that time of year again. Time for every locally owned business owner
to get ancy, for select media to clear their desks, and for any
politician who screwed up royally to bite their nails off. No, it’s
not General Conference. Its City Weekly’s “Best Of Utah”
Awards. Making that other “best of” award show look like an
expensive sham (they make you buy your own trophy, you know), City
Weekly asks its loyal readers to chime in on who they
think is the most deserving for recognition, and then award them with
their name in print for all to see. This Wednesday they send out the
2008 issue, and to celebrate the many years worth of doing it, I
wanted to talk to someone about it. And who did I get to talk
to but Weekly’s own Editor… Holly Mullen! I got to chat with
her about her career, being Editor, Best Of, and other random topics.
Followed by a tour of their offices where I snapped pictures of the
staff hard at work on the issue.
Gavin: Tell us a little about yourself.
Holly: I've been a reported or editor for newspapers for almost 28 years. Graduate of the University of Utah's communication department and kind of did a real traditional pathway, I was the editor of the Daily Utah Chronicle and worked at the Deseret Morning News for a few years as a cub reporter. Then I just started wondering around the country a little bit and taking jobs at various newspapers. Worked in Spokane, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Dallas. But I was a native of Salt Lake and came back around ten years ago now, came back to where my elderly mother lives and decided to come back to Zion and hang out here for a while, so it's worked out well. I was with the Salt Lake Tribune for about ten years, five years in various positions. I did some news writing and then I edited the sports department during the Olympics, then I started a Metro column three times a week int he local section and did that for almost five years. Then I ended up here at City Weekly about a year ago.
Gavin: How was it in the earlier days of the Deseret News and the Chronicle?
Holly: Oh, really fun. I've had such a great time, and I can't believe I'm talking this way because when I started out I used to look at people my age in the newsroom and go "What an old battleaxe. What's the deal with that woman? She's so bitter." And now I've become one of those women, except I'm not bitter. So yeah, I absolutely love this profession. Every once in a while I think about doing something different. Would I go get a graduate degree or try something else, but I'm so wired toward reporting and editing that I can't go there, I can't get my head around it, so I stay where I am.
Gavin: A little about the Tribune, I take it you were there during the sale and the fallout. What was that experience like?
Holly: It was tough. I mean, for me personally, it was tough. I was very close to Jay Shelledy, the former editor, he was a mentor of mine and remains a mentor, I talk to him when I can and he's really got a good soul and heart for journalism. So that was tough for me personally because he was kind of etched out of there when Dean Singleton bought the newspaper. I think the transition was smooth, it was emotional but it was smooth physically. They moved to The Gateway and gave up on the lease on the old Tribune building. That went well, everyone's stuff got moved over. But emotionally it was tough for a lot of people because change is just unsettling all the time no matter where you're working or what change you're going through. And those of us who followed Singleton and his corporation media news group, it was tough to see it happen with this business has become so tight and difficult now. Newspapers are really struggling to stay relevant and to stay technologically important, and so there was always a lot of fear over the idea that someone's going to lose their jobs, someone's going to get reshuffled. Some of that happened but nobody lost their job directly as a result of it, several people left because they weren't happy with changes that were taking place. I still have quite a few friends over at the Tribune but I don't talk to them on a regular basis so I don't know what it's like right now.
Gavin: What made you decide to switch over to City Weekly?
Holly: I actually had a falling out with the management over one of my columns. It's kind of a long story but the just of it was that I wrote a long column one day in December of 2006 and my editor wasn't happy with it, and was told that the editors above him weren't happy with it and that they weren't going to run my column for that day because they didn't like the topic I had chosen. They didn't feel the topic was local enough, for instance, that was the reason I was given. So I offered to rewrite it and maybe change it up, I've always had a good relationship with my editors and I take rewriting pretty well, but they didn't want that. I guess the thing is in my career I've been fortunate, I've never backed myself off into enough of a corner and I've always had a pool of enough money that I could get by for a few months financially in case I left of was fired from a job. And in this case it paid off because I went home that weekend and thought it over, talked to my husband and a couple really good friends who I take counsel from. I just decided I wasn't going to work for a paper that didn't back up my columns. A column is supposed to be independent and express views and opinions that are his or her own. And I just felt like it was too much of a compromise for me to give that up. So I came in that Monday and I left the paper. I didn't have anything else to fall back on and had no other job lined up. Went home for about five months in a sorta extended sabbatical. Kept a blog for a while that I've since given up on.
