Present at the Creation: An Early History of the Sneak Preview

by Curtis Hayden

The Sneak Preview began as a twice-monthly free newspaper in Grants Pass, Oregon, on July 28, 1986, but I suppose it had its roots on the playgrounds of Evansville, Indiana, my hometown.

As the editor, publisher and sole owner of the Sneak Preview, my background in journalism was limited to a school newspaper I began in 5th grade at Assumption Grade School, a small parochial school of 100 students covering grades one through eight. Along with a team of reporters and writers, I would gather the news on the playground, and over the weekend would put the newspaper, "The Assumption News," together by hand. The paper would then be distributed on the playground throughout the week for everyone to read. When I transferred to another grade school my 7th grade year, I continued with the Good Shepherd Gazette.

This modest beginning in the world of journalism lasted through the first couple of weeks of 8th grade, when I probably burned out on it. For two and a half years I had been producing the "newspaper" every week, and it got progressively more polished. The last issue of the "Good Shepherd Gazette," in October of 1960, included an editorial endorsement of John F. Kennedy for president, plus a picture of JFK during a campaign stop in Evansville. He's riding in a cavalcade and is shaking hands with a young girl who turned out to be my first cousin, Joyce Dockery. Behind the car are some teenage girls, one of whom was my sister Becky. I love showing that issue of the newspaper to people ... and especially the picture.

After that I took a 26-year break from journalism, although I did write a few articles for my high school newspaper. In college, I received a B.A. in Social Work and Sociology from Indiana University, then went back to get a B.A. in education with the goal of teaching high school. After leaving the army in 1971 I went back to school and received a Masters in Public Administration, also from I.U. Seven years later I developed an interest in brain research and went back to grad school and received a Masters in Neurobiology from the University of Colorado at Denver in 1984.

I still had no interest in becoming a journalist or working for a newspaper. I was, however, fascinated with writing, something that I had been dabbling with all my life. In high school, I co-wrote (along with a friend, Dan Vowels) three short publications which I published on my dad's mimeograph machine and sold around campus.

While working in Washington, D.C., the summer before my freshman year in college, I wrote a long history of a club I founded in high school. While in the dorm my sophomore year, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek satire about dorm life. In the fraternity my junior and senior years, I published satirical newsletters, which I also did while in the army, at work at the I.U. Library, during grad school at I.U., for a softball league in Grants Pass, and for various other endeavors which I felt needed humor, including a newsletter for an extended network of friends and family.

Over the years, the single most prolific source of my writing was found in letters. Some nights I would sit down and type ten letters, single-spaced, to friends and family with the goal of making each one a unique, creative effort at the English language. It was all for fun, but it wasn't a career choice.

In the fall of 1985, acting on the advice of my professors at the University of Colorado, I decided to make a career out of writing. I bought a used IBM Selectric typewriter and began reading books about writing in order to hone my skills. In early 1986 I took over publication of my family's newsletter. I come from a large family (8 brothers and sisters, 25 nieces and nephews, etc.), and this was not a small undertaking.

On April 10, 1986, after the latest issue of the "Hayden Happenings" had been sent in the mail, I went on a 6-mile run through Washington Park in Denver. During the run, I began thinking about how much fun it was to write the newsletter and how easy it was. Then I began thinking about how I enjoyed the weekly newspapers in Denver, specifically "Westword" and "Up the Creek." I didn't have any interest in writing for them, but I began to conjure up an idea about starting my own paper-not in Denver, because the competition would have been overpowering, but in Grants Pass, where I had been living off and on since the summer of 1976.

Throughout the rest of that 6-mile run, all I could think about was how to get a newspaper started similar to "Westword." The writing would be no problem, and it would include one or two cover stories, some news briefs, letters to the editor, a calendar of events, theater reviews, a satire column (written by yours truly but with a pen name), and something that I borrowed from "Up the Creek" called the Viewpoints & Profile, a man-on-the street column plus a question-answer profile of someone in the community.

The newspaper would be distributed free on the stands and in restaurants in Josephine County, and it would be funded through paid advertisements. I had no experience in sales, but I had been working for Colorado Market Research for 14 years going door-to-door doing public opinion surveys, so I had no problem with knocking on doors and talking to people.

When I returned from the run, I wrote a letter to my friend Dave Moodie, was was also a fellow writer and the faculty adviser for the school newspaper at Grants Pass High School. I outlined my ideas for the newspaper, and he replied that he'd be interested in helping out with some of the writing.

