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San Diego CityBeat: 10 Years Of Wit And Fury

Mayor Declares CityBeat Day
CityBeat's 10th Anniversary
GUESTS: Dave Rolland, Editor Kelly Davis, Associate Editor

CAVANAUGH: CityBeat, 10 years old? No, you say! It can't be! Has it really been 10 years is this cutting edge publication started showing up on the streets of San Diego? Is it possible for any paper to buck the system and speak truth to power for 10 long years in status quo-loving San Diego? Well, dear readers, it is true. CityBeat is out with its 10-year anniversary issue full of top-10 lists, controversial columns and regrettable fashion trends. Joining me to celebrate are my guests, CityBeat editor David Rolland. Welcome to the show. ROLLAND: Good to see you. CAVANAUGH: Kelly Davis is also here, associate editor of CityBeat. DAVIS: Thanks. CAVANAUGH: That line about bar-hopping Bolsheviks coming from a fake city proclamation announcing CityBeat day. Who wrote that? DAVIS: I wasn't aware it was fake. [ LAUGHTER ] ROLLAND: That was an official proclamation from the mayor's office. CAVANAUGH: Oh, my goodness! I was told it was fake. ROLLAND: No, that was true. It was CityBeat day on August 4th, 2012. CAVANAUGH: Who wrote it? ROLLAND: Well, it came from the mayor's office. So if you believe Jerry Braun who is the mayor's director of special project, he says the mayor really cracked his knuckles and sat down at his office and crafted that thing from his own mind. And Jerry read it to the attendees at our 10th anniversary party the other night. CAVANAUGH: That's great. Now, the proclamation goes on to state that CityBeat is a fierce champion of the underdog. And David, after 10 years doing this magazine, being editor, writing these stories, looking at the situation in San Diego, who would you say are the underdogs in San Diego? ROLLAND: Well, I would say the underdogs are people in the middle class fighting to stay in the middle class and not drop into the ranks of the working poor. And of course the working poor who have been there for a long time. Obviously through much of our history here, there has been a terrible recession. And a lot of those people have lost ground rather than gaining it. But it had been going on for decades before the recession with wages not keeping pace with the cost of living. So that's who I would say are the underdogs. People who are fighting to keep above water in the face of continuing policies that favor people with money and influence. Obviously with the Citizens United ruling in 2010, that has just gotten harder and harder for people to keep up. CAVANAUGH: Kelly? DAVIS: Well, of course when you said underdog, I immediately thought of San Diego's homeless population, which I have written about quite a bit. And one of the stories that -- or one of the things that we highlighted in our 10 year anniversary issue was a project we did called homeless person of the week, one of those names that all weeklies tend to come up with, where for one year almost every week, we missed a couple weeks for various reason, a member of the staff would go out and find a homeless person and sit down and chat with that person. Usually it was an hour, two hour, three hours sometimes if the person had a great story to tell. And then we would have to condense it down into 400 words, I think, which was always very tough, but the goal was to put a name and a face to San Diego's homeless population. And we did the series at a time when we felt not much was going on with nominee policies were being enacted to try to solve homelessness. Unfortunately things have shifted since then. We did the series in 2007. But when you say underdog, immediately think of things like that. Of the CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering what made it seem to both of you that San Diego was the place to start a progressive weekly 10 years ago? David? Was it just -- did you think the city was ripe for it or was it just that one didn't exist? ROLLAND: Yeah, just a little history. The company that owns CityBeat is called southland publishing. In 2002, it owned a paper in Ventura and a paper in Pasadena. And they're the ones that made the decision. My old publisher in Ventura, I was the editor up there, he used to work for the reader and owned a home in San Diego. And so he's very familiar with the market. And I believe it was really him that kind of instigated it thinking that San Diego needed a progressive alternative weekly. And he was right. It did. At that time the reader, the San Diego reader was going strong, but it is considered sort of an anomaly in our industry in that it's not -- there's no real overt progressive opinion. It's a little strange. And we thought that there was a niche for us here. CAVANAUGH: Now, as you point out, CityBeat obviously has a progressive, one would say, maybe a liberal attitude. How do you maintain that and also maintain reporting that can be accepted as objective? ROLLAND: Well, I don't like to use the word objective. We don't strive to be objective. We actually think -- I think that objectivity in journalism is a myth. It is not possible to be objective. Subjectivity goes into every decision that's made at any media outlet, from what words are in the headlines to who -- what source gives the first word in the story and the last word, and who gets interviewed, and what language is used in that story. Subjectivity is all over the place. You cannot separate your own values and opinions from your work. You can try. But our goal is to be fair to people and to be accurate with the information. CAVANAUGH: Now, Kelly, doesn't that point of view sometimes call the reporting into question? DAVIS: Well, no newspaper can be separated from its editorial page. We see that with the Union Tribune. They have a very right-leaning editorial page, so their reporters' work is called into question, and the same thing has happened to us. We have a very progressive left-leaning editorial page, and we do tend to do stories that champion people that are most often embraced by the left. But I've worked for Dave for 11 years as a reporter, and he's always emphasized we want to be fair and accurate. We want to give both sides a chance to comment. And I love getting feedback on my stories from people who might think that it's -- it wasn't as balanced as it could be, and we always give people the chance to reply on our letters page. We print every letter we get that is signed -- that we can verify. And we give people that chance to respond and weigh in and say, you know, you guys were totally off base and here's what I think you should have said. CAVANAUGH: Kelly brings up the editorial position, and