Make a difference

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

In May 1988, my wife and business partner Deborah gave birth to our first child. Seven months later, we packed up our house and moved to Sacramento to participate in an even more challenging birthing process.

We arrived in Sacramento at Christmastime. On one level, we felt like country hicks arriving in the big city. After living with unlocked doors for eight years in a rural area on the outskirts of Chico, Sacramento was a big change.

But we also arrived with an irrational confidence. We had succeeded at building a paper in Chico, and thought nothing could stop us from building a similar alternative weekly in Sacramento. We were blissfully unprepared for what we were going to be up against.

At first, we worked out of our first Sacramento home, located—ironically, we thought—on McClatchy Way. Each morning, we packed our son off to day care while associate editor Tom Johnson cleaned up the living room that was doubling as his bedroom since he didn’t have a place to live yet. At 8 a.m., sales manager Laurie Waters and editor Melinda Welsh showed up at the front door and we started the day by planning strategy around the kitchen table.

We talked about everything at that table—from editorial to design, sales to distribution. We decided on a name for the paper and talked about what kind of stories we should put inside it. We wondered where we should look for advertisers. We asked ourselves how we were going to make an alternative weekly thrive in a town where most people had never even heard of such a thing. At one of our first meetings around the kitchen table, I remember telling our core five-person management team, “If we ever succeed, it won’t be because of my plan. I don’t have a plan. We are going to have to figure it out together. And we’re going to have to figure it out fast.”

Two months later, in February, we moved into our new offices at the corner of 20th and V streets, on the outskirts of Midtown. We were within eyesight of C.K. McClatchy’s house, and only blocks away from the Sacramento Bee complex. I spent most of my time those early months out and about in Sacramento talking to business owners, political leaders and activists—basically anyone I could get a referral to—so as to find out what advice they had to give us.

I remember being surprised at how many people I talked to who felt that Sacramento had no identity of its own. They saw our city as a cow-town, midway between Lake Tahoe and San Francisco. Many of them told me that the local culture was in the Bay Area. I couldn’t believe how many people said that. They thought that a hip alternative paper could make it in San Francisco, but that one would never succeed in Sacramento.

We were also warned about the Sacramento Bee.

First of all, the Bee was a good newspaper. Even those who disliked the Bee still had grudging praise for the quality of the editorial work. Secondly, the Bee’s business management did not tolerate competition and prided itself on being able to drive away competitors in any niche of the market.

On April 25, 1989, we put out the first issue of the Sacramento News & Review. I began the day talking to the DJs at the “Morning Zoo” on 102.5. Our staff passed out newspapers and free La Bou muffins at light rail stations all over Sacramento. That afternoon, I went to the funeral of Sacramento Bee publisher C.K. McClatchy, who had died earlier that week. That evening, I remember Stan Atkinson on KCRA announcing SN&R’s debut and C.K.’s funeral in back-to-back segments.

I went to bed wondering how we were ever going to have our second issue ready for press in only five days.

Early times

Our editors, Melinda and Tom, came through in a big way. From the very beginning, we were publishing great, in-depth stories that Sacramento had never seen before. On the design front, Deborah and her staff made our first issues and covers look great. The ad department, led by Laurie and Chuck Leischman, brought in nearly $1 million in sales that first year.

We were also fortunate to receive a warm welcome from some very special people in Sacramento. Karen Ewing at Java City signed our first advertising contract. Tran Nguyen at La Bou signed up with us for ads right away and supplied free muffins to give away with the first issues of the newspaper. We had many good friends at Tower, whose advertising literally kept us alive that first year. And Butch McElwee at Markstein Beverages helped us immeasurably, especially with the Sammies. Plus there were hundreds of other Sacramentans who supported us before we had really proven ourselves.

But trouble was always right around the corner. Somehow we had managed to seriously miscalculate how much money we would need to start the paper. In fact, it was only because of an error in our financial reports (one that overestimated our revenues!) that the paper survived. We realized later that if we had known our actual dire financial situation at the time, we might not have a paper today.

But SN&R survived due to the determination of a talented, hard-working staff and because of the tremendous support we received from the people of Sacramento. In fact, within three years, we became known in our industry for having the fastest, most successful start-ups of any alternative newspaper in the country.

Lessons learned

Like having a child, running a paper teaches you a lot about yourself. One of the most important lessons I learned came from our battle with the American Family Association, a right-wing “Christian” organization. They have called for boycotts of the movie The Last Temptation of Christ and have boycotted Disneyland for having same-sex health benefits. In 1995, the local chapter called for a boycott of SN&R and threatened to boycott companies that advertised with us.

In the first few weeks, we were kicked out of distributing from most all the downtown and Midtown Burger Kings. Then we were kicked out of most of our supermarket outlets. The AFA argument was that SN&R had content that was inappropriate for children. I never believed that was their real concern. From my observations, they seemed more upset about our “Men Seeking Men” and “Women Seeking Women” Talking Personals categories.

