By Hannah Brandt
According to former editor Mike Rhodes, it is amazing this newspaper he helped create and guided through many changes over nearly two decades is alive today. Indeed, he believes it is no small feat that Community Alliance is still going considering it emerged at the beginning of the decline of newspapers around the world. At the start, in September of 1996, only 500 to 1000 copies of the paper were printed. We now print between 8,000 to 10,000 copies every month.
At a time when the press began consolidating under a small number of large media corporations, and few independent news organizations were hanging on, Rhodes says Community Alliance resonated with people as something unique. “Our paper is rare not only in the Central Valley but throughout California and even the country, as the focus on politics and social issues is usually avoided by the minority of independent papers still in existence. Most such publications emphasize arts and entertainment because that is a safe sell.”
How it All Began: Labor Roots and Community Organizing
“What drove the start of the paper in the mid-late 1990’s was a new movement within labor to organize the unorganized. Alliances within the labor movement were expanding. The AFL-CIO no longer saw immigrants as enemies. With the end of the Cold War, conservative bosses lost control, union membership declined and it prompted new thinking.” Rhodes says the belief was that the rich and corporations had their two parties in the Democrats and Republicans. Working class people needed a party of their own, which sparked the creation of the Labor Party.
What was then called Labor Community Alliance became part of the Labor Party in the Frank Little Branch. Frank Little (1879-1917) was a leader of the free speech movement in Fresno at the turn of the twentieth century. In his work as part of the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the “Wobblies”), he organized miners, oil field workers, and lumberjacks. He was lynched by vigilantes in Butte, Montana at the age 38 due to his agitating for unions, his anti-capitalism, and his opposition to WWI.
Initially, no one in the Labor Community Alliance planned on it becoming a newspaper. The Labor Party had had its own newspaper and could not keep it going. Soon it became apparent, however, that in order to effect real social change, people needed a way to communicate with one another. “The various organizations involved with the movement, like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the Sierra Club, had their own newsletters but access was confined to their specific group’s members. In order to keep people from being isolated in separate silos, we needed a central hub for information.”
In an early meeting of the Labor Community Alliance at the Center for Nonviolence, Mike Rhodes, Pam Whalen, John Veen, Del Berg, and Larry Langford, decided to create a publication. It started as a newsletter. Veen was the first editor. Berg, who passed away last year was the last remaining member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 2800 Americans who went to Spain to fight Franco’s fascism in the late 1930’s.
Transitions for the New Millennium
Around 2000 the Labor Party basically disintegrated and by April 2002, Community Alliance dropped the word Labor from its title. The paper continued to be distributed at union offices, WILPF, and other local peace groups as people increasingly learned about the paper. “The calendar was very popular like it is today because it helped organizations and individuals coordinate events beyond their specific group’s circles. More content was contributed from the community from anarchists to nationalists to single-issue advocates.”
At this point, Rhodes became the editor. According to him, “The focus on a living wage for all workers continued but also on other issues and groups’ support beyond organized labor. The editorial content changed somewhat as did the sources of revenue. At this point, the Valley Labor Citizen was also revived.” Rhodes had worked at the Fresno Bee until the late 1990’s. He had been involved in trying to organize a union there, which he describes as brutal.
The page length of Community Alliance grew and more advertising was sought. A new logo was designed by artist and photographer, George Ballis based on a photo he took of farmworkers marching on the San Joaquin River. At this point, the editorial board grew to have more community members. In June 2001, George Ballis became the layout designer, working with his wife and fellow artist, Mia Ballis. George had been editor of the Valley Labor Citizen and had become an icon documenting the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement through his photographs. He died in 2010 at age 85.
Editorial and Design Changes
The Ballises’ work gave the publication more of a magazine style. Its pages were glossy and colorful. In addition to layout, the couple contributed to the editorial decisions. In 2002, the Ballises left and outside graphic designers were brought in. Rhodes believed it was more feasible for the paper to have editorial decision making and layout design be separate. In addition, “There was a desire to balance the authenticity of voices and the quality of writing. People inside the movement are not always experienced writers.”
Richard Stone began interviewing people, profiling activists who might not write for the paper themselves. “Seeing your perspective presented you feel validated, especially when the mainstream media ignores you and your point of view,” says Rhodes. “We always tried to make sure we did work on the ground so that the focus of our lens was not peripheral. Likewise, every editorial transition has left its mark, every editor and designer have left their unique and enduring stamp on the newspaper’s visuals and content.”
