Making Local News
Celebrating a decade and a half of knockout journalism—and then some.
Thursday, September 30, 2004
These pages have told thousands of stories. The stories cover a lot of miles and a lot of people’s lives. Our neighbors have celebrated milestones in these pages. There have been land-use battles won and lost and a water fight that continues to this day. County supervisors and mayors, reporters, editors and ad reps, have come and gone.
Businesses have sprung up in these pages: many have thrived, some have perished. The big industries—tourism and ag—have had their ups and downs. The local art scene has struggled and survives.
Coast Weekly has become the Monterey County Weekly. Monterey County has grown and changed, sometimes for the better.
It’s been hard and it’s been fun. It’s been a sweet 16 years.
Here is a history: of a weekly newspaper and the
community it has covered.
When the comfortable in Monterey County feel afflicted, and they wonder what turn of events led them to meet such a fate, they need go back in time nearly two decades to a trip Bradley Zeve took to visit publishers of weekly newspapers. Zeve was trying to figure out whether he should take the risk of founding such a paper of his own.
“They said, ‘It’s a brutal business,’” he recalls. “‘You’ll work incredibly long hours. You’ll never feel like you’re getting anywhere. You’ll lose all the money you put into it.’”
He asked: “But would you recommend it?” And they answered, “Well, sure.”
“OK,” he thought. “It’s good enough for me.” And acting on the advice he’d received, he bought a failing Monterey County tourist paper called Coasting and transformed it into Coast Weekly.
To put his attitude in context, it helps to know that Zeve was speaking last week by phone from his new London apartment, and that he and a copilot had just flown to that city in Zeve’s single-engine plane, a 1968 Bonanza V-tail, from California.
It took 35 hours, and the plane made several refueling stops, including one in Inqaluit, Quebec, where pilots have to be alert for polar bears straying onto the runway. All this so he could join his wife, Jeanne Howard, whom he met at an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention, and stepdaughter Kate, who is playing field hockey in England this school year.
Clearly, confronting the more difficult path doesn’t daunt him.
The Weekly celebrates its 16th anniversary this year, and it owes its longevity at least in part to Zeve’s approach. Do some careful planning before you launch your adventure, for one. Know your audience and figure out how to meet its needs, even those it’s not yet aware of. Be prepared to weather disasters—because when you’re sitting on a fault line, they’re sure to come.
The result is a paper that stands out from its daily
competitors, including the Knight Ridder-owned Monterey
Herald and Gannett-owned Californian.
“Generally, when they take on an issue, they do it in much more depth than the daily paper,” Fred Meurer, Monterey’s city manager, says of the Weekly.
“I love the paper,” says Congressman Sam Farr, who reads it faithfully every week. “I think if we didn’t have it, we’d be trying to invent it.”
A PAINFUL TRANSITION
Zeve brought a progressive sensibility to his task of transforming Coasting. When he was 15, his mother made him sit and watch the Watergate hearings on TV. Later, he worked for Common Cause, went door to door for the Public Interest Research Group and was an advocate of open government and Freedom of Information legislation in New York State. Before Coasting caught his eye, he helped found The Sun, an alt-weekly in Santa Cruz.
At the time, in the alternative weekly business, “there weren’t great models of success for these papers,” he says. California had L.A. Weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Chico News & Review, but no one knew then that readership of alternative weeklies would grow significantly over the next decade and a half, at the same time readership of daily papers stagnated. In 1988, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies had about 50 member papers compared to 125 now. Twenty-three of the current members, including Monterey County Weekly, are in the State of California.
To finance his purchase of the nearly bankrupt
Coasting, Zeve borrowed money from his parents and from
Coasting’s owners, who gave him 24 months to pay off
the debt. Fortunately, he found a staff willing to work for
low pay on a project that was still more of a mission than a
“We often had to ask people to hold their checks because we didn’t have the cash flow,” he remembers. “I learned very much about how not to pay people on time and sort of keep them at bay. We only got sued once for that little scheme.”
Turning the paper from a tourist rag into an alternative was a slow, painful process, Zeve recalls. Because readers were resistant to wholesale change, the staff was “not permitted to say we were changing,” Zeve says. “So we started to say, ‘We’re making enhancements.’” News, investigative reporting and more serious cover stories were added.
