Palo Alto Weekly
How we began: Looking back 20 years
by Bill Johnson
There is something rather ambiguous about the passage of 20 years.
On the one hand, it's not so much time that we have to rely on history books or the memories of others. We can all remember with great detail important events in our lives that took place 20 years or even longer ago.
But on the other hand, 20 years can seem like a lifetime--a period long enough to substantially change lives and communities.
In setting out to find a way to mark the 20th anniversary of the Palo Alto Weekly, we decided to spare you, our readers, the rather traditional self-congratulatory sampling of all the fine things we've done over these years.
Instead, with the exception of this one column that I have been persuaded to write, this special 20-year anniversary edition of the Weekly focuses on our community and how it has changed over two decades. Some readers may remember a similar special edition we did on the occasion of our 10th anniversary in 1989--an issue that showed, among other things, how the turnover of homes was leading to a slow but profound change in the demographic characteristics of the Midpeninsula.
Not surprisingly, with another 10 years of this trend, along with the economic boom of the Valley, the changes are becoming more and more apparent--and troublesome.
But for a moment, turn the clock back to 1978.
Proposition 13 was approved by California voters, and the daily Palo Alto Times was purchased from local owners by the Tribune Co., the parent company of the Chicago Tribune.
Like the rest of you who are over 40 and were born and raised here, I grew up with the Paly Times. I used to race to the paper to find the box scores of my high school soccer games and track meet results and, less frequently, a story on some academic achievement or political activity.
The Palo Alto Times and its weaker sister paper, the Redwood City Tribune, seemed to be read by almost everyone. Neither the San Jose Mercury News nor the San Francisco Chronicle paid much attention to the Midpeninsula; you couldn't even get home delivery of the Mercury where we lived.
For better or worse, we were dependent on the Times for local news, as well as a staunchly conservative editorial page and political philosophy.
When the Chicago Tribune folks bought both the Palo Alto Times and Redwood City Tribune in January 1978, it was with a grandiose and totally unrealistic strategy. To justify its $28 million purchase price, the plan was to merge the two evening papers into one, launch a Sunday edition and grow the "new" paper from a combined circulation of about 60,000 into a 100,000-circulation regional paper serving the entire Peninsula.
Almost immediately after taking over but months before the merger of the two papers, the new editorial direction became evident .<\p>.<\p>. and longtime readers hated it. The new management featured almost daily front-page stories on regional topics, displacing the kind of local hometown news that readers wanted. Worse, the paper began covering stories in San Francisco and elsewhere that could be found in either the Chronicle or the Mercury.
Then, in April 1979, the other shoe dropped. The "new" Peninsula Times Tribune appeared, permanently eliminating two popular community institutions and further alienating readers.
While all this was going on, I was assessing whether the time was right for a competitor to jump in.
Recently returned to Palo Alto after having spent a couple of years in Washington, D.C., as press secretary and legislative assistant to then-Rep. Pete McCloskey, I was working as a consultant to the California Coastal Commission.
But I was not committed to staying with the Coastal Commission, and I wondered whether now was the time to act on an idea I had formed earlier about starting a weekly paper in Palo Alto--an idea that I had never seriously pursued because of the popularity of the Paly Times.
The April launch of the Peninsula Times Tribune left me with little doubt that the time was right. During the next four months, I researched and wrote a business plan that tried to persuade potential investors to take a chance on a 26-year-old Stanford graduate with no newspaper or business experience.
My vision for the paper was simple: A community as educated, progressive and sophisticated as Palo Alto deserved a well-written newspaper that covered issues and people thoughtfully and insightfully and that served as a place for community dialogue and debate. I believed a newspaper should strive to do more than just report the news. It should also provide the context, analysis and commentary needed to stimulate public participation and the resolution of important community issues.
For hours on end, I sat at our dining room table with a calculator and green-hued accounting ledger sheets, taking hours to recalculate financial projections that would take seconds to do only years later when the IBM-PC computer was introduced.
My fiance and her Stanford Law School friends didn't quite know what to make of it all. As they all studied for the Bar exam that summer, I split my time between work on the new newspaper and helping my future mother-in-law with plans for the August wedding.
My goal was to secure enough investors by my Aug. 12 wedding date so that business manager-to-be Bob Heinen and editor-to-be Tim Clark could proceed with the start-up arrangements while I was on a three-week honeymoon.
So the summer was spent in one-on-one meetings with a couple dozen individuals, about half of whom I knew either from family ties or my work with McCloskey and half of whom I knew only by reputation.
By asking for "only" a $15,000 investment, I hoped to make it possible for people to make a partially emotional decision based on their desire to see the community served by a new newspaper, not a strictly business decision based on my plan, good as it was.
I also was concerned about who invested. I knew the Palo Alto community, divided as it was politically, would immediately suspect a new newspaper as being a tool to advance somebody's agenda.
As a result, I was careful to solicit people in the community who not only agreed that a successful local newspaper would have to be free of influence from its owners but that reflected varied political backgrounds and community ties. I also felt it was important to spread the ownership among as many people as possible, so that no single investor would own more than about 8 percent of the stock.
For legal and tax reasons at the time, I could have up to only 14 investors in addition to myself. The first handful--longtime family or professional acquaintances--were relatively easy. But after those, it was much tougher. These were people who saw the need for a new community newspaper, disliked what the Times Tribune was doing, but who had little confidence that I was the person to do it.
But one by one, the number of signed commitments grew, and by the time nine or 10 were on board, the others felt a greater urgency to join. I realized that I offered the opportunity for a few longtime residents who love their community to own a small piece of the local paper, a chance that few people will ever have.
As we entertained out-of-town guests the day before our wedding, I got the call I was waiting for: the final investment commitment that would ensure the start of the Palo Alto Weekly.
Two weeks later, while in Hawaii on my honeymoon, Bob Heinen and Tim Clark set up a temporary office in my Palo Alto house (an intrusion my wife, Terri, still remembers vividly) and went to work recruiting the initial small staff, including staff writer Don Kazak. In a phone call from Hawaii, we also abandoned the preliminary name for the new paper, "The Embarcadero," in favor of one that would be more clearly identified with Palo Alto.
Today, most of those original 14 shareholders remain, although the total number is now 32 due to disbursements to children. They include people with longtime ties to the area like Leonard and Shirley Ely, Leonard and Jeanne Ware, Aggie Robinson, Larry Spitters, Rusty and Ed van Bronkhorst, Harry and Marian Lewenstein, Pitch and Cathie Johnson (no relation), Jerry and Linda Elkind, Helen and Joe Pickering, Jean and Dexter Dawes and Peg Haneberg. They also include--literally--the family next door. Louis and Jean Sloss and their five kids, with whom I grew up in Portola Valley, were among the first and most enthusiastic investors.
The rest, as they say, is history.
It's been a great 20 years, with enough surprises and new challenges to keep me as motivated today as I was in 1979. Along the way, I've had the pleasure of working with some unbelievably talented people on our staff and in the community.
To all of them and to all of you, thank you for continuing to give the support and encouragement we need to overcome challenges, correct our mistakes and successfully fulfill our mission.