Recalling Sonoma County's first alt newspaper
By Bruce Robinson
Thirty-five years ago, Sonoma County's first alternative paper was born. Christened the Bugle, for reasons no one can quite recall today, it championed the burgeoning issues and culture of its era.
"It had a column on gay liberation, it had a column on women's liberation," recalls Rob Weinstein, the paper's one-time circulation manager. "We dealt with issues around Ya-Ka-Ama, the Native American developments in Sonoma County. We had a lot to do with things like alternative energy and fighting for the Coastal Commission. I myself did a series of articles on PG&E's attempt to build a nuclear power plant at Point Arena. And all of that was pretty groundbreaking at its time."
That time was 1970–1973, during which a handmade, student-run community newspaper confronted the establishment at every turn, injecting an element of idealistic activism into the public dialogue. Over the course of 64 fortnightly issues, more than 200 people contributed to the Bugle. About a quarter of them reunited in Cotati recently to exchange decades of subsequent personal histories and happily relive their tabloid exploits.
When the admittedly confrontational student paper the Steppes, was shut down by the administration of what was then Sonoma State College, writers Michael Funke and Stephen Laughlin, photographer Anthony Tusler and others moved their journalistic endeavor off-campus, where it soon became the Sonoma County Bugle. In just their second issue, Funke recalls, the paper published the transcript of a secret meeting of the Friends of Sonoma College, "who were bound and determined to take care of the hippie left political riff-raff at Sonoma State. Publishing that transcript really put us on the map for people who knew us from the Steppes and our 'Smash the state!' days, and were having a hard time taking us seriously."
Of course, the lead headline in issue number one--"Grass is our sacrament"--may have contributed to that.
"The Bugle had a remarkable sense of humor, which was used to tweak the nose of authority pretty consistently," Weinstein says. For instance, in a survey that asked readers to list the 10 most influential people in the county, Dammit D. Dogg, a staffer's pet, placed third, ahead of several unamused county supervisors.
When the Bugle's 50th edition came out, around April 1, 1973, the staff included a four-page pull-out parody--of their own paper. In it was a photo of Mick Jagger, with the caption, "Wasn't everyone surprised when the Rolling Stones dropped by the Inn of the Beginning for a secret concert last week?" Weinstein can barely contain his laughter as he recalls, "That got us several phone calls from people who were really angry for not knowing about the concert!"
The gadfly tabloid was also taken seriously by more grounded readers. "The newspaper rack we had at the county center always sold out," says Tusler. "And that tells me that the people in the county, the establishment, were reading what we had to say, that we were having an influence."
Evidence of that influence endures. "One of the main things the Bugle did was it really focused attention on growth and development issues," says Toni Novak, a longtime Peace and Freedom Party activist who was herself covered in the Bugle's pages. "It did good analytical articles on growth and development. It helped change the perspective of this count and made greenbelts and the tremendous interest in recycling more possible."
"Just the energy," was the dominant Bugle memory of another reunion attendee, cartoonist Nick Cassina, who also drew many of the hand-lettered ads in the paper's pages. "It was probably just due to youth, probably due to causes." He adds, "There were a lot of causes."
But the Bugle was the product of a small group of mostly students, working long hours without pay (and sometimes using student loans to keep it afloat). Eventually, their energy wore down. Soon the decision became to either sell the paper--an intolerable sellout--or lay it to rest.
The Bugle's third anniversary issue was its last, a fond farewell to readers and colleagues.
"When we started, the counterculture was a small group of people in Sonoma County who didn't have a voice," Tusler says. "This was a rural, conservative county that was agriculturally based, and it was changing.
And we were part of that change. We helped create that change, and we documented that change.
"I'm in awe of the work we did."
From the October 26-November 1, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.