By the time I had arrived in Grants Pass the first week of May, 1986, the plan had become reality. I spent the next four weeks substitute teaching, and in June started working on the paper. Since I was really into softball at that time, my first cover story was going to be "Softball in Josephine County," an in-depth look at the history of the sport locally. I started interviewing people and even went to a game between two teams in the women's league, which would become the focal point of the story.

I also did the man-on-the-street question and interviewed Marty Fate of the Grower's Market for the first Profile. Another page of the newspaper would be all photographs with a single theme, an idea I borrowed from another weekly in Denver. For the first one, I went to Grants Pass Bowl and took pictures of people in the bowling league. Accompanying me was Jeremy Kramer, the 10-year-old son of my friends Patti and Lutz Kramer, who both taught at Rogue Community College.

In the middle of June I went to Crested Butte, Colorado, for a huge family reunion. I still had no idea what the newspaper was going to be called, and I wasn't 100% sure I was going to follow through on it anyway. One day I took my mom and dad to lunch in downtown Crested Butte and broke the news that I was going to start a newspaper in Grants Pass as soon as I got back. My mom just looked at me and said, "I wondered when you were finally going to do something like this." Their support finalized the decision for me, and while on a hike with a few of my nephews (Gregory Hayden and Nick Wiesinger), we brainstormed ideas and tried to come up with a name. We finally decided on the River City Weekly, since Grants Pass was located on the banks of the Rogue River and because I was planning to do the paper every week, similar to the ones in Denver.

In early July, when I returned from Colorado, I went to Grants Pass Bulletin, a local print shop, and talked with owner Jim Wahlstrom. He loaned me a book on how to lay out a newspaper and informed me that they could typeset the entire paper and that it could be printed in Medford at Valley Web. He also mentioned that it might be cheaper if I could bring it on disc and they could download it directly instead of typing it.

At that time I was housesitting the Kramers' house while they were in Mexico (I think the kids, Jennifer and Jeremy, were actually at a camp in California). The Kramers had one of the very first Apple computers, and although I had no idea what I was doing, I began typing in my cover story. It was slow going because the commands on the primitive keyboard were something out of spy novel gone bad. By the time I brought the disc to Jim Wahlstrom, it was a mess and he couldn't download it.

So we opted for the typesetting idea and I had the cover story typeset, plus the Viewpoints and Profile. Jim informed me that the pictures had to be half-toned, and he thought it amusing that I had no idea what he talking about. My naivete about the newspaper business was fairly complete.

That was the second week of July, and three things happened during that week. One, I had gone to 1st Interstate Bank and set up a bank account. The lady there informed me that I needed to write to the state and get a business name. The dba was actually "River City Weekly." She also mentioned that I should attend a Chamber of Commerce Greeters meeting, which I did that week. I introduced myself and explained what I planned to do with the paper, and everyone seemed pretty excited.

Two, I was referred to a guy named Jim Barbata, who used to work for the Courier as an ad salesman and layout person. I met with Jim, and he agreed to help with the paper as a salesperson. The next day we got together and he'd put together a rate sheet. An 1/8-page ad sold for $36. Jim also wanted to work on salary, and I wrote him a check for $250 to cover him until the paper started.

I'd also informed Jim Wahlstrom that I would be bringing a 4-page mini-paper to show potential advertisers what the newspaper would like like. It would include the cover, an introductory editorial, the first page of the cover story, and the Viewpoints/Profile. That Friday night I was at the Casa del Rio, a local restaurant and bar having dinner with some friends, and they were all excited about the newspaper. They didn't like the name "River City Weekly" because they thought it should be snazzier, like Eugene's "What's Happening." Over a couple of margaritas we couldn't come up with anything else, and I was prepared to go with "River City Weekly." Then another friend, Gail Luckey, said, "What do you call it when they have do an early showing of a movie that's going to come out?" she asked. I thought for a second. "A sneak preview," I replied. "Yes, that's it," Gail said. "That's what you should call the newspaper...the Sneak Preview."

It sounded good to me, so on Monday Jim Wahlstrom and I went through his book of fonts, and I picked out one that I thought was cool, and the 4-page Sneak Preview sample was born. The ads were ones from Westword and Up the Creek with "Sample" written over them. I had 200 copies printed, plus some Rate Sheets and business cards, and on Wednesday, July 16, Jim and I took off to sell ads.

