Two decades cover

By Melinda Welsh

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This essay was published on 04.23.09.

Two decades

SN&R celebrates 20 years of journalism

Back in late April of 1989, the night before the very first SN&R hit the streets, a friend asked me how it felt to be the startup editor of a publication that had zero readers in a city that had not yet trained its citizens to look for a free paper every week.

How did I feel?

“Old as hell,” I replied.

I was 32 at the time, and the task ahead was daunting. How were we going to gain an initial readership, let alone make it grow? How were we going to get Sacramento to read what our then-minuscule editorial staff (two of us plus a half-time copy editor) thought was important? How were we going to do it?

I didn’t have the slightest idea.

In the early years, SN&R was panned, dissed, scoffed at and boycotted. We were also loved and welcomed. Somehow—story by story, column by column, brainstorm by brainstorm—the paper managed to take root and gain ground. Thanks to an ever-changing crew of talented reporters, writers, designers and artists (those we were able to convince to work for us, usually for next to nothing), we were able to grow a smart, demanding, sizeable readership in the Sacramento region.

There’s no doubt that a crew of unheralded SN&R staffers (see “You work at SN&R? Are you a writer?”), also helped ensure our success over the long years. Plus, there is no way our free weekly could have made it without a valiant sales staff. And no one can deny that, above all, the longevity of SN&R can be credited to the paper’s formidable pair of dedicated owners, Jeff vonKaenel and Deborah Redmond.

In the pages that follow, you’ll read memories from them and others who were part of the birth and growth of SN&R.

But of course, discussion of the past leads directly to questions about the future, as the Internet flourishes, newspapers (especially the big dailies) fail and journalists everywhere wonder how and if they’ll continue to have jobs.

“When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution,” wrote author Clay Shirky in a recent illuminating blog on the future of the business. “They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. …They are demanding to be lied to.”

So we will not lie to you.

We don’t know now quite how SN&R will morph and thrive as the years pass. But we are certain that it will. As Internet gurus are aware, it’s not about age, it’s about the capacity to change.

And give us this.

We were doing “free” before the Internet made free access to journalism all the rage. We were promoting “change” before the word and its intention rocked the country this past year. And, mostly, we were presenting independent, alternative voices and ideas to the mix long before Web sites, blogs and social networks added millions of new voices to the “alt” party.

If past is prologue, how can we fail?

All of this brings us to the issue you hold in your hands. If my friend from April of 1989 returned today to ask me how I feel as SN&R’s 20th anniversary issue readies to hit the streets, I’d tell him I feel extraordinarily thankful to SN&R staffers past and present, forever indebted to the loyal readers who’ve stuck with us all these years and … oh yeah … very, very curious about what’s going to happen next.

And about feeling old when faced with a daunting task back in 1989? For some reason, these days, I feel young again, as when the whole thing first began.