A History of The Sedona Observer
The Renaissance of Public Service Journalism
Journalism circa 1774: The Massachusetts Spy Journalism circa 2004: censorship
How one lone reporter with a conscience stood up to censoring publishers
and heinous hospitals to get the truth out for the common good against all odds
and publish her own newspaper for $187.50
"The power of the press in America today belongs to those who own one online..."
by Catherine J. Rourke
Published February 8, 2008
I had tales of lost lives, lost spouses, lost limbs, lost savings, lost homes, lost dreams and lost hope. The stories simply had to be reported. With no paper willing to print them or do them ethical justice, I would have to publish them myself. The time had come for local media to uphold Freedom of the Press and storm the Bastille of words for the public interest. But, first, I would have to revive journalism in a way that would not only capture readers’ attention and stir their hearts, but also restore a sacred trust in their media – with Truth and a good old-fashioned 18th-century style front page, void of ads and littered with peppery discourse, to awaken sleeping residents much like our forefathers’ much like our forefathers’ first newspapers and vigilantes long ago to send an alarm that the British scoundrels were coming.
During my many years as an editor and journalist for various local print media in Sedona, Ariz., I was struck by the wide scope of vital issues we never covered. Understaffed newsrooms with inexperienced reporters, already overwhelmed by multiple beats and story agendas, remained unable to pursue any in-depth investigative reporting on issues sorely in need of a professional journalistic microscope.
Residents from the surrounding Verde Valley communities constantly complained during civic meetings about the lack of quality regional journalism. They expressed disappointment over shallow reporting, zero coverage of their neighborhoods and constant failure to get their letters published. In an area with more than 70,000 residents, the main weekly paper’s circulation was only 7,000, sounding a journalism siren of citizen disgruntlement, dissatisfaction and distrust.
In just a short time, undocumented immigrant workers had descended on the city, pushing middle-class residents out of its workforce along with minimum-wage workers in search of better jobs and cheaper housing. Highway expansion threatened to destroy the last vestiges of small-town character. Tourism dropped sharply after 9/11, closing many small businesses and leaving dozens of workers without jobs.
Drought, wildfire and rampant development struck fear in the hearts of many conservationists. And some of the highest housing prices in the nation triggered a severe lack of affordable housing, forcing many working families to leave the area. Labor shortages contradicted high unemployment rates, and real estate values began to plummet in the highest priced housing market in the state.
As rampant housing and business foreclosures rendered many hard-working people homeless and unemployed, the streets of Sedona and nearby Cottonwood became dotted with corner cardboard-sign bearers, begging for food and jobs. In addition, the dramatically changing medical industry left many area seniors without coverage and treatment for cancer and other health conditions.
Trouble stirred in Paradise, yet the region's media still failed to properly dissect, report and translate these issues, whether in journalistic rhetoric or simple commonspeak. Articles about the homeless quoted city officials instead of capturing the reality of the individuals in their own voices. Worst of all, the truth about much of what was REALLY going on in Sedona and the Verde Valley remained suppressed by local newspaper publishers all pandering to advertisers, suppressing the truth and hindering the common good.
Environment, development, tourism and immigration – stories on Sedona’s woes abounded in papers as far away as New York City, but local journalism produced few reports of our own, for our own, about our own. While chronic social issues plagued regional communities, they remained ignored by newsroom management with insufficient payroll for investigative journalism -- and no interest in covering stories that don't enhance media profits.
Thus my investigative reports about patient and doctor allegations at a local medical facility remained unreported as nurses flooded my lines with tales of termination for blowing the whistle on medical and workplace violations. My publisher simply didn't want to risk the loss of ad dollars as well as face a major controversy. After all, the facility in question was the largest advertiser for all media in the area with an annual contract to appear on the most prominent pages of the paper.
"I'm not printing newspapers here," he would roar at me while gesturing over at the spinning presses. "I'm printing money! I don't give damn about journalism or your #%%* ethics."
He also conveniently sat on the hospital's board of directors. Yeah, the one where all the alleged deaths and violations were occuring.
That meant he was ordering editors like me to whitewash the reports of violations flooding our newsroom from nurses and doctors as well as their patients. Reporters who refused to slant the stories to suit the publisher's financial interests and violate the Journalism Code of Ethics faced instant termination. Something wasn't right... and it didn't take an investigative reporter to read in between the lines.
