Former publishers point to the people of Nevada County for The Union’s success
Although they all appreciated the beautiful backdrop offered by the scenic Sierra foothills, three former publishers of The Union agree it was the people of western Nevada County who made their stay most interesting.
Margaret Wade, John Walker and Peter Starren each held the post of publisher for a stint over an eight-year span that saw some of the most politically charged times in the community’s recent history.
Wade, to date the first and only woman to serve as The Union publisher, took over operations in April 1994, as Jack Moorhead retired after 19 years at the helm. Wade had previously been the publisher of the Minot Daily News in North Dakota, as well as publisher for the Mercury-Register in Oroville, Calif.
“I think the paper and that community of Nevada County had a very unique relationship, in my experience as a newspaper publisher, because Nevada County is a place that regularly has a conversation with itself about what it’s going to be,” Wade said. “But there are so many very distinct voices in that conversation, to capture that with a sense of balance was probably the most difficult mission of any newspaper that I ever published.
“We tried to capture it, but it’s very difficult any time you have that diversity of voices in a community, you’re going to please a lot of people and make a lot of other people mad. But as a newspaper, you pick up the next day and go on. And it takes a lot of pluck to keep on going. From reading about its early days, (The Union) has always been a kind of plucky paper, trying to keep up with all needs for information and needs for political representation from those who have lived there and those who have moved there. I think it’s a plucky paper. There’s energy in it and things that draw people into it.”
When Wade left The Union to become publisher at The Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, Walker arrived in September 1995, after serving as assistant publisher and advertising director at the Greeley Tribune, a sister publication of The Union in Greeley, Colo. He rose through the ranks of the business after starting as a freelance stringer for The Free Press in Wilmington, Ill., eventually taking leadership roles in the newsroom and adding advertising sales experience to his repertoire, before becoming general manager.
Walker, who now serves as publisher of the Ludington Daily News in Michigan, said the high level of engagement by those who live here made for some of the most interesting work in his career.
“Grass Valley and Nevada City were probably the feistiest, most-polarized place I’ve ever lived,” Walker said. “It was in Nevada County that I learned an environmentalist is someone who owned a cabin in the woods. And a greedy developer was someone who wanted to build a cabin in the woods.
“It was a 24-hour adrenaline rush, especially from the perspective of the newspaper. I imagine it hasn’t changed much. People feel a real ownership of the newspaper. … I’ve never seen so many letters to the editor. John Seelmeyer was our editor, he’s a very wise man who I learned a lot from. He published every letter he possibly could. But we still had people actually counting the letters to the editor — saying The Union published more letters from liberals and so on — to prove a bias, which was both interesting and entertaining.”
Starren, who followed Walker as publisher in March 1999 after serving as director of operations for Central Maine Newspapers in Portland, Maine, agreed that the Nevada County community’s extraordinary engagement could cut both ways.
“As far as the contention there was concerned, I worked there with John Seelmeyer and we used to talk about how he would exercise early in the morning and I used go late at night, because it was so contentious,” Starren said.
“I mean we’d be out there and people would come up behind us with brakes screeching, wanting to give us a piece of their mind. And sometimes they’d find out where we lived and would come to our house and be yelling at us.”
Starren said, like Walker, much of the most contentious issues the paper was covering at the time centered on environmental issues, such as the wild and scenic designation the South Yuba River Citizens League sought to protect the Yuba River watershed.
He remembered sitting at a Rotary Club function, where one person said he had been flying over the Yuba and thought, “‘What a beautiful dam that would be, we’d have water and electricity,’ and so on. And then the guy next to us says, ‘That’s got to be the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life!’ They were both coming from the heart and felt genuine about their feeling, but people were pretty far apart.”
“For me, it made it less enjoyable because it seemed to permeate every level of society … You couldn’t go to a Rotary Club meeting, or a concert or a film or anything without hearing about it — people taking the opportunity to take shots at the other side. It bugged me, but it is just human nature for people to talk about it.”
Because Nevada County is so interested in discussing its local issues, all three former publishers said the connection between The Union and the community it serves has been and will continue to be a beneficial bond for both.
“You see in some suburbs of metro areas, maybe closer to Sacramento, there are papers becoming irrelevant because those towns become bedroom communities,” Walker said. “That just never happened in a place like Nevada County, where their is such a strong sense of place. Whether or not it’s polarized, there is a strong sense of community, and so the newspaper remains vital — and will for number of years, even if it transcends print and everybody is reading The Union on Google Glass. There is no replacement of local journalism done well and raising hell on the editorial page.”
Starren, who returned to The Union for a six-month stretch this year to assist during a transition with the hiring of current Publisher Jim Hemig, said the 150-year relationship the newspaper has with the community is the key to the connection.
“The newspaper has been around so long, that it’s so much a part of the culture there,” Starren said. “When you read that paper, you get a sense of place, a sense of history and place and a respect for the history there. You read about things like the Miners’ Picnic, long traditions like that. There are a lot of things that connect the community, the present to the past. One reason people move there is the history of the place; it’s fascinating to them. And the paper helps connect them to that.
“The other thing is the people work there. It’s not the same people as when I was first there, but the people there are so engaged with the business and the newspaper. The Union is really engaged with the newspaper in all departments in ways you don’t see at other newspapers. They have a lot of pride in the paper, what goes on in the newsroom, and are really excited about it. When I was there last winter, I saw that culture remains the same, that engagement and that pride. And that is really a cool thing about The Union.”
Brian Hamilton is editor at The Union. Contact him via email at email@example.com or by phone at 530-477-4249.
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