We've Had Issues

A brief, tumultuous history of Tucson's alternative newsweekly

The first time I ever saw a copy of the Tucson Weekly, I was at the old Showcase Cinemas (now the Loft).

I picked it up and saw that there was a ticket giveaway for an upcoming Woody Allen movie. I showed it to my wife, who, even back then, already despised Woody Allen. (He was still years away from dating his daughter; my wife was highly suspicious of him, because he apparently found Diane Keaton attractive.)

I was quite familiar with alternative newspapers. I read the Village Voice whenever I could get my hands on it, and I had been an avid reader of the Los Angeles Free Press back during my formative years. The Free Press burned brightly during the late 1960s and early '70s, with blistering editorial cartoons by Ron Cobb, who, among other things, would later work on design for Alien. The journalism was hard-hitting, slanted and sometimes downright mean and petty. (They once printed the home addresses of every narc in Southern California.)

The Free Press, like many enterprises with a political agenda, devoured itself, proving true the maxim that when zealots form a firing squad, they assemble in a circle. In this case, the radicals kept purging those not as radical until the paper was being run by (and almost completely for) black communist lesbians. OK, you've got Angela Davis, and then ...

But here was a paper in Tucson (a relatively liberal spot, to be sure) popping up just a few months before Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election. I wondered whether they could pull it off. And now, a quarter-century later, we're celebrating 25 years of the Weekly at just about the same time that Arizona's longest-running daily, the Tucson Citizen, is likely to blink out of existence. Whoda thunk it?

The road was rarely smooth for the Weekly. There have probably been as many downs as ups, but through happenstance and circumstance and occasionally just plain luck, the Weekly has survived and, despite the death knells for newspapers all over the country, shows no signs of slowing down.

The paper's first offices were in the second story of a building south of the Tucson Community Center. It was a cramped and cluttered place, but there was a real feel of, "Hey, gang, let's put out a newspaper!" My first article for them concerned the fact that big metropolitan high schools in Arizona made the girls play basketball in the spring (and softball in the winter) so that the boys could have the courts to themselves during the "real" seasons. I actually had a chance to sell it to Sports Illustrated, but I went with the Weekly (which also explains why my wife is the one with the business degree). As it turns out, I got paid next to nothing for it, but they didn't edit the heck out of it, and I even got one coach to say that it was "more important for boys to get scholarships than (for) girls." Within two years, the entire state of Arizona joined the 20th century, and high school girls were playing their sports in the right seasons. I'd like to think I had a small part in that.

I became a semi-regular contributor; I once cracked that the editor back then, who was a large man, hired me so that he'd have somebody to cruise the bakeries with. (I know that's bad grammar, but it doesn't sound as funny saying "with whom to cruise the bakeries.")

Just about the time I was getting comfortable with the situation came The Great Divide. Doug Biggers and Mark Goehring had founded the paper together, but were suddenly at loggerheads. Subsisting on just enough money to support a diet of Top Ramen and Kool-Aid can do that to people.

In many ways, it was the classic battle between the business side and the editorial side. Mark grabbed temporary control in an office coup, but several people, including then-editor Howard Allen, felt that Doug was the better person to keep the thing going.

"I just felt that Doug had more of a passion for it," recalled Allen. "He had this quiet determination that told me that he would keep the paper alive as long as humanly possible."

Pretty soon, people were choosing sides. Mark wanted to have weekly editorial meetings; Doug wanted to put out a kick-ass paper. I went with Doug.

Biggers would continue to run the paper, nursing it through one financial crisis after another, until he finally sold it to Wick Communications. He is now the executive director of the nonprofit that oversees operation of the Rialto Theatre.

The Weekly became a fixture in the downtown/Fourth Avenue area, and it actually began to flirt with financial solvency. Well, maybe not flirt, but at least see it off in the distance with really strong binoculars. Helping that along the way was the Best of Tucson™ issue, a nod to mainstream Tucson and a vehicle for increasing the advertising base. At the first-ever BOT meeting were Doug Biggers, columnist Jeff Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, Howard Allen and myself. When Howard and I entered the room, Jeff Smith said, "Your gut, like your reputation, precedes you." I'm pretty sure he was talking about Howard.

Barbara Kingsolver was a technical writer for the UA at the time. For someone as creative as she is, technical writing had to have been a living death without the ability to let go and sink down into the blackness. She told me at the time that she was writing a novel, and that she had crammed a desk into a closet and would write there.

With the success of The Bean Trees came international acclaim. I tried to contact her for a quote, but apparently, fame drove her nuts, because she went back East to live on a farm, where she and her family grew and then consumed healthy food for an entire year. By comparison, that would make technical writing seem like a day at Disneyland.

