City life: New Times
‘There is a point where they aren’t holding anyone’s feet to the fire anymore. They are no longer the standard for news.’
—former New Times investigative reporter, Dan Blackburn
‘The once mighty Shredder has been neutered, reduced to bland, babbling pap mixed in with religious feel-good notions about supporting Christian radio stations.’
—KVEC 920 AM radio talk show host Dave Congalton
Illustration by Mr. Happy
Former watchdog New Times puts on a smiley face
By Stacey Warde and Christina Casci
The New Times isn’t what it used to be.
That’s the word on the street and the opinion of journalists who mourn the loss of the formerly formidable alternative newspaper.
Once respected for putting crooks behind bars and sending shivers up the spines of government officials, the New Times has put on a happy face.
Cover stories about volunteering and the film festival aren’t as fetching as stories that regularly made New Times the county’s “Best Watchdog.”
Rarely, do you see cover stories that put embezzlers, or even the county tax assessor’s road raging son in jail.
The upstart alternative news outlet, founded more than 20 years ago by the late Steve Moss, used to be the standard bearer for good journalism in the county.
Not any more, according to some observers.
“There is a point where they aren’t holding anyone’s feet to the fire any more,” said former New Times investigative reporter, Daniel Blackburn. “They are no longer the standard for news.”
Blackburn should know. He wrote a number of stories that resulted in kudos for the paper, including a story he broke that eventually led to the arrest and conviction of former attorney Bret Cook, a New Times advertiser who went to prison for embezzling nearly half a million dollars from his clients.
Blackburn also put pressure on the district attorney’s office when he wrote a story about its failure to prosecute Ken Freitas, son of then SLO County tax assessor Frank Freitas and a twice-convicted road rager, who ran through a crosswalk in 2002 in his SUV and killed 17-year-old Sarah Scruggs.
“Steve was first and foremost a newspaper man,” Blackburn said. “If it was a legitimate story, it went in the paper. ‘Legitimate’ meant that it had community impact, and the facts were right.” Even when it meant riling the status quo or scaring off advertisers.
Dave Congalton, host of the Dave Congalton show on KVEC 920 AM, has challenged New Times on the air to pursue more enterprising stories—without much result.
In an interview during the holidays with The Rogue Voice, he complained, “The New Times has gotten bland. Look at the last few covers. A story about the Passion of the Christ and the Nativity–that’s investigative journalism?”
One of the most glaring examples of change in the quality of New Times since Moss died is the once hard-biting Shredder, created and crafted weekly by Moss, who loved to rankle the high and mighty, people who thought too much of themselves or people who abused their civic powers.
While Moss kept secret his association with and creative control over the Shredder, it became more apparent who its creator was after Moss died April 23, 2005, at age 56 from complications with epilepsy.
The Shredder died with him, some say.
“Name the most influential local newspaper column of the last fifteen years and ‘The Shredder’… wins hands down. No contest. Not even close,” Congalton wrote in his Dec. 6, 2006, blog entry at 920kvec.blogspot.com.
Congalton noted that Moss and close friend Tom Fulks created the column together in the early ‘90s, and it “quickly became the must-read item in town every Thursday. Brilliant writing. Scathing humor. Dead-on political analysis. The Shredder had it all and public officials and businesspeople knew better than to run afoul of New Times, or they’d end up in the column. I was ‘Shredded’ a few times myself, so I know the feeling.”
But since Moss died, both the Shredder and the paper’s news content have become less interesting, Congalton continued.
“The once mighty Shredder has been neutered, reduced to bland, babbling pap mixed in with religious feel-good notions about supporting Christian radio stations and the true meaning of Christmas,” Congalton wrote.
The Christian emphasis emerged soon after Ryan Miller, the youthful and cheerful managing editor of sister publication, the Santa Maria Sun, took charge of the New Times editorial department.
Miller, an avowed Christian, isn’t known for espousing his beliefs in the workplace, but his religious leanings leaked enough into the paper’s content to provoke the paper’s editorial cartoonist, Russell Hodin, to draw a picture of the New Times logo bearing a cross in the middle.
