Early this fall, a few months after Independent editor Bob Moser left for a journalism fellowship in Palo Alto, Calif., the paper hired a successor, Metro Santa Cruz news editor John Yewell. Afterward, in the weeks leading up to John's arrival, I talked to several staff members about him; everyone was excited and hopeful, but easily half the people I spoke with had the same question: Why the Sam Hill would anyone leave Santa Cruz for Durham?
I've now met John, talked with him, watched him in action with the edit staff, and I think I can answer that question. But first, some linguistic theory. I read once that the native Hawaiian language evolved as it did--a sing-song of open, melodious vowel sounds--because the islands themselves were so idyllically gorgeous. In the same manner, the peoples of upper Siberia, dug into an icy steppe and buffeted by winds howling down off the polar cap, developed a grim, glottal language of hard consonants.
This bit of conjecture represents everything I know about linguistics, but it came to mind in the course of getting to know John Yewell. Santa Cruz, after all, is, like Hawaii, burdened with a surplus of idyll. "The place is heaven on earth," John told me. "The weather is beautiful, the trees are 2,000 years old and there's a picture-postcard view right at your front door." It's fabulous in every way, he said, "unless you're someone who lives to change the world."
A native Californian, John decided to move east because he was impressed by The Independent's strong history of alternative journalism--and because the journalistic climate of the Triangle is so much more complex and challenging. In Santa Cruz, he said, political factions include the left and the far left. The Triangle, by contrast, enjoys rather more distinct factions, and reporters are kept busy by winds that howl down out of various and contentious corners--our neighborhoods and city halls and county boards. Our hog farms and universities and state legislature. And, of course, our cantankerous senior U.S. senator.
"The area struck me," John said, "as a place where there are genuine differences of opinion. A place where an alternative paper can make a real difference."
John discovered his passion for journalism after a seven-year stint as a letter carrier in Palo Alto. In the summer of 1992, he moved to St. Paul, Minn., started freelancing for the local daily and became editor of a monthly paper called The Surveyor. The moment he took over that paper, he said, he knew that journalism was what he was meant for.
From The Surveyor, John went on to cover Minneapolis City Hall, write political columns and eventually work as news editor for an alternative weekly called the Twin Cities Reader. The Reader was well-respected for its crusading journalism, and it was there that John honed his skills as a reporter and his contempt for public corruption. In 1994, a Minnesota congressman named Rod Grams ran for the U.S. Senate on a family-values platform. Grams happened to be sleeping with his chief of staff. After the senator won his seat--and divorced his wife--John decided to run the story of the affair. "I called Grams' chief of staff," he said, "and I asked her if she was having an affair with him. She said 'no comment.'"
Telling the Grams story, John's eyes flashed with the memory of the conversation. Truth, he said, is the single non-negotiable quality he expects from his sources--especially public officials. "I am always really frank with people," he said, "and I expect the same. When you're a public official you've lost the right to have secrets." Grams recently lost his bid for re-election.
The Twin Cities Reader folded in the spring of 1997, bought out and shut down by a Charlotte-based business-journal conglomerate. The following year, John moved on to Santa Cruz. There he and his staff of writers tackled the local social issues--only to find that solutions floated, beyond the reach of good journalism, in the weird, intractable limbo of Santa Cruz politics. "Nobody was willing to make the hard choices," he said. "You'd have a movement to build affordable housing, but the second you put a spade in the ground, the tree conservationists would show up and stop construction. Everything was paralyzed."
The Metro Santa Cruz staff also had great fun with what John called the "goofiness" of the place. Their targets included the Breatharian Institute of America, which last year began marketing bottled "liquid air" as an antidote to toxic smog and acid rain. They also reported on a new book documenting beyond-the-grave conversations with Grateful Dead guru Jerry Garcia. Among Garcia's revelations, according to psychic-author Wendy Weir: "Drugs aren't good."
