"It feels like it was just yesterday,” Richard McCord says, pulling up a chair at a local coffee house and reminiscing about the journey that led him from dogged Newsday vet to New Mexico transplant and, eventually, founding editor and manager of the Santa Fe Reporter.
Still toting a reporter’s notebook in his back pocket, McCord recalls the ebb and flow of negotiations to buy the then Santa Fe News from owner Rudy Rodriguez.
McCord mined just about every single advertiser in town, ringing them up personally. “I didn’t say I’m trying to start a newspaper; I said I’m going to start a newspaper.”
"When I look back, it was so damned interesting, you know? It never got dull"
Meetings with investors followed. They were usually held at The Compound, and McCord would share his “pipe dream” and breathe a sigh of relief every time they chose to pick up the tab. Each potential backer received a 21-page typewritten proposal that began with “Santa Fe is ready for another newspaper…”
Hearing about McCord’s hustle and knowing he meant business, Rodriguez decided to sell the operation and made his decision known on April 1, 2014.
He was close to giving up and decided to take that day off. Suddenly, the phone rang.
The voice on the other line “‘Dick, this is Rudy Rodriguez. Everywhere I go, I’m running across your tracks and you seem to be serious about starting another weekly and I don’t want to have another competitor,’” McCord recalls, adding that because of the date, he believed the offer to be a joke.
He had a reason to. Leading up to that moment, the process had been far from a cakewalk.
Living in Albuquerque, he would often travel to Santa Fe to place his neverending list of calls and save on long-distance charges. Upon returning to the house of a friend that had agreed to be the paper’s advertising manager, McCord found a typed letter of resignation left next to the telephone. The operation hadn’t even taken off the ground, and already it had lost a key staff member.
Still, he was tenacious. Among the benefits of taking over an existing outlet, McCord says, were a base of advertisers, set distribution and offices outfitted with typesetting equipment and a darkroom.
By then, the former editor of the New Mexican’s Sunday magazine had exhausted every single penny he could come up with, including his own savings, and had camped for a lengthy amount of time to save on rent. Just a couple of hours before transferring ownership of the weekly shopper, an investor reneged on his $1,000 pledge.
“A couple of hours before we signed the papers to buy the News, one of our investors pulled out. I had an escrow contract—everyone who had invested—if we didn’t pull it off by a certain date, they were supposed to get their money back,” he recalls, a hint of his Georgia twang still lacing his words.
An old friend who had left Santa Fe for the Great White North had called one of his would-be staffers “out of the blue” and asked how was McCord doing. After hearing about the fall through, he wired the cash and saved the day.
“I had—to the dollar—what I needed at that point, went and closed the deal, and then we more or less were in business,” he says. “It was just total luck, you know?”
Up next was coming up with a snappy name.
“I knew I didn’t want to keep the News. We were so different,” he says. “We went through a bunch of names, shooting the bull, like The Santa Fe Sun, but then there was The Rio Grande Sun right up the street. Somebody suggested we call it The Santa Fe Tortilla Press and we discussed calling it The Santa Fe Times Picayune,” he laughs.
“I just wanted it to have a good, honest name. Something unpretentious that just indicates what we want to do—we want to report the news,” he says. And so, the Santa Fe Reporter was born.
Reflecting, McCord wishes the brainstorming session had led to a better name.
“There are two reasons: One is through the years, our staff members would find it awkward to say, ‘Hello, I’m a reporter from the Reporter.’ And years later, after we were established, Editor & Publisher magazine did a survey on the most common newspaper names in America, and the most common name was the Times, then maybe the News and the third was the Reporter.”
That first one is still felt in the SFR newsroom to this day.
“I told them to start saying, ‘I’m a writer with the Reporter—that’s my advice to you,” he chuckles.
Looking back not just at his almost 15 year tenure as editor and the accolades and career-long brawls that followed, McCord still gets a twinkle in his eye when picking up and looking at that first edition.
“Starting with this first issue,” he says, pausing, “we set a whole new journalistic story here in town.”
His personal archive is now housed in an Italian leather briefcase, the same briefcase he took with him to a Salem, Ore., courthouse where papers regarding a conglomerate that had been instrumental in axing the local weekly, remained sealed. Days after this interview he dropped off the attaché at SFR headquarters.
The tattered case holds everything from the last issue of the Santa Fe News to an “Adobe Christmas” supplement, and endless hard-hitting cover stories on everything from the 1980 prison riot to an a series on state hospital abuse.
McCord helmed the Reporter until its sale to Hope Aldrich in 1988. Aldrich, a single mother of three, had walked into McCord’s office years earlier to ask for a job as a staff writer under her married name, Hope Spencer.
“I said, ‘Hope, we couldn’t possibly pay you enough to raise three boys,’ and she said, ‘Well, money is not a problem’—that’s all she said.”
After hiring her, McCord would find out that Hope was Hope Aldrich Rockefeller, eldest daughter of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III.
Aldrich came clean after her first deadline day at the weekly.
“I said, ‘Hope, I know about your family but that’s not why I hired you. I hired you on your credentials,’” he reminisces. “‘You had good credentials, I hired you on the basis of them and then I learned about your family. And now I know about your family, so let’s get to work.’”
Looking back on his personal style as an editor, McCord is quick to shoot back, “I was great.”
On a more serious note, he continues, “We had cultivated excellent staff members, or were lucky enough to get excellent staff members. I gave a bunch of people their first writing job. Santa Fe was an excellent recruiter—because everyone wanted to come here.”
It is those “adventurers” that would oftentimes show up at the office unannounced asking for a job, among those that McCord remembers the fondest.
They included current staffers at the New York Times, Vanity Fair and even a Pulitzer Prize winner at the Los Angeles Times.
“We won something like, more than 200 awards and that was nice. But when I look back, it was so damned interesting, you know? It never got dull,” he says. “It got scary financially, that’s for sure, and it could wear you out physically, but it wasn’t like going down and taking drivers license pictures all day for a paycheck…every day was different, and you were always trying to be creative and do good journalism.”
When the time did come for contributors to leave, a not-so-dreaded-talk would take place.
“I’d say, ‘Look, do not apologize. That’s our role in life. We look for good talent, we try to give it the best training we can to try and make it better. We can’t afford to pay you very much. You give us your very best effort and then one day, you come to me and say I’ve been hired at a bigger place for more money—that’s what we’re supposed to do in life.’”