Underneath the cross, Hodin wrote: “Steve Moss died for our sins” (see accompanying illustration, which appeared in the Jan. 4, 2007 edition of New Times).
As for other content in the paper, Congalton added: “New editor Ryan Miller is to journalism what Donny Osmond is to music:” Talented but not very exciting. Nor is he inclined “to maintain the critical watchdog function that has been the backbone of New Times for 20 years.”
Steven T. Jones, who helped put New Times on the map as a hard-hitting and enterprising news publication, said he also noticed that both the Shredder and paper’s news content have gone soft in the last two years.
“The Shredder was scrappy, scrappier than the New Times is today. It’s important for papers to be scrappy and take chances,” said Jones, now city editor at the Bay Guardian in San Francisco.
The New Times was a really important asset to the community at one point, according to Jones, because it took risks that no other publication would take.
It printed stories that mainstream publications like the Tribune wouldn’t touch.
Moss struggled with clinical depression and epilepsy. But he was known by most who worked with him as a fearless publisher who would print any story, no matter how controversial or how much it offended advertisers, as long as it was well-written and backed with facts.
He put his faith and money into his readers by giving them something worth reading. His success with this formula allowed him to later create the Santa Maria Sun.
Not long after Moss died two years ago this month, readers started complaining about the blandness of New Times.
“What happened to the New Times?” Blackburn asked, considering the question that readers have been asking. “Steve Moss died. Nobody was in line to take up the editorial flag.”
When Moss was alive, he fought to make sure the editorial content in his paper met the journalistic standards his readers came to expect: based on truth, written with flair, and spot on accurate.
After his death, the paper struggled to maintain its hard-edged editorial focus.
The trouble first became apparent with the Feb. 2, 2006, publication of the cover story, “Meth Made Easy,” written by Moss’s sister, Alice.
The story informed readers of the prevalence of methamphetamine in SLO County and then proceeded to describe in detail how to make the drug.
The subsequent uproar over the meth recipe included in New Times’ pages led to angry citizens taking copies of the paper off the racks and dumping them in the garbage. Advertisers threatened to boycott the paper. The ruckus eventually led to the resignation of then newly hired editor Jim Mullin.
The paper, according to Congalton and Blackburn, lost its credibility and editorial edge, and hasn’t recovered since.
“It wasn’t the best story, but once it was in, it was imperative to stand behind the story,” Blackburn said. “In journalism, errors are usually fact related, but [General Manager] Bob [Rucker] said that New Times was wrong for running the story at all and that caused a whole new dynamic.”
That’s not the way to maintain credibility with readers, he said.
“I’ve never published a paper, but if I were to, and I know Steve would agree with me, I would say sorry you didn’t like this, let’s talk it through. If the advertisers said they were taking their business elsewhere, Steve would have said, ‘OK.’ He would say that a few weeks later, when their sales were down, they would come back.”
But advertisers will be less likely to come back as fewer readers pick up the paper for its lack of enterprising news content.
“I know circulation is down, people just are not picking up the paper anymore,” Congalton said.
Jones added: “For a while, New Times readers really cherished it. I would hear people say, ‘Thank God you’re here digging up stories the Tribune won’t. They were fighting with everybody and that is what an independent paper should be doing.
“Steve wanted an alternative paper in the classic sense of the word,” Jones continued. “New Times would be an alternative to reading the Tribune. San Luis Obispo needed an alternative voice.”
Moss brought that alternative voice to SLO and now it’s gone.
Another reason given for the demise of New Times editorial content, according to Congalton, is that it caters more to its advertisers than to its readers.
When Moss ran New Times, advertisers couldn’t touch content. His first concern was always with his readers. If readers weren’t surprised or didn’t raise their eyebrows with each new edition of the New Times, then it had failed to pique their interest or give them a reason to come back.
And without a loyal readership, it would be hard to justify an ad hole in the paper, Moss would say.
Still, it appears the threat of pulling an ad is enough to keep the softer New Times from taking any risks, and to continue playing it safe, according to Blackburn.