At age 23, Gersh Kuntzman moved from New York to be the paper’s first news editor. He was green—his only other job out of college was for a publisher of professional wrestling and boxing magazines—but he had some good clips from freelance assignments. To him fell the job of enhancing the news section.
Monterey County was in the middle of a five-year drought,
and water conservation was a big issue.
“I think we were the only paper that ever covered Water Board meetings,” remembers Kuntzman, now a senior writer at the New York Post. At the time, the Monterey Herald was lazy in its coverage, he says.
“We would beat them routinely even though we were a weekly. We’d cover the Monterey County Board of Supervisors in a way that nobody ever did because they were such a joke.”
One cover story tackled the subject of whether recreational drugs should be legalized.
Even if the name hadn’t changed from Coasting to
Coast Weekly, people would have noticed something was
happening to their shopper. Not everyone liked it. The paper
got in trouble sometimes when it went further than the
community was ready for.
“You forget that people just get comfortable with a
product, even when it’s bad,” Kuntzman says. “When you make
changes, you’ve got to really be delicate.”
The population of Monterey County was an eclectic mix: There were the liberal artistic types in Carmel, the tourists visiting Monterey, the military families in Fort Ord, the agricultural workers in Salinas Valley, the retired CEOs in Pebble Beach, the marine biologists.
“The paper could be a little schizophrenic in a community like that,” Kuntzman says.
As Kuntzman developed news coverage, Chuck Thurman, a holdover from Coasting, built up the arts section. Because the community is artistic, readers’ expectations were high, and he strived to meet their standards. The paper also had to offer something to the tourists who came into the area looking for dining, drink, culture and recreation.
The staff worked in an L-shaped office building in Carmel, with computer equipment that was primitive even by 1989 standards.
If Zeve was worried about money those first two years, his concern didn’t trickle down to Kuntzman, who recalls being happy as long as he could pay his rent. He remembers Zeve as an enthusiastic and energetic boss who was not the greatest manager because he had too much work of his own to do. Zeve underestimated the difficulty of being a newcomer in a place where many people had deep roots, and he ruffled some feathers, Kuntzman says. His vision was perhaps too large.
By the time Kuntzman left to return to New York, he had concluded the community was far more conservative than the paper they were putting out.
Zeve’s early seat-of-the-pants financial strategy worked. He made his two-year deadline of paying off the original owners, and the sleepless nights he spent worrying about cash flow ended. The paper began paying its bills on time, a standard Zeve holds to proudly.
When he took it over, Coasting had had an unverified circulation of 10,000. Within a few years, Zeve had increased that to a verified circulation of 40,000. It still stands at that mark, which Zeve says is greater than that of any other paper in the county. He brags that of all the papers in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, Monterey County Weekly has the second-highest household penetration, at about 30 percent.
It achieves that without the demographic advantages enjoyed
by most other alt-weeklies. Monterey County has no major urban
center in which the paper, now based in Seaside, can
concentrate its distribution; it needs to be everywhere. It
doesn’t have any major university nearby, feeding the district
with the young adult readers most alternative weeklies covet.
The Weekly couldn’t afford to appeal to a mere 10
percent of the population, which is all that papers in cities
like San Francisco and New York need for success.
“From the very beginning, the Weekly had to speak to the community as a whole instead of just focusing on a niche,” Zeve says.
The Weekly’s readership is more educated, wealthier
and older than the average alt-weekly reader. Older doesn’t
“We’re in California,” says Erik Cushman, who succeeded Zeve as publisher in 2001, when Zeve took on the role of executive editor and CEO. “There’s almost no such thing as being too hip or too cool.”
The club, movie, music and other entertainment news might seem designed to appeal to the young, but older county residents are progressive and want to know what youth culture is like, Cushman says.
Zeve recognizes that the paper’s readers are predominantly Baby Boomers, and that’s fine with him.
“By having a huge household penetration, we have a lot of influence,” he says.
Patricia Bernardi, a retired teacher and political
“The Weekly, when they do their oomphy stories, they
do have an impact,” she says.
Every time the Weekly reports on her, she gets comments from people all over the county, including those who live many miles away. “It does have a reach, more than one would think.”
