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Steven Saint: Review's Final Editor Focuses on Community Journalism

A look back at the history of the Lemon Grove Review.

Our previous three columns detailed the history of the Lemon Grove Review into 1995. This column reviews the Steven Saint years, the closing of the Review, and its digital heir.

We are indebted to reporters Cheryl Cohen and Jason Williams for insight into the Saint saga.

Final Edition: Steven Saint edited the Lemon Grove Review from 1995 to 1999 when its doors closed forever. On Saint's watch the Review celebrated its 50th birthday with a big party in August, 1998, and four editions that featured a look back at the paper's half-century and reminiscences by pioneers touchingly titled "Once there were lemons ..." 

Saint's writing chops were honed in newsrooms large and small while his social and political sensibilities marched straight out of the foment of the 1960s and 1970s. He first wrote for the Review in 1974 while editing the Mt. Miguel High School newspaper, El Trovador. There, his faculty mentor was the late, great teacher and district trustee June Mott, for whom sacred cows were things you roasted after reading the Sunday paper. Saint earned his bachelor's degree in Journalism at Northwestern University, then spent the 1980s traveling, playing music and freelancing for Time magazine, various Christian publications and alternative weeklies.

By 1991 Saint was back home working for the Daily Californian under Pete Kaufman. When Kaufman downsized the Californian, Saint started writing for the East County Weekly and editing Kaufman's newest paper, the El Cajon Eagle. By now Saint was married with children. When Kaufman signaled that he wanted out of the newspaper game, Saint bought Forum Publications and "made it up as I went along."  

But this insouciant approach was backed by a nose for hard news. Nothing was quiet on the Western front for "Citizen Saint" (as Jason Williams called him). As the first publisher in 50 years to have grown up in the communities served by the Review, Saint would combine local news with in-depth investigative reporting and in the process "put out a paper I would want to read. We encourage reading and writing."

In pursuit of a literate readership, Saint even ran short stories by local people. This led to a cadre of part-time, largely unpaid writers and photographers to deliver news about the six communities served by Forum Publications. Saint hired talented writers like Howard Owens, Dave Schwab, Joe Naiman, Greg Eichelberger, Williams, and the roguish Cheryl Cohen to write extensively on local politics, budgets and community history.

Saint held what Cohen called "a mini J-School" in the Forum office, an informal journalism class for writers aimed at keeping writing standards high. He helped area high school English teachers, who were required to also teach journalism, but lacked background in the craft. The Lemon Grove Historical Society surfaced as never before with archival photographs and eyewitness-to-history recollections.  

Saint changed the graphic look of Page One to feature a rising sun behind the banner. Selling ads remained a priority and some issues featured an inside two-page spread devoted to local businesses.  But most critically, he let the paper's layout be shaped by the size and importance of stories.  

Saint was growing writers. Lemon Grove's late mayor Dr. Robert Burns had a column, "B Words," with a generally benign finger-wagging look at his town. Current mayor, Mary Sessom, wrote "M is for Mayor," addressing local issues. Cohen's column, "Lemon Twist," became an actual newspaper in 1999, "The Twist —That Other Voice—Free!", a short-lived monthly that left area readers shocked, shocked, but panting for more as hilarious photographs and irreverent copy skewered every local official and many non-officials.  

Cohen's invaluable, in-depth stories in the 50th anniversary editions of the Review interviewed pioneers and looked at the town's evolution since its agrarian days.

People noticed. Saint racked up a string of awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Press Club and the American Bar Association.

In a business move, Saint expanded his coin-operated newsstands from three to seven. Then, throwing caution to the winds, to further mark the paper's 50th anniversary, he wrote, "The Lemon Grove Review is now free. Keep your quarters."  He listed 25 places to pick up the paper, ranging from the Lemon Grove Library to Yum Yum Donuts on Federal Boulevard. Brave. Well intentioned. Redolent of Max Goodwin's avuncular community spirit and so not Pete Kaufman, the über businessman.  

But would the paper survive?

"Selling papers is a hassle," said Saint. He planned to open kiosks in area chamber of commerce offices where you could pick up a free paper, get a fictitious name form, and fill out copy for ads. He launched a website, East County Online, designed by Howard Owens. Simultaneously, Cheryl Cohen launched her own website and promoted inshop.com and ivillage.com, and became a website designer.

Yet, as cyberspace began pulling mass media and life, in general, into a new universe, Saint became increasingly concerned about loss of community and the ability to "make culture." Entertainment options expanded exponentially, consumerism ