By: Mark Fitzgerald
When ex-Marine Bruce Anderson bought the sleepy and coincidentally named Anderson Valley Advertiser in 1984, he fully intended use the weekly in the wine — and pot — country of Mendocino County, Calif., for combat against the local court and school systems. In the many media interviews he gave in recent months, Anderson variously described the paper as a hammer, a cudgel, a club, and a weapon.
Over the years, his paper mixed rants against local authority figures on the political right and left with contributions from nationally known writers such as Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. It won a loyal following and deep enmity in Mendocino County, and nationally. Cockburn famously called Anderson “America’s greatest editor” for his willingness to mix it up with the “cops, prosecutors, judges, educational bigwigs, hospital administrators, winegrowers, industrial polluter, lumber baronets, New Age confidence trickster, and all the kindred petty Hitlers and scamsters that make up the fragrant tapestry of any county in the US.”
By contrast, the new owner of the AVA describes himself as “someone who can get kind of ‘woo-woo,’ if you know that term.” I didn’t. A friend who’s lived on the Left Coast long enough to be fluent in Californian gave me an unavoidably vague explanation. As best I can figure, a woo-woo is a New Age flake with a kind of X-Files sensibility. Think Grateful Dead camp follower with a subscription to Flatland magazine.
After selling the AVA to its wine industry columnist, David Severn, Bruce Anderson decamped to Eugene, Ore., where he promptly created a weekly called AVA Oregon and served notice that he was ready to tangle with the locals. Eugene’s many self-styled radicals responded in kind, and they spread the word about Anderson’s feud with deceased Earth First! activist Judi Bari and her former husband, Mike Sweeney. A print version of Sweeney’s “Liar Unlimited” online deconstruction of the AVA’s journalism began appearing on local bookshelves.
For all the controversy he stirred, it was money that did in AVA Oregon after less than a dozen issues. “I’m out of money, and out of business,” Anderson wrote in the Feb. 3, and final, issue. “I could borrow but I have no way of paying it back. Start-up costs were quadruple what I’d expected.”
Just before and after he launched AVA Oregon, Anderson became something of a media sensation, and E&P did its part; I wrote the four-page spread in our current issue. I talked at length with the California AVA’s new owner, but for reasons of space and story focus none of the conversation actually made it into the article.
In the interview, David Severn portrayed himself as an accidental publisher and editor. “I never in the world thought I’d be doing this,” he said. (I called Severn for a follow-up talk Thursday. He was out of the office. Anderson changed his AVA Oregon phone to an unlisted number and did not respond to e-mail.)
Certainly, he never thought about actually owning the AVA, Severn said. The problem was Anderson was leaving and nobody locally was coming forward to buy the paper. “He threatened to list it with a broker, and open up the bidding to a chain,” Severn recalled. “Well, nobody wanted that in the community, including myself.”
In the end, Anderson sold the paper for $20,000 — exactly what he’d paid for it in 1984. Even at the price, Severn needed the financial help of four other locals. “I took a vow of poverty somewhere along the line. I just can’t remember where,” Severn said with a laugh.
Anderson wanted to sell it to Severn because he figured he would be someone unafraid of stepping on local toes. In his occasional column, Vine Watch, Severn was a harsh and knowledgeable critic of the local wine industry, Anderson said. And, for his part, Severn regarded Anderson as a great editor, one who mostly left his copy alone. “Once in a while he would not print something I wrote, if it was kind of woo-woo or hippie, you know,” Severn said.
At least one Anderson antagonist and newspaper target says the paper has lost its infuriating edge since Anderson sold it. Nicholas Wilson, a Mendocino resident who describes himself as a forestry activist, used to get the paper every week to index the attacks on himself, Judi Bari, Mike Sweeney, and others. “The only reason people read it was to see what he said about you,” Wilson said. “Under the new owner, it’s become rather routine, and not as interesting.”
AVA includes the same local and national contributors, and looks exactly the same as it did under Anderson. “But obviously, I’m not Bruce,” Severn said. “I’m not quite as vitriolic, and not quite as oriented to, or knowledgeable about, local politics as he was.”
He’s also not as thin-skinned, he suggested. “I think the people who hated him the most were the ones most like him — that is they didn’t take criticism very well,” Severn said. “Bruce could really hate. I’m more, like I said, hippie and woo-woo and spiritual, if you will. He and I got along fine.”