Remembering New Times’ Steve Moss
by Stacey Warde
I worked at New Times as managing editor at the turn of the century, not long after 9/11, when the alternative weekly wasn’t yet 20 years old. Recently, I received an email from a past reader and contributor:
“Did New Times contact you about contributing to their 30th anniversary issue? I was really disappointed this morning when it didn’t include an article written by you. You should have been a part of it. I do think, however, that Jeff McMahon wrote one of the best pieces that New Times has ever published.”
At first, I felt a bit slighted; I would like to have been included in the anniversary edition. I worked at the newspaper when founding publisher Steve Moss revived himself, came back to life, after a long depression. He never really got over his depression but his spark came back as we worked together.
I picked up a copy of the issue in question and read Jeff’s tribute to Steve, who died from an epileptic seizure in 2005 while he was in his garden. Indeed, as my colleague points out, Jeff’s portrait—in which he emphasizes Steve’s reverence for a good story that was humane, backed with solid data, and free from ideology—rises to the top.
It’s a fine portrait.
There’s not much to add to Jeff’s depiction of Steve’s genius for news and storytelling, but I’d like to give a partial view of my own experience with the man, who hugely influenced my approach to telling stories that matter, stories that leave a lasting impact.
Before his death, Steve had turned the scrappy alternative weekly he started with Alex Zuniga and Beverly Johnson in 1986 into a viable and trusted source of news and information throughout SLO County.
Steve was a mentor who constantly raised the bar for us, sometimes to the point of madness, to do better; he challenged our assumptions and cherished notions about life, and countered with questions we hadn’t yet fully answered as reporters and storytellers. By the time a story got placed on the newspage, it had been turned over and over until the kinks had been shaken out of it and would stand on its own.
Steve took complete confidence in what he offered San Luis Obispo County in his newspaper and never saw reason to apologize for it, even when some readers threatened to burn down the building because they didn’t like what he printed.
The Tribune had recently run a glowing article about Mr. Graves’ wife, Sharon, a much-beloved weather forecaster, also at KSBY, who had just announced her decision to move out of state to be closer with family. Her announcement came as a shock to her many loyal viewers. She was an integral and active part of the community.
Meanwhile, several anonymous callers began informing us that the “real reason she decided to leave” was because her husband couldn’t keep his hands out of his pants, and he got busted for it. She had to leave to avoid any further embarrassment.
There was no mention of her husband’s behavior in the Tribune story about her departure.
Steve and I went into his office to discuss the matter. He sat down on his swivel chair where he wrote his Shredder columns and turned to face me for the first challenging news decision I had to make with him.
“Do you think we should run this story, if it turns out to be true, that her husband got busted for beating off in public?” Steve was always blunt and kept his humor whenever he was confronted with a news challenge. Steve made telling the news fun, even when it was difficult.
“Unless they come right out and say it,” I responded, “we can’t really prove that they’re leaving town because her husband’s a jerk off.” Steve looked back at me knowingly, with a mischievous grin. In that moment, we connected as news men, and I knew we’d make a good team, come what may.
“At the very least,” I continued, “we should look into it and, if necessary, set the record straight.” It wasn’t an easy decision, but we both agreed the community had a right to know, if the facts confirmed rumors of lewd conduct by a local celebrity. Neither us wanted to besmirch Sharon’s fine career. It was her husband, we decided, who chose that course.
There was a gleam in Steve’s eyes. He hadn’t been well, I’d been told, battling depression and, in some ways, slipping, flattening, his passion for the news waning, and it showed in the pages of the newspaper, which in recent years had seemed dull and lifeless, not the scrappy little upstart it had been in the beginning. Steve’s much-tested instincts began to stir again.
We asked senior reporter Dan Blackburn to run down to the courthouse to see what he could find. An hour later he returned to the office with a file containing the court’s record of Mr. Graves’ “no contest” plea to accusations of lewd conduct. The newsroom stirred and tittered as we pored over the details.
“Banner headline!” someone shouted. “This is a BIG story!”
“NO!” I responded. “We’re not running a banner headline. The content in the court record is caustic enough. We’ll run it as a ‘What’s News’ item.”
Thankfully, Steve agreed with me. We basically rewrote the content of the court document into a small four-graf news brief, buried among other briefs in the “What’s News” page. We attempted to reach the Graves numerous times for comment before going to press. Our calls were never returned, and by morning the Graves had abruptly left town. They were gone.
