20th Anniversary -- Twenty Questions
A Q&A with Weekly Founder and CEO Bradley Zeve.
Thursday, October 9, 2008
A crack house, a bloody lobby and promises to employees that they would, in fact, get a paycheck (someday) may not be Weekly founder Bradley Zeve’s fondest memories– but they’re fun, and staff favorites, and we think you’ll enjoy them, too. (If left entirely up to Zeve, he’d probably prefer to talk land-use politics and policies, freedom-of-the-press issues and Pink Floyd.)
As the Weekly celebrates its 20th anniversary, we’ve asked the man behind the masthead (who doesn’t look a day older than he did in 1988) to reflect on the good, the bad and the et cetera.Why no more sweater vests?
You’re not making fun of my fashion from 20 years ago, are you– my wool vests? More important is that in the early days of the Weekly I wore a tie with those vests. Now, I only wear a tie about twice a year. That’s progress.What’s your favorite conflict of interest?
There is no such thing. I don’t like seeing our government run by, or influenced by, people with strong conflicts of interest– where personal gain outweighs community interest. Unfortunately, we haven’t made as much progress as I hoped. For me, the mother of all local conflicts of interest (since 1988) was when Salinas attorney Tony Lombardo was vigorously representing developers before the county board and was allegedly drafting official land-use documents for the county planning department that were pertinent to his clients. Open-government activist Pat Bernardi sued the county; the county paid hundreds of thousands of dollars defending the case, and even more to Bernardi’s attorneys. As a result of the lawsuit, the county planning department became the first in the state to be placed under court supervision. More heads should have rolled after that one.Your hair has remained the same; how have you changed over the last 20 years?
Thanks for noticing. I suppose I’m wiser, less reactionary, more patient and have a better perspective on all aspects of my life. Fortunately to those closest to me, I’m experiencing your basic maturation process. I still place high value on a good laugh. And I still crank up the radio when Pink Floyd comes on.How would your first employees describe you?
I’m sure they couldn’t think of a bad thing to say about me (ha-ha). Tenacious, hard working, demanding. I grew up in Pittsburgh, so I have an edge. That’s a good thing.What advice would 2008 BZ give to 1988 BZ?
Things aren’t always as they seem. Respond, don’t react to situations and people. Live your dreams. You can bear more than you know. A kind word goes a long way. Listen, listen, listen! Honor those that work for you. Be on time.What role do you see the Weekly playing in the community? How has it evolved over 20 years?
I really do feel the Weekly has made an awesome contribution toward shaping the community. We’ve pushed for open, honest government, and endorsed those we’ve seen as visionary and responsible, and stood firm against those who lack vision and ethics. We’ve highlighted arts and culture that raise the caliber of the community– creativity that is original, inspirational, exciting, fun. Internally, we strive to walk our talk. We’re now generating a net 100 percent of our power from solar energy. We’re the first newspaper in the country to achieve that.What stories are you most proud of?
We’ve published more than 1,000 issues, so there are so many that I’m really proud of– and some I was grateful were on the street for only a week. Our cover story of one of Seaside’s former city managers led to his rightfully being fired. Our coverage of the dangers of methyl bromide, a story about the first measurable signs of global warming found in Monterey Bay, and the story about a homeless mother and daughter in Marina come to mind. That last one resulted in a reader paying for an apartment for them for a year. That was fantastic. We sent a reporter to the Iraq war– we were the only media in the tri-county area to do that, and we localized the story.
THERE WERE TWO BUSINESSES ON WILLIAMS AVENUE: OURS AND A CRACK HOUSE ACROSS THE STREET.If you could go back to any point in time over the past 20 years, what would you do differently and why?
I do something every day I’d do differently.How did you land in Monterey County?
Luck. I was working for a newspaper in Santa Cruz that was doing poorly. And a small tourist paper in Carmel, Coasting, was headed toward bankruptcy. A broker found me and put us together. Seemed like a great opportunity, except I wasn’t sure– and neither were those advising me– if the community would respond positively to an alternative weekly.Describe the day the Weekly moved into its current Seaside digs.
It was 1991, and I had been assuring the staff that a move from Carmel to Seaside would be fantastic. We were moving into a Charles Moore building, one of the great American architects, so the building is unique and airy, but still, no Carmel around it. Turned out, there were two businesses on Williams Avenue: ours and a crack house across the street. The day we moved in, one of our new neighbors was all doped up and punched his hand through his window and cut his main artery. Our news editor, Jim Cole, saw him in the street and offered help. With blood pulsating about two feet high, he came into our brand-new front lobby, bleeding. He ripped the power cord out of our stereo that was sitting on the reception counter and tied his own tourniquet. We finally got him out, and Seaside cops convinced him to go to the hospital or he was sure to die. Our associate editor, Chuck Thurman, and I put on rubber gloves and scrubbed the blood off the floor. Our receptionist left and never returned. You could call that an inauspicious start. As it turned out, moving to Seaside was a great decision. It gets better all the time. Almost 25 percent of the company has been on staff for more than 10 years, and Moore’s building is a hit.The Weekly has never missed a Thursday publication; what’s the closest it has come to not making it to press?