part of the 10th anniversary is a look back at the magazine's impact. And one of the top 10 lists is things you call your editorial passions. What are the issues that have made CityBeat tick over the years? ROLLAND: Well, the first one I mentioned was probably the one that generated the most of my editorials and that is the George bush presidency and the war in Iraq. That certainly dominated. When I went back and flipped through the old issues, it was striking to me, even to me, how many of them I wrote. So that was a big one. And as Kelly mentioned, homelessness. That has been probably our biggest local passion, trying to push elected officials to enact policies that help people get off the street. I just want to make sure that people understand that Kelly Davis really sets the bar in San Diego on coverage of homelessness policies here. Those are two of the big ones. And then also campaign finance, because I think personally that any issue that you can think of, just about any issue that you can think of, I think you can trace back the root problem is the way campaigns are financed in this country. CAVANAUGH: Now, one of the things I know that you're most -- well, most championed in this issue is that you're quite proud of your election endorsements. ROLLAND: Well, yeah, that goes back to -- I used to work with a guy named Don shin ski, a community weekly with a circulation of about fifteen thousand or something. DAVIS: And a Pulitzer prize winner. ROLLAND: And this guy was brilliant, and he was write these election endorses that were so entertaining, so engaging, and so useful. So I've tried to mirror. I'm not nearly as good as Don was, but I've tried to mirror that approach to writing endorsements. So they're fun to read, I hope they're fun to read, and also they help people. Around election time, it amazes me how many people come up to me and say when are your endorsements coming out? I take them right into the ballot box. And it scares the hell out of me that people do that. [ LAUGHTER ] ROLLAND: But it's also gratifying because we do a lot of work, a lot of research when we do those endorsements. CAVANAUGH: Well, they're written in a sort of flippant fashion, but you can tell that you're quite serious underneath what you say. DAVIS: We spend a lot of time talking about each candidate, and agonizing over the choice we're going to make, and we research the propositions. So yeah, a lot of time is spent coming up with those endorsements. ROLLAND: And just to throw a funny anecdote, after the June primary election, the mayoral election, Bob Filner came up to me and said after he read our endorsement of him for mayor, he almost voted for Nathan Fletcher. [ LAUGHTER ] ROLLAND: So I've been told that when we endorse somebody, sometimes it's not in the most favorable manner. CAVANAUGH: With friends like these, right? ROLLAND: Exactly. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: Now, you told us about how you're sensitive to the response that you get, Kelly, from the articles that you write. All across the board when it comes to this paper, and you print all the letters. I wonder, have you ever printed owner written something that made you rethink -- anything with advertisers canceling or readership falling off? DAVIS: We have a very high wall between our editorial and advertising departments. We're all in the same office, but we're on one side, they're on the other side. If any of them try to come over to our side, Dave chases them away. So yes, we have angered advertisers, everything from columns written by Ed Decker, a provocative columnist of ours, to restaurant reviews and music reviews. And that does not affect what we write at all. As far as stories I've done, gosh, yeah. Everything response I get, I take to heart. So it would be hard to pick out anything specific. But it's something that I'm very proud of that we have such editorial integrity, and trying to get advertising dollars does not driver's license anything we do in the paper. CAVANAUGH: How big is your reporting staff? ROLLAND: There are seven people who work in the office who are on staff. DAVIS: Editorial staff. ROLLAND: Yeah, editorial staff, including Kelly and me. And only three of us are full-time. So it's a small staff, and it's -- I think people would be amazed when they find out how small our staff is, and how small our budget is, I think they're amazed we've been able to do what we do with the resources that are available. A lot of our content is provided by independent contractors, free-lance writers who are not on staff and don't get paid very much money and are loyal. And that's something that really is gratifying to me, the loyalty that I've had among our contributors because they believe in what we're doing. CAVANAUGH: There are some issues and some prominent people who are -- never seem to get any favorable press in CityBeat. And I'm wondering, does that close down your access to those prominent people and some of that important information that you might need going forward to do a really good story? ROLLAND: I wouldn't say we need it. Certainly it's better for the reader if they get a fair account of what's going on. So if somebody shuts us down because they don't feel -- they're not happy about the coverage they've received -- Carl DeMaio is one person. He does not speak to CityBeat. Although I've heard that his new spokesperson is willing to sit down and talk to us. But Carl doesn't answer our questions. It would be better for the reader to get a fuller picture of what's going on if they would answer our questions, but we don't need it. We're going to do what we're going to do anyway. I would just hope if we don't have the situation quite right, if there are nuances to the story that that person can provide that will soften the coverage, whatever, or at least make it more nuanced, that would be better for the reader. But what we really need, I'll give a shoutout to Dave moss, our investigative reporter, what he needs is access to information. He doesn't necessarily first and foremost need access to people, although he loves it when he gets that access to people. He needs access to documents. So he's always writing about the public records act and access to information. CAVANAUGH: We all read a while ago on the Internet that print is dead. So are your plans to keep doing this weekly or be more of a presence on the Internet? ROLLAND: Well, we're owned by our printer. So our print edition will never die, I don't think, unless we're sold or our printer diversifies. But yeah, slowly over the years we've been trying to enhance the online product. But really it's still the print version that is the bread and butter.

