For the past 50 years, The Independent has covered the environment, the arts, and social issues from the grassroots level, not from the top, looking down.
A social issue of the 1960s led to the creation of the newspaper. Fresh from college in the East and an upbringing in a Chicago suburb, Joan Seppala, who, before her marriage to LLNL scientist Lynn Seppala, was Joan Kinney, tried to obtain a news reporting job in the Bay Area. All she was offered were “society news” jobs, the standard slot for women journalists in those days.
An editor at the San Francisco Chronicle waved his arms across the news room filled with 100 or so reporters, and told her, “See, they are all men.”
Undaunted, Seppala made her way to Livermore, where she was hired by the Livermore Pioneer, a newly formed branch of the Danville Pioneer. The paper folded in a few weeks.
Seppala could see that there was an energetic, diverse community in Livermore and throughout the Valley, with farmers, ranchers, LLNL scientists, artists and actors. With the help of four newly found Bay Area investors, Nick Cox, Miller Ream, Paul Denison and David Knott, she launched The Independent. The first issue was dated Sunday, Sept. 22, 1963.
The next 50 years proved to be quite a journey for the publisher, the staff, and the community.
Being founded by a woman interested in the political issues of the day, who had to create her own journalism career, the Independent saw to it that residents could voice their concerns concerning rapid, unfettered development. They were quoted in leading stories, which caused many residents to unite to form a citizen led group that sought to slow down the mushrooming growth in the Valley.
Long-time Independent editor Bob Several, who died last year, once succinctly summed up the growth battles in the Valley. There were two political parties, he said. One was comprised of those who wanted to continue the accepted development patterns common in the region. The other was the residentialist party, which wanted to see the people who live here control the planning for their cities.
The Independent’s reporting ensured that the various aspects of the growth issue were told thoroughly. The impacts of the rapid growth included double sessions in schools, strain on water and sewer utilities, and heavy air pollution. One year, there were more than 100 clean-air violation days in the Valley.
The foul air prompted a Livermore resident to call a press conference at which he wore a gas mask. A Pleasanton resident showed up at a City Council meeting, also wearing a gas mask. He too made a speech about air pollution.
The paper’s editorial endorsements backed the residentialist party, which eventually gained a majority on the Livermore City Council, and one person on the Pleasanton council, Bob Pearson.
Also at the grassroots level, there was serious and persistent reporting on social issues. For instance, discrimination against minority youths at the Camp Parks Jobs Corps in the late 1960’s, and the Livermore community’s creation of a group to deal with that discrimination were covered extensively.
On the financial side, the publisher gave free advertising space to the local office of the War on Poverty for its client job listings and other needs.
On a personal level, editor Several developed a good rapport with people in the Hispanic community. The paper promoted its folklorico group and its other endeavors.
The newspaper led a legal tussle between the Pleasanton Housing Authority and War on Poverty attorney Dan Prince, who insisted that legally the Komandorski Village housing near Camp Parks could be opened to civilians, not just soldiers.
The Independents’ coverage of the issue led to the Pleasanton City Council replacing personnel on the housing authority board to clear the way for a more cooperative attitude concerning housing low-income civilians, as well as the military.
The Independent’s grassroots approach was even seen in the way the staff made a crucial decision about layoffs. The Independent lost a majority of its advertising in 1973, a response to the newspaper’s support of the SAVE ordinance.
As a result, the Independent had to save 40 percent of its editorial expenses. Most newspaper publishers simply would have told their editors to lay off 40 percent of the staff, which in The Independent’s case, would have been two of the five reporters. But Seppala gave the power over the decision to the reporters themselves.
The staff met in a cafe across the street from the Independent’s office on the second floor of the Schenone Building. After a long discussion, everyone signed on to retaining a full staff, and taking a pay cut.
Reporters did not want to weaken the paper by reducing its coverage. It was also a show of emotional support for each other, so that no one would be left without a paycheck.
Ron McNicoll joined The Independent’s staff in 1967, and reported until 1975, then returned in 1996, after eight years as a reporter with the Valley Times and 12 years as a copy editor on the Contra Costa Times.
As the reporter with the longest history with The Independent, he has had a particularly strong influence in the Tri-Valley. He covers the Zone 7 Water Agency and the Pleasanton school district, and more recently added the Dublin City Council as a regular beat. He also writes features, and reports about the local implications from regional, county, state and federal government issues.
Independent associate publisher David Lowell said, “McNicoll has been key to The Independent’s local news coverage. His more than 30 years of experience in Valley coverage means that he truly knows and understands the local issues, and their evolution, which is reflected in his stories.”
