Santa Maria Sun Editor Comments

June 23, 2003

To: The 2003 AAN Admissions Committee

As the executive editor of the Santa Maria Sun, which was recently unanimously (0-11) denied admission to AAN by this year’s Admissions Committee, I feel compelled to respond to such an avalanche of negativity. My short response to the committee is that it’s full of shit. My longer version follows.

The main problem the committee faces is that it has no idea what an alternative newspaper is, a not-so-insignificant handicap for a group trying to make such a decision. In fact, there’s never been an adequate definition from AAN itself, and it therefore follows that if you don’t know what something is, then you also don’t know what it isn’t, and thus you can’t make a decision on its merits or lack of them.

I guess it’s sort of like that old saying about pornography. Hard to define, but you know it when you see it (“Deep Throat” still holds up pretty well, by the way).

I’m also the publisher and founder of New Times in San Luis Obispo County, one of the sharpest, highest respected AAN members in the nation, a boast I’ll be happy to defend to anyone who might disagree, so long as they read at least one issue and arrive unarmed. New Times was admitted when it was two years old in 1988 and has always considered AAN to be an important force in the media world. We still do.

But the manner in which the Sun was rejected suggests that AAN either doesn’t know what its role is anymore, or doesn’t want to change as time moves on, as time always does.

New Times started the Sun in 2000, and as anyone who’s attempted such a task knows, it’s a long, hairy road to solvency. Amazingly, after 22 months, we hit profitability. The paper continues doing well, so much so that I’m guessing it’ll be part of the Santa Maria media mix for, oh, I’d say about 200 years. That’s a smug way of saying that it’s wildly successful. I get that way sometimes.

Santa Maria is a very different city than 30-mile-away San Luis Obispo. It’s more conservative, family oriented, and more partial to economic growth, almost the exact opposite of the liberal outlook that pervades most of San Luis Obispo’s culture and politics.

Communities need publications that accurately reflect how the readers see their community. If a publication can’t do that, it will soon die, because it will have no relevance to it its readership. A paper has to serve those people.

And it has to care about them — their fears and hopes and the values they hold dear. The Sun does this. That’s why it’s been so strongly embraced in Santa Maria.

But a good paper also has to challenge its readership, question some values, and present subjects many would rather avoid — which the Sun does in abundance, something the admissions committee was apparently unable to discern.

I’ve seen the opposite happen all too often in the name of the alternative press. A publisher decides to bring an “alternative style” paper and impose it on a community that has no affinity for it. The attempt some years ago by the Santa Barbara Independent to bring Santa Barbara thinking to the blue collar town of Ventura a few miles down the coast is an excellent example of this. The Ventura Independent is no more because it had no relevance to a city so different from Santa Barbara.

Rule of thumb: If you’re going to open a shoe store, don’t sell only the shoes that you like. You’ll go broke.

In fact, it almost seems like there’s a rigid “alternative template” that publishers use today in order to fashion what they think AAN thinks is an alternative paper — tabloid format, cool graphics, Breszny, Tom Tomorrow, some weird news and some straight dope and lots of calendar listings with sideways photographs, then maybe a cover story on gay prostitute executive CEOs who’ve converted to Islam. Then toss in a steady chorus of left-of-center opinion pieces that sound like they were all written by Noam Chomsky on acid.

And make sure to cultivate a pervasive, edgy attitude in which to wrap it all, a fuck-you-we’re-cool approach that enhances the assumption that we’re all going to die from one environmental disaster or another, depending on which corporate scoundrel of the moment has pissed off the legions of the perpetually appalled — most of whom happen to be sitting in the newsroom tinkering with the template.

AAN newspapers have almost become a parody of themselves. Trouble is, the parody isn’t very funny.

New Times, of course, makes partial use of this template — we have some of the regular rigmarole, mainly because it’s good stuff. But since our first issue, I’ve made it clear that we’re not a liberal or conservative paper, and that along with serving and informing our readers honestly, we’re always going to surprise them, too.