This belief was supported when I learned that the local AFA head told one of our advertisers that I was having a homosexual affair with Tom Hayden! While I suppose in some way it is flattering to be compared with Hayden’s wife at the time, Jane Fonda, my relationship with Tom Hayden consisted of saying hello to him once in a receiving line.

The AFA also told people we were encouraging pedophiles, which was ironic given that the News & Review staff worked hundreds of hours helping a low-income elementary school put together their school copy of the News & Review. Every fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grader could brag that they had their own story in the paper and their photo in the paper. For this, we received three California Newspaper Publishers Association awards for the Best Contribution to Literacy; meanwhile an Associated Press story got published with accusations that our paper was encouraging pedophiles.

Things were getting crazy. I knew that we had to fight back.

Being old enough to remember the aftermath of the McCarthy era where thousands of innocent Americans had their lives destroyed by anti-communist witch hunts, I did not want to sit by and watch the same happen to us. And I did believe that if we lost enough distribution stops or lost 15 percent to 20 percent of our advertising, we could go out of business.

So, we ran an editorial explaining how Burger King had kicked us out of their locations. We printed Burger King’s corporate number to call. This created an uproar, with hundreds of our readers calling Burger King headquarters to complain. It suddenly dawned on us that this was not just about us. We realized that people throughout Sacramento wouldn’t stand for censorship and were tired of rigid, narrow-minded people limiting the discussion of ideas.

So, we decided to go even more public with the issue. We appeared on some local TV and radio shows to talk about the boycott. We talked about it in our own pages and ran full-page ads disclosing to our readers what the AFA was doing to us. Some newspapers (including the Bee and the Business Journal) even wrote editorials on our behalf.

Nevertheless, I was worried that many of our larger distribution spots would drop us like a hot potato if faced with what was portrayed as a “Christian boycott” of their store. This style of so-called Christianity came in sharp contrast to the one minister whom I knew from my childhood in Vermilion, Ohio. Reverend Louie Bertoni was an extremely intelligent, funny, accepting man who turned our segregated town on to civil rights in the early ’60s. It was because of Bertoni that I began to support the civil rights movement. If this man whom I respected could risk his ministry by supporting civil rights, then I could risk being called a “nigger-lover” in my seventh-grade class.

Anyway, I figured that in a town as big as Sacramento there must be more ministers like Bertoni—ministers who would support us. The problem was, I didn’t know any. By chance, we had just donated some free advertising space to the Francis House, a religious organization that helps the homeless. I called the director and asked him if there was anyone I should talk to. He recommended the Rev. Don Brown, a minister at Trinity Episcopal Church.

I called him. He sounded interested and asked me to fax over a draft of a letter in support of the News & Review. He made some changes, which made the letter even stronger. In part, it read, “As individuals who have dedicated our lives to Christian service, it saddens us to see the word ‘Christianity’ used as a cover for intolerance, bigotry, small-mindedness and anger. Please join us in encouraging Sacramento businesses in deploring the scare tactics of the American Family Association.”

Don gave me the names of some other religious leaders to call. Everyone on Don’s list said “yes” and gave me other names to call as well. Soon we had 81 Sacramento ministers who had signed the letter in support of the News & Review. I was completely blown away. Then we then started a Freedom of Speech petition. More than 11,000 of our Sacramento readers signed this petition. Ironically, the net result of the AFA boycott was that our distribution and advertising in Sacramento actually went up.

Hope and media

One of the big side benefits of the battle with the AFA was getting to know the ministers who had supported us. We had a couple of lunches at the News & Review where we discussed their thoughts on religion and the media. In my job, I have the pleasure of meeting lots of people. But this group of ministers were some of the warmest, smartest, idealistic, most open-minded people that I had ever met.

In one of the sessions, I asked the ministers why I should go to church. Faith Whitmore responded that I should go because it provided a place where my kids could hear about moral values outside the family. That sounded good to me. So the next week I took my two kids to Rev. Don Brown’s Episcopal Church. We have continued to attend for the last four years. And Faith was right. It has been good for my children to be part of a community that actively discusses moral values and honors the poor. What’s more, it has been good for me too.

When I started working at my first alternative newspaper in 1973, being “alternative” meant showing how the political system did not work. We exposed that women were not being paid the same as men for the same job, we reported how the public was being lied to about Vietnam, we talked openly about racism, and activists discussed within our pages the beginnings of today’s environmental movement. In 1973, it was radical to say “things need to change.”

In 1999, things are different. Everyone knows that things need to change. But now cynicism is the mood of the day. What is radical now is the belief that things can actually change, that we should have hope for the future.

Seeing what 81 ministers did for the News & Review back in 1995 gave me hope. Seeing the work that these ministers continue to do today gives me hope. It is my deepest wish that the information, ideas and viewpoints you read in the pages of the News & Review each week gives you hope, helps in some way to illuminate your vision of the future, and makes you believe that you can make a difference, every day.