The inside story of how Jay Shore’s weekly divided and conquered Santa Cruz 40 years ago
When I arrived in Santa Cruz as an 18-year-old, I applied to sell ads at Good Times because I needed to pay for college. I’d been the top seller at the San Diego Reader a year earlier.
I didn’t get the job. They told me they didn’t want to hire a student, and I wound up working for a competitor, the Independent. That didn’t last long because my boss invited me over to his house on Opal Cliffs, plied me with vodka-grapefruit cocktails and expressed his interest in having his way with me. Yes, ladies, it happens to us, too.
Even though I identified more with the socially conscious free publications of the era, I found Good Times fascinating because it defied conventional wisdom and succeeded. When I wrote my thesis on weekly journalism in California, it was Good Times, along with the LA Weekly and the San Diego Reader, that I studied.
My graduation advisor—the late, legendary UCSC writing instructor Don Rothman—was unsettled with my conclusion that a free weekly could be wildly successful without any social mission, as long as it had a good entertainment section. It didn’t matter if the publisher thought gay personals and abortion were immoral (Reader), obsessed with covert US military intervention in Central America (LA Weekly) or just wanted to party on (Good Times); the publication would succeed if it covered the fundamentals of selling ads and provided useful back-of-book information in an attractive format.
So it’s ironic that I’m an owner of the paper that almost four decades ago wouldn’t hire me, and which was also the antagonist of my college thesis.
The never-before-published article below was written in 1980 based on an interview with Good Times founder Jay Shore.
THE GOOD SMELL OF SUCCESS:
An Interview with Jay Shore
A large concrete block rises above the south end of Santa Cruz’s Pacific Garden Mall. The building looks something like a giftwrapped package with a ribbon slicing across its upper left-hand corner. On the ribbon are two words: Good Times.
In the rear parking lot is a black Mercedes sports coupe with the same words on its bumper. A man gets out and heads toward the elevator, which is decorated with a rainbow-like design, a pattern one sees again when the doors open onto the corridors of the third floor. It’s painted in happy colors—lime-sherbert green and cantaloupe orange.
The publisher’s office inside is mostly white and stark. Two graphics stand out. The first is a framed copy of the first issue of Good Times, the weekly Jay Shore started five years ago. The other is a chart of advertising plotting each year’s fortunes with green, blue, purple and red lines, each one exceeding the previous year in a jagged upward climb. He’ll need a new chart soon, because the red line went off the chart last December, forcing him to use a pushpin and red thread to reach a point inches above the bulletin board that holds the graph.
Shore leans back in a padded swivel chair, strokes a crest of fine red hair and glances out the window. The 32-year-old est graduate says the reason for his success is simple.
“I’ve presented a positive view on whatever we chose to cover, and I left politics aside … I think the paper is rather unique. It doesn’t cover any politics, yet it is seen by a large number of people in Santa Cruz as a community paper and it doesn’t cover things that are traditionally covered by community papers, namely school boards, births, deaths …”
“I wanted people to finish reading Good Times and feel good about the people they were reading about … It increases the general well-being of the populace to be positively reinforced. You can make a strong argument sociologically that so many people in society are so screwed up today and have been for generations because they’ve been negatively reinforced by parents, school, church and all authority figures.”
He looks me in the eye and says, “I did something that I found made good business sense as well as good karma, and that is to write about things in a positive light. Especially about your town. You know, a bird doesn’t shit in his own nest.”
So, while the electorate of Santa Cruz has battled over issues of growth management, rent control, environment, power, and the recall of public officials, Good Times has covered entertainment. Its coverage has been dominated by music reviews, film reviews, record reviews and restaurant reviews which are rarely, if ever, critical.
This policy was set down by Shore in a front page editorial on October 30, 1975:
“This paper, it’s no secret, generally gives favorable publicity to local performers and resident enterprises. We believe in the talent in this community and are strong boosters of the good life in Santa Cruz … And I personally prefer to publish good news. Not only does it make it easier for me to walk down dark alleys and into bars late at night, it’s also profitable—for everyone associated with the paper. Good Times is healthy and prosperous precisely because of this attitude.
At least half a dozen other weeklies and biweeklies started up in the ’70s, none of which shared Good Times‘ fortune. All of them tried to present an alternative viewpoint to the news presented in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, a conservative daily.