We’ve written about duplicity at the local nuclear plant, as well as why fears of it have been overblown and hyped to keep certain interest groups in business. We’ve covered local injustices toward Arab citizens, and presented reasons why feminism has become sexist. We’ve profiled the new leaders of the local environmental movement, then did the same for local developers so readers could hear and understand the viewpoints and concerns of each.

We have a monthly columnist who’s a conservative Christian who makes more people mad than any other writer, and does so with impeccable reasoning and eloquence, and he often appears the week after a rabid Bush hater’s “Hail to the Thief” column that’s equally well written.

We even did a cover story on the local Pro Life contingent, mainly because no local media had ever thought to ask what they think, having been too enamored of the Pro Choice people to query their adversaries. It wasn’t our fault the Planned Parenthood clinic was fire bombed the next week. (No, really, it was.)

We don’t have a hidden agenda at New Times. We don’t think we’re smarter than our readers. We think the world is complex, not simple; that conflicting issues usually have merit worth pondering on each side, that honorable people can disagree, that Democrats can screw things up as badly as Republicans, and that an environmentalist can become just as much of a nogoodnick as a mall developer.

We also think life is mostly a fun affair, not an impending disaster — and this sense of fun and playfulness shows in our pages each week, even as we acknowledge that there are indeed ugly things out there in need of a good thrashing. Too many AAN papers have jettisoned the former and taken on such dour hipness that reading them becomes a chore. My God, is the sky falling again? Better head to the events calendar and see what’s playing. When we started the Sun in Santa Maria, we wanted to bring this same New Times spirit along, and we did, altered slightly to fit the town. Santa Maria is the home of a large, indifferent daily newspaper — the Santa Maria Times — owned by the Pulitzer Newspaper Group. It’s probably the worst daily newspaper in the solar system. It doesn’t like Santa Maria, and you can tell by its story choices — it writes more about neighboring communities than the one it sells crummy advertising to each day. I’m not kidding. That paper really sucks.

Santa Maria needed an alternative to this crap.

So we started an alternative paper.

The problem with using the word “alternative” is that it implies that its identity is based on doing something that someone else isn’t doing. That means that as soon as that someone starts doing it, there’s no need for an alternative anymore.

But it can, of course, mean more than that. With an alternative paper, it can mean there’s another voice — an alternative voice — for the community to partake of. With the consolidation of mass media today by vast corporate interests, these independent voices are all the more necessary if real knowledge and accurate information is to flourish. Without them, the world would be a poorer place.

This was the original mission of AAN. I like to think it had little to do with ideology and everything to do with providing new avenues of thought and consideration at a time when the big dailies were hogging the limelight and doing a very lame dance beneath it.

That’s what was happening in Santa Maria. It had been over 40 years since another newspaper graced the city’s streets. Honest. Forty Years. The last Santa Maria weekly paper was purchased by the Times in 1958 and shut down in 1959. That’s how they do things here. Buy it, then crush it.

When the Sun arrived on the morning of March 31, 2000, the light it cast on Santa Maria was blinding. People were amazed and confused. They weren’t used to the idea of an alternative to the Times. No small wonder after two generations of printed dreck.

This is why the Sun is truly an alternative paper. It fills the void created by shoddy journalism. It tweaks the establishment and helps the downtrodden. It searches for hot stories as well as ones that aren’t so hot but need to be told, anyway. It’s bright and enthusiastic about its mission. It gives a shit about the environment, politics, social trends, and artistic movements.

And it presents the city of Santa Maria each week as Santa Maria really sees itself — a lovely, sophisticated place filled with smart people, naïve people, silly people, fun people, and misguided people, all of them aware of major problems that have to be solved.

The Sun is there to help get the show on the road. It investigates exquisitely, pulls no punches, and tells it like it is, all the while retaining the sometimes-grudging respect of those it criticizes, and the admiration of everyone else. We have been sued once and threatened numerous times. When it comes to journalism, the Sun does not mess around, and readers know it.