Holly: Yes! I'm too busy to pay attention to it anymore. It was fun to keep it going, to keep my writing up. That was the main reason I did it was to keep my writing sharp and not fall into too much of a slump. Mentally and emotionally I was very free in making that decision. But anyway, I was off work for about five months and then John Saltas contacted me to see if I might want to come down and work at City Weekly as an editor. I thought about it for a while and said yes and here I am a year later.
Gavin: What was it like first taking over as Editor?
Holly: It was really interesting. I've had a couple other alternative papers in my background so that wasn't new. The style narrative approach to stories rather than just the "who, what, where, when, why" you get in traditional newspaper writing. That part, I wouldn't say it comes easy because it's challenging task, but I understand and get what alternative journalism is about. It was challenging to move into a place and work with people I'd never worked with before. I've always been a fan of City Weekly and read it regularly, so I was familiar with different writers styles. Always loved Bill Frost, for instance, and his humor and his approach to everything. And John Saltas and I have been friends. In that regard I kind of knew people and a little bit about their background, so that part was fun. Kind of just adjusting to a smaller staff and work area was harder for me. Not impossible but it took some restructuring on my part and reprogramming my brain. But I find it really fun and the office culture is pretty loose. We have a really good time and we manage to put out a paper every week so I can't complain about that.
Gavin: In more recent times there's been more investigative reporting as opposed to just examining what's going on in the city. Do you believe you have an influence in that, or do you believe that's just the way the paper was going?
Holly: I absolutely do. The thing of it is when John started the paper over 25 years ago, it used to be called Private Eye. And it's got kind of an interesting history.
Gavin: It started out as a bar tab, didn't it?
Holly: Yeah, it was a bar tab. John had this distinct mission because clubs were really frozen out of advertising and things like that with our crazy liquor laws here in Utah. And it sort of evolved over the years into a news and feature paper. Back in it’s early life there was quite a bit of investigative reporting, in fact one of the storied legends at City Weekly is about a freelance writer named Lynn Packer who pretty much broke open the whole scandal surrounding former Mayor Deedee Corradini who was involved in some very serious financial scandals, and City Weekly broke those stories and that sort of set the theme for investigative reporting. It’s always been like that but we’re trying really hard to get more of that in the paper. I’d say in the last six months or so we’ve had quite a bit more of that in the paper and we need to keep it up because it’s a really important piece to cover the community.
Gavin: Cool. Best Of Utah, how long has that been going on?
Holly: That may be a hard one for me to answer but I believe going back twenty years or so, I think. And every year it’s just gotten bigger and bigger. It’s just a big annual behemoth of an issue, I’m sure it’ll be over 200 pages when it comes out this Wednesday and it’ll also be online as well. It’s definitely a money maker issue for the paper from all the advertising. We are very careful, we keep a very good firewall between advertising and editorial so the advertisers have no idea what we’re working on and we don’t know who they’re selling to. Whatever comes out, comes out. And that’s the way we’re going to keep it.
Gavin: What’s the popularity of the issue? Has it kept growing over the years or has it remained consistent in it’s popularity?