A rumbling stirred in my writing belly that Ralph Waldo Emerson would call “divine discontent.” As a local news editor, I was primarily regurgitating canned wire service copy and press releases that represented propaganda for the powerful elite. This was not why I had become a journalist. The "truth-telling" profession had seemingly become infected with a dangerous virus that, much like a computer, threatened to corrupt the entire system unless we could download a new program to protect the hard drive.
I yearned for the days of Woodward and Bernstein and Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill and Mike Royko. The era of Izzy Stone and muckrakers like Ida Tarbell and social reform journalists like Margaret Fuller (lucky girl!) who even got to romp with Emerson himself as well as my other hero, Henry David Thoreau.
It would have been easier to relocate to Seattle, Los Angeles or San Francisco – cities with large papers that already have investigative reporters or large staffs to cover more beats and issues. But I had traded them long ago in favor of pursuing community journalism. Sedona desperately needed the flavor of the socially responsible journalism I was trained to deliver – right here in our small town instead of some urban metropolis. Sedonans knew the world was corrupt, which was why they fled to the red rocks in the first place. But few now realized that their very own newspaper had become contaminated with the same greed and disregard for human life as the corporate realms and political paradigms they had left behind.
As an eclectic area with every walk of life, from savvy, retired CEOs and symphonic orchestra conductors to famous artists, immigrant day laborers and even working poor families, Sedona and its surrounding communities deserved better than school lunch menus and dreary police blotters. Or lies about their sole medical provider...
I knew in my heart that the interactive opportunities of digital journalism represented the very elixir the region needed to bring these residents together in solution-oriented public discourse. A city that served as an international Mecca for 4.5 million annual tourists seeking fine art, natural beauty and spirituality also warranted higher-caliber journalism. Or at least the TRUTH. And its two counties’ vast geographic proportions required interactive digital media to serve the diverse communities divided by many miles, mountains and mounting dilemmas.
David versus Goliath
In 2004 I was forced to quit my job at the local news monopoly in order to file a class-action lawsuit against my publisher for federal labor law violations I had uncovered. I also wanted his head on a silver platter for violations of the First Amendment and Journalism Code of Ethics.
Reporters were being fired for refusing to slant stories in the opinions of special interest groups that paid the paper huge amounts to buy column space so that editorials could appear as news stories -- a primary violation of journalism ethics. As an editor I was being ordered to censor letters from those whose opinions opposed that of the publisher's and these primarily represented anyone opposed to commercial development of open space.
This was not only a violation of journalism ethics but of the First Amendment itself -- the foundation of America and journalism as the soul of democracy. I could no longer leave my ethics at the newspaper door in exchange for a lousy paycheck. And lousy was the perfect adjective for it since I earned $10.50 per hour despite 28 years of experience under my belt and more than a dozen press awards.
That's when, with nothing to lose, I quit and filed the lawsuit -- and won my case, as federal marshals descended on the paper one scathing hot summer day with a warrant for the publisher's records.
But it was not without battle similar to a David and Goliath confrontation. It took sheer bravado and cunning strategy to take a stand against the most powerful man in town, known as "Sedona's Mafia" and owner of 75 percent of all the commercial real estate. Newspapers were merely a convenient hobby and tax deduction for a control freak who wielded incredible power in this small town and even had the chief of police neatly tucked away in his back pocket.
Think Rupert Murdoch. Remember William Randolph Hearst. Add a dose of Joseph Pulitzer. Then toss in the mentalities of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Now you get a good picture of this publisher who sat on every board of directors imaginable, including the local hospital monopoly and even the Arizona Newspaper Association.
After hiring the largest and most ferocious employer litigation firm in the nation, his jackal attorneys were forced to settle out of court to prevent the publisher from going to prison for charges of conspiring to alter employee time records and failure to comply with federal wage-and-hour laws.
The small fortune in attorneys' fees, federal fines and settlements paid to newsroom employees for back wages were but a small dent in the assets of a man with a net worth of $150 million. But, for men like these, it's not about financial sums but about wielding control of every cent and amassing empires. A new Q & A joke erupted among newsroom employees:
Q: How was the Grand Canyon formed?
A: When the publisher dropped one of the pennies he stole from his employees' payroll and kept digging for it.
The truth finds a portal of hope
The newsroom emptied out and an entire team of award-winning veterans was replaced with obedient rookies paid even lower wages than our insulting ones. The publisher and his paper were never disbarred from the press associations, and none of the area residents ever knew that their local community paper was an unconstiutional quagmire of hypocrisy and corruption. More importantly, they still didn't know the dangers lurking at their one and only medical facility and that their lives remained at stake if they required treatment, surgery or hospitalization there.
