Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2008 | What would happen if a successful publisher suddenly came to the conclusion that it didn’t really matter what stories he ran in his free weekly newspaper? Most of the people who picked up his publication skipped the stories and scanned the free classifieds, the entertainment listings and the display ads. So Mr. Successful Publisher convinces himself that the editorial content doesn’t really matter.
Whether the newspaper won awards doesn’t matter. Only journalists care about awards. It’s seen as irrelevant, out-of-touch, even unreadable? Big deal. It still makes money.
If a publisher were to show such contempt for his readers, the final product might look a lot like the San Diego Reader. Editor and owner Jim Holman doesn’t seem to care about whether anyone actually reads the weekly newspaper he’s been publishing in San Diego for 35 years. Week after week, I pick up the Reader hoping to find something worth reading over a cup of coffee only to fling aside moments later in disappointment.
The Dec. 20 issue that I grabbed while writing this story is typical. The cover asks “Does Christmas offend you?” The answer, if you can call it that, is a verbatim argument between a Christian and a Jew that goes on for (I counted) 7,173 words.
(The Reader is often asking these sorts of nonstarters on the cover: Why Tijuana? Is everybody too tired? What’s that smell? Is the sun in your eyes or are you just avoiding me?) The writer of the previous week’s cover story stopped people on the street and asked them about what they were wearing. Other cover stories are lists of things: best all-time concerts, recent murders, highest-paid executives. If that isn’t phoning it in, I don’t know what is.
Local news is the territory of the City Lights section, which features the “Breaking News” column by veteran Matt Potter, who is living proof that you can have a journalism career without actually talking to anyone or leaving the office. All you need to do is shell out 25 bucks for tipsters willing to do your work for you. If that fails, search the Internet for campaign contribution reports and documents filed by politicians, and bango! you have a column
Potter and the City Lights crew are obsessed with The San Diego Union-Tribune and its owner David Copley. A cartoon in the Dec. 20 issue mocks Copley as unable to hear two former employees “from up here on my really big yacht.” Get it? Copley’s filthy rich! Potter even went to the trouble of reporting the details of Copley’s adoption years ago, although he did get the scoop on the publisher’s drunken-driving arrest years back.
The only regular columnist who actually practices what I would call journalism is Don Bauder, a former business columnist at the Union-Tribune, who defected to the enemy camp after retiring to Colorado. Bauder strikes me as a bitter, angry man, and his bitterness limits his reach. The Union-Tribune, which paid his bills for 30 years, is part of the “Incest Perpetuation League,” the corrupt establishment that runs San Diego. The editorial page is “always eager to distort the truth.” Reporters (excepting himself, presumably) produce “hit jobs,” while editors are “blue-penciling the truth and substituting U-T spin.” He’s far better when he writes to his strength, which is explaining complex municipal finances and exposing local con artists, but it’s tough to breathe life into his stories from Colorado.
Well, you get the idea. There isn’t a whole lot in the Reader, but that’s not the point of this column because the weekly makes money, a lot of money. We could all forgive the Reader if it was put out by a bunch of pimple farmers trying to be journalists. But it’s not some student-run rag; the Reader is the country’s third-largest alternative weekly, with a circulation of 164,000. It’s rumored to be one of the most profitable, if not the most profitable alternative weekly in the country. Several people told me that The Reader owes much of its success to longtime Operations Director Howard Rosen.
The Reader itself is as thick as a phone book, stuffed with classifieds and display ads that are much better reading than the text that wrap around them. I can have 3,000 hairs implanted in my balding noggin for only $2,499! A boob job for $4,200! And my droopy eyelids can be fixed in just 20 minutes! The painted eggshells who go for this stuff have made publisher Jim Holman into a millionaire, and like other self-made businessmen he indulges his passions in life.
Only Holman’s passion is not sailing, hot-air ballooning or even newspaper publishing, but his religious faith. Holman is a devout Catholic who has given millions on parent-notification initiatives that seek to compel doctors to notify parents before performing abortions on minors. According to a 2006 profile in the Union-Tribune, Holman attends Mass every day, rides the bus to work and teaches Latin to home-schooled students.
It was a different Holman who started the Reader in 1972 from his home in Mission Beach, according to the five Reader veterans I spoke with to report this article. Holman had gone to Carleton College in Minnesota with the guys who started the Chicago Reader, and he licensed the name from his buddies and came out west to start up a similar brand of local journalism for San Diego. The San Diego Reader offered free classifieds and it was embraced by the local business community in a way that its more Nixon-era radical counterparts weren’t.
Within five years, the Reader was making a profit and publishing good, highly readable stories. The Reader really hit its stride in the early 1980s under the editorship of Jim Mullin.
“It was just one of those magical moments where the collection of talent contributing to that paper was really extraordinary,” Mullin told me recently. Holman wasn’t afraid to embarrass or challenge the Catholic Church in the pages of the Reader. In 1984, the Reader’s Neal Matthews revealed that Monsignor William Spain was in treatment in Michigan for cocaine addiction following a love affair with a male addict. Matthews also wrote an exhaustive analysis of the Diocese of San Diego’s accounts.
The turning point came after Mullin left in 1986 and was eventually replaced by the late Judith Moore, the author of an acclaimed memoir, “Fat Girl.” She lived in Berkeley, where she kept a year-long backlog of stories, thus ensuring that no current event would ever grace the Reader’s cover. Most of the old hands moved on, although rock critic Richard Meltzer stayed on for a time. As for Holman, he was expressing his faith more publicly by getting himself arrested outside abortion clinics.
