Early Years

The Independent staff in the early years.

Two national magazines have written about Joan Seppala and the Independent.

In November of 1963, Time Magazine published an article about the changing scene of newspaper publishing. The Independent publisher Joan Seppala was one of those featured in the article.

The article included the following information: When a leggy brunette named Joan Kinney moved west from Chicago last year, she had nothing more adventurous in mind than some postgraduate course in creative writing at San Francisco State College. But Joan soon found something far more exciting. Today, at 25, she publishes the Livermore, Calif., Independent, a weekly newspaper that after only two months in print is already making money. Says Miss Kinney with some surprise, “We’ve been rather a shocking success.”

The shock was felt most keenly by Livermore’s other paper, the Herald and News, a triweekly that has been around for 86 years. Some of the Independent’s sudden growth has come right out of the Herald and News’s ad accounts. Says Robert Penland, Herald and News publisher, “We’re probably going to have to work a little harder.” Even if he does, his new competitor will retain one distinct advantage. Robert Penland sells his paper; Joan Kinney gives her Independent away free.

The Livermore Independent presents fresh - and, to some observers, disquieting - evidence of the prodigious growth of that semi-demi-newspaper, the giveaway shopping guide. In the last 17 years, according to a survey by the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism, suburban and weekly papers - a category that includes the giveaways - have gained circulation at 30 times the rate of the metropolitan press.

In increasing numbers, the giveaways break up the ads with news stories. But their editorial staffs vary widely. Joan Kinney in Livermore pays the salaries of 13 editorial hands.

According to the Times story, what really accounts for the giveaway’s new appetite for news is the hungry reader. Too many metropolitan dailies, striving to be all things to all readers, have turned into a ready-mixed potpourri of syndicated columns, global think pieces, comic strips, canned features, and coleslaw recipes. Without exception, the giveaway newspaper lavishes all of its news attention on the local scene and leaps with alacrity to publish hometown names.

The Ms. edition of March 1975 headed a story “Truth with Consequences” in writing about the SAVE initiative. Excerpts from the story follow:

“The trouble with most small-city newspapers,” says Joan Kinney, publisher of the Livermore Independent, “is that they’re afraid to take on an issue of unlimited economic growth in their own communities. There is a conflict of interest: their economics depend on growth.”

Kinney earned the right to criticize in 1972. Livermore, a mixed community of farmers, merchants, and research scientists southeast of Oakland, was beginning to suffer the familiar ills of rapid growth: rising taxes, declining services, disappearing open spaces. When a citizens’ group sponsored a slow growth ballot initiative to protect undeveloped land, Kinney’s Independent campaigned vigorously in support - and suffered for it. Local merchants were convinced that the initiative meant economic disaster, and they retaliated by withdrawing their advertising. Revenue immediately fell off by 25 percent, but the editorials held steady; and in April, 1972, the initiative was adopted by 60 percent of the electorate.

According to Kinney, the business persons saw the slow growth movement as a limitation on their pioneering spirit,

Some of the Independent’s advertisers never came back, but the paper has been able to cut costs and find resources elsewhere in the community.

Recently, other California papers, taking heart from the example of the Independent, have begun to support slow growth movements in their own cities.