The Loma Prieta earthquake struck just before our primary deadline Tuesday, Oct. 17, 1989, at 5:04pm. We were about 80 percent done with production; the paper was due at the printer early Wednesday morning. We lost all power and completed the paper by making corrections with a manual typewriter. To complicate matters, the press in Salinas was knocked out of alignment. But somehow it all worked out and the Weekly was delivered on time.Paychecks now come on time, but that wasn’t always the case. Describe a time when you worried the house of cards might not make it.
There were many weeks, many painful weeks to remember. The first two years were extremely hit-or-miss. It was late 1990 when I first realized that being profitable didn’t mean we had any cash. On-paper profits were just a few hundred dollars on a good month, and not only was way more than that owed to us, but we owed others way more than that. That was a sobering time. It often seemed futile.Deconstruct the mission statement. Our mission is “To inspire independent thinking and conscious action, etc.” It seems self-explanatory, except for the “et cetera.” That’s the part that reminds us to keep our sense of humor. If we do that, we’re on mission. It must cover the paper, the website and even the way we run the company. When did you first realize the Weekly could inspire independent thinking and conscious action?
Our Safer Sex Guide, published in the early days of HIV, created a real buzz and even inspired a boycott against us from one conservative church in Pacific Grove. I knew we had published a provocative and important issue, and it was specifically oriented toward those readers with multiple sexual partners. That issue made a difference to many of our readers. It was our 10 Commandments of Safer Sex that upset the church members.
THE “ET CETERA” REMINDS US TO KEEP OUR SENSE OF HUMOR. IF WE DO THAT, WE’RE ON MISSION.Talk about wacky Weekly misadventures.
In our early days a driver tossed a whole bundle of papers through the front window of a motel on Fremont Street– a $900 error for us. Another time, an employee called in, saying she couldn’t come to work because she’d been kidnapped. Once we misspelled Monterey on the front cover, in a huge font size. One Saturday morning, I was greeted by a photo on the front page of the Herald showing four of the Weekly’s sales staff watching a Friday midday Pebble Beach tennis match. I’d given them the coveted tickets to give to their clients. Not only did they keep the expensive tickets, but took time off work to attend. The Monday morning sales meeting didn’t go so well.The Weekly took on Suterra in court– and won. Tell us about your favorite fights.
The Suterra fight was a good one, and my recent favorite. The gigantic chemical company didn’t want the public to know what was in their concoction that was going to be sprayed in Monterey County (and the rest of California) to combat the light brown apple moth. We didn’t have an opinion as to whether spraying was the right approach, but did believe the public had a right to know what was being sprayed. To simplify, Suterra threatened to sue us in L.A. County court to block us from publishing their ingredients. But we sued them first, using our First Amendment rights, claiming they were trying to silence the press. They ultimately did sue us, but withdrew the suit within a few days– a great victory for freedom of the press. Our attorney invited the local dailies to join our suit, and only the Santa Cruz Sentinel stood with us.Who has banned the Weekly and why?
Nobody has banned us, however we have been asked to not distribute our newspapers at a few locations over the years in response to specific stories. Typically, after a short time, we’re invited back. However, I am concerned about a trend that a number of local municipalities are severely restricting where we can put our red outdoor racks or are requiring modular racks, in an effort to control a certain aesthetic look on their streets. We have more than complied in every case, but the modular racks negatively impact our distribution. If we don’t have access to distribute in key locations, the free press suffers and ultimately the public loses. There’s nothing attractive about a society that doesn’t foster a lively exchange of ideas, and newspapers– especially independent media– are key to this formula.You’ve gone from alt-weekly rebel to member of the establishment. How do you play this role and still maintain the mission?
I’m flattered by your assessment but I don’t think I am, or ever have been, either of those. I still have the same values, and am more passionate than ever. It is an honor that the Weekly has more local readers than any other publication in town. That’s cool, and humbling.You get to form a blue ribbon committee to make Monterey County a better place to live. Who do you appoint?
I’m smart enough not to directly answer that question. I would certainly invite Jeanne Howard, my mate, and our publisher, Erik Cushman. Both have great vision and heart, and are smart as can be. And anyway, how many people are we talking about? When Fort Ord was closed, there was a reuse committee of about 100 that was brought together. It worked reasonably well. What I do know is that there are a lot of talented people here. I’d be sure the group is multicultural. I place a huge value on original thinkers, people who are forthright, who want innovation and sustainability. Those who advocate urban sprawl and big box development will be asked to get off the bus.How do you see the Weekly evolving over the next 20 years– what’s next?
I have no idea. The Weekly didn’t own a fax machine or a computer 20 years ago; there was no Internet, no URLs and no 100 channels on TV. I do know we’ll continue to evolve our website, but who knows what our world will look like in 2028? I believe there will still be a strong demand– maybe even greater than today– for an independent and local media, and with the mass of information out there, good editors of content will play a vital role. They’ll enable us to manage the overload of information, pare it down and edit out the misinformation. How that information is delivered is anyone’s guess. Hopefully, it will be provided in a nice tabloid, on newsprint, just like the Weekly is today.
Hopefully the Weekly will get smarter and wiser and funnier as time goes by. Hopefully we’ll continue to flourish, and be vital. Hopefully, the county will become so ideal, we will only publish celebratory features and comics.