While I managed to escape the publisher's wrath by quitting my job at the paper, he made sure I was blacklisted from ever getting hired at another one again. But why would I want to go back to that? I was freelancing now for labor union publications and writing about workers' diminishing rights. Why return to whitewashing corrupt hospital fences and writing stories heralding elite boutique, gallery, hotel and restaurant owners with overinflated prices?
An alternative newspaper publisher in the area with the vision to see the worthiness of my story proposals granted me the space to run them. The agreement was no pay or remuneration, but I could retain all the copyrights to my work. With delivering truth more important to me than earning money, I enthusiastically agreed.
Suddenly, Sedonans could read stories that had been suppressed for years: the voices of workers at a coffee shop who were denied their pay; the immigrants being paid less than minimum wage at a local resort; an explanation of right-to-work laws so local employees could empower themselves; the truth about affordable housing issues; a case for fair wages; exposes about restaurant violations and countless others.
And then there was health care -- the one issues that doesn't discriminate between rich and poor, race, gender, age, political party affiliation or any other differences. Health care and medical industry corruption had stuck its intravenous tube into every single American man, woman and child, sucking up profits as it drained every wallet and pocketbook.
Health care reform: the catalyst for media metamorphosis
By 2005, while working as a freelance socioeconomic columnist, it occurred to me that there was no coverage about local health care issues. Were any seniors losing their homes or going bankrupt due to medical costs? Was there any truth to nurses’ allegations of patient neglect at a local medical facility? What silence needed to be broken?
So I began checking out leads, interviewing nurses and patients and researching physician lawsuits for an investigative report called “Prescription for Profit?” to examine the quagmire of allegations. I met with medical personnel and their patients at every hospital, from Sedona and Cottonwood to Flagstaff. By 2007, when the deaths and nurses’ complaints reached epidemic proportions, I knew there was no turning back. The time had come to launch my previously censored "Truth in Medicine" series.
I issued several e-mail calls across the community for health care reports from doctors, medical staff, patients and residents. The phone and e-mail lines became flooded with responses, and someone sent my e-mail to “SiCKO” filmmaker Michael Moore who wrote to cheer me on, saying he couldn’t wait to read the report.
After presenting my article to the publisher of the monthly alternative, he too censored it because the hospital facility in question was also his biggest advertiser and he couldn't afford to lose the revenue. This heinous medical institution and its evil CEO controlled every newspaper for thousands of square miles in northern Arizona with its money. I called it "economic arrest."
But they couldn't buy me out or pay me off despite a mere total of $12 in my checking account.
The call to social justice journalism
I had spent years in the 1990's writing about the plight of the Chino miners and labor unions advocating for workers rights. But health care reporting took social justice journalism to a new level. Now I had tales of lost lives, lost spouses, lost limbs, lost savings, lost homes, lost dreams and lost hope. The stories simply had to be reported as a moral obligation to the common good. With no paper willing to print the truth or do these stories full-length justice, I would have to publish them myself. The time had come for the media to uphold Freedom of the Press for the public interest -- at least in my back yard.
Benjamin Franklin once said that the power of the press belonged to those who owned one. Now, that power belongs to those who own one online. Through digital media I could override the astronomical cost of printing and circulation and reach and touch a national and global audience. It represented delivery of a universal message to a universal audience through universal technology.
First, I would have to revive journalism in a way that would not only capture readers’ attention and stir their hearts, but also restore a sacred trust in their media – with Truth and a good old-fashioned 18th-century style front page, void of ads and littered with peppery discourse. The media needed to awaken sleeping citizens, much like our forefathers’ first newspapers and vigilantes long ago, to send an alarm that the British scoundrels were coming.
Digital media offered the ideal solution. The Internet had become the No. 2 source of news in America. But would it work in rural Arizona? Would locals and seniors bother logging onto a Web site to read in-depth stories? It was an experiment worth trying.
As soon as word spread across the community that I was preparing a Web site to post “unreported news stories,” I was besieged with calls and e-mails to cover issues that “no other paper will touch…” Would I do a story about the trees they were tearing down to expand the highway? [See my resulting story "Barking Up the Wrong Tree."] Would I cover the untold story about developers proposing an upscale development called "Serenity" with a multiple-story parking garage in the sanctity of Oak Creek Canyon? [See my resulting story "Serenity or Insanity on Oak Creek?"] Would I consider an article about nurses getting fired for trying to start a union at the hospital in Flagstaff? [See my resulting story "Nurses Rally for Their Rights at FMC."] Would I write about the veteran local supermarket workers being replaced by non-union scabs? [See my resulting story "Express Checkout: Grocery workers left holding an empty bag."]