“Ideally, the newsroom is always separate from the advertising department but that wall has diminished in size or virtually disappeared” at New Times, Blackburn said.
The tension between the two departments has traditionally been a big part of the journalistic equation, especially with smaller publications. Editors like Moss knew how to keep them separate. When they did mix, he’d say, you didn’t have a credible newspaper but a throwaway shopper full of ads.
Indeed, the editorial department at New Times doesn’t appear to be flexing its muscle, demanding more control over content, with less interference from the ad-directed business department.
Additionally, it appears the editorial department at New Times either lacks the experience or the will to take on the harder stories that keep government officials and police agencies on their toes.
Glen Starkey, a longtime contributor who’s worked under numerous editors for the New Times, admits the paper, under Miller’s editorship, is playing it safe. However, he doesn’t say it’s a bad thing, just that it’s happening and he hopes that it will improve.
“Our current editor, Ryan, is fairly young and took over right after the meth story,” Starkey said. “I think he wants to do responsible journalism and it may be making him overly safe but it is a matter of time and growth.”
Hopefully, that time will come soon. The community is best served when newspapers take risks and challenge the competition, noted Blackburn.
“Competition makes journalism live,” he said. “Otherwise, you’ve got a bunch of Ivory Tower elitists sitting around deciding what you read. You as a reader can make your own decisions about the New Times.
“The Tribune was forced to be a better paper” when Moss ran New Times, Blackburn added. “The alternative press forced the established press to get hard stories and each paper kept the other doing the best it could do. Right now, the Tribune has nobody to compete with.”
“Having a strong independent paper is good for the mainstream media,” Jones agreed.
Mainstream publications “have strong biases in their world view and don’t know or acknowledge it. They are not realistic, not honest,” Jones said. “They focus on serving the interest of those in power–both in the political and business worlds. Worst though, it’s very difficult to pursue new ideas. Anyone with new ideas gets marginalized.”
Starkey blames reader discontent with New Times on a former employee.
“I think the reason there are rumors out there is because she started them. She was frustrated because she wanted us to do a lot of investigative pieces but she wasn’t backing her stuff up,” he said. “It all led to the image of the New Times being toothless.”
Alex Zuniga, art director and co-creator of New Times with Moss, said new editor, Miller, is the paper’s future. “Ryan worked under Steve,” he said. “He has the same philosophies as he did.”
Miller says he respects the legacy Moss left behind and is working hard to carry on. Moss would say the newspaper “should be like a town square you can hold in your hands,” Miller explained. “It’s easy in theory to keep his legacy going. Steve Moss had a whole set of guidelines for how the paper should be run: Be relevant, be interesting, be fair.
“He was a genius,” Miller added, “and he was really off the wall. Sometimes he would do what nobody was expecting and piss everyone off. Part of what I keep in mind is that there are stories coming from everywhere. He would just walk outside and trip over stories. Honestly, he’s gone and he poured himself into the paper. His identity was fully wrapped up in it. On some level, knowing he wanted it to be a variety of perspectives makes it something that I’m striving for. I’ve got really big shoes to fill.”
Starkey and Zuniga agreed that there is always room for change and that no paper is ever 100 percent great all the time.
Congalton, meanwhile, said he is the new outlet for hard-hitting news, “I’m the new Shredder. I’m not afraid to get in people’s faces.”
The image of New Times has been too shattered to guarantee the kind of hard-edged alternative SLO County readers came to expect over the years with Moss at the helm, said Blackburn.
It may never recover, he added. Time will tell.
“In any public business, perception is as important as reality,” he said. “It is not a matter of what is true. The perception around town is that the paper’s gone soft. You can’t let this go on; it’s your paper!
“Papers that still put news first are a diminishing breed,” Blackburn continued. “There is an easy way and a hard way to do things, but journalism is never easy to do or read.” §
Christina Casci is an intern from the Cal Poly school of journalism. She can be reached at email@example.com. Editor Stacey Warde was a managing editor at New Times before starting The Rogue Voice with publisher Dell Franklin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.