Jeff von Kaenel

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The founder of Sacramento News & Review talks about where the alternative weekly has been and where it’s headed.

Since 1989, the Sacramento News & Review has been pushing the Establishment’s buttons, fostering a vibrant local art and music scene, and shocking the chaste among us with spicy personal ads. We sat down recently for a Q&A with Jeff von Kaenel, founder, president and CEO of the capital’s largest free alternative-weekly newspaper. About the challenge to stay relevant in a market that increasingly gets its news from sound bites and cyberspace, this kingpin of counterculture has one response: Bring it on.

Q: How did you get started in alternative newspapers?

A: I was at one of the first alternative newspapers in the country starting in 1973, the Santa Barbara News & Review. And then the Chico News & Review, which started in 1977, was running into financial problems so I went up there in 1980 and worked out a deal: If I turned the paper around, I could have the stock. So my wife (Deborah Redmond) and I went up and did that. Then I came here in 1989 to start the Sacramento News & Review. We took over another paper in Reno (Reno News & Review) in ’94.

Q: Why didn’t the conventional press interest you as a career opportunity?
A: When I was just out of college, we were in the midst of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement was still a very recent experience, and we were facing an environmental crisis. I believed then, like I believe now, that I wanted to make a difference in how I live my life and to try to make things better. That was more important to me than trying to maximize my income. There are just way more options in the alternative press. I never even thought of going to a mainstream newspaper.

Q: What’s your circulation? Readership demographics?
A: Our circulation is about 80,000. Our readership demographics are disproportionately in the 25- to 49-year-old audience. We used to reach more 18- to 24-year-olds; now more of them are reading us online. Our 24 to 34 is very strong. And then, often because of the news content, college-educated people over 34 are kind of a key variable. So people read us either because of the entertainment coverage, which tends to skew younger, or because of the hard news, which tends to skew a little older.

Q: How does the SN&R try to distinguish itself from the mainstream press?
A: The genesis of alternative papers came about from the life experiences that we had in the early 1970s, when we sensed that the country was going down a path we didn’t agree with. We had different life experiences than our parents, and we wanted to write about issues that mattered to us. So we covered the women’s movement and we covered the environmental movement and we covered music in a very different way because they were important to us. Mainly we’ve been doing things that we find are interesting and relevant, which just happens to be different from the mainstream press. What we’ve always done is put out a paper that we like and care about.

Q: How would you characterize the style of your paper?
A: Our point of view is that we really care about our readers and their personal lives. Frankly, we’re skeptical of institutions speaking the truth. So much stuff is spin, and even people who are saying it don’t believe what’s being said. So it’s not having to be the paper of record, but trying to find a kind of inner truth&emdash;which means we go deeper and raise controversial stories and controversial subject matters and have a dialogue in our paper where people don’t agree.

Q: Tell us about the SAMMIES (Sacramento Area Music Awards) and the SN&R‘s role in helping to shape the local music landscape.
A: I’m really proud of the things we’re doing with the SAMMIES and the JAMMIES (a showcase of youth talent in music and the arts). When we started here, there was virtually only one place that played live music three nights a week in Sacramento. The conventional wisdom was that you had to go to San Francisco to hear live music. And since you could, live music could never get going here. So we did a SAMMIES show at the Crest Theatre, which was a big success, and then we did the Friday night concert series of SAMMIES winners in front of City Hall&emdash;that’s where people often first heard of Cake and Deftones and the Groovie Ghoulies. And then with our coverage of local music, the music scene really developed organically. Now, we have a pretty vibrant music scene for a town of our size, and it continues to grow, which I’m, of course, really proud of.

Q: Also near and dear to your heart is another event you sponsor along with the Interfaith Service Bureau: A Call for Unity to benefit Habitat for Humanity. What has that experience been like for you?
A: A Call for Unity has been just a phenomenal experience for me, and somewhat accidental. We had been discussing how we were going to cover the anniversary of Sept. 11, and it occurred to me that we should do an interfaith music event, because I remember NPR playing Judy Collins singing Amazing Grace on that day, and I was so moved by that. I thought we should come together and console each other with music from different traditions. That would be better than sitting home watching planes hit skyscrapers on TV. So I rented out Memorial Auditorium. A day later I woke up and thought, I have no idea how I’m going to pay for this, or who’s going to attend, or who’s going to play. But that set me on this path of going to different faith groups to essentially audition the performers, which I had never done. For me, it’s been a great experience because I really have gotten to know Sacramento in a different way. You go to a Hmong church and spend a couple of hours at a service with the Hmong people, and you learn a lot about them by just being there. So we were putting on this show and (the Rev.) Michael Moran (of Spiritual Life Center) and other people said, You can’t just put on a show and stop. You got us all together here; why don’t we build Habitat houses together? And so we decided to work with the people in Oak Park and we had this magical interfaith meeting where we talked about building houses together. Now we’re building about 12 houses a year.