According to the editor, Janet Armantrout, he is willing to tackle almost every kind of story or issue, whether sports, arts, features or politics. Seppala appreciates his values, his deeply felt obligation to write about social justice, the humanity underlying the narrative.
READERS LIKE REPORTING, EDITORIALS
As part of this 50th Anniversary issue, people were interviewed who were familiar with The Independent’s coverage over the years, and the impact they think the paper has had. They include elected officials, community activists, people involved with the arts and other community groups.
Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who was first elected in 1996, said, “Over the years, The Independent has provided readers with consistency, a sense of pride for their community, and more importantly, non-biased, relevant news and information.”
Haggerty said that the paper is often “the first news source I seek. I know that every single time I pick up the Independent, I am getting a solid, fact-based account of current news and events affecting the local community. There is never a slant, nor an agenda, just real life in real time.”
“The Independent is a staple within the community. The very fact that this paper has stood firm the test of time, surviving the ups and downs and changes within society over 50 years, is truly indicative of its success,” said Haggerty.
Tom Pico, former Pleasanton mayor and councilmember, said that The Independent has been a voice for protecting the environment, giving coverage and endorsements to candidates and issues related to environmental protection.
“Without the voice of the Independent, I don’t think that the community would have had the exposure to viewpoints by people like me and (former Pleasanton Mayor Ben) Tarver, and (former Livermore council member) Tom Reitter. They affected the city councils in a big way,” said Pico.
Reitter, who retired from his job and left the City Council, has moved to Marin County. He said that to him The Independent “was the best local newspaper because it was focused on Livermore. Its reporters were more experienced, and therefore more knowledgeable about local issues.”
“What I have most respected about The Independent is that, in keeping with its name, it has maintained a consistent policy of supporting that which is in the long-term interest of the environmental and economic health of the area, even when that did not always please the advertisers. This is what has made The Independent special and valuable. May it long continue to be so,” said Reitter.
Zone 7 director and Pleasanton resident Dick Quigley began reading The Independent when he moved here in 1965 from Oakland as a young married man starting a family.
Quigley said that the Independent has been “a steady source of good community journalism. My kids growing up were covered in stories of Carol Jean Dancers’ achievements, Scouts, sports, schools, and parks and recreation. It has always given me a small, close town feel.”
Quigley said that what stands out to him are the local news stories, which are done “with a conviction for truth and understanding. Even the editorials and letters to the editor have always been a delight to read.”
Margaret Tracy of Livermore, who has been very active in the League of Women Voters, and who founded a hillside preservation organization, was also a Zone 7 director. She helped to keep The Independent afloat in 1973 when advertisers pulled out because of the newspaper’s support of the SAVE Initiative. She loaned the paper $10,000, a large sum back in those days.
Tracy said, “If you want to find out what is happening and what’s important in the Tri-Valley area you need to read the Independent. It has served as the eyes, ears, and voice for the Tri-Valley.”
Tracy gave the paper a strong compliment for “giving voice to all residents and their opinion,” and encouraging progress in many areas, including preservation of “the ridgelands in the Mount Diablo range and the preservation of agricultural lands.”
Tracy singled out editor Janet Armantrout for her editorials. “She has been the pillar of the newspaper,” and its “steadfast writers” have made The Independent “such a worthwhile newspaper.”
Bob Baltzer, president of Friends of Livermore, moved to the city one year before the paper started publication. He said the paper has been “an honest source of news for those who really want to know what is going on in the Valley, and a source of inspiration for those who ask: “What is the best for this community? This community has expanded from Livermore to include Pleasanton and Dublin.”
Without the Independent, Livermore would be a “city of sprawling residential development in both North and South Livermore, extending from ridge-top to ridge-top,” said Baltzer.
Baltzer also cited The Independent’s support for stopping the merger of ValleyCare with John Muir Medical Center, backing the county Measure D campaign that was a significant contribution to preservation of agriculture in the Valley, and supporting downtown revitalization, including the creation of the Bankhead Theater
Baltzer said that what has stood out about the paper over the years “has been the integrity of this paper to maintain its point of view in editorial and signed opinion pieces while scrupulously printing both sides in the news stories.”
Another community activist, Margo Tarver, a 39-year resident of Pleasanton, said that The Independent is the “one and only paper in the Tri-Valley area that has consistently represented all sides of the issues. They have never been afraid to represent the grassroots side of local political, issues and candidates, rather than just the side with the moneyed interests.”
One of the effects of the push for preservation of open space has been the creation of wine country in Livermore. Once there were only three or four winemakers, including one in Pleasanton. The area mushroomed to more than 50 vineyards and wineries.