The two that have survived into the ’80s—the Phoenix and the now-defunct People’s Press—could barely maintain enough advertising for a 16-page issue on weeks when Good Times prints ad-choked 60-pagers. Underground-style newspapers like Sundaze and Free Spaghetti Dinner are only memories.
So is the Santa Cruz Independent, which for two-and-a-half years was Good Times’ most vital competitor.
The Independent had been a collectively-owned, community-oriented newsweekly which alienated many of its potential advertisers with its editorial positions. Disregarding the sentiment of the business community, it supported rent control, opposed development, took up the cause of street musicians and endorsed socialist candidates for public office. It also revealed that Leask’s department store had administered polygraph tests to employees and reported that bouncers at the Catalyst nightclub were rearranging customers’ faces. Both businesses excluded the Independent from their large advertising budgets.
Jay Shore knew better than to bite the hand that fed him and opted for a more commercially palatable product when he founded Good Times in 1975. He realized that political coverage was not something the business community wanted and that “… there didn’t seem to be a market for it. Those who wanted it weren’t a large enough segment of society to make an impact on our possible advertisers. Santa Cruz is a small town, and I knew that to establish a good, buyable newspaper here I’d have to bring together the different parts of this town like they hadn’t been brought together before. And to take political stands on issues was just going to further fragment the town or at least make more manifest the fragmentations of the town, and there is no economic base for a fragmented audience.”
Today, Leask’s and the Catalyst advertise heavily with Good Times. So do the majority of small businesses that advertise locally, who, regardless of their ideological leanings or feelings toward the Good Times, find the paper an indispensable way to reach the lucrative youth audience.
Shore learned the hard way that profits, not politics, make a successful newspaper. He made the transition from idealistic journalist to success-conscious businessman only after a series of attempted careers and a failed newspaper venture.
Once, he was even controversial. While a student at Penn State, he published an underground newspaper which led to his arrest on obscenity charges. “Our first issue had John Lennon and Yoko Ono nude on the cover, and it got into the hands of high school students,” Shore remembers. “Some irate parents phoned the local constabulary, who pulled me out of my Shakespeare class and arrested me … It cost me $500 in attorney’s fees to prove my innocence.”
Shore had also been a seventh grade English teacher in North Plainfield, New Jersey and a freelance reviewer for Rolling Stone. He came out to Santa Cruz in the summer of 1971 with a guitar he sometimes played at local clubs.
Shore worked for 13 months as a reporter for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. He quit to become a fiction writer, a career that would last only a few months, after which he started the Santa Cruz Times with some savings he had brought out from New Jersey.
The paper was billed as “a contemporary news medium,” and emphasized feature-oriented local issues, such as development, crime against hitchhikers, gays and lesbians, nuclear power, oil drilling in Monterey Bay, and what university students do after graduation.
Neal Coonerty of Bookshop Santa Cruz, a faithful advertiser in both papers who now co-owns a bar with Shore, recalls that the bearded publisher wore a leather jacket and rode a motorcycle in those days. “His first office was upstairs in the ID building, and you went in through the entryway to the men’s room. It was a small paper, only eight or 12 pages, and it wasn’t very successful,” says Coonerty.
As editor of the Santa Cruz Times, Shore says, “I was not so much concerned with operating a business as I was with running an editorially and artistically professional newspaper. I didn’t realize then, although I should have, that a newspaper had to be run exactly like a business to stay in business. Both the editorial and the graphic end of the newspaper were indeed functions of the business end, because if there was no business, there would be no paper to print the editorial matter on. There would be no machines to typeset it. There’d be no office in which to house it—and there wasn’t in those days. In those days I was bringing home $300 a month, and by far I was the highest paid person there—and I was working 50 to 60 hours a week.”
Even then, he claims, “I was never politically concerned.” Unlike many of his peers of that era, he was not bothered by capitalism. He yawns and adds, “I didn’t think about it being necessarily bad. I never thought the workers were particularly oppressed. I never thought of it one way or the other.”
Shore covered politics in the Times because “it was exciting from a purely journalistic point of view,” not out of a desire to shape events or influence changes. Despite its editorial strengths, the Times had lost money from its first issue, and in March of 1975 Shore had to give up because “I was tired of hitting my head against the wall … [and] … I could no longer afford to sustain the loss.”
He decided to create a new paper called Good Times, the name he had been using for the Times’ calendar section. It started two weeks after the original newspaper’s demise. It would be light and unchallenging, emphasizing lifestyle features, calendar listings, film reviews, crafts, theatre and record writeups. Most importantly, it would be apolitical.
In the Santa Cruz Times’ final editorial, the editor wrote, “While not disparaging politics, I think there are enough vehicles for it for those people who want to read about it … Good Times, it is my hope, will show people how to enjoy themselves here. It will suggest places to go and things to do.”
Apparently, he was not without misgivings, telling his readers, “I know more and more residents have come to depend on the Times to provide them with a professional, alternative viewpoint we so sorely need. The local daily leaves a gap, a big one, and the other weeklies in town have not consistently had the talent to bridge that gap.”
Coonerty remembers Shore coming into his office and announcing that he was starting a paper exclusively for entertainment. “I told him it would absolutely not work … Obviously, I was wrong,” he chuckles.
“Want to have fun?” asked the first subscription ad, “Subscribe to Good Times, the one local newspaper dedicated to telling you about all the fun trips you can take in Santa Cruz … the one newspaper devoted entirely to the entertainment, recreation and crafts scene.”
A front page article in the second issue asked readers to write about their recreational activities. “Don’t hesitate to include the seemingly small or irrelevant incidents that were part of your activity,” they were advised. Writers were offered a free one-year subscription in exchange for their services.
It was a novel concept, one that hadn’t been tried before. At first, reader reaction was restrained, but by the third issue there appeared a fan letter:
Hey, I like your new paper, better than the old political one. I just finished reading Vol. I, No. 2 and Bruce Bratton’s page is really fun to read. Don’t let him go. Also Joan Klingenberg’s food column—we needed this. I also read the “Letters,” glanced through the Calendar, and, of course, the front page.
You know, I was going to let my subscription run out in August, but now I am sending a $5 check for another year. I really appreciate your terrifically good efforts … I like it and I’m square and middle aged.
Sincerely, Irene Clark, Watsonville
Shore says he doesn’t recall if he wrote the letter.
In the beginning, the paper struggled to build an advertising base, running lean 12-page issues. At one point, Good Times even accepted an ad from Frenchy’s adult bookstore offering a $14.95 vibrator for $8.88 “with this ad.” There was also a hazy distinction made between advertising and editorial. When the newly-opened Stereo Warehouse ran a full page ad, it was accompanied by an article headlined “LOW PRICES, QUALITY GEAR AT STEREO WAREHOUSE.”
By its seventh month, Good Times was running 16 pages steadily and claimed to be “the largest circulated weekly in Santa Cruz.” It was getting advertising from stereo stores, haircutters, craft shops, clothing stores, restaurants, theatres and foreign car mechanics. Soon the paper added color to its covers, an innovation which would evolve into a colorful style that became the publication’s trademark.
As Good Times grew, so did employee dissatisfaction. During late 1977 and early 1978, staff members claimed their talents were being exploited by an unresponsive management, and they attempted to form a union. Unionization was put to a vote, and to Shore’s surprise, it won by almost a 2-1 margin.
According to former typesetter Rosemary Balsley, Shore hired management consultants and lawyers and dragged out negotiations for over nine months. Afraid of sabotage, he stripped employees of their keys. When the stalemate was finally broken, only one union member remained, and starting wages were raised from $2.50 to $3 an hour.
Balsley minces no words in describing her former employer. “He’s a pig,” she says, “very controlling, sexist, exploitative, aggressive and authoritarian. He’s very temperamental. He broke a lot of pencils and threw a lot of temper tantrums.”
In the summer of 1978, Shore had a falling out with his sales manager, Lee Nation. (“He fell out,” as Shore describes it.) Nation had been a long-time Santa Cruz local whose experience as a salesman for the Sentinel, hometown contacts, and business savvy had been largely responsible for the paper’s rapid growth. Shortly after he left Good Times, a bitter Nation charged he had been promised a share of the corporation, and he quit the day Shore reneged on the deal. Shore says he never discussed ownership with his sales manager, but prefers to avoid the subject.
Shore also came under heavy criticism from the left for his head-in-the-sand approach to community politics. Many resented him for his success alone, but there was also a feeling that Good Times was rapidly gobbling up the bulk of the youth market advertisers, making it difficult for a political paper to exist in Santa Cruz for the 18-34 market.
Nevertheless, Shore persevered. Up until then his life had been a series of disappointments. An attempted marriage fell through. He did not want to be a teacher or reporter, and there was little hope of making it as a musician or novelist. His first newspaper venture had failed. This time he was determined to succeed.
He had hit upon a money-making formula with Good Times. It meant he had to discard many of the time-honored notions traditionally associated with good journalism: public service, objectivity, credibility, critical reviews uninfluenced by advertising concerns, protection of people against bad government, and so on. Because his paper is so different from other newspapers, Shore claims, “I further defined the alternative newspaper … Good Times is a true alternative newspaper.”
This statement, while ludicrous at first, may have a strange logic to it. There has been a nationwide trend among alternative newsweeklies to de-emphasize news in favor of fluff, features and entertainment coverage. Shore took this trend to its extreme conclusion and eliminated news coverage altogether.
Shore feels that a newspaper’s appeal is a product more of style and format than substance. “To a great extent … the impact of the content is determined more on its presentation and medium in which it is presented rather than the content itself.” As Marshall McLuhan would say, “the medium is the message.”
The way in which a newspaper presents its content is sometimes called “packaging.” Shore believes “packaging is crucial to the success of just about anything. I think it is the absence of a package as well as reduced price which make people buy Kmart toothpaste as opposed to Crest. Yet, far more people will buy Crest as opposed to Kmart, precisely because of its package and naturally, because of publicity and advertising.”
It’s hard to resist the challenge: “So what you’re saying is that a newspaper is like, say, a toothpaste, and will sell if you design it right and put the right colors on it?”
“Sure,” he answers, “You have to sell a newspaper. Anything you have to sell has to be packaged properly, marketed properly, distributed properly, and I think it can well be argued that to a great extent content is either subservient to or definitely altered and made to be what it is as a result of the package you choose to present it in … The viewer sees it differently depending on how it is presented.”
The results of good packaging are apparent from the chart on my left. Shore sees me looking at the grid of peaks and valleys and a dialogue ensues.
Dan Pulcrano: How much money does Good Times make?
Jay Shore: That’s for the stockholders to look at.
How many stockholders do you have?
One. Ha. It is a private corporation.
What’s your gross?
It’s healthy. Figure it out.
Some quick mental arithmetic reveals that during his top week of the year, Shore is grossing near $20,000. Other issues fall between $10 and $15 thousand.
What does Shore think about capitalism?
“Oh, it is an excellent system,” he responds, “As long as it is left unhindered it is the only system that provides you with incentive to do something, the only economic system that provides you with the incentive to get off your ass and better yourself.”
And while he may never have looked at it this way, by publishing Good Times for the past five years and getting away with it, Jay Shore has been making an important political statement about our times. He has been distributing a sanitized view of the world in his newsless newspaper, and as far as the print media in Santa Cruz goes, it’s the hottest thing in town. If you talk to Good Times readers or advertisers, you’ll hear many complaints. But readers snap up papers each Thursday to find out what movies are playing or what bands are in town. And advertisers find Good Times an irresistible vehicle for attracting revenue.
Shore thinks he’s found the trend of the future and has launched a San Jose Good Times. After San Jose, he’s looking to conquer the entire Bay Area with a regional paper.
Shore shrugs off any criticism of Good Times, saying: you can’t fault the dog for not being a cat. After reading this article, his only complaint was that I had gotten the color of his Mercedes wrong.
It’s brown, not black,” he pointed out, adding that brown was the color of a conservative businessman. I looked closely at the sports coupe and noticed that, sure enough, it was a deep cordovan that closely resembled black. It was a subtlety that had escaped me, but Jay Shore knows packaging and was just trying to make sure I’d show his true colors.
Top photo caption: Dan Pulcrano as a student journalist at UCSC’s Stonehouse. He wrote a chapter of his college thesis on Good Times’ founder Jay Shore’s controversial success.