Phone home

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

Whenever people ask me what it’s been like working for the News & Review for the past seven years, there is a story I always seem to wind up telling. And though I spent six of those seven years working for the Chico News & Review, the story comes from the time I spent working in Sacramento in 1995. Because I think it says a lot about the media in general and the News & Review in particular, I’ve told the story many times.

It happened this way: Right around the time I arrived in Sacramento, I noticed that the Bee, SN&R and just about every other paper were running several full-page ads in each issue that seemed to offer readers free cellular phones. I knew, of course, that this couldn’t be true, but I was surprised to find out, once I started looking into it, that the ads were blatantly illegal. It turned out that the California attorney general had been sending the cell phone companies letters warning them about this.

I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that as I looked into this further, I uncovered a number of other questionable business practices within the cellular telephone industry. Soon, I had material for what I thought was a fairly good story, one that I knew would be much appreciated by consumers.

I also knew that the story wouldn’t be appreciated by the cell phone industry, and I didn’t need to wonder why I hadn’t seen any stories about the situation in other papers. I knew that any paper that did a story like the one I had would lose all those full-page advertisements, which meant losing a lot of money. I knew of reporters who’d gone to their editors with a story like this, only to have it quashed in favor of something less controversial. But most of all, I knew SN&R executive editor Melinda Welsh and publisher Jeff vonKaenel would let me do the story.

Well, they did. It ran. The advertisers pulled their ads, and the company lost about $200,000. And though I did hear from irate ad salespeople (some of whom still haven’t forgiven me), I can honestly say that neither Jeff nor Melinda has ever said or done anything to make me feel the least bit uncomfortable about having done the piece.

It’s quite possible that you would have to be a reporter to realize how important that was to me. All too often, newspapers pay lip service to the First Amendment, but then censor themselves when it comes to printing stories that might offend advertisers. Even more frequently, newspapers enter into cozy relationships with the most influential businesses and politicians in town and soon find themselves as mouthpieces for whatever viewpoint the local elite would like to see publicized. I could name several papers that simply won’t print a story if it’s going to cost them money (and, unfortunately, so could you). But I’m proud to say the News & Review isn’t one of them.

I don’t want to sugarcoat things. Jeff, Melinda and I have had our disagreements. Hell, we’ve had our screaming arguments. There have been times when I felt the paper was dangerously close to losing sight of its most basic values. But I have also always known that if I could come up with a story worth telling, the paper would run it, no matter who was going to be angry or what it might cost.

That’s why the News & Review has been home to me for these past seven years, and why I’ve been lucky enough to do some work that I feel I can be proud of here. I hope I can continue to contribute to the SN&R story.