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Mountain View Voice

News - February 22, 2013

The Voice celebrates 20 years

by Daniel DeBolt

When Carol Torgrimson and Kate Wakerly came up with a plan to start what was originally called "The Voice of Mountain View" in the summer of 1992, it was by no means obvious that such a newspaper would succeed.

At the time, Google's Sergei Brin and Larry Page were still in college, City Hall had just been built, the city's old library was substandard, and the city had cut funding for its publication that Wakerly edited, called "The View."

As a veteran editor and writer for numerous community newspapers in the area, Wakerly asked some of her former publishers for advice. "They told her, 'Mountain View is the graveyard of community newspapers,'" Torgrimson said. "We were advised against it quite heartily. But we never let that stop us."

Now, as the Voice celebrates its 20th year, Torgrimson says "the two accomplishments I'm most inordinately proud of are helping to get the city library built and starting the Mountain View Voice."

The first edition came just in time for Christmas, with Santa Claus on the cover and a preview of the city's annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony. There's a story about the old JJ's Blues Club on El Camino Real, a feature on the Schmitz family's farm and pumpkin patch — now gone. Then-City Manager Kevin Duggan wrote an op-ed on the state of the city, which covers the departure of the United States Navy from Moffett Field, the city's efforts to bring light rail downtown and plans for a new library. The first edition was sent to 25,000 addresses.

"We felt that the community deserved a real newspaper," Torgrimson said. "At the time there was no way for nonprofits and schools and other community folks to get any kind of publicity. The Mercury News was too large and we needed something locally oriented."

One of Torgrimson's fondest memories is Duggan's reaction to news that she and Wakerly were starting the paper.

"I think he thought it was going to be a little shopper," Torgrimson said. "We were chatting about it and he said, 'I heard you and Kate are starting a newspaper' and I said, 'Yes, we're mailing out 25,000 copies of it.' There was this silence on the phone, just silence.

"Kevin knew how outspoken I am and I think he had this slight fear we were going to go after the city government. I said, 'Trust me, this is going to be a very fair and balanced paper.'"

Duggan, Mountain View's city manager from 1990 to 2011, said he came to respect the paper as one that "doesn't represent any kind of special interest."

"Without The Voice, Mountain View would be a different place," Duggan said last week. "Clearly it would be a place where residents and citizens would be much less informed."

Stories about the people of the city "add to the flavor and the texture of the community. The community has a better sense of itself," he said.

Torgrimson, who managed the business side of things, likes to recall how they were barely able to pay for the first issue of the paper. Costco was about to have its grand opening on Charleston Road. "Kate put together a 12-page paper but we were really challenged, of course, with financing it. I contacted Costco headquarters and said, 'Would you like to give us an ad?'" The company said yes, and an ad and a check were quickly sent via Fedex.

"We sold them the double-truck," Torgrimson said, referring to the paper's center spread. "We didn't even exist yet, so that put us on the map."

Other advertisers signed up as well. Golden Wok put its whole menu on the back page for years, she said.

Torgrimson said the goal had always been to have the paper taken over by a larger company. She and Wakerly approached Embarcadero Publishing president, Bill Johnson.

"I think Bill thought at first we were absolutely insane," Torgrimson laughed. "But he did finally come around."

"I think what I thought was insane was their thinking that the two of them could do it all and make it successful financially without being associated with a larger organization," Johnson said. "I wasn't sure we could make it work, but I pledged to give it a good shot. And I'm glad we did."

Embarcadero took over the paper in 1995, making it a sister publication of the Palo Alto Weekly. Reporter Rufus Jeffris was put in charge, working as reporter, editor and publisher.

"I think Kate was doing it out of her basement, I just did it from my desk at the Weekly," before the office at 655 West Evelyn Avenue was rented, said Jeffris, now vice president of communications for the Bay Area Council. "I would show up at 5 a.m. and wouldn't leave until 8 p.m."

"Probably one of the most rewarding experiences I've had in my career was helping to get that paper started and being embraced by the community," Jeffris said. "It was a shoestring operation. That made it more fun, a plucky underdog."

In Jeffris' time, the city began seeing the sort of effects of Silicon Valley's boom-and-bust economy that we still see today.

"There wasn't a week that went by that there wasn't a story about a family or senior that had to move out of town," Jeffris recalled. "The landlords were jacking up the rents."

He also remembers hiring intern Jose Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mountain View High School graduate who recently came out as an undocumented immigrant, and is very publicly pushing for immigration reform.

"I brought him on as an intern," Jeffris said. "He was a great kid, really energetic, really thoughtful, really passionate about a variety of issues. He just kind of forced his way through the door and wouldn't leave. You can see how that's transferred to his current activities."

Over the years, the Voice has reported on scandals involving City Council members, provided what was often the only regular in-depth coverage of council elections, published award-winning reporting on the toxics in northeastern Mountain View, taken on the need for the city to share Shoreline property taxes with schools and covered the continuing changes to the landscape. Every year the paper helps to raise funds for a slew of local non-profits, including the Day Worker Center of Mountain View, of which Wakerly was a major proponent.

As to the city's library, built in the 1990s, "The Voice was very influential in making that happen," Torgrimson said. "It had a way of making the community aware of what the issues were and what the need was."

Two decades after the first issue, "I know Kate would definitely be impressed," said John Wakerly of his late wife. Kate Wakerly died of breast cancer in 2004 at age 56. He recalled helping typeset the first editions of the Voice in the basement of their house.

"Her impetus was really to give Mountain View its own paper. It was really a labor of love," he said.

Email Daniel DeBolt at