Holly: I think it’s grown a lot, and we do keep track of distribution and circulation. Every week we put out 60,000 papers around the Wasatch Front in various boxes and locations, and whatever we get back when the drivers change out report on that. There’s a little bit of waste here and there, but if we can get fewer than 10% returns we consider that to be a really good issue. And Best Of is really good, last year was only 5% returns. So we can track that it’s our best read issue of the entire year. It’s got a little gossip in it and a little political news, but it’s got things like best sandwich and best coffee and best… everything. So people are really curious about it. I mean, I always was when I worked at the Tribune and kept it around for those evenings when you say “I wanna have some good Mexican food, where should I go?” You thumb through it and look, it’s a cute little reference book for people and that’s what I love about it.
Gavin: Are there any awards you feel maybe you should retire? Like, how Radio From Hell tends to win every year and they say it should be retired. And like them there are categories every year where it’s the same restaurant or business that wins year after year. Is it something you’d like to keep in tradition, or one year you’ll finally say “well that’s enough of that.”
Holly: People may not realize it but we do that a little bit at a time with certain entries. But the other piece of this is that there’s a category for staff picks and there’s a category for reader picks, so the reader actually send in ballots either by paper or the online form. And the readers honestly turn in a lot of the same people over and over again. I don’t listen to Radio From Hell everyday, I listen to it fairly often. But I’m sure Bill, Kerry and Gina are often going “Send in those ballots for Best Of! Remember who brought you to the dance!” So in that respect we don’t have a lot of control over what readers want to pick. I have to honestly tell people, I’m sure some think that someone’s stuffing the ballot box, but if we start getting a lot of ballots in that look the same, we disqualify them. I don’t blame people for trying but we try to counteract that as often as we can. So that might explain how some people get the same awards every year.
Gavin: Any hints towards some of the staff picks this year?
Holly: Oh, I can’t tell you. (Laughs) It’s proprietary. I mean, there’s no surprising some of the typical stuff like Best News Anchor or Best Coffee Bar, you know, some of our “no brainers”. And then we have a bunch that are really silly and based on gaffs and things politicians did or the media did. So those things are a surprise and are always fun and they evolve over the year. We try to keep a running list so that when you think of something in July, you can pull it out in April and write about it for Best Of Utah.
Gavin: What do you think of the other alternative publications in Utah? And what do you think has kept City Weekly so sustaining over the years?
Holly: Well… I’m just going to cut right to it. We don’t have any love lost on In. And some people say it’s because they give us competition. I see SLUG and Catalyst as competition as well, but they have such a specific audience that there’s plenty of room for all of us. And there’s room for In too, but it’s not just about competition where I get snooty and wish is wasn’t around. Philosophically there’s a real problem I think with In Utah This Week, because basically it’s a real cynical approach by MediaNews to cash in on our advertising market and our readership market with a really skeleton staff. They don’t pay their people well, and have a very small staff to try to do what we do well on a fulltime committed basis. Most of the alternative papers in this country who have been doing it for years have a commitment to alternative journalism. We cover the art scene, we do many of the things that In does now as well, but we also have a strong commitment to finding out news stories and doing investigative reporting. Really getting behind stories, not just fluffy “So-and-so is coming to play this week.” If there’s a good story to be told about local music like the way the symphony and opera are going, all of that stuff we try to get behind the real story. And you can only do that with a commitment to the community and your staff and really careful hardcore journalism. And that’s the real difference. I do believe that City Weekly and other alternative newspapers across the country who started back in the 60’s and 80’s who complied their field early and got out on the scene have that commitment. In Utah This Week is not just a Salt Lake phenomenon, a lot of the daily papers across the country have done the same thing, and I think it’s a real cynical approach. Sitting around saying “We need to get younger readers, so let’s get together and make a really cool alternative publication and put it in the clubs. Then they’ll start reading the Tribune.” And there are some readers and they’ve shown an increase, but at the end of the day I think if you want real journalism and solid reporting you’ll come to City Weekly.
Gavin: So then what’s your opinion on SLUG?