"We enjoyed deflating egos," John said. "It was fun, but not really substantial."
Substance is what John hopes to find here in the Triangle. Although the comparison is a bit of a surprise, his vision and sensibility are reminiscent of The Independent's first editor, Katherine Fulton. Like Katherine, John is a news hound. He loves newspapers--the actual paper, the ink. And, having grown up in an era when sons argued with their fathers about Vietnam, he loves politics. Eating breakfast with me on the morning after the election, it was all he could do to listen to my questions and eat his eggs before taking us on a hell-bent hunt for newspapers from across the country.
Of course, Katherine was a Southerner, and familiar with Piedmont North Carolina. She knew the language. John is a fifth-generation Californian. He grew up in Ventura, an hour north of Los Angeles, and went to college in Santa Cruz, a town where it is legal to walk down the street naked. He's lived abroad and seen a good deal of this country, but he's never spent any time below the Mason-Dixon line. (He did take a YMCA-sponsored bus trip as a kid, but more or less slept through the South.)
Those are some sure-fire carpetbagger credentials, and it is only fair to recognize John's newcomer status. It is true he does not know a Petty from an Earnhardt; it is true he has yet to try redeye gravy or live through a Piedmont summer. Hunting for a house to buy, he is still adjusting to the indigenous post-Civil War bungalow--and to the shifting, plaster-cracking clay on which these houses are built. True to form, John recalled the catastrophic earthquakes he lived through in California and found a political metaphor for the more subtle sinking and buckling of the local architecture. "Change," he said, "happens more slowly around here."
So, yes, he's an outsider (the man has yet to declare allegiance to a basketball team); but before you reach for the tar and feathers, consider a few points. First, Santa Cruz may be one giant redwood's width beyond the pale, but Ventura, where John grew up, has more in common with, say, Raleigh, than you might imagine. From his housing tract on the outskirts of this small, conservative beach town, John watched as asphalt replaced scrub brush and chip factories replaced ranches. Newcomers swarmed the town; freeways dominated the landscape. As for malls? "We invented the mall," he said.
Second, John is, at heart, a take-no-prisoners journalist, and such people live in a self-imposed exile. Too much loyalty to one place, too much kinship with one culture, too much affection for one community, and the eagle eye of a good reporter grows misty. He loses his edge.
Second, John claims kinship not only with California, but with colonial New England, from whence his ancestors, sailors, found their way to the frontier towns of California. Those people, he said, were "God-fearing and tenacious"--qualities for which John finds distinct Southern parallels. I have no idea whether the laid-back Californian is stereotype or fact; I only know that John Yewell is not a laid-back journalist, and that "tenacious" is just the word I'd use for his approach to reporting.
Finally, and just for the record, John lays ancestral claim to a Confederate general, one Richard Ewell, who succeeded Stonewall Jackson after Jackson's death at Chancellorsville, and went on to fight at Gettysburg.
Not yet a month into his job, John Yewell is getting to know The Independent staff, reading back issues, meeting with the paper's different departments and going out for coffee with so many writers he's got to be getting punchy.
He's also beginning to pick up the reins of the paper's core journalistic mission--its commitment to justice and community, its history of involvement in the civil rights and environmental movements, its reputation for investigative journalism that is tough and fair. He's already drawing a bead on the local personalities and issues, steering reporters to edgy, hard-hitting stories that, above all, tell the truth.
"We're the alternative press," John said, "but that means alternative to publications like Newsweek, it doesn't mean alternative to the truth." Weeklies like the Twin Cities Reader and The Independent, he went on, have "become the conscience of the industry," but each paper has to earn that role. "We're allowed to take liberties the dailies can't take," he said, "and I don't believe in non-biased alternative journalism. But the bias comes in which stories you choose to cover. Once you choose a story, you have to practice complete fidelity to the truth--you have to tell the truth, not opinion. If we do that at The Independent, do it right and do it well--that's what makes change possible."