When that week’s newspaper hit the stands the next morning, the calls—and threats, including one who claimed he would burn the place down—started rolling in. “How dare you!” one lady shouted at me when I picked up the phone to take her call. “How dare you shame a community treasure!”
“Ma’am, you’re talking to the wrong guy,” I said, “you need to talk to Kevin Graves.” And on it went, all day long. That night KSBY brass went on the air to lament Sharon’s premature departure. Steve and I watched the sad undertaking on tv while sharing a beer at Spike’s, and I noticed a spark in his eye.
Until then, I had worked for New Times as a freelancer, penning commentary and cover stories, including one for the “Bridal Issue” about gay marriage in SLO County before it became popular to talk about such things. The annual supplement, as all other supplements, like the “Best of SLO County,” is a big boon for the paper because it brings in much-needed advertising dollars. The focus is not news so much as entertainment and frills to attract advertisers and their money.
News staff were responsible for generating copy for these supplements, and consequently, despite attempts to make them appealing to advertisers, these stories more often reflected news value rather than the marketing and promotional purposes of the advertising manager, who cared little for the dicier, juicier, and meatier stuff that is the spice of life in an alternative weekly.
Advertisers went apoplectic over my bridal story, which presented the personal views of half a dozen gay couples in the area, including some who were raising children, while the gay community received the story well and were happy to be represented in the county’s only major weekly. The advertisers were pissed, I was told, because my story “made a mockery of marriage.”
“Advertisers are having a shit-fit about your story,” then-managing editor Marla Pugh told me when it came out, “but don’t worry, it’s a good story and Steve really liked it.”
He had my back, Marla said, knowing full well that without good content, even in an advertising supplement, a publication wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, and if advertisers wanted to complain, let them. They were buying genuine real estate in his publication because its pages held real value, content with teeth, not the fluff that’s so common today.
Steve and I were a good match. We worked well together. He was the consummate newspaperman with a Libertarian view, suspicious of government overreach, always on the watch for a great story, and unafraid to turn over the apple cart as long it served the higher purpose of a well-informed readership.
Steve subscribed to an ideal I had learned from one of my previous mentors: “Report the news without fear or favor.” He respected and cherished his readers. Without readers, he’d say, you’ve got nothing. Give them what they need, and then some.
Barely two days after the firestorm of protests erupted over our news brief on Kevin Graves, Steve walked breathlessly and excitedly into the office. “I’ve got an idea,” he exclaimed as he swept into the newsroom, “I’ve got an idea! We’re going to run a cover story, ‘Should we have done it?’”
“Should we have done what, Steve?” I asked.
“Should we have run the story!” he fired back. He’d heard enough complaints about our news brief to put the question before experts in the field. He wanted to contact publishers throughout the state to see how they might have handled the story. Then, we would report their findings in the next edition.
“Are you crazy, Steve?” I responded, wearied from the onslaught of angry calls. “Isn’t that just adding more fuel to the fire?”
“No!” he countered. “Are you kidding me?” It would be a great way to educate the community on the standards and values of news. I was afraid it would give readers more reason to hate our guts. We had already done our job, I told him, and that was to tell the news without fear or favor.
We went back and forth, arguing the point, bringing staff into the conversation until finally we agreed to lobby respected experts to see what they’d say. The whole newsroom got into the action, querying the state’s most respected editors and reporting their answers in the subsequent edition.
We had done the right thing, the respondents told us, hard as it might have been. The role of setting the record straight, keeping the community as fully informed as possible, eliminating destructive rumor with truth, is vital to the health of the community.
Soon, we were being flooded with calls again. This time callers were congratulating us for having the guts to tell the truth. “I’m so glad you guys are here. I know you take a lot of shit for what you do, but keep doing it, and thank you!” Suddenly, the dialog shifted into a more nuanced conversation about a community’s right to know.
Steve was right all along. That was his genius: To open a dialog, unpleasant as it might be, about the nature of our surroundings and community. We worked together for about two more years, helping to put a few crooks in jail, putting the spotlight on law enforcement overreach, and gave readers unique insights into their community that they’d find nowhere else.
I miss Steve Moss, and I think of him often, and wish he were still with us. §
Stacey Warde is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.