“Yes, Private Eye Weekly.”
“You mean like a private investigator?”
It was the same question I got on more than a weekly basis back in the beginning. I used to daydream about a more dramatic answer.
“Yeah, my name is Tom Slade, private eye. Turn over all your documents because I got a subpoena. I also want all your personal secrets, so spill it, Buster, and don’t bother trying to turn me over to your paid flack.” I would then lean back in my old chair in the dusty office and shoot down a bourbon.
It’s not that far from the truth. It’s actually what I tried to do most of the time as the first editor of this publication. Myself, and the freelance writers, would pry, poke around and ask annoying questions. You know, generally piss people off—hopefully, people in power.
We had no corporate bosses, no job descriptions, no rules really. And despite what the Republican-Mormon machine thought, no set political agenda. We carried the flag for no one. Our mandate: Just dig up interesting stories and lay them down at length. We had some attitude and a sense of adventure, and most importantly, journalistic freedom.
We had everything and we had nothing.
I remember looking into the windows of the storefront on 400 South and thinking about how far I had fallen, office-wise. I had come from KSL’s Broadcast House in the Triad Center where I used to launch off the roof as a reporter in a helicopter to cover the region in style.
My offer from the Private Eye was a cut in pay of 50 percent and no benefits, and if I wanted my small box of an office spruced up, I had to paint it myself. I wasn’t interested in picking up a paintbrush, but I was interested in doing good work in a new field—long-form print journalism. The daily news grind of covering house fires, floods and murders had long ago lost its appeal.
I had heard about the struggling weekly paper from the lovely and talented Mary Dickson, who was writing film reviews at the time.
“They need an editor,” she said.
“So who got fired?” I asked.
“You don’t get it. They don’t have an editor. The publisher does it all.”
Yikes. Just like KSL, only completely different.
So that’s how I filled a void and found a home for my commitment, or possibly headed towards commitment in a home. I would be the first, and only, full-time editorial employee of the Private Eye Weekly, hired by Mr. Do-It-All John Saltas. The paper was evolving out of a private club rag (hence the name) and needed some journalism. There wasn’t an editorial staff to manage, but we decided “Managing Editor” sounded good as my title.
There also wasn’t much of a budget. We had a couple computers and phones, but not the luxury of a working fax machine or any air-conditioning.
And the editing in the beginning was, well, slight. I was taking calls for nightclub listings, writing a news short here, editing a film review there, typesetting stories from hard copy into the computer—it was way back in the pre-e-mail era. I had to conjure up cover story ideas for writers and myself and do the headlines and give art ideas to the guy in production.
There were lots of characters who worked with us in the beginning. This one gentleman with an overload of tattoos would invite his girlfriend to join in the fun of deadline pressure. The yelling between them was annoying, but the fistfights were stimulating. It presented a dilemma: stop the domestic squabble or go on writing. I wrote. Besides, the girlfriend had a few pounds on me and was meaner.
Talk about screaming—Ron “The Bullhorn” Yengich would arrive at my door on Friday yelling about everything and nothing. The famous defense attorney gave the paper a name columnist and me a headache.
We would stumble through with who and what we had, like a copy editor who admitted she was dyslexic. Maybe that explained the errors.
But some dedicated employees in sales, production and distribution would help Saltas get the paper out every week and we kept the doors open, despite that one visit from the Internal Revenue Service.
Many people in the alternative weekly newspaper business told me that it would never work in conservative, straight-laced Salt Lake City. But it grew and thrived because we had a built-in alternative audience rebelling against the lockstep conservative majority.
We would tackle, of course, subjects ignored by daily news outlets and those thought to be taboo. Freelancer Carolyn Campbell came to us with a story about the polygamist Tom Green. Campbell was a Mormon mother who seemed to be stimulated by this wickedness. I was interested not in the legal, religious implications, but rather, in how he pulled it off, day in and day out, having numerous wives (I can’t keep track of one). He said he learned that when he rolled over in the middle of the night, it was better to call them all “honey” rather than mix up their names. Now that’s the kind of human interest you wouldn’t find in KSL stories.
The story list was dictated by what was interesting to the writers. They weren’t in it for the money. Writers would spend two to three weeks working on a cover story and get a check a month later for $150. They’d better be interested in the story.
The quintessential dedicated journalist, interested more in the truth than a dental plan, was Lynn Packer. He was a pit bull with a sizable brain and an ego to match. When he bit into the Bonneville Pacific scandal and then-Mayor Deedee Corradini, I almost felt sorry for her. Almost.
In the beginning, we took some heat from people who wondered why we were going after a female Democrat in Utah. But as I said, we were equal opportunity bashers. Packer had the goods on the emerging scandal and always kept digging. Some criticized the number of stories, but few argued we were off target, probably because of the complexity of the fraud—and the stories.
One of my best days in journalism came watching Packer act as his own attorney, because we couldn’t afford one. Packer wanted to go into federal bankruptcy court and have Corradini’s records released, even though she cut a deal to have them hidden from view. It would have cost thousands of dollars (that we didn’t have) to mount that kind of fight. So Packer went to work studying the law and set about making displays on poster board to illustrate his points. He rehearsed his speech to the judge and it had a Mr. Smith Goes to Bankruptcy Court feel. Hokey? You bet. Was Packer determined and smart enough to carry it off? No doubt.
With Deedee’s three lawyers looking on in stunned silence, the judge ruled in Packer’s favor. I wasn’t above a yelp and a fist pump. We walked out onto the steps of the courthouse and the other reporters had to interview Packer, the freelancer with the Private Eye Weekly. What a journalistic stud.
The writers we were able to get for a pittance helped raise the credibility of the paper. People like Ben Fulton and Kathy Biele and a host of others too numerous to mention worked to raise the level of their game, and I got a little more careful and demanding with the writing and editing. And so we pulled up the journalism of the paper by the bootstraps.
We had our share of parties, too. In fact, I remember Hiz Honor Rocky standing on a chair in his house shooting back tequila before a Rolling Stones concert. The unofficial office was, and probably still is, the Port O’ Call a few doors down.
My assessment of what we did has evolved over the years. In rereading back issues, I sometimes frown at the quality of the writing I allowed in, but at the time, the Salt Lake City area needed that paper and the stories in it. We had some fun at others’ expense, grew with the city and added an alternative feel. I think it became a part of the newer, hipper culture and I’m proud to have had a little something to do with that.
When I moved on after four years, I then got used to the kind of stories produced by bigger staffs with more experience and sizable budgets. But I sometimes think back about what we accomplished with less money and more freedom, and I’m amazed.
Editor’s Note: Tom Walsh served as Managing Editor of Private Eye Weekly from June 1992 through June 1996.