As I wrote in that first issue, “The Sun and New Times are separate newspapers owned by the same people. But they have a similar purpose: to help readers better understand their respective communities so they can face the challenges ahead with confidence and resolve.

“Our mission here at the Sun is simple. We want to create a portable town square that readers can hold in their hands each week, a place where all viewpoints are invited and welcomed. We want the Sun to illuminate every issue and event, chasing away any shadows of ambiguity.

“And just as a homebuyer’s holy mantra is “location, location, location,” ours is too — but our location is right here, and our journalistic creed is “local, local, local.”

It’s the same approach we’ve had at New Times for 17 years, The AAN Admissions Committee back then thought that was just super-duper. It’s curious that they no longer do.

Perhaps it’s understandable on a superficial level. One of the criticisms leveled at our new alternative weekly by AAN’s admissions committee was that the Sun published stuff like school and business news. We do this because the Times does such a bad job of it, often leaving important items out. People need an alternative to such disdain and indifference.

Our local stories may seem uninteresting to someone living in a loft above a San Francisco nightclub, but the people of Santa Maria need to know these things about their town. Our alternative weekly gives it to them. They need an alternative to the Times. They have it in the Sun.

It hasn’t been easy getting an alternative weekly off the ground, as most of you well know. But it’s been helped by bringing the same enthusiasm and sense of adventure to the Sun that we have at New Times, in large part because of our cover stories, which were also criticized by the admissions committee.

At the Sun, we’ve covered the plight of the local Filipino community; Santa Maria’s gang problem; the injustice faced by a Mexican teenager convicted of murder who was recommended for parole by the state and denied it by Gov. Davis for political reasons; the surprise resignation of Santa Maria’s police chief that remained a mystery to Santa Barbara County until we revealed it, to the amazement of county reporters; the potential rejuvenation of downtown; and the anger and commitment of Iraqi war protestors at Vandenburg Air Force Base — few of which were covered by the Times. We also, of course, do some soft cover stories, but this is just our need for some fun between the battles.

If the admissions committee doesn’t think these cover stories are as important as those gracing other alternative papers, then I’d have to conclude that the only logical, reasonable response is to simply say fuck you.

But I won’t, because I’m not feeling very logical or reasonable right now. Actually, I’m not particularly surprised by such a resounding thumb’s down from the committee. Journalists living in Houston, Memphis, Boston, San Francisco, and Baltimore haven’t the slightest idea what small-town America is facing today, anymore than they know how to stand up and give a concise definition of what “alternative” means so that the rest of us might nod our heads in collective thanks for being at last informed.

They don’t know what a small town’s needs are, its hopes and fears and special concerns for how tomorrow is rushing to its city limits with such relentlessly uncertainty. They don’t know what it’s like to live in a community where there’s nothing to read — and I mean nothing — besides the crapola daily and a few trashy pennysavers and auto traders.

Breathing alternative thoughts into such a stifling atmosphere is a sensation difficult to describe, one so alien to the aforementioned city slickers that I won’t even try. Besides, they’d probably just nod their heads in collective politeness, then go back to futzing with the template

Although you may think my ire and disappointment is attributed to our recent rejection, I assure you it’s not. Having the Sun a part of AAN would be cool for my staff, but not something they fret and pray over to validate what they do each day. My major concern is over the AAN approach toward admissions that I recognized some years ago that’s bothered me ever since. I’ve read many of the papers rejected by the committee over the years, and many were rejected for good reason—purely entertainment papers certainly don’t deserve admission, nor do badly written, poorly formatted ones. But the ones on the cusp, and some not so near, suggest that AAN’s inability to define what constitutes an alternative newspaper may well spell its demise. Many quality papers like the Sun intuitively understand the need to create a newspapering approach that serves splendidly the communities dominated by arrogant, screw-you dailies. This means that an alternative paper like the Sun needs to truly understand and adapt to that community, and its needs, not demand the community adapt to it.

As the major metropolitan areas reach gridlock, the growth of the large urban AAN papers will slow. Out in the boondocks where people are fleeing from the big cities, newer forms of alternative papers will continue to evolve, some similar to the Sun, some very different, but each will adapt to the needs before it.

These are and will continue to be quality papers, smart and hungry, well written and intelligently conceived, each aiming to make both a difference and a dollar in the communities they cover. There will be hybrids, some like the Sun, but some even more exotic — new ethnic approaches married to traditional alternatives, community papers with attitude and great writing, an unusual merging and outward flowering of papers we can’t even imagine right now. But it will happen because the nation is changing rapidly, both its population base, its needs, and its values.

If AAN doesn’t pull its hash pipe out of the lefty 1960s and begin to acknowledge these changes in habit and form, it will soon become as irrelevant as the shoe store owner who can’t figure out why nobody’s buying the really cool shoes he thinks are so cool.

Maybe that’s the natural progression of things. Maybe AAN will stubbornly refuse to admit anyone who doesn’t wear a nose ring and oppose the war in Iraq, and continue to dismiss the oddball papers much as the mainstream press did so with AAN papers that began flexing their muscles. Maybe it will continue serving its own constituency, while ignoring the newer, more vital hybrids beyond the city limits.

Perhaps after a while, new newspaper organizations will arise to serve these new papers — papers rejected by AAN’s admissions committee because they don’t quite hue to the hip or carry the proper political baggage deemed necessary to become a true, card carrying alternative member of the AAN elite. Who knows, maybe there will soon be an Association of Not AAN Newspapers (ANAAN) that will grow to challenge the sophisticated cache and advertising clout AAN has so long held.

But I hope not. Instead, I hope AAN recognizes the need for a bigger tent, and that it sees the value of diversity not just in ethnicity — which it’s not doing so hot at either, I might add — but in thought as well, and that it’s able to embrace the coming changes. Can hip conservative papers make the cut? Could a hip Sufi one adhere to enough of the AAN requirements to be taken into the fold?

I’m not unaware of the problem AAN faces in its choices. An organization has to have some shared values among its members in order to have a cohesive bond to achieve shared goals. Title Nine probably shouldn’t allow boys to join the girls soccer team, because pretty soon the girl’s team will be filled with guys. And Republicans don’t want Democrats in the fold. They’d all kill each other (not such a bad outcome, now that I think of it.) Commonality is an important consideration when choosing members. I simply think AAN can’t see the common threads among papers that seem different than the standard AAN model.

I don’t hold out much hope that AAN will change its ways. The cool kids at school who had it all figured out never changed — well, not until years later when they realized the dorks they’d deigned to truck with were making more money than them.

One other point before I shut up. The AAN admissions committee seems to forget that it’s dealing with people who’ve spent serious time and effort in the excitement and hope of joining what they consider a classy, serious enterprise, known proudly as the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. That’s why I find it dismaying to hear some of the lame judges’ comments tossed out for the expressed purpose of the rejected candidates and everyone else to read. A few from this year:

“The newsletter in my grandfather’s retirement community is more edgy and alternative,” and “This paper isn’t chopped liver. Oops, sorry, yes it is.” This is embarrassing, unprofessional, adolescent rudeness draped in the worst sort of oh-but-of-course coolness, the lowest form of insult toward those people who hold AAN in the such highest esteem. I realize you’re trying to be hip and edgy and cynically off-the-wall, because that’s part of the alternative template. I realize it’s supposed to be funny. But it’s not to those whose long, weekly efforts are being judged so mercilessly and, in my opinion, so wrongly.

The fact that AAN’s committee members actually believe these heartless statements reflects the same uppity daily-newspaper disdain we’ve heard for some many years from the corporate goons who laughed at our puny journalistic efforts.

And as all of us know, they’re not laughing anymore — and neither is the Santa Maria Times when they’re regularly scooped by the best alternative paper in Santa Barbara County.

Steve Moss, Executive Editor
Santa Maria Sun
Santa Maria, CA
(804) 546-8208