Since this period there has been an effort to “balance social, economic, and environmental issues to tackle controversial issues and present an alternative narrative from mainstream media.” One of the threads woven deeply throughout the paper is the reality of homelessness. Long before it was trendy to do so, Community Alliance has approached the issue as “a human and civil rights crisis. People experiencing homelessness have been treated with dignity and respect in the newspaper, which has had an impact on policy and the way people interact.”
From Magazine to Newspaper
The earliest papers had to be hand stapled and assembled by volunteers around kitchen tables. It took a week to finish them all. In December 2004 the publication transitioned to a newspaper format and adopted the current logo. The change from offset printing to tabloid was more economical. A printer in Selma could do them in a day. Originally 5000 were printed but going up to 10,000 didn’t cost much more.
Rhodes employed crews of people experiencing homelessness to distribute as many as 15,000 copies of Community Alliance, “blanketing every neighborhood in Fresno. This prompted more people to become subscribers and the paper got more positive feedback as awareness grew.” The paper invested in newsstands, which allowed for distribution locations outside in heavily trafficked areas like bus stops.
Having newsstands also offset the fact that some businesses and institutions, especially in more politically conservative parts of town, did not welcome a progressive newspaper. When management or leadership changed hands from those friendly to the paper to those who were not, it was removed from a few places. It was important to ensure that poor people who might not be able to get to the cafes and offices that kept the paper on their counters had access to the paper in their neighborhoods, too.
According to Rhodes, “People in Southeast and Southwest Fresno have been more sympathetic to the message. It has always been a challenge to balance accessibility to all and staying afloat financially. We need those who can afford to support us monetarily to allow us to reach those who cannot.” In addition, the paper has made a big effort to reach out to the prison population. Over the years, we have published articles and poetry by inmates and endeavor to make sure that prisoners are able to read Community Alliance, as well.
How Does Community Alliance Compare?
Rhodes recently visited the Chico News & Review and went to a news conference in Memphis, Tenn. that showcased newspapers from around the country. He points out the Chico News & Review started in a similar vein to Community Alliance back in 1977. It now calls itself “your independent alternative news and entertainment resource.” Rhodes says, “CN&R went the commercial route, making compromises to be commercially viable. Community Alliance never did. We have never taken support from socially irresponsible organizations.”
Perusing the other papers at the Memphis news conference, Rhodes still saw nothing that was like Community Alliance, “putting values above money.” He believes that, while some might find it counterintuitive, that is actually what has made the paper successful. “It was never looked at as a commercial venture. We didn’t have an eye on keeping the paper solvent.”
“There have been other papers in this area with a similar focus, but none has sustained itself for as long. We continue to focus on stories that are informative and not seen elsewhere, from vantage points inside the movement. Our editorial board is made up of people from various groups who have feelers out about what is going on, on the ground.”
Awards and Legacy for Community Alliance
These unique qualities have garnered the paper recognition both locally and further afield. When Peace Fresno, the local anti-war organization, was infiltrated by an undercover agent of the anti-terrorism unit of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department following September 11, 2001, Community Alliance broke the story. It was picked up by KPFA’s Democracy Now! and profiled in Michael Moore’s movie, Fahrenheit 9/11. The newspaper also received a Project Censored Award for this.
Jesse Franz received an award for his exposé in Community Alliance on the mistreatment of shepherders in the Central Valley. It led to a change in the law regarding shepherders in 2001. Mostly immigrants from Mongolia, Peru, and Chile these few dozen workers were facing abuse, severely inadequate living conditions, and made only 20 cents an hour. This marginalized population was isolated far from their families and often didn’t speak English. Without Franz’ reporting and tracking of their conditions, the abuses would have continued with most of the public unaware.
In 2013, the Fresno County Jail was discovered to be withholding people’s medications. Fresno State instructor Mark Arax approached the Fresno Bee with his own and his students’ reporting on the issue. When the Bee would not allow Arax and his students to write it, he published in Community Alliance. It was a special supplement edition. The revelations impacted the jail’s policy and changes were implemented. “It also revealed the importance of having more than one newspaper in the city,” says Rhodes. “When there is only one, that paper and any individuals or corporations affiliated with it can have too much power and influence.”
Rhodes is “convinced the newspaper has been instrumental in political activity, pulling many groups together to unite and build alliances. Community Alliance is not part of any political organization. We are successful when others succeed; when people lift up their voices. Their success is our success, too. People should know that ordinary citizens can create something that didn’t exist before. When people come together they can do more than anyone thought they could.”
Hannah Brandt is the editor of Community Alliance newspaper. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @HannahBP2. Follow the paper on Facebook at Community Alliance Newspaper and on Twitter and Instagram @fresnoalliance.