Q: What have been some common criticisms of the SN&R?
A: One is that we’re controversial and we allow different points of view that some people don’t want to be heard; that’s ongoing. Second, we allow gays and escorts to run ads, which certain people don’t like. Whatever you do that allows a dialogue, you’re going to get criticized for.

Q: What do you see as your biggest challenge right now?
A: Our biggest challenge is a challenge a lot of media have right now and that is that more changes are happening now than have happened in my 34 years in the business. How do we adjust to those changes, and how do we secure enough resources to continue and expand what we’re doing? I think we have a much easier task than others, but we need to do it. So we’re adapting with things like our sustainability section and our religion section and beefing up what we’re doing online.

Q: Are you feeling the pinch as much as many major dailies from declining circulations and revenues?
A: No, we’re growing. We had a very good ’07 and we will have a very good ’08. We can feast off the crumbs that they’re losing. We have the new Face to Face video ads (recorded interviews with vendors about their products and services) online, which are great for choosing a doctor or minister or attorney or whatever. That’s been encouraging, but the big aspect is, we’re one-fortieth the size of the Bee, so to figure out how to get that kind of revenue compared to them is not that difficult. We’ve gotten more real estate and auto ads in the last couple of years than we’ve had in all of my 34 years in the business.

Q: Tell us a little about your wife, Deborah Redmond, and her involvement with the SN&R.
A: Deborah and I met at the Santa Barbara News & Review when I was 22 and she was 18. I became the ad manager and she was the production manager, and if you know anything about newspapers, you know that for the ad manager and the production manager to be able to date is really a remarkable achievement. We’ve had a real partnership ever since. Deborah’s office is right next to mine. She has a new title now; I think it’s manager of nuts and bolts, which is really operations manager. She’s way smarter and way more capable than I am, and I’m really not just being modest. That’s been a real joy, and, of course, so are our kids. Our son, Nick, is 19 and a sophomore at UC Santa Cruz, and our daughter, Natasha, is 15 and a sophomore at West Campus.

Q: The SN&R will be moving this fall, and you’ve got big plans for the new building. Can you tell us about it?
A: We’ll probably be over on Del Paso Boulevard in September or early October. We’re moving into an old grocery store. What we’re doing there is really cool. At my daughter’s urging&emdash;she’d been talking about global warming for a couple of years&emdash;and after I saw Al Gore’s movie (An Inconvenient Truth) at the Crest, I thought, Well, I’ve got to start doing something. The question was what. I figured if I felt that way, a lot of our half-million readers at our three papers feel that way, so let us be the place where people can find out that information and let us focus on people who are doing innovative things locally and let us be a marketplace where people can connect with each other. So we hired four people&emdash;one in Reno, one in Chico, two in Sacramento&emdash;to work primarily on sustainability, which is a big commitment for us. So in the process of doing that, we had been in two-year negotiations to buy this building, and originally we were going to get in there very inexpensively, but now that we’re doing a sustainability section we’ve got to do something more green. We hired Sena Christian, who as far as I know is the only eco-warrior princess among newspapers in the country, to write about our green building as we go through every process&emdash;like using passive solar, whole-building fans, different kinds of insulation and landscaping that minimizes the amount of water that runs down the street. By our learning and writing about each step of the process, we’re going to be able to produce a manual about how to do a green building in Sacramento.

Q: What do you predict for the future of the SN&R?
A: I think the country and Sacramento are at kind of a turning point right now, and I think the Democratic primaries alluded to that. My sense is that there’s going to be a rethinking of a lot of things that are going on and we’re going to be asking some fundamental questions about what kind of government we want, what kind of people we want to be and how to relate to the institutions. What I predict for the SN&R, first and foremost, is that we’re going to be involved in those discussions that really matter. Whether that is done on paper, online or with events&emdash;and I think it’ll be a combination thereof&emdash;I’m less concerned about what form it takes and much more concerned that we be part of that discussion.