Mayor's CityBeat Proclamation
A proclamation issued by Mayor Jerry Sanders declaring Friday, August 24 "CityBeat Day."

When San Diego CityBeat published its first issue, Dick Murphy was the city's mayor and Gray Davis was on borrowed time as the state's governor.

Although Murphy and Davis are gone, CityBeat is still here, a left-leaning fixture in this laid-back, former Navy town. Three of its original staff remain as well: Editor David Rolland, Associate Editor Kelly Davis and columnist Edwin Decker.


The free alternative weekly with a decidedly progressive viewpoint has stuck it out. For 10 years now, it has appeared each Wednesday with its own brand of investigative reporting, outraged editorials and controversial -- some might say offensive -- columns.

Any uproar over opinions expressed (or language used) in the pages of CityBeat seems to breeze right by the editorial staff. Their anniversary issue is, in fact, a series of Top 10 lists of articles designed to stir up trouble: editorial passions, impact on civic affairs, controversial columns, instances of twisted logic.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders also celebrated the alt weekly's birthday with an official proclamation declaring August 24, 2012 "CityBeat Day." Gerry Braun, the mayor's director of special products, appeared at CityBeat's 10th Anniversary celebration to read the proclamation, which he claimed was written by the mayor himself.

"The rivers shall be ordered to run backward and the animals in the zoo set free, and that every child born in San Diego this day shall be given the middle name of CityBeat so that we shall always be reminded of the outstanding work being done on its pages and the great joy we feel on this glorious occasion," the proclamation said.

Another part of that proclamation states CityBeat is "a fierce champion of the underdog, the downtrodden and the homeless."


Rolland told KPBS Midday Edition that he considers underdogs to be both the working poor and "people in the middle class who are fighting to stay in the middle class, to not drop into the ranks of the working poor."

Davis added that the homeless are also the underdogs--a subject CityBeat has covered extensively.

Rolland said part of his philosophy of coverage is that "objectivity in journalism is a myth."

"Subjectivity goes into every decision that's made at any media outlet, from what words are in the headlines to what source gets the first word in the story and the last word to who gets interviewed and what language is used in the story," he said. "You cannot separate your own values, your own opinions from your work."

He said CityBeat's goal instead is to be fair and accurate.

Davis said no newspaper can be separated from its editorial page, and cited U-T San Diego as an example.

"They have a very right-leaning editorial page and so their reporters' work is called into question," she said. "And the same thing has happened to us."

"I love getting feedback on my stories from people who might think it wasn't as balanced as it could be," she added.

Davis also said CityBeat publishes every "Letter to the Editor" that they can verify was sent by a real person.

The 10th Anniversary issue's dedication also credits CityBeat's publisher, Kevin Hellman, for having "pretty much stayed out of the editorial staff's business for 10 years."