Changes at California Monthly Threaten Magazine’s Independence

Berkeley Daily Planet, Friday February 4, 2005

Russell Schoch —  longtime editor of the California Alumni Association’s magazine, the California Monthly —  wrote in the December issue an “Editor’s Farewell” announcing his premature retirement. Had I read it more carefully at that time, I would have known that the essay was that of a man writing with a gun to his head. After 30 years of service to the award-winning magazine, Shoch was abruptly fired without warning by the CAA’s new Executive Director Randy Parent on Nov. 22. Parent terminated him without so much as a gold watch, let alone a farewell reception which would have given those of us who had worked for Schoch —  and the many who admired the courage often needed to perform that service —  the opportunity to express gratitude for all that he had done for the association and for the university. The Cal Monthly Editorial Advisory Committee was not informed that Parent intended to take this action in order to move the magazine in a radically different direction without consultation. In his belated Dec. 16 announcement to the CAA Board that Russell would be “leaving,” Mr. Parent said that they hadn’t always agreed, but that he was certain that Schoch “is a man of principle, integrity, and honor.”

That has always been my impression and that of others such as Professor Emeritus David Littlejohn, chair of the ignored Editorial Advisory Committee, who subsequently wrote in protest that “the California Alumni Association and its flagship magazine have been since their founding —  while 100 percent dedicated to Cal —  totally independent of the Berkeley administration which has made them both almost unique among alumni associations and magazines at major American universities.” At considerable risk to his job, Schoch honored the University’s motto “Fiat Lux” by publishing provocative interviews with some of UC’s leading thinkers, thus earning the respect of editors around the country who knew of the pressures exerted upon him by powerful reactionary forces both within and outside the university. The stealth assassination of Schoch reminds me of shameful corporate tactics in which veteran employees are, without warning, given an hour to clean out their desks and vacate the premises. If, as Mr. Parent says, Schoch is a man of principle, integrity, and honor, what does such treatment by Parent ‘s “management team” say about themselves? Do they understand honor except as a good marketing noun? Furthermore, what does it portend for the “new direction” in which they intend to take the magazine if such are the nocturnal tactics needed to achieve their goals?

Schoch’s firing should be a subject of concern to those who value the shrinking realm of independent media even as consolidation and full-tilt commercialization proceed apace, as documented by the Graduate Journalism School’s Dean Emeritus Ben Bagdikian in his landmark study The Media Monopoly. The corporate-speak of the memo which Mr. Parent and Operations Director Mark Appel sent to CAA Board Members on Jan. 4, 2005 to announce the “great excitement and anticipation” they felt in filling Schoch’s shoes with his former subordinate, Kerry Tremain, gives additional cause for concern: “The appointment is made after months of careful thought and consideration on how best to undertake an enormous challenge —  production of the most impactful and important alumni magazine in the country.” Those months of thought were apparently given by no one but themselves, and certainly without consultation with the man who stood in their way, let alone with their own advisory board.

In response to letters of protest sent to the Monthly by Professor Emerita Susan Ervin-Tripp and others questioning the future independence of the magazine, Kerry Tremain responded: “As for the magazine’s future, I assure you it’s not bloody likely that it will become bland. I heartily welcome your criticism if you perceive that it becomes so. This is an understandable, but unfortunate and untrue rumor. Myself and the new senior editor are investigative reporters that have worked at national news outlets, have exposed corruption at high levels, and have not a bone in our bodies inclined toward the bland.”

For anyone who knows magazine publishing, Tremain’s protestations ring naive at best, especially after reading a “Blue Sky” prospectus —  unsigned, but apparently written in the “months of thought” that preceded Schoch’s sacking —  for a new California magazine that will replace the California Monthly. It will do so using the alumni association subscription base as a foundation on which to build a putatively brainy upscale general circulation magazine. Deep within the mangled syntax of that prospectus, under the heading “Leveraging Our Resources,” lies the following declarative: “A quick look at consumer magazine staff lists reveals that we are, at least in the near future, woefully understaffed to advance the editorial and business strategy outlined above. Therefore, we must maximally leverage skills and partners. Topnotch reporters and editors know that over half the job is motivating sources, writers, PR people and others to work on your behalf. Editors should be ambassadors, using strategic diplomacy to advance the publication’s goals.”

Let me translate and forecast what such IPO gibberish portends for the revamped and renamed California Monthly, and for the Alumni Association.

In the 1980s, I left freelancing for San Francisco Magazine and the California Monthly to write a monthly urban design column called “Cityscapes” for San Francisco Focus, and so witnessed the remarkable transformation of KQED’s program guide from the inside. Publisher Earl Adkins and editor Mark Powelson, who had previously worked at the scruffy Berkeley Barb, had a similar dream to create a West Coast version of the Atlantic Monthly by using the upscale demographics of KQED’s membership list. In short, they used KQED’s non-profit cover to produce an ever-more commercial city magazine. Membership lists do not pay the bills, so however good their initial intentions to produce quality fare, they (and I) soon learned the limitations imposed on content by a magazine dependent on advertising and subject to the increasingly conservative board of KQED. During my tenure there, Focus morphed into a slick journal of high consumption whose writers were employed to deliver well-heeled consumers to advertisers. When my articles veered from harmless aesthetics to the more substantive mechanics of land speculation and consumer critique, they began to be killed. When Adkins left the magazine, the advertising sales director moved across the hall into his office. The change was only a formality because, as Focus’s media kit made clear to those privileged to see it, advertising largely drove the magazine’s content.

Increasingly constrained by what I was permitted to say, I left Focus. I have heard that its editors’ overreaching plans to create a publishing empire —  combined with the costly headquarters building which CEO Tony Tiano constructed for the station —  nearly took KQED down.

Tremain may be sincere in his stated intention to publish a quality independent magazine, but as editor and author Lewis Lapham explained at a Journalism School event, the editorial independence of magazines such as the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Mother Jones, or his own Harper’s can only be guaranteed by committed long-term patrons with deep pockets such as John MacArthur, Adam Hochschild, and Sy Newhouse.

The reprehensible treatment of Russell Schoch suggests that the new direction in which a few people intend to take the Cal Monthly may be more than merely unethical —  it could be illegal. I question Mr. Parent’s apparent intention to run a commercial enterprise out of and under the non-profit cover of an alumni association at a public university. At the very least, there should be a public forum held on the campus —  possibly sponsored by the Graduate School of Journalism —  at which Parent, Appel, and Tremain can explain to the immediate community and to duly notified alumni what they have done and what they intend to do, but above all, how they plan to finance that venture while maintaining an independent editorial voice.


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