Vintner Jim Concannon, a descendant of a 19th century Livermore winery founder, served on the Zone 7 board from 1984 to 2008. Concannon said that he personally thanks the newspaper for supporting the South Livermore Agricultural Plan when it was organized and developed, from 1987 to 1993.
“The development of the plan saved viticulture in our Valley. Today our wineries are thriving and the general public can continue to enjoy, and will always be welcome at our facilities,” said Concannon.
Phil Wente, a vintner whose whole family looks back proudly for 130 years and five generations of wine making in the Valley, said that the paper has been “ a community advocate since the beginning, and never failed to frame the issues and report the news.”
Asked what stands out most about The Independent, Wente replied, “More than anything is the power of its editorial opinion.”
Chris Chandler, executive director of the Livermore Valley Winegrower Association, said the paper “continues to chronicle the region’s local history, from Livermore Valley’s rich wine heritage and growth to regional politics to summer Little League games.”
The Independent’s owners and staff understand the community because they live here. “Over the years, they have provided the content of the community’s day-to-day lives. Technology has forever changed the newspaper industry, but the value of a community newspaper, like The Independent, endures,” said Chandler.
One of the small wine growers is longtime resident Gail Shearer, a member of the county Agricultural Advisory Committee. She pointed out that 82 percent of voters passed Measure K, which established the South Livermore Agricultural Plan, and the The Independent backed it.
Shearer said she also appreciates the Independent’s support of building preservation.
The Independent undertook its own share of preservation, with purchase of the former Bank of Italy, built in 1923. The interior was restored to its original look. The walls show pictures of the early days of the town. School classes tour the building, which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Jeff Kaskey, president of the Livermore Heritage Guild, said that the Guild “has relied on The Independent’s appreciation and support for local heritage and culture. “People like the arts. It’s what feeds their pride in their cities, and being in an important and interesting place,” said Kaskey.
Pleasanton resident David Wright, a retired LPC professor, has been active in the cultural life of the college and the Valley cities. He was advisor to the college’s first literary magazine. “(Independent editor) Janet Armantrout allowed us to use The Independent’s equipment to print our anthologies for the first couple of years, until we were able to do it on our own, when computer technology advanced,” said Wright.
Wright has been active in the Pleasanton Cultural Arts Council, and expressed appreciation for the news coverage of the variety of events the PCAC sponsors.
Susan Mayall, who owned a bookstore in Livermore for 23 years until 2003, said she greatly appreciated The Independent’s coverage.
“No other local newspaper covered our events so regularly. Even when we had top-level, best-selling authors speaking at (the store), or gave a school a day-long field trip. The Independent was the only paper to cover those appearances,” said Mayall.
Margo Kirkewoog has been active in the arts community for years, and her husband, Arne, was a leader in reclaiming The Barn, so that it could be used for the Sommerfest, a folk-dancing fair that helped raise money for the arts. “The Independent always supported what we were doing in the arts,” said Margo Kirkewoog.
Pleasanton artist Charlotte Severin commented, “The Independent has been a wonderful gift to the Valley for 50 years. I knew right away when we moved to the Valley in 1966 that The Independent was the paper to read for local news and especially for the arts.
“The Pleasanton Cultural Arts Council named Janet Armantrout ‘Arts Supporter of the Year’ in its 2nd year of the award for The Independent’s outstanding coverage of all arts events.
“Arts organizations need the public to know what they are doing and how the public can participate. Without The Independent’s generous coverage, our arts community would suffer greatly. I want to say a great big thank you to The Independent on behalf of the arts community in Pleasanton and the whole Valley, as well as for myself. The Independent enriches our lives.”
Early in its history, The Independent began circulating in Sunol, and it still does. Pat Stillman, who organized Save Our Sunol (SOS), and serves as its president, fought open space preservation battles in the town. Stillman said that The Independent has meant “a lot to me, with its endorsements and its editorials. I’ve always depended on it, over the years.”
The organization successfully overcame plans for a ridge-top subdivision north of Kilkare Road in the 1970s. Later Stillman was appointed to the committee that saved Pleasanton Ridge from further development, and began the planning for a ridgeland park, the goal of Sunol residents.
SOS also tried to block the expansion of a gravel quarry to the west side of Interstate 680, but failed to persuade the landowner, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, to stop the proposal. However, SOS was successful in negotiating a settlement with the quarry owner that will provide $50,000 per year to the town of Sunol for the 30-year life of the quarry. The money will go into a trust fund. Projects will be selected by the existing local advisory council.
Jean King, long a board member with Tri-Valley Conservancy, speaking for herself, said, “Livermore would not be the great place it is without The Independent’s advocacy for open space, the Urban Growth Boundary, and the Bankhead Theater.”