30 Years, 30 Stories

The Fool's Progress, or, the Pursuit of Print Goes on Forever

"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." —Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (French critic, journalist and novelist, 1808-1890)

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I type these words in my office in Barrio Viejo, directly across the street from 314 S. Convent Ave., the first office of the Tucson Weekly in 1984. (It was one of five downtown offices the newspaper would occupy until I sold it in 2000 and the paper's headquarters moved to a southside business park). It was a tiny place, just a two-room shotgun, an extravagant bit of fixed overhead for a start-up with no money (and auspicious, too, since my father had occupied the very same space years earlier as an attorney with a nonprofit called Tucson Lawyers for Housing). This, the oldest neighborhood in Tucson, is a place that has always inspired me.

I shared the back room with my partner, Mark Goehring, and we did paste-up in the front room, wielding X-Acto blades and using hot wax to adhere the half-toned photos and typeset galleys to blue-lined paper "boards." Desks were made from filing cabinets and doors. We leased an electric typewriter, an essential tool. We had begged and borrowed about $5,000 in startup funds from a handful of friends, a pitiful amount of capital that we would exhaust in just 30 days. How we survived that little detail is a story I've told before but won't repeat here.

I had turned 24 the previous October. I didn't have a car, but Mark had just traded in his beloved Volkswagen bus for a used Toyota Corolla wagon. And after a quick trip to San Francisco to visit his sister, he returned to Tucson sartorially transformed, with a brand-new wardrobe suitable for the publisher of a newspaper, and commenced selling ads, wearing a tie and a blazer and flashing an engaging smile. We were gonna finally break the curse on the many free weekly newspapers in Tucson that came and went like dust devils across the freshly bulldozed desert, never lasting more than a year or two. Tucson Weekly would be a survivor.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

For me, anyway. Starting the Tucson Weekly was the continuation of a fascination with the printed word that had taken root as kid, when I fashioned small periodicals in my bedroom and devoured every book and magazine and newspaper I could get my hands on. I started a newspaper at my brand-new junior high school on the far eastside, and spent three years on my high school newspaper on the far northwest side. While at the UA, I rode my bicycle nearly every day after classes to the tiny office of the Mountain Newsreal on Prince Road where I volunteered for two years as "managing editor," learning the ropes from Jon and Joan Rosen and interacting with a rotating cast of amazing characters. I first met Edward Abbey in the Newsreal office, and the legendary American humorist Paul Krassner and the infamous Yippie Aron Kay, aka the "Pieman." They were among many who found their way to what I called the last bastion of the American "underground press" of the 1960s counterculture.

I also did "distro." I have made a career out of schlepping literally thousands of tons of paper in and out of vehicles and into stores and cafes and other outlets. And for those two years I distributed each monthly issue of Newsreal all over town in my parents' overladen car, becoming an expert at the art of free distribution. While I was still in college, we persuaded the Food Conspiracy Co-Op to let us take over its newsletter and turn it into a free publication, complete with ads. It soon morphed into Coyote, a nonprofit "bioregional journal" that did some amazing work on a shoestring budget for nearly two years until fatigue and financial duress finally forced us to suspend publication in September 1983.

Mark and I were mentored by our heroes in Phoenix, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, iconoclasts who had turned the New Times into a powerhouse of alternative journalism and who had a soft spot for a couple of kids from Tucson. (The New Times had a short-lived but glorious Tucson edition circa 1972-74 that didn't survive after the Phoenix office precipitously shut it down following a power struggle by Lacey and Larkin that wrested control of the company. But it was a publication I eagerly sought out as a 14-year-old, one of my many inspirational media touchstones as an aspiring publisher growing up in this desert outpost in the 1970s).

After Coyote's demise, we put together a business plan for a weekly newspaper and gamely went about trying to raise $250,000. But after nobody would bite after a couple of months, we shelved it. During the following few weeks I spent many a cold winter evening in my tiny apartment on Meyer Avenue in the barrio, a blazing fire providing the heat, as I tried to figure out what to do next. Having decided that pursuing an MFA in poetry probably wasn't my best bet, I was determined to head to the Bay Area and join a Zen Buddhist community and live on a farm.

But then I started sketching out what I called the "boot strap" approach, a plan that didn't require more than a few thousand dollars and relied on incremental growth based solely on selling ads. Mark resisted, saying it was time to get a job. But during a long Thanksgiving weekend at a rented cabin on Mount Lemmon, I hammered him with my concept and he finally relented. What did we have to lose? The first issue of the Tucson Weekly would hit the streets just three months later, on a glorious February day. I vividly remember walking back to our office on Convent after the Rodeo Parade had finished its clomp through downtown and realizing that we'd done it, through sheer force of will. Damn it, we were newspaper publishers! And then we were racing to meet the next week's deadline.

Thirty years later, the Tucson Weekly still rolls off the press, a fact that astounds me. Under my watch, we had a series of incredible misadventures that were often both hair-raising and hilarious. We were the recipients of an inordinate amount of sheer dumb luck and we experienced the extraordinary kindness of strangers. We also benefited from the hard work and insane commitment of scores of talented collaborators who came and went through our offices and built something enduring in the process, enabling me to live out my lifelong fantasy of being the editor and publisher of a bona fide alternative newsweekly.

Even more crazy and pleasing to me is that the newspaper continues to thrive 14 years after I reluctantly sold it to Bob and Walt Wick in 2000. As much as I loved it, the fatigue of fighting the weekly battle to keep the paper alive had me frazzled at age 40. I had a compelling intuition that, for the Weekly to continue, I needed to hand it off. I've never doubted my decision.

The pages that follow chronicle a portion of the journalistic significance of the Weekly's first 30 years on this community. Without doubt, our work had a tremendous impact, in ways that will probably never be fully known or acknowledged. Without the Tucson Weekly, this desert burg would be a very different place, indeed. My deep and enduring gratitude to all who have played a part in making it happen. Damn, that was fun.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Ain't it the truth?

Just a year ago, I made the decision to return to print media and hooked up with some intrepid cohorts to start publishing Edible Baja Arizona, a publication devoted to "celebrating the foodways of Tucson and the borderlands." The allure of the alchemy of paper and ink is something I can't seem to escape. When we started Tucson Weekly, the personal computer as a legitimate tool was just emerging, as was the Internet, and it would be at least a decade before the digital revolution completely transformed the media world.

Yet despite the torrent of information that now washes over us every day demanding a piece of our precious time, I firmly believe that print, as a medium, has a tangibility that transcends that relentless flood of electrons—and in a singular and transformative way. A newspaper or a magazine "exists" in physical space in a way that a news feed, a digital app or a website simply cannot. Of course, I also believe that digital media is the inevitable future. (In fact, the Tucson Weekly was the second alt-weekly in the world to go online, in 1995, and has continued to evolve nicely in the digital realm ever since.) But I also believe print has a long future. Most daily newspapers are probably dead men walking, but hyper-local niche media like the Tucson Weekly and Edible Baja Arizona have a position in the media landscape that can't easily be replaced. Print is not only alive, it is thriving. Or maybe I'm just a dreamer with a print fetish that won't quit—I'm not sure.

In any event, happy 30th birthday, Tucson Weekly! I fully intend to be here to celebrate your 50th in 2034. Onward!

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