Stories poured in across the region, from Flagstaff to Prescott. I instantly saw the need and proceeded to fill it, armed solely with 30 years of award-winning writing and editing experience, a passion for the truth and a commitment to social justice. And it would be a solo newspaper endeavor titled "The Sedona Observer."
18th century principles, 21st century technology
What began as a digital news experiment devoted to local health care reports exploded almost overnight into a full-blown newspaper with an op-ed page and a blog, plus entire pages devoted to labor and health care – topics no local press would dare to touch. With this kind of content, advertising remained out of the question. So I published it as an out-of-pocket experiment with no salary, writing most of the content in a solo effort with a small handful of artists, such as cartoonists and videographers, donating their talent to the cause of social justice.
I spent three months researching 18th-century newspaper archives to determine how to mesh journalism’s roots with modern media. How could I make it innovative? By doing everything that modern digital media was not. The Observer would open to a striking actual front page, with the historic look and feel of an 18th century paper, instead of the typical uninspiring billboard menu of stories. It would feature an interactive Code of Ethics page, where readers could view our journalistic standards and hold us accountable to walk our talk.
Why not capture the essence of 18th century newspapers – free of display ads and loaded with plenty of subjective literary fire – to hearken an era of Freedom of the Press? Why not transform the monotony of 21st century media with the bold flavor of 18th-century journalism, mimicking the antique look of old newsprint and laced with peppery narration?
From capital to principle
By blending the beauty and glory of journalism’s founding principles with the interactive power and wonder of 21st-century technology – an open source digital platform embedded with live video streams, podcasts and blogs - the Observer could offer local communities the finest journalism possible, the best of the old and new, to embody transformation on every level – for community, society and democracy.
Best of all, the Observer could emancipate journalism from an advertiser-driven business commodity and restore it to a service-driven practice as a nonprofit community asset based on principle.
Journalism, it seemed, shared much in common with medicine: both needed restoration as healing practices committed to their ethics instead of operating as a commodities obsessed with currency.
Blind faith and perseverence
I researched, planned, wrote, edited, photographed… 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 3 months nonstop… learning new open source software and layout skills to design an exciting and completely new media as an experimental GIFT from a journalist for the love of truth, her trade and her community. I borrowed $187.50 for the software you see here and found a webmaster willing to teach me how to use it to create an online newspaper.
Uncertain if anyone would even care to read it, I decided to follow my gut and publish it in blind faith, bucking the trend for news briefs and sound bites in an attention-deficit culture. Instead, I would daringly present long literary treatises, much like the Founding Fathers in the early presses, to cultivate deeper awareness and exposure of the issues as an alternative to the erosion of reflection and retention.
Thus The Sedona Observer was born in October 2007, offering readers rich narrative stories about their neighbors, and neighborhoods and the issues that engage them instead of shallow news. Initially distributed to about 800 households, it spread like a wildfire. Hungry for journalism similar to the American diet - high in caffeine, salt, sugar and fat – readers devoured its content like a thick juicy bacon cheeseburger, eager to sink their teeth into a hearty alternative to the usual mundane carrot stick and stale dry cracker of modern media.
Most importantly, a story that had held its breath since 2003 -- the truth about violations at the regional hospital monopoly set into motion by its unethical CEO steeped in greed -- were finally brought to light for the common good. That diabolical CEO just stepped down from his throne and empire as this new issue was being put to bed. Imagine how many lives may have been saved....
Most people forwarded the Observer link, in turn, to all their contacts, with excited letters pouring in from all over the state and the nation, creating a viral marketing campaign and affirming that much of America, not just Sedona, was disgruntled with the decaffeinated, homogenized blandness of modern journalism. They wanted the truth, sprinkled with some spice. And, fed, up with current medical practices, there a widespread call for health care reform rang throughout all these letters.
A major journalism void had been filled – without advertising and therefore without threat to existing media. Some papers responded to our call for media unity. Links were exchanged; community collaborations formed; and media professionals far and wide stepped up to donate their talent for a good cause.
The future of journalism: "soul-utions" for transformation
With additional support and partnerships underway, The Sedona Observer is reaching out to touch regional communities, engaging them in a democratic public process and reclaiming journalism itself. We have the talent and the technology to “be the change we wish to see,” not just in the world but in our own little corner of the neighborhood, drilling deep into the very core of the issues to expose a bedrock of truth for societal transformation.
