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The History of Salt Lake City Weekly

How Utah got its “altie” groove.

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Soul Mates & Soul Patches
Rocky Anderson, then a civil-rights attorney, now founder of High Road for Human Rights, was an early supporter of the paper. He and the paper “were soul mates in a lot of respects,” he says, “in terms of the values and the kind of changes that we saw that needed to be made, both in individual cases and more broadly in terms of public policy.”

Anderson immediately saw the promise of the fledgling paper: “I was thrilled that there was a truly independent source of investigative reporting in this community. It was a healthy thing, both in terms of getting better information and also providing a release valve for those who oftentimes were unhappy about abuses of power and the absence of people standing up to those abuses.”

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Anderson initially provided pro-bono legal review for Packer’s stories. At various times, Anderson recalls, “Chris Smart [who took over from Walsh as editor in 1996] would call me, and it ended up consuming collectively years of my life (laughs). But they were important stories to be reported on and important cases for a lawyer to work on. We made some really groundbreaking law, especially with regard to the legal rights of inmates, because of some of the work that we did, sometimes in conjunction with reporters at the paper.”

Christopher Smart went on to edit Lynn Packer’s coverage of the Olympic bribery scandal and also, under his watch, the paper’s moniker became City Weekly. He nurtured freelancers like Andrea Moore Emmett, as well as Carolyn Campbell and Katherine Biele (both of whom still freelance for the paper). Smart, Saltas says, “brought a certain kind of fun to the office. He was connected. He loved reporting. He continued Tom’s legacy and elevated the style of City Weekly.”

When Smart left in 2002 to work for the Trib, alt-weekly vet John Yewell was hired to take City Weekly for what turned out to be a nine-month spin around the block. “John was a fine writer,” Saltas says of Yewell’s brief editor stint, “but hubris was his Achilles’ heel.” Yewell declined to comment for this issue. [Editor’s note: As if we weren’t in enough of a swamp attempting to report on ourselves, it should be noted that Yewell took a chance on current editor Jerre Wroble, hiring her in 2003 as copy editor, for which she is grateful.]

Ben Fulton stepped up for the next four years, capping off a long reporting career at City Weekly. From the calendar to music reviews to Fulton Files, Fulton had penned nearly every column in the paper at one time or another, although long-form features were his specialty. “Ben was our longest-tenured employee,” Saltas said. “He was a very crafty writer. He studied writing. In retrospect, he was miscast as an editor. I’m not surprised he’s chosen not to speak in this issue. Everybody here loved Ben and, sometimes, that affection was returned.” Fulton quit in 2007 and later went to work for the Trib.

Enter ebullient Holly Mullen, a Tribune exile, who, for two years, put her columnist muscle to work in her Mullen column as well as in newsroom blogs. “I really like Holly,” Saltas says, “but I think she’d agree the timing was not right” for her return to alt-weekly journalism (she’d previously written for alt-papers in Minnesota and Texas). Saltas was referring to the high political profile of Mullen’s husband and step-daughter, conflicts that can pose a reporting challenge for alt-journalists. Since leaving the paper, Mullen has announced her own candidacy for an at-large seat on Salt Lake County Council. She declined to comment for this story.

In 2009, Jerre Wroble got a chance to sit in the catbird seat with stern admonitions not to screw things up. [Editor’s note: As if … ]

Ground Control to Major Tom
There remains that nagging “mission” thing: Are the alt-industry, and City Weekly in particular, still on one? “We’re absolutely alternative and have never changed that stripe, by the definition of our industry, by the definition of what we do in this community,” Saltas insists.

“[The mission] seems to have been fairly consistent,” Anderson says. “There were things I didn’t really like seeing in City Weekly when I was mayor because I think it was personally motivated. [John Saltas] and I had earlier been friends, and there was a blowup there. But, I have always really valued the role that City Weekly plays in providing information and a different perspective that wouldn’t be present in our community. I see it as sort of the journalistic equivalent to the role that Saturday’s Voyeur plays in part of our cultural community.”

Echoing Anderson’s sentiments is lobbyist, former state representative and Deseret News columnist Frank Pignanelli, who wrote in an e-mail, “Although the Weekly can be hard—and sometimes unfairly—on those with whom the editors disagree, our community needs an alternative voice.”

That voice is curiously of interest to all ears, not just those of the liberal persuasion. “It became clear that the readership cut across a fairly wide swath,” Packer says. “There were, you know, Republicans, Democrats, Mormons, non-Mormons—just a lot of people who valued multiple viewpoints. I was really surprised how many Republicans read the papers and gave me feedback on the pieces I wrote.”

David Carr, a former alt-weekly editor and now a media and culture columnist for The New York Times, applauds the broad-based appeal of the alternative press. “On the one hand,” he writes in an e-mail, “alternative papers had it absolutely right: high quality editorial freely distributed, with ads sold against the audience. Sounds downright modern right now.”

Going forward, though, Carr fears alt-weeklies have their work cut out for them: Like many newspapers, he says, “alternative weeklies have a lot of content on hand, a great ability to manufacture more, but not the best history of organizing that information. Although many alt-weeklies were alert to the perils and possibilities of the Web, many had execution problems along the way and lost what had been a big advantage heading into a consumer Web age.

“In a sense,” he says, “the threat was too large and too secular to escape: Alt-weeklies were ad hoc tribes of like-minded folks who pivoted around specific interests—city politics, music, sex, theater—and the Web allowed those folks to organize without a media property in the middle or a digital maypole. Getting a nascent generation of consumers to organize around a printed product is going to be pretty tough.”

Minding Our Mantra
Carr, who met Saltas through AAN and has visited Salt Lake City on numerous occasions, is impressed by the paper’s loyal following: “Every time I get to Salt Lake, I am stunned by the continuing level of commercial and civic engagement with the paper. It’s weathered very complicated times with a great deal more alacrity than its peers. I could blame it on the leadership and vision of John Saltas, but then he would just get a big head, so let’s speculate that the existence of a dominant and occasionally oppressive culture has created a strong affiliation among people not associated with the culture. City Weekly’s steady focus on creating accountability from and in a city through hard-hitting political coverage leaves many of the citizens feeling that the paper is looking after their interests.”

Despite the dire prognostications for print media, Packer thinks City Weekly is in better shape than most to continue hard-hitting investigative work. “City Weekly is uniquely positioned for investigative reporting,” Packer says, “because it doesn’t have deep pockets. You have this little City Weekly that isn’t litigation proof—you can sue ’em and put ’em out of business, but you’re not gonna get rich doing it.

“But the other thing that John Saltas has is high standards—for most of the stories I did, he had Rocky Anderson go over them with a fine-toothed comb, and that’s the responsible thing to do.”

Packer sees an evil triumvirate of technology, deregulation and the recession conspiring to further fracture media audiences to the point that the money needed to pay the cost of reporters and their investigations will disappear. “Eventually,” Packer says, “a new way of reporting, a new way of professionally gathering information, needs to emerge. But I don’t think anybody knows how that’s going to happen and, really, if it’s going to happen. Just as other institutions are in decline in the United States, our journalistic institutions are in decline and may continue in sort of a free fall, and the United States may never regain its position as a world leader. It’s interesting what’s going on right now.”

Saltas concedes that while the past few years have been tough on newspapers, “We’re moving more papers from our racks than ever, so folks can stop the ‘newspapers are dead’ routine. They’re not. If the Tribune wants to die, let it die, but we’re not dying. Between the Internet and mobile and social media, we have channels everywhere and people can find us in more places than ever.”

In late 2003, Saltas managed to replace himself as publisher with Jim Rizzi—a 20-year New Times (now Village Voice Media) executive who worked for alt-papers in Los Angeles, Denver, San Francisco and Phoenix. The move has enabled Saltas to dedicate his time to new ventures like developing publishing software and products through his affiliated companies AveNews.com and Kostizi.com.

Saltas takes considerable pleasure in the successes of former employees. Tom Walsh, for example, left in 1996 to edit the Miami New Times and now is editor of the San Francisco Weekly. “Tom had ambitions to get good at a new career, and he did it successfully and has moved on. You gotta give him credit for that,” Saltas says. Former writer Shane McCammon is an Air Force JAG attorney. Former production manager Kat Topaz designs papers and Websites throughout the alt-industry.

“We’ll continue to entertain, enlighten, educate, and we’ll always be smartasses,” Saltas says. “We won’t kowtow to anyone. That’s my mantra. It’s been that way forever. If I have to take lumps, I’ll take them, but I’m not going to bend over for anyone.”