The death of Comment
A scrappy, independent newspaper ends its five-year run in Midtown
With no fanfare or eulogies, one of Sacramento’s alternative literary voices was silenced earlier this year.
Since 1997, Sacramento Comment was a sometimes humorous, always edgy, thought-provoking vehicle for railing against the status quo. But, in March of this year, the newspaper’s editor and publisher, Scott Soriano, quietly put his editorial baby to bed for the last time.
Soriano chuckled as he leaned into a café table and described Sacramento Comment’s beginnings as anything but romantic. What began as a simple writing exercise evolved into a project that he hopes one day might become a written testimony to the life and history of Sacramento.
Before taking on the enormous task of self-publishing a newspaper, Soriano was a bored English major who had dropped out of college, studied Russian for a few years and worked at a used bookstore in Midtown called Time Tested Books, where he continues to work today. He knew he wanted to write, but he also knew the only way to do it was to just dive in.
“Anybody who knows me knows I’m really opinionated and I can write,” he said. “So, rather than just blabbing all the time, I decided, ‘I’m going to write. I need to write.’ ”
And write he did—for five years, in fact—initially by publishing his musings twice a month in the form of a newsletter. Sacramento Comment transitioned from 100 copies of a newsletter to a newspaper with a monthly distribution of 1,000 copies.
Considered a talented writer by friends and colleagues, Soriano easily shifted between covering the most mundane topics, such as the inane use of Safeway Club cards, and decrying the evils of urban sprawl and land developers, the deterioration of the quality of life in Sacramento, and police abuses. He’s an information junkie who dared to speak his mind in a society he believes has a low tolerance for dissent from the left or the right.
When listening to Soriano’s almost monotone voice over the roar of cappuccino machines, it’s difficult to believe he could write so passionately about issues. But he can, and he does it exceptionally well, as 10-year friend and iconoclast journalist Bruce Anderson explained.
Anderson, who publishes his own alternative newspaper, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, praised the young writer’s unerring political sense and genuine intellectual interests. Anderson said Soriano has a gift for engaging readers who otherwise would not be interested in the issues he covers.
“He writes so well that he’s able to attract the interest of people who ordinarily wouldn’t be interested in what he’s talking about. I don’t have any interest at all in Sacramento except protecting myself against it, or at least the people elected to office who live there,” Anderson said with a laugh.
After reading Sacramento Comment, it’s clear nothing is sacred for Soriano. He does not shy away from blasting anyone. His sometimes stinging comments and sarcastic humor attracted a readership that was across the board politically. Some of his strongest supporters were die-hard conservative Republicans, but others included leftists and anarchists.
But Soriano said that, to his surprise, most of his worst critics have been liberals. He believes it’s because he doesn’t make his messages palatable or couch his work in what he calls appropriate “lefty jargon.”
“I’m not polite. I use words I’m not supposed to use. If someone makes a racial slur, I make the racial slur. I’m not going to candy-coat it because that skirts the problem. I think people who are honest about their politics and are not clouded by some kind of ideology either left or right are going to see that,” he said. “Every once in a while, there’s a crank out there who doesn’t like it, and the people who don’t like it tend to be folks who are pretty ideologically confined or thin-skinned. Anybody who takes organizing seriously or politics seriously knows that all comes with the territory, and they don’t take it personally. But, sometimes, the humor can tweak people.”
As a self-proclaimed cynic, Soriano downplayed the significance of Sacramento Comment and said the most common reaction the publication received was complete indifference. With more than a million people in the Sacramento region, Soriano is doubtful the newspaper will be missed by more than a handful of them, and he said the chances of it having a significant impact are slim.
“It’s like me going one on one with Shaquille O’Neal. It’s just not going to happen. At the very best, I’m the guy in the stands with the purple hair, yelling, ‘Beat LA!’ The people look at me and say, ‘Yeah whatever!’ and forget about me when they walk out of the arena,” Soriano said.
But Anderson disagrees. He said people are always interested in reading about where they live. “I think people radically underestimate the influence that an un-beholden publication can have. You pick up Scott’s paper, and he’s genuinely telling the truth about things the way he sees it without attempting to curry favor with anybody. He’s not making any money doing it. Instead, he’s making all new sets of enemies—probably some of them powerful ones. It has a built-in credibility. You don’t have to ask, ‘Who is this guy working for, and who is he trying to please?’ ”
If you ask Soriano why he stopped publishing the paper, he will tell you it was burnout, pure and simple. The original plan was to have a consistent group of monthly contributors, but, in the end, Soriano was the sole writer and had the help of one copy editor.
Writing, assembling and delivering the publication to various Downtown and Midtown locations by bicycle or on foot—all for something that cost him money to produce—took its toll. Operated on a shoestring budget, the paper was never a moneymaker and never had more than 100 subscriptions.
As for what the end of Sacramento Comment means to independent media in Sacramento, Soriano had little to say except that it may have more significance in the years to come than it does today.
“I never looked at it as some kind of crusade or activism. I don’t confuse it with knocking on doors and organizing people,” said a sober Soriano. “Probably because I’m so involved with books and I read a fair amount of history, I look at [the paper] as a future resource for somebody who wants to do research on Sacramento. They can see there was one consistent entity that was railing against things.”
Sacramento Comment’s legacy will live on in archives in the Sacramento Room at the Sacramento Public Library, but the paper will be missed in the community. Anderson described it as another independent voice that doesn’t exist. Ruth Ellis, the Sacramento Room librarian, was saddened to hear the news. She agreed that Soriano’s voice was a unique one and said she appreciated him taking on issues that no one else would.
“I have no idea how many people read Sacramento Comment, but, to those of us who did, it will be sorely missed,” she said. “We need people like Scott and his publication to bring certain things to our attention that aren’t covered in the mainstream press, as well as things in the Sacramento area that people might not have been aware of.”
As Soriano shifted in his chair for a moment, there was a glimmer in his eye as he remembered a goal he had other than simply wanting to write. “One of the things I thought was important was to create a sense that Sacramento was something. People could start looking at Sacramento with some sort of local pride, not just as a place where people from Southern California flee to, or the shadow of San Francisco, but that there was a culture and a history here.”
Soriano believes the best thing he could have done through Sacramento Comment was to be a voice with which like-minded people could identify, so they’d know they weren’t alone.
“People are scared, and they tend to keep their opinions to themselves,” Soriano said. “So, if somebody is putting it out there in a voice that’s not journalistic, it’s more like a letter to somebody, and people feel like they’re not the only ones out there. I think that’s a kind of hopeful thing.”