Other evidence of that reach is the response of the paper’s
“People that are on the flip side—the anti-environmentalists, the pro-development, the Junior Chamber of Commerce types—will rant and rave about the Weekly,” Bernardi says, “especially when they do something that gores their ox.” The point is, these people are reading the paper, and they’re hearing from others who have read it. If government and business leaders had only the dailies to read and no alternative, they might know the basketball scores and who got a promotion, but their opportunity to squirm in the spotlight might have been lost.
The Weekly isn’t afraid to tackle tough stories “in
much greater depth than either of those two [daily] newspapers
is willing to tackle,” Bernardi says.
A SERIES OF TRAUMAS
A newspaper is a business dependent on revenues, like any other, and its staff is buffeted by the same disasters it covers. Zeve ticks off some of the setbacks: the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, which flattened the tourist trade along with freeways and buildings; the 1994 closing of Fort Ord, which resulted in a major population loss but gave rise to the creation of a new university; and the California recession. All these events made advertisers think long and hard before parting with their cash.
And small advertisers are the bread and butter of the free
paper. Those business people recognize the good things the
Weekly offers: coverage of the region’s fine eating
experiences, entertainment, wine, vineyards and luxury
resorts. But they can cast the same critical eye on the paper
that its reporters sometimes cast on them.
Ted Balestreri, chairman and CEO of Cannery Row Company, says he’s watched the paper evolve over the past 16 years.
“As the publisher matured, the paper matured,” he says.
Overall, he believes the Weekly is good for the
hospitality industry and serves as a handy guide to tourists.
As for the news coverage, “Sometimes it gets me excited, and
sometimes I’m completely pleased by it…Every once in a while I
had a good heated debate with the publisher [Zeve].”
Zeve is always open-minded and willing to listen, Balestreri says, but the hotelier has been unable to convince him to change anything in the newspaper. In spite of that, they remain friends.
Even though the paper is perceived as liberal, “I can’t imagine thinking people wouldn’t read it, even from a curiosity standpoint,” Congressman Sam Farr says. Politicians can’t lead unless people are willing to follow, and they can’t follow unless they’re an informed electorate, he reflects. The Weekly takes his constituency to that point and further.
Michael Stamp, an environmental attorney in Monterey, says he’s seen the quality of the paper go up and down, with strong investigative reporting about 10 or 12 years ago followed by a slump of several years. Staff has come and gone, some of them leaving rather noisily. What Stamp dislikes is when the paper runs articles on the latest in hairstyles and flip-flop fashions. Lately, though, under the leadership of Editor Eric Johnson, “I’m thrilled to see them coming back to where they were,” Stamp says.
Like several of those interviewed, Stamp mentioned as
particularly riveting staff writer Jessica Lyons’ coverage of
poor decisions made by the County Board of Supervisors on
“She’s giving inside information no one else is giving,” he says.
In a period when readers of daily papers are assumed to have ever shorter attention spans, Stamp and others say they value the Monterey County Weekly most highly for its long investigative pieces. “I’m only sad that they don’t do more pages worth when they really take these things on,” Bernardi says.
The Weekly’s readers have been spoiled by coverage that is beyond most small papers’ means and imagination. The Weekly sent its news editor, Jim Cole, to the First Gulf War, and staff writer Andrew Scutro to Iraq last year, providing more first-hand coverage of the Middle East hot spot than any other alt-weekly in the country, large or small.
Monterey City Manager Meurer knows Lyons is busy with the county now, but he says he and the mayor were just commenting that they hadn’t seen Weekly reporters around city hall lately. They wondered how to interpret that.
“I guess we’re not screwing up anything they want to make fun of,” he says. But he expects they’ll be back.
With a large county and a small reporting staff, “it’s sort of like we’re firefighters,” Zeve says. “Wherever the fire is, we go first. The county is ablaze right now.”
A continent away from his prized possession, Zeve is
contemplating what adventure he might undertake now to top his
“There’s probably no other experience like that except maybe flying from here to Africa,” he says. But then he drops back to earth. “Flying was nothing compared to being in the heat of the battles the newspaper was in.”Ruth Hammond is a freelance writer in Washington, DC. She is also editor of AltWeeklies.com, a Web site that gathers the best news and arts reporting from newspapers that belong to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.