It’s been a bad week for American journalism. In New York, two scrappy Web startups, Gothamist and DNAinfo, were shuttered by owner Joe Ricketts after their staffs voted to unionize. On the opposite coast, a scrappy relic from the anti–Vietnam War movement, Pacific News Service (also known as New America Media), shut down operations after almost 50 years.
Founded in 1969 by Orville Schell and Franz Schurmann to get accurate news out of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, PNS evolved to report on the frontiers of a changing America, north and south of the border, driven by the remarkable, compassionate, occasionally esoteric vision of executive editor Sandy Close. It backed the work of writers like Mary Jo McConahay, struggling to cover repressive regimes in Central America, and Richard Boyle, whose work was the backbone of the film Salvador (in one scene, James Woods, who plays Boyle, has a fed-up phone call with his demanding editor named Sandy). It nurtured the careers of author Richard Rodriguez, Vietnamese refugee Andrew Lam, and Indian author and NPR commentator Sandip Roy.
I met Sandy 30 years ago, and got hooked up with Pacific News Service, in some fashion, for the next 15 years. Sandy always had a way of finding money for freelance writers on the edge, to keep people from leaving journalism to pay their bills (she rescued me from a job in the California State Assembly). I joined just as she was turning her focus to California in all its racial and socioeconomic complexity. She focused me on the way Latino and Asian immigrants had become caregivers for white families; on the rising numbers of mixed-race kids forging new identities; white students at UC-Berkeley grappling with being a minority on campus; white women who converted to Islam (I think that was 1990).
She saw Islam’s rising influence early, sensed rising Islamaphobia, and tried to cover it fairly. I remember a raucous Monday editorial meeting where she and the late Franz Schurmann tried to argue that their outraged, mostly agnostic staff at least had to try to understand the religious passion that drove the fatwa against Salman Rushdie after the publication of Midnight’s Children. (I think most of us were wearing “I Am Salman Rushdie” pins.) Sandy had little patience with the self-righteousness of the white American left, encouraging her contributors of every race to respect the power of the sacred, and the values of family, religion, and community in non-Western cultures—and even on the American right.
She formed a sacred community at PNS. Maybe her most important work began in the confusion and violence of the crack epidemic, when she began outreach to young people in Oakland and San Francisco’s Bayview/Hunter’s Point, trying to get them to tell their stories. That led to a spinoff PNS project, the newspaper YO (Youth Outlook). And then, as juvenile detention centers began to crowd with young drug dealers, she organized writing workshops in the halls, which led to another spinoff, The Beat Within, led by former youth counselor David Inocencio. The average age of participants in our Monday editorial meetings dropped from 40 to 20. I learned as much from the young writers there—Fariba Nawa, Nikki Jones, Malcolm Marshall, Charles Jones Jr., Russell Morse—as I taught. More, I’m sure.
It was run more like a family than a business, to be sure (maybe stemming from the fact that Close and Schurmann were partners and parents; he died in 2009). They threw me a baby shower, and kids were always welcome. Sandy kept some folks on payroll when others might have cut them loose, giving the young people she mentored extra chances, because if she didn’t, no one else would.
In 1996, PNS morphed into New American Media, as Close began to helm an association of ethnic newspapers, seeing these struggling outposts of community-based reporting fighting to survive. It grew to involve 3,000 news organizations around California, on the front lines of the state’s rapid demographic change. Sandy co-produced the film Breathing Lessons, which told the story of PNS writer Mark O’Brian, who lived in an iron lung; it won an Oscar for best documentary the same year. A year earlier, she’d won a MacArthur genius award, which of course she put directly into her work. Other foundations recognized her “genius.” She, and all she had built, had become California institutions. She’d made it.
But even institutions falter. In a press release announcing its closure, Sandy wrote: “We’ve always aspired to do more than our resources allowed. We grew too fast, and were reluctant to cut off programs after their funding expired. We reached a point where we were not sustainable, as currently constituted.”
I haven’t been able to reach Sandy, but I’m finding some hope in the words “currently constituted.” But I also feel anger, that in the richest community in the United States, the San Francisco Bay Area, she couldn’t raise the money to stay afloat. I hear that she’s working to spin off, or find independent homes for, some of NAM’s most promising projects. I don’t know how it will be “constituted,” but the spirit of NAM—the belief in crossing borders, learning from one another, trusting our young people—will endure. In this fractured time, we need it more than ever.