Throughout my sojourn in the Land of Shum I wrote letters to the editors of local newspapers, helped start and edit the Briceland Community High School newspaper and wrote articles for local newspapers pro bono. Sometime in the 1990s, I began stringing (freelancing) for both the Redwood Record and the Garberville Life and Times. The former job grew into a fulltime stringing job, meaning I got paid by the inch with no benefits, but was promised enough stringing assignments to pay me as much as a permanent reporter position would, but only if I bailed them out of a pinch by agreeing to be the front desk for six months first. I did that until the Fortuna Group, which owned 3 Humboldt County newspapers, closed down the Record and the Arcata Union, both of which had been important to the county historically. The Record had been in existence for over 60 years and the Union for 102. Both were “absorbed” into the Fortuna Beacon.
I have no evidence but my own observations to back me up, but I am convinced that the problem, with the Record at least, was that the staff had over the years become increasingly interested in writing environmental stories and covering other news that had been ignored in the past. When our editor returned every two weeks from her meetings with the publisher and editors of the other two papers in Fortuna, she was always recovering from the stress of pressure on her to downplay the green stories. Fortuna Group was very, very conservative and the newspapers, not very profitable I assume, were more or less hobbies of the owner to begin with. The Group mainly held interests in logging and other industries. At one point, we were instructed not to write one more story about County Supervisor Dan Hauser, whose environmental leanings endeared him to Shummers. The closure came shortly after the issue that had an entirely green front page, purely by accident–it so happened that the news that week was all green and the editor must have not realized it until it was too late. I carefully preserved and cherish that front page, for its greenness and also because I wrote most of the stories on it.
When the paper was closed, so abruptly that I returned from an out-of-town story to find myself locked out of the office, I was among 25 news workers in Humboldt County who were suddenly and without any warning whatsoever thrown into a very tight job market. I was able to save myself, for a while, because I was already a part-time lecturer at both Humboldt State University and College of the Redwoods. When both of those gigs fell through sometime later, however, and I could find no news or clerical work and figured death would be better than waitressing again, my time at the Record had supplied me with enough clips and chutzpah to seek employment out of the county as a reporter, despite my advanced age and lack of a journalism degree. One of the really nice things about the news business, at least the reporting side of it, is that so much of your interview consists of plopping your portfolio down in front of your prospective editor, instead of impressing the personnel office with how obsequious and conforming you can be.
I worked for three different papers outside Humboldt County, all of whose editors were thrilled to get a PhD who was a published author for entry level wage plus benefits. They were the Lake County Record-Bee, the Amador County Ledger-Dispatch and Sonoma West Times & News in Sebastopol. To assuage my hippie conscience, I told myself that I would skate just as close to the line as possible for as long as possible in terms of investigative reporting and writing green stories. At each paper, I lasted about a year before the publishers made me miserable enough to leave. (I was never fired outright, but any employer worth his or her salt knows what will drive an unwanted employee to quit.) By that time, at the first two papers, both owned by corporations with distant headquarters, I had the sheriff, most of the county supervisors, all of the school superintendants and the newspaper sales department out gunning for me. I never had an editor that didn’t beg me to stay.
The exception is Sonoma West, which was not a corporate newspaper, but owned and run by former reporters. The problem there was that, just because it was not a corporation, it was not influenced by laws against sexism and the sexism proved unbearable to me. I was patronized, ridiculed, handed all the Grange breakfast stories, not allowed to cover women’s issues and had to, each and every day, look at the picture of Marilyn Monroe taped to the back of the male reporter’s computer my computer faced. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Marilyn’s position in the women’s movement, but I really did not want to have to look at one of her sexiest pin-up pictures any time I was in the newsroom. I allowed myself to be wooed away by a software corporation about which I had written stories, at double my salary, only to find I preferred the low-paying sexism to the high-paying cultism. That job did not last long. I had one more newspaper job, doing part-time reporting and layout for the Garberville Independent, which had filled the niche left when the Redwood Record folded.