I parked my car at the corner of 6th and Midland and started walking down the street, hitting every business along the way. I introduced myself, talking about what the newspaper would be, gave them the sample Sneak Preview, a rate sheet and business card, and told them I'd be back. At the end of the day, one of my last stops was at The Wagon Wheel, a restaurant at 6th & Hillcrest which is now Angela's Hacienda. I met the owner, Debbie Cummings, and she signed a contract for three ads at $30 apiece (the multi-run discount). That contract sheet is still pasted to the wall of my office.

When I met Jim that night I learned that he had sold two ads, so we were off and running. On Thursday and Friday, July 17-18, I went back out and knocked on more doors. It was bleak, since neither Jim nor I sold anything. On Saturday, I went out again for two hours in the morning and didn't sell a single ad. It was depressing, and I went back to the house and seriously considered bagging the whole project. After three days of sales, we had a total of three ads.

Then I had a brainstorm. We'll cut the price of the ads in half as an introductory offer just to get the thing off the ground. Once we got established, we could raise the rates to a level that would make the paper profitable. So I called Jim in for a meeting and gave him the new rate sheets. An 1/8-page ad would now sell for $15. "You can't make money at these rates," he said but agreed that it would help get the paper going. And guess what? The ads sold like hot cakes after that. I got a 1/2-page ad from Rick Chapman at Plaza Sewing; a 1/2-page ad from my friends at the Casa del Rio; a 1/4-page ad from my friend John Kochis at the Old Towne Eatery; and a 1/2-page ad from millionaire Gentry McKinney at the Riverside Inn after a very interesting meeting between him, Jim and me at his office. There were also a lot of smaller, 1/8-page ads, plus Jim was selling quite a few to former contacts at the Courier.

The next week was fun and exciting. It appeared as if the Sneak Preview was going to be published, and I would lie in bed at night wondering if it was a good idea or not. I had been living a fairly "interesting" lifesytle up to that point, working five months a year and traveling the country visiting friends and family for the other seven. For the last five years, I had taken two months off every winter to work as a lobbyist in the Indiana Legislature with my dad, a public employee union official. The summers were devoted to softball, golf, floating the river and partying in Grants Pass. Working full-time and being tied down to a business was a little scary but I'd convinced myself that it was time to settle down and do something semi-productive with my life.

I had the Kramers' house set up as an office. I bought a drafting board to use while laying out ads, and I had a business phone and answering machine installed in the back room. Jim Barbata was constantly teaching me how to design and lay out ads. The first time I was putting an ad together, I'd had a bunch of Westword ads xeroxed and used them for borders. Jim thought I was crazy. He brought by some border tape and an exacto knife and showed me how to put borders on an ad. We had to have all the copy in the ad individually typeset at the Bulletin, and it was very labor intensive. There were a lot of trips to the Bulletin and back.

As far as copy was concerned, I had most of it done. Before the Kramers left for Mexico, we went to a breakfast meeting with Sen. Bob Packwood. Although the Kramers and I were all Democrats, I thought it would make for a nice article. One thing I remember about the event is taking pictures and then accidentally opening the camera a couple of days later and overexposing the film.

I also wrote the Calendar of Events and went out to the Rooster Crow event in Rogue River and wrote a gonzo report about it. Not wanting to sound like I was the only writer for the newspaper, I used pen names from my nephews, specifically Matt Hegarty and Nick Wiesinger. It was an exciting time, and a lot of my friends were there for help and support...even buying ads.

On July 28, 1986, my 39th birthday, the first issue of the Sneak Preview was published. Jim and I drove over to pick up the copies, and Valley Web had quarter-folded all of them. It was a little disappointing since I wanted them unfolded so that everyone could see the entire cover. Jim tried to give the owner of the company, Ed Reichenbach, a hard time but I told Ed not to worry about it, that mistakes are made, and that we were going to have a long and productive relationship in the years ahead.

As soon as we got the papers back to Grants Pass, we started delivering them on the stands. I hadn't bought any official stands, so we were placing them wherever we could find an empty space, particularly in restaurants and grocery stores. The entire paper was in black and white—the only issue of the Sneak Preview to not have any color in it.

Meanwhile, the Kramers were due back at their house the next day and I knew I had to get back and clean the house up or Patti would go crazy on me. I was too late! They decided to come back a day early, so I rushed up there and got Jeremy to help clean the house while Patti was taking a shower. She still yelled at me, but I also think she was proud of what I had accomplished.