Today, you would never be able to guess Holman’s religious activism by looking at the Reader. There’s a unique Sheep and Goats column that reviews religious services, but not exclusively Catholic ones. Holman saves his Catholic views for the California Catholic Daily, a website that takes its mission statement from the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and he apparently goes to great pains to keep his personal faith out of the pages of his weekly San Diego newspaper.
The Reader would be a much more honest publication, and I think a much more interesting one, if it gave voice to Holman’s faith instead of avoiding it. There are few people in a better position than Holman to educate secular heathens like me about the Catholic faith. But if Holman did start publishing weekly columns about the faith, complete with Latin lessons and endorsements of politicians who toed the Catholic hardline, the Reader might be a more interesting publication, but it would almost certainly be a far less profitable one. It’s pretty safe to say that current advertisers like the Vein and Liposculpture Center nor the La Jolla Hair Clinic wouldn’t want their beauty ads to appear next to pictures of aborted fetuses and diatribes about Jesus.
The inescapable conclusion that I draw from this is that the Reader exists only to make money. Holman basically said so himself back when he used to give interviews (Holman didn’t respond to messages left seeking comment and I was told he doesn’t take “unsolicited” phone calls.) In 1987, he told The San Diego Union that many people pick up the Reader because it’s free: “They like to browse through it, especially the entertainment section, but don’t necessarily read it closely.”
Two years later, he told the Los Angles Times “I think most people don’t read the paper. I think that most people (only) look at a paper like ours.” And in 1992, when staffer Neal Matthews quit over the editorial direction of the Reader, Holman told him, “Look, Neal, it doesn’t matter what we print.”
That’s not to say that the Reader could get away with publishing pages filled with stuff like “SHREEEKRSHRONKSHLOOMKRONKERBLAAAT” or keeping us updated on the vending machine at my local laundromat. It has to be in English. It has to poop on the Union-Tribune and it has to explore something that sort of matters to someone, somewhere in San Diego, but that’s about it. The Reader doesn’t really write about San Diego in any meaningful way, the way its competitor, CityBeat, does. Nor does it speak for a segment of the community with the voice of the Gay and Lesbian Times. The Reader, however, is twice as thick as both CityBeat and The Gay and Lesbian Times.
Like those papers, The Reader is considered an alternative weekly, but it’s not really much of an alternative to anything except perhaps the Union-Tribune. It ignores current events.
You would be hard pressed to know there was a wildfire here in October if you only looked at the Reader, and that’s the way it’s always been. (In 1978, a former staffer told me, the Reader decided it would not write about the crash of PSA Flight 182, the deadliest air disaster in the United States at the time.) It isn’t in the same league as the Village Voice or the LA Weekly, the only two larger alt-weeklies in the country. It doesn’t hold a candle to the fun and irreverent writing you find in Boston Phoenix, the Washington City Paper or Denver’s Westword, to name but a few.
Still, you can’t argue with success and Holman’s been raking it in for years. Maybe the Reader is the alt-weekly San Diego deserves. Maybe Holman’s right that people just want the entertainment listings and the liposuction ads and the “Union-Tribune sucks” jive. Maybe they think “Does Christmas Offend You?” is a fascinating question. But I refuse to believe I live in a city that is that vain and simple-minded. I think that San Diegans actually have a brain under their sunburned scalps and if you put millions of dollars back into the Reader instead of Proposition 73 or 85 and hired an editor who cared whether people read the darn thing or not people might pick up even more copies. But what do I know? I just write for a living.
To show you what I have in mind, consider the San Diego Street Journal, which emerged out of the ferment of the 1960s to tackle subjects the mainstream or the establishment press wouldn’t dare. Here’s how it started out in 1969: “It’s time we said it loud and clear: San Diego is the armpit of the world. The town is middle class, stupid, mediocre and boring. It is plastic, sterile, unhip and sexually repressed.” As you might guess, the goal of the Street Journal wasn’t to sell ads for liposuction and droopy eyelid repair. The UCSD grad students who started the thing wanted to shake things up, tell the truth about San Diego, “to put the city in motion.”
The Street Journal hit hard with exposes on crooks like C. Arnhold Smith and the Alessio brothers that were published under the communal byline “M. Raker.” Within a year, bullets were being fired through a window in the Street Journal’s offices. The glass front door was smashed and typesetting equipment was destroyed.
“We will continue to publish no matter what happens,” a 24-year-old staffer named Lowell Bergman said. “The time has come to make San Diego a human place where all ideas can be expressed without fear.”
That wasn’t true. It didn’t outlast the Nixon administration. But it produced some fine journalists and broke important, national stories. That 24-year-old Bergman grew up to be one of the heavyweights in journalism, a Peabody-award winning producer for CBS’s “60 Minutes” and a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter for The New York Times. He was played by actor Al Pacino in the movie The Insider about 60 Minutes’ decision to spike a story featuring the explosive account of a tobacco company executive. “Are you a businessman or a newsman?” Pacino/Bergman asks his boss when the network shelves the story to protect CBS’ profit stream.
It’s a question I would love to see Jim Holman answer.
Seth Hettena, a San Diego-based freelance journalist and author, writes an occasional column “The Peanut Gallery” about local media and journalism. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org  with your complaints, thoughts or stories about San Diego reporters.