKaenel and Deborah Redmond, worked like dogs. I remember any number of times being in the office at midnight working on an overdue story and seeing Jeff drag himself in from a sales meeting. If it hasn’t been said elsewhere in the issue, I’ll point out here that the guy is a sales genius, and whatever it took to keep this paper afloat, he did it.

And then there’s editor Melinda Welsh, who held the vision of what it takes to be a great alternative paper. Under her guidance, the paper became an integral part of this community. It kicked ass. No sacred cow was safe, including some of our biggest advertisers. But it also served as a forum for disparate voices, a sort of town square for ideas and quality writing.

I eventually realized that, just like the people in the office formed our own community, there was a broader community of like-minded people out there who depended on us. We spoke to their needs and concerns and interests in a way no one else did, and the fact that we were there, fighting the fights and addressing issues important to them, helped sustain these people and keep them from feeling alone.

And then there are the Republicans who read us for the perverse satisfaction of getting really pissed off.

It seems like the paper attracts a lot of good people …

Really incredible talent for a paper this size. There’s photographer Noel Neuburger, who produced work that could move you to tears. You could feel the souls of the people he photographed. And designer Don Button, who could be doing covers for any major magazine in America. Guys like Nick Budnick, who’s the hardest-working reporter I’ve ever been around. And while I was there, we had a string of truly great journalists. That’s not hype, either. Tom Johnson, A. Lin Neumann, R.V. Scheide—those three guys were so good, it kept me working overtime just to keep from being embarrassed by comparison. It was easy to be proud of what we were doing.

Hey, I’m ready for another round. This is all going on your expense account, right? I’m sure Jeff won’t mind.

Uh, sure. So tell me, if it was all so great, why did you leave?

You know, that’s really all just water down the gutter at this point. Let’s just say the time came for me to move on.

C’mon. If you were conducting this interview, you wouldn’t let someone get away with an answer like that.

Well, I’m coming at this from a totally skewed perspective, and there are really a lot of answers to the question. But part of it was this feeling that, although the paper was progressive in its editorial policy, it was also a place where the owners were being made multimillionaires at the expense of a lot of workers who couldn’t get a decent pension plan or afford to have their families covered by insurance. Let’s just say that by the end, the job wasn’t as fun as it should be. Life’s just too short.

That sounds sort of bitter.

Well, you asked. But truthfully, although it took awhile, I’ve moved past all that. My philosophy is that everything happens for a reason, and being there got me to where I am now, which has been one of the most profound growth experiences of my life. Overall, my time in Sacramento was tremendous. I felt an almost organic connection with our readers, which is something I’m not sure I’ll ever again find. That, and some of the times Neuburger and I had working on stories … it really doesn’t get much better.

Say, all this reminiscing has me feeling nostalgic. Why don’t you turn off that tape recorder for a minute and we’ll step outside to burn one, for old time’s sake?

Sounds good to me. Let’s just wrap this up first. Any parting words before we go?

Godspeed to you all.