Holly: I love SLUG, and I’m 50 years old so I’m not some young gun. My kids read it too, real carefully from cover to cover. But I absolutely love what they do, I feel they’re a really important voice, and I’ve always liked Angela Brown. I’ve only met her a couple of times, we don’t hang out of anything like that, but I have a lot of respect for her professionally and to her commitment. She’s another person who is committed to really covering a certain core group in Utah and they’ve not strayed from that. They respect their audience and respect what they’re doing and I have a lot of respect for what they do.
Gavin: Touching back on the internet for a second, magazines are starting to become more accessible on webpages and becoming more net friendly. Some even shutting down being a publication and going strictly for the internet. Do you believe that’s where City Weekly may be headed, or are you going to stick to its roots for as long as possible?
Holly: Well I think we’ll try to stick to the roots, but there’s no mystery or question to the fact that all prints are going to have to start stepping up more of a web presence. You can see it with our publication and we’re trying really hard, we’re still behind probably where we’d like to be. We’d like to have more video on our site, more of a feeling of movement. But you see it with the daily papers, with the television stations, everybody’s trying to get some kind of important presence online. But I don’t get any sense that we’re going to give up any time soon on the print version. In fact I think we’re still seeing as a print medium there’s a number of people who read us online just like other media. But I think people still have a mindset that it’s Wednesday, I think I’ll go pick up my City Weekly from the newsstand. I’m old enough so that I’ve got one foot inside one technology and the other foot’s kinda saying “what the hell is going on?” But to what extent I can, I love learning about it and being a part of it, I think blogging is a whole lot of fun. And I especially like blogs like the one you’re (Gavin) doing.
Gavin: Awesome! Go me!
Holly: Which I’ve said before. I talk to a lot to college students who are studying journalism and I tell them a lot that even though there’s uncertainty in this business, nobody knows where it’s going or knows what it’s true future is. But in many ways I feel they have a lot more opportunity than when I graduated. When I got out it was newspapers, television, radio; that was it! Maybe if you were smart and artistic you got into documentaries where you could use film making skills and reporting skills. But wherever this thing is going with online technology, I see newspapers growing out of it, it may be a different kind of newspaper than what we’re used to dealing with. But as long as people are learning good communication and reporting skills along with writing and editing, it can all be transferred to the web. I mean, you’re (Gavin) doing it, you go out and talk to real people. So many bloggers, and I’ve been guilty of it, sit in their little office at home and look out the window and suck their thumbs and write something. But reporting is really where it’s at with primary sources and going out and digging things up. So I see all kinds of online newspapers taking shape. The secret there too is to sell ads and make money at it, and I don’t know where that’s going. Somehow if we can make money and continue to cover news in a really investigative way, I just see a really big future there and I’m just excited about it.
Gavin: Random question. There’s been an urban legend for years that one day City Weekly would make a venture into television, converting the issues into a weekly program on a local station. Is there any truth to that, or is it just one of those rumors that just won’t die?
Holly: Well, thanks for the idea! (Laughs) I’ve never heard that before, I honestly haven’t. I mean, we do little cross-promotional things, like where Bill Frost does a spot on X96 to talk television for the week. But in terms of doing a whole television show with a City Weekly presence, I’ve never heard of that. But it’s rather intriguing. As I said earlier we were looking for more of a video presence on the website. But many of the alternative magazines who are ahead of us on the web have done YouTube sort of things where they go out with a handheld camera and film stuff. One guy in Austin walked around with their circulation manager who was throwing out boxes with their newspaper, just hanging out with him and asking him random questions. He interviews homeless people as they walked by and grabbed the paper. It’s shaky-video style and they put it up on their website. But is there any interest from the readers for that? I don’t know.
Gavin: Anything you wanna add or talk about?
Holly: Just keep reading. We’re really excited because now people can read it and post comments online and give reactions to stories or suggestions. I’d just like to encourage people to let us know if they hate something or like something, it’s a really good way for us to get some feedback and find out whether we’re scoring with the public or not. I just encourage people to keep reading and let us know.