The inherent problems we face as a society are spiritual ones and therein lie the "soul-utions" to everything that ails this planet.
We think America's first journalists like Ben Franklin and its early publishers of newspapers such as The Massachusetts Spy depicted above would be thrilled with the Observer and its dedication to First Amendment rights. Best of all, they would probably love that we are emancipating journalism to emulate their own rich, literary style of speaking truth to runaway power.
By resurrecting the glory of 18th-century journalism ethics, business models and newspaper styles and then merging it with the power of 21st century technology, we believe we can better solve our world's current challenges. Just as modern medicine needs to integrate ancient wisdom, so too modern media must look to its past to restore integrity.
Changing America must first begin by changing its media to resurrect journalism as the vehicle for public service as it was intended. That's why we have adopted that as the Observer's slogan.
Because journalism is, after all, the Soul of Democracy.
Catherine J. Rourke
Editor & Publisher / Social Justice & Societal Transformation Journalist ~ The Sedona Observer
CEO, Compassionate Ethical Operator ~ Conscious Media Evolution
"Changing America by Changing Its Media First" with Emancipatory Journalism
February 8, 2008
AMERICA'S FIRST CONTINUOUSLY PUBLISHED NEWSPAPER
THE BOSTON NEWS-LETTER, first published April 24, 1704
THURSDAY, MAY 14, 1761 Issue
All news [much of it SUBJECTIVE]
NO ads, no real estate banners and no bar codes
Image: American Newspaper Archive
America's first continuously-published newspaper, the Boston News-Letter, published its first issue on April 24, 1704. John Campbell, a bookseller and postmaster of Boston, was its first editor, printing the newspaper on what was then referred to as a half-sheet. It originally appeared on a single page, printed on both sides and issued weekly.
In the early years of its publication, the News-Letter was filled mostly with reports from London journals detailing the intrigues of English politics and a variety of events concerning the European wars. The rest of the newspaper was filled with items listing ship arrivals, deaths, sermons, political appointments, fires, accidents and so forth.
John Draper, also a printer, became the publisher in 1732 and proved to be a better editor than his predecessors. He enlarged the paper to four good-sized pages, filling it with news from Boston, other towns throughout the colonies and from abroad.
There was plenty of subjective reporting, with laments about taxes and the monarchy. But there were no ads and nowhere are we able to find anything about costs for this fine rag. Since many colonists could not read, it was often read aloud in public squares and circulated freely.
Forty years later it would serve as a fiery public vehicle to incite colonists to stand up to the runaway power of the mightiest military force of that time - the British Army - until their independence was finally won.
While we know the process of media transformation will be a long and some times painful one, we believe that the day will come in America when citizens and journalists alike are ready to trade the new model that isn't working for the old one that worked and established this country from the very beginning.
After all, that's why Freedom of the Press was chosen as the FIRST Amendment -- and not the fifth or fifteenth.
Let the Truth Be Told and the Voice of the People Be Heard!!!
Formerly censored stories now appearing in The Sedona Observer
Invisible people speak out: Forgotten folks and neglected news
Homeless people speak out: Left Out in the Cold
Workers speak out: Reviving Labor Media
Doctors speak out against a broken system and questionable hospital practices:
"PROGNOSIS: DISASTROUS " and "What Ails Northern Arizona Health Care?" and "Are Hospitals Compromising Patient Safety?"
Nurses and hospital workers speak out:
"CONDITION: CRITICAL "
Patients speak out:
"Crimes against Humanity"
"Flatlined" -- the Joe Dimarco story
"A Mother's Heartbreak -- Could her daughter's life have been saved?"
The press speaks out:
"Truth in Medicine: The Economics of Breast Cancer" -- winner, National Federation of Press Women award
"From Hippocrates to Hypocrisy"
Truth in Medicine column series
Truth in Media
The trees speak out: [yes, they too have a voice]
"Barking Up the Wrong Tree"
THESE ARE JUST A FEW OF THE REPORTS - SEE OTHER STORY LINKS ON THE FRONT PAGE
Learn more on the MASTHEAD page and MISSION pages.
Catherine J. Rourke is an investigative journalist specializing in socioeconomic issues, health care reform, work-life balance, truth in medicine, the downtrodden and forgotten or "Invisible People" through her Invisible Sedona columns. Her goal is to tell the Charles Dickens stories of this era to advocate social justice and societal transformation through "SOUL-utions" for work-life balance and positive social change. She has received more than two dozen press awards for her narrative-style literary journalism reports dedicated to public service.
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