When asked to write a piece in commemoration of The Independent’s 50th anniversary I was both flattered and dismayed. It is great to be offered space in this special issue, but how could it be that I am old enough to remember back a half century. Other than John Oliver and Fred Dickey, I seem to be the oldest living competing newspaperman left.
I would have titled this piece “Joan the Giant Slayer” or “David Versus Goliath—and She Won.” Her detractors, and I used to be one of them, will likely have less flattering thoughts about their least favorite fish wrapper.
It was 1967 when I first arrived in Livermore to take the editor’s job with Floyd Sparks’ Herald & News, a morning daily that he said had little competition except for a “left-wing weekly put out by a Berkeley hippie woman.” Floyd didn’t seem too worried about losing any advertising since he was a right-wing Republican, as were most of the businessmen and professionals in Livermore at that time. He also didn’t think the Rad Lab counted much because they were all egg heads and far-out scientists, not interested in local issues.
I soon learned that the Independent, even though only issued weekly (plus Fridays and Sundays for awhile), could scoop us with their experienced staff steeped in local issues and using news contacts who would not deal with the conservative Herald. It became a focus of our paper every campaign, and during the humungous growth versus no-growth battles, to attack the Independent’s liberal stands and “radical no-growth” candidates.
After two years, I departed Livermore for a job offer back at my roots in northern Illinois. After four years away, I accepted an enticing offer to be editor of a new morning daily entering the “newspaper wars” in the Livermore-Amador Valley (before the name “Tri-Valley” was thought of) the Valley Times, published by a longtime enemy of Floyd, named Dean Lesher. They previously had a gentleman’s agreement that Floyd stayed in Alameda County and Dean ruled the newspaper world in Contra Costa County. Then Floyd had bought the Village Pioneer and that started a turf war that only ended when the two men either sold their empires or died. Floyd died first. Soon though I decided Floyd was a better boss and returned to the (now named) Tri-Valley Herald from 1972 to 1980.
In the 1971-72 growth battle, the Independent and its guru Don Miller had decided a ballot measure to slow growth was the weapon they needed to “stop the sprawling development from paving over the valley.” It was called the SAVE Initiative (Save All Valley Environments) and caused the greatest political storm the valley had ever seen. The Independent’s side won that particular battle, but nearly committed suicide economically when all the realtors, auto dealers and most retail advertisers pulled their ads over the paper over its stand. The Independent dropped back to a weekly. Joan must have had to subsidize the paper for several years after that (I was never privy to her balance sheet though.)
Meanwhile, on the editorial side, I got in trouble sparring with Bob Several and his staff. I would run a column from time to time name-calling or admonishing the Independent. Bob retaliated, even firing off a letter to the editor, which I printed. My boss at the time, Dean, thought it ill-advised to give any space or even mention the paper, so admonished me soundly. Then when I returned to the Herald Floyd also ordered me to ignore them in print.
The only time I ever pulled a real coup on the Independent is when I lured their token conservative writer Walt Hecox away for better wages and better play for his column. Walt expressed regret for leaving Joan whom he said was “like a daughter” to him, but needed a decent income and less harassment from the “left-leaning young whipper-snappers” at the paper who delighted in making fun of his viewpoint. But that is another story all in itself.
After I left the newspaper wars in 1980, I came to respect the writing skills and well-backgrounded reporting by the Independent’s staff. They would call me at Sandia for comment and often ran my news releases without cutting or changing words. I even started dropping by their office, first upstairs over the 1079 Club then later in the old Bank of America edifice. Bob Several and I got better acquainted and had lunch together over at Dean’s Café in P-town a couple of times. We would reminisce about the good old days of heated competition and how we skewered each other in columns.
Now as I look back on it, decades and thousands of miles ago, it was the best time of my career, facing head-to-head competition both with the Indy and with the Times.
Joan had started her dream on a shoestring and now 50 years later is still around to bask in the glory of having used her editorial slingshot (and clever savvy in other areas) to slay both the giants—Floyd and Dean, today maintaining a clear lead over the struggling merged products that still come out daily, but have far less influence and local news than her paper.
So congratulations to Joan, Janet, Ron, Doug and my good friend David Lowell, for their dedication, perseverance, and success after 50 years of fighting the good fight. I regret not being there today to make a toast to all the great people, past and present, who populated the Indy.