From a longtime fan, first-time letter writer
My time at SN&R began like a dream. Which is to say there was no beginning. All of a sudden there I was, hand-making news pages in the basement of a former mausoleum.
The year was 2000. The Sacramento News & Review was headquartered out of a brick box on 20th Street in Midtown. The building looked like a firehouse but used to be a mortuary. Someone told me once that the dead were secreted in and out of the bottom floor, and that you could hear them on the days when production crept to the midnight precipice.
I was just a lowly production intern back then. This was foot-in-the-door scut work that I hoped to parlay into an editorial internship, since I wanted to be some kind of writer and might as well have had hooves for hands when it came to doing anything crafty.
I don’t think people appreciate how low-tech making the paper was back then. But that was the paradox of SN&R: wary of the future, quick to demand change.
My duties were to slice out printed ads with an X-Acto blade and paste them just so onto a mocked-up tabloid sheet that would be scanned (or something) and transmitted to a printing company. It was an outdated process even then and I was bad at it. My stuff always came out janky, like the ads were glue-sticked in place by the same guy who cuts magazines into ransom letters.
Improbably, I was allowed back as an editorial intern the following winter. My first professional byline ran in February 2001. SN&R’s editor at the time sent this bushy-haired city college student to a dimly-lit auditorium to write about high-speed rail. (Topical!) I picked a seat in an empty row with a cockeyed view of the projector. State officials and attendees spoke a mile a minute about stuff they understood but I didn’t. I didn’t document a single quotation because I didn’t know how to accurately shorthand what people said. By the end of the meeting, I was left wondering what happened. What the hell was the point of it all?
It’s a pretty good question to have at the center of any story.
After college, I beat around the fringes of the journalism industry for the better part of a decade. I worked for a charismatic charlatan in the East Bay, a laid-back Boy Scout in the foothills and an amoral GoBot in the suburbs. I told a red-faced editor I wouldn’t write a story demonizing unhoused people just because one swung a crutch at him for being a jerk. I exposed my publisher for giving free ad space to a political candidate in his own paper. I lectured a media company owner who wanted to shoot remotes outside the homes of the accused just to justify selling those addresses to defense attorneys. That guy fired me. I’m honestly shocked more people haven’t.
Journalism then was still a way station on the way to something else. It didn’t yet feel like the mystical calling it soon became.
I must have applied for three different openings at SN&R before the editors finally relented and offered me a job—one I promptly turned down. I just wanted to prove to them I could do what they thought I couldn’t, I told them. The next time they made an offer, I snatched it. That was in the summer of 2012. The past eight years went both slow and fast. The past 20, mostly fast.
Like it did for a lot of other outsiders, SN&R gave me a home. It gave me a soft pad to bounce my face against while I struggled, sucked, failed and tried again. It gave me a proverbial mic and encouraged me to lend it to those who actually needed it. It gave me permission to tell stories that pissed me off, broke my heart or sketched me out.
I’m proud of the work we did while I was here. I’m grateful to the mentors and colleagues who linked arms and trod a path. I’m indebted to every single person who summoned the courage to stand in the spotlight and light the way.
There’s a kind of self-flagellatory quality to working in this industry, more so when you work at an alt weekly in a city with a Tower Bridge-sized chip on its shoulder. Politicians and public officials freeze you out with impunity because you’re not the daily. The rich and well-connected look down on you like you’re a feral cat in a rank alley. Their bootlickers and your haters dismiss the paper as the rag with the weed and escort ads. Your fans kvetch that you aren’t as good as your predecessors and then gripe when you don’t cover their shows. You’re outnumbered, overworked, underpaid and universally underestimated. Either you find the beauty in that or you best seek other opportunities.
This is my last byline for SN&R. Then again, maybe it isn’t. I’m leaving to do a new thing, but who among us, at this choppy moment in the sea of time, knows what the future holds? For the Sacramento News & Review, for alt weeklies, for print journalism, for America, for you and for me.
I do know there’s a dedicated crew of individuals fighting to put out a paper again, fighting to make trouble for the comfortable or else let the troubled know that they aren’t alone. I know they love Sacramento. I hear them say it with each notepad scribble, records request, line edit and design sketch. I hear it with each pre-dawn delivery, payroll reminder and loan application. I read the words in bleeding newsprint and in custom web font.
I, for one, hope these feisty little scrappers live to see another day—and many more after that. Even now, especially now, I believe in the Sacramento News & Review.
Take us home, Joe.