Richard McCord co-founded the Santa Fe Reporter in June, 1974 with Laurel Knowles and acted as its editor and publisher for 15 years. A briefcase containing his favorite papers from that era includes award-winning exposés on the state prison and hospital, a special report on a tragic car accident and myriad stories that capture the news and culture of Santa Fe in the years McCord ran the Reporter. McCord also is the author of The Chain Gang: One Newspaper Versus The Gannett Empire, a must-read for anyone interested in journalism, the Reporter or a gripping David versus Goliath tale.
SFR: How did you go from working journalist to newspaper publisher?
RM: I was a working journalist in New York at Newsday and then I came out here and was asked to join the staff of [The Santa Fe] New Mexican and did so and discovered I really liked journalism in a town this size. Newsday was publishing 400,000 copies a day. I’d see people reading it on the subway and on the Long Island Railroad. Nobody ever called me; nobody ever wrote a letter to the editor.
[At] the New Mexican, people would call me at home and they would call me at the paper and they would be mad or they would say, ‘That was a great story,’ and I thought, ‘This is nice. I like this intimacy a lot.’
But then I got really frustrated at the New Mexican itself because it was so timid and it wouldn’t cover the issues and would kill stories if they felt it was going to offend an advertiser. I got so frustrated and disgusted, I quit and figured I’d have to leave town. But I decided to just give it a go and see if a new paper could be started. I felt I would quickly learn it couldn’t be. I got some investors, not very many, to raise a total of $70,000 to start a paper—and $15,000 of that was my wife Laurie and I taking out a loan. But we did it. And so I really had no intention of being a newspaper publisher out here.
And let me say this, the New Mexican now is a far better paper than it was back then. I mean, I don’t know what you think of it now, but I know how bad it was back then.
Aside from the New Mexican, what was the rest of the Santa Fe media environment like in ’74?
It was extremely fortunate for me, and by that I mean it was almost a media vacuum. There was the New Mexican, there was the Santa Fe News, which was just a shopper…there was the Santa Fean magazine and three radio stations, and that was the whole shooting match.
I had forgotten the Reporter initially published twice a week and cost 10 cents and then 25 cents.
Well, yes and no, basically no. I was able to buy the Santa Fe News. At first [owner Rudy Rodriguez] didn’t want to sell, but I went around town telling all the advertisers and people that I was starting a new paper and eventually [Rodriguez] called and said, ‘Everywhere I go, I’m running across your tracks, and I really don’t want you as a competitor, so, if you want to talk again about buying the News, I’d like to talk to you.’
This was extremely fortunate because I realize now if I’d had to crank up a new paper, it wouldn’t have lasted three months. So Rudy said, ‘It’s very important to our advertisers that we deliver to all the homes’…and I took him at his word. But from the start, I had a totally different idea of what kind of paper I wanted to put out. I didn’t want to put out a shopper; I didn’t want to retain the name the Santa Fe News. That kind of hurt Rudy a little bit.
I wanted to cover the news and I wanted to be bold. We put in a sports section and various sections and so we sold it on newsstands, like at 7-Elevens and La Fonda, but the vast majority was delivered free to the homes. We came out twice a week because I was used to working for a daily and thought once a week is not frequent enough to stay on top of the news. But that was a big mistake because it was costly and it wore everyone out. After a few months, we scaled back to once a week.
Many of the issues the Reporter has covered continue to be important today: politics, development, water. At its heart, is Santa Fe the same city it was in 1974?
Yeah, I would say it is. In fact, it’s one reason why I sold it. After 15 years, the stories were all kind of repeating themselves. There would be another strike of grocery workers or another breakout at the prison or another run for the City Council or another session of the Legislature, another season for the Horsemen and the Demons, and I just thought, ‘I’ve already done this and I’m running out of fresh ideas.’ So I thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s time to let someone take a crack at this,’ and that’s where Hope [Aldrich, the Reporter’s second owner] came in.
The Reporter has only had three owners; that’s not very many.
No, there’s a bit of longevity. I’ve still been the longest running editor and publisher, but you’ll probably pass me on that.
I don’t know Dick, 15 years is a long time [joint laughter]. So your book [about Gannett], The Chain Gang, was published initially as a report in the Reporter.
I did that in the middle of my time at the Reporter, like ’81. When we started the Reporter, Robert McKinney owned the New Mexican. Not long afterward, he sold it to Gannett, and then it became a Gannett newspaper, and Gannett put out such a terrible paper that the Reporter was making great gains. [Then] they sent a new publisher who had just driven a weekly paper out of business in Salem, Ore., and I got worried when I learned what had happened out there.
So I went out there and got into a secret court file that had all the evidence against them, and I realized that was what they had in mind to do to the Santa Fe Reporter. I just wrote down verbatim everything in the file that I could find, I couldn’t copy it…I came back and discussed it with our lawyer, and he said, ‘It’s kind of like the Pentagon Papers: You’re not supposed to have this information, but you do, and it’s definitely newsworthy and it ought to be told and, if you tell this story, I’ll do my best to defend you.’
I think we stopped Gannett in its tracks; we inoculated the town against all this lying and sweetheart deals and circulation scams.
These days, of course, newspapers have bigger things to worry about than Gannett. What do you make of the so-called death of newspapers?
I’ve been asked to speak on that at a reunion of my college, Vanderbilt University. I’ll tell you what I think: The reports of newspapers’ death are exaggerated, but the business is definitely in trouble. Ironically, the bigger trouble is for the bigger newspapers. If you have a small city of 20,000 or something and typically you’re the only paper in town…a lot of those operations are chugging along pretty well. But some of the most revered and honored mastheads are really hurting.
What does it say about people’s relationship to the news that so much information is now gotten by Twitter and Facebook and all that?
I’m highly suspicious of it. I actually like the old days better when you had good newspapers really trying to do good work, and that’s where people got their news and they depended on it. There were rules to follow and standards to meet and a good publication would do its very best to do good work. Now they’re doing their very best just to survive. As I said, I preferred the old days because I worked for a great newspaper, ran a pretty good one out here, found an audience of both advertisers and readers that enabled us to do the best journalism we could, and it was a big thrill. It was a real good ride.
I’ve been asking people to imagine Santa Fe 35 years from now. Where do you think the city is going?
Well you know, I’ve seen a lot of changes. I got here in ’71 and it was a laid-back, inexpensive town. Life was slow; things were cheap; everyone was kind of interesting. It was a fascinating place to me. The ridgetop mansions hadn’t come and the enormous home prices hadn’t come, and there were about seven or eight decent restaurants. The Californians hadn’t come. The Texans came for the summer and went away, and nine months of the year the people who lived here had the town to themselves. [Downtown] was still the commercial heart of Santa Fe; it wasn’t a tourist mecca. I watched a lot of things change, and I liked it better in the early days, by and large. But I still think Santa Fe is the best place there is. It’s held on to its own pretty well. It’s still a small city; it fights ferociously to preserve preservation…we still have more culture than you can keep up with…so I think 35 years from now, I hope it just continues to ferociously hang on to its character and do its best.
What are you working on now?
Just a couple of months ago, I turned in a manuscript on Santa Fe Living Treasures. It’s going to be out this summer. I’m also trying to finish up a book about the history of the College of Santa Fe, right from the start, and by the start I mean the start of Christian Brothers in 1600 France before Archbishop Lamy brought some Christian Brothers here and established St. Michael’s. I was supposed to turn in the manuscript quite a while ago but, if I had, I wouldn’t be in place to tell the final chapter, which is about to happen.
That’s good journalistic timing.
I guess so.