Long time gone

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

Ten years ago, the 1989 News & Review saved my life. I had made one of the numerous unwell-thought-out moves that characterized my 30s and 40s, and I needed a job, a job in California. Jeff vonKaenel, the publisher of the Chico News & Review, was starting a paper in Sacramento. He hired me, a Chico veteran, as No. 2 editor, under editor Melinda Welsh.

The paper was born in Jeff’s head and took shape in his and Deborah’s kitchen. Deborah would be Deborah Redmond, Jeff’s wife and operations manager of the News & Review’s trilogy of papers. We had no office. Laurie Waters, an early advertising executive, commuted from Cameron Park dressed in her professional woman’s clothes and sat down at Jeff’s and Deborah’s kitchen table to plot ad strategy. I can still see Lori’s high heels pushing into Jeff’s living-room carpet as she strode to the kitchen.

I saw this because I was sleeping in Jeff’s living room; my family did not arrive from the East until a month later. I have reason to believe that during my stay at his home, Jeff’s supply of Jack Daniel’s dropped more steeply than any time before or since.

A core group of us—Jeff, Deborah, Melinda, Laurie and I—were trying to figure out everything to cover to start a free weekly. Jeff, the money-raiser and ultimate power, cast and recast a budget. I recall that one of his foremost concerns was printing costs, always a biggie in the newspaper world. Deborah rented space, found computers and graphic doo-hickies while engineering the complex arrangement with the mother paper in Chico, where much of the production would take place. Laurie and Jeff brainstormed marketing strategies and interviewed ad salespeople. The new ad people were charged with a daunting task, convincing businesses to purchase advertisements in a paper that didn’t exist.

Melinda and I pondered article ideas and batted around the general structure of the paper. How does a weekly begin to distill news from a place the size of Sacramento? An array of political bailiwicks, from local school districts to the federal court, all spewed forth issues. The city sprawled through distinctly different neighborhoods; the demographic was multichromatic. Would we have a columnist? How would we cover state politics (always difficult and never totally accomplished to my satisfaction)? How would we cover entertainment? Would we include the always-explosive restaurant reviews? The list goes on and on.

Content was important to the ad salespeople. They were charged with pitching a product to advertisers that by its nature could be offensive. When the product—usually a particular story—was too offensive and the advertiser pulled out, the ad salesperson had to accept that as part of the job. Placating wounded advertisers is as much a part of a News & Review account executive as bagging fries is to a McDonald’s beginner. Ergo, the danger of restaurant reviews.

Another problem, more difficult and mentioned with more hesitancy, was the danger (from the ad people’s perspective) of devoting too much copy about people or subjects that were foreign to the ad-buying demographic (Gen-Xers and baby boomer yuppies). It was always my contention that well-written articles of any subject should engage the reader. Again, ad salespeople at the News & Review showed remarkable resiliency in this department.

My stint in the alternative press taught me that most papers of this ilk are small companies or family businesses whose owners must grapple within the capitalist business world, but for success must hire, at least on the editorial side, a certain amount of contentious know-it-alls who could not be bothered with the messy realities of money-making. I’m sure the owners of the News & Review would agree I fell into the latter category. As the alternative press has matured, however, the less tenacious businesspeople have been winnowed out and the industry is tending more toward chains.

It is my belief that the tension between the capitalist sales ethic of the advertising side and the iconoclastic superciliousness of the editorial side creates a vital paper. Alternative papers allot numerous staff meetings and convention panels deconstructing this dichotomy. But the fact remains, aggressive salespeople who really want to make money need reporters and editors who are not afraid to write about what they perceive to be news, even if the news disturbs some advertisers.

So it takes special people to sell alternative newspaper advertising. They must possess the greed and moxie of car salesmen tempered with humanity and a belief in the First Amendment. The most cynical, hard-boiled reporter could never call people up and convince them to shell out money. That’s because underneath, reporters worry about the quality of what they produce no matter how good it is, and the first tenet of salesmanship is a belief in the product.

But if the reporter is writing pap—nonsourced, ideologically slanted, poorly researched, bland copy—the ad sales people have no product to sell. If that happens, the reporters, never overpaid, make no money, must forego writing and go back to bartending. Behind the confident words and lively graphics of your local alternative newspaper lurks a stressful symbiotic relationship between advertising and editorial.

Finally, a caveat: I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve been out of the alternative media scene for five honest years. The scenario I’ve just described is a pastiche gleaned from hearsay-laden bitch sessions with friends on other papers, personal experience and extrapolated fantasy.

Congratulations on 10 years, News & Review. And thanks for the job, Jeff.