That night I was at home (renting a room at Dave Moodie's house) and I immediately got out a yellow pad and outlined what the next issue would look like. I estimated how many pages it would be, what articles would go on each page, and how much room we had for ads. I've been doing that exact same process on those same yellow pads for the last 16 years, and it shows the lasting power of yellow legal pads.

I started the whole venture with $7,000, and I lost $1000 each on the first three issues. The first issue was 20 pages, issues two and three were 24 pages each, and issue four was 28 pages. By that time, I started raising the rates a little and the paper started becoming profitable, but only marginally. Issues five, six and sewven were 32 pages long and I probably broke even, but doing that many pages with only two people was extremely time consuming and exhausting. On issue six, I actually spent 30 straight hours on it, working through the night and taking the paper to the printer at nine in the morning.

I was physically and emotionally drained, so I hired another employee, Karen Coston-Owens, a friend from the old days who was working at a bank and looking for a career change. She was to help around the office, answering the phone, laying out pages, running errands (there were numerous visits every day to the Bulletin to deliver or pick up typesetting jobs), and selling ads.

At that point I had two people on salary, and as fate would have it, the number of ads being sold started to decrease. I was barely breaking even, and at issue number eight, Jim Barbata decided to quit, probably because I was stressed out a lot working around the clock and expecting him to do the same. Right after Jim quit, I hired a guy named Les Addison, another friend from the old days, who had experience in sales and wanted to do some creative ads for the Sneak Preview.

Meanwhile I was having a great time researching and writing articles. For the first five issues, I was writing two in-depth "cover stories," plus a humor column (under the pen name Matt Hegarty), the Calendar of Events, some News Briefs, the Viewpoints and Profile, and answering the letters and writing a bowling column. Some thought the bowling column was stupid, but I got a kick out of it. I would show up at one of the bowling alleys during a league night and spend the next two hours interviewing the bowlers and getitng into the social and political aspects of the league standings. It was fun, and the bowlers loved it. I thought it helped put the Sneak Preview on the map as far as being a newspaper dedicated to the local community.

My living conditions changed drastically. In mid-August I rented an office on the second floor of the Redwood Towers from Marion Patino. She was a great lady, and her husband owned Patino Appliances on the ground floor. We didn’t move out of that office until sometime around 2004. Working round the clock, though, I found it difficult to go home and eventually got a foam pad and a pillow and some blankets so that I could sleep on the floor of the office. I'd get up in the morning, head over to the Kochis’ house and take a shower, then head back to work. It was a routine I adopted for the next two and a half years until I moved to Ashland to be with my future wife, Penny Colvin.

In December 1986, I was determined to spend three weeks with my dad in Indianapolis. He was 73 years old and still going strong as a lobbyist, and I wanted to be with him. I worked long hours to get both of the January issues lined up, then announced to all our advertisers that we were taking an extra week off for the holidays. It was a leap of faith think that Karen and Les could get the January papers out in my absence, but I was in constant communication with them while in Indiana, and it went off with only a minor hitch or two.

By the time I got back in January, I was convinced that I needed to find an alternative to the extremely expensive typesetting that was being done by the Bulletin and Climate Graphics. I called a guy named Carl Longo, who used to publish a weekly paper in Grants Pass back in the early 80s called “The Review.” He had a phototypesetting machine for sale, and I pooled as much money as I could, plus a small loan from my parents, and bought the creaky machine for $1500, plus a $400 processsor that I had to send away to Cleveland for.

It was a big investment for someone who was relatively broke, but it saved me $500 a month in typesetting bills. I'm sure the Bulletin and Climate Graphics were bummed out, but the machine paid for itself in about four months. Now I could type all the articles and all the copy for ads in the office, saving not only time but money. A couple of months later I talked to a lady who worked for Peter Morales at the “Rogue River Press,” and she said I should have invested in a desktop publishing system called the MacIntosh SE, which had been released on March 2, 1987. It was the first I'd heard about it, but it would've cost $8,000, and it was way more than I could afford at that time. So I muddled along for almost two years with a technology that was fading and, indeed, in its death throes. As I sit here typing on my Mac thinking about that phototypesetting machine, I marvel at how the world has changed. The machine took up an entire wall, and once you had your stuff typed it, you removed the cartridge, went to the outer room, turned all the lights off, then ran it through the processor. Every week the chemicals in the processor had to be changed, and you had to be real careful because if mixed they turned into toxic ammonia. Those were exciting days, but I don't think I would want to relive them.