The Best of Tucson™ helped, but then the paper got a boost from an unexpected source. The 1988 Arizona Wildcats were one of the best basketball teams in America, and the entire town was enraptured with coach Lute Olson and his starting five of clean-cut, all-American kids (and Tom Tolbert). It was decided that we would do a special section in honor of the school's first Final Four team. We worked feverishly and put it together in a matter of days; it ended up being just this side of magnificent. Some critics sniffed that the Weekly had stooped to covering something as vulgar as sports, but others saw it as crossing a cultural divide and opening up the paper to a new audience.

This is not to say that all went perfectly. Somebody came up with the brilliant idea of selling copies of the issue to the adoring throngs of fans who showed up for the parade and celebration at Arizona Stadium. The only problem was that the Arizona Daily Star had announced that they, too, were releasing a commemorative issue--for free--the next day. The poor kids who were trying to sell it sold something like 12 copies.

As we moved into the 1990s, there was much gnashing of teeth over the identity and direction of the paper. Was it an arts journal? A political rag? Was it a niche publication, or could it (should it) go mainstream? Would something outside of Fourth Avenue ever win a staff pick in the Best of Tucson™?

Howard Allen left to pursue a life in the theater.

"I still look back at those early days with such fondness. We weren't always sure if our checks would cash, but we believed in what we were doing and couldn't wait to get to work. These days, I tell people that we had the 'Yes, we can!' spirit a quarter-century ahead of everybody else."

Allen ended up, like so many poor souls, being swallowed into the belly of the beast that is higher education. He now teaches screenwriting.

What followed was a succession of editors, all women, some serious, some extra-serious. (See my column in this issue.)

The paper continued to grow in stature and readership. It and its staffers won numerous professional awards, and movers and shakers took it seriously. Columnists came and went. Jeff Smith left for the Citizen. They hired this one woman with a great resumé. But she wanted a bunch of money per column, and several of the columns she submitted were about Madagascar. Not the cute animated film. The island. Several columns. She didn't last long.

Where the Los Angeles Free Press had a drunken Charles Bukowski writing unintelligible notes on a cocktail napkin, the Weekly had a couple celebs pass through as well. Besides the aforementioned Kingsolver, Simpsons creator Matt Groening did some artwork for the paper (and his "Life in Hell" comic strip has been in the paper since the first issue). Late-night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel was a drive-time deejay at KRQQ FM 93.7 in the 1990s. He submitted a proposal to write tongue-in-cheek (no pun intended) food reviews. His stuff was funny, but the geniuses at KRQ fired him and his partner, Mike Elliot.

After being fired in Tucson, Kimmel landed on his feet with a station in Los Angeles. That led to The Man Show, an Emmy for Win Ben Stein's Money and now his own talk show.

The editors continued to pass through like transients until Biggers found Dan Huff. Witty and urbane, Huff brought a balance to the paper, along with a demand for excellence. He had James Reel and Margaret Regan covering the "serious" arts and used several people to bring a free-wheeling approach to the local music scene and cinema. The late Chris Limberis, perhaps the best investigative reporter in the city's history, came over from the Star and began turning out first-rate, in-depth news stories on local government and business.

"It was a great time," says Huff. "We were putting out an outstanding paper, one that people really cared about and looked forward to reading. The business side was always in the back of our minds, but we couldn't worry about that. All we could do was do our best."

The dailies at first ignored the Weekly, and then for a few years tried to ignore it. Finally, the Star came out with its Caliente section, which covers the arts. It comes out on Thursdays, matching the Weekly's release day. Both Caliente and the Citizen's similar Calendar section are published in the same tabloid format as the Weekly, but despite their best efforts, they've never been able to draw the volume or intensity of hate mail that we get on a regular basis.

The current economic crisis that is causing problems in all levels of the American economy is hitting the newspaper industry especially hard. (We tried to warn y'all about that Bush guy, but did you listen?) Papers are dropping like flies; many drove themselves to the cliff with the foolish notion that Web advertising would pay the bills and are now learning that (duh!) not everybody is willing to pay for a newspaper if they can read all or most of it for free online. It's as though there was a headlong rush of publishers trying to prove that they were more in tune with "the future of newspapers" than anybody else, and they didn't bother to consider the business model (or look off to the side at what remains of the music industry after the Internet got through with it).

Of course, the Weekly has always been free (except for those dozen or so commemorative basketball issues), both in print and online, so it is oddly positioned to survive where other, ostensibly stronger, publications may fail. To be sure, the size of the paper has been fluctuating over the past few months, but to quote some guy, the fundamentals are strong.

When the Tucson Weekly debuted in 1984, most people wouldn't have bet on its lasting 25 issues. Twenty-five years later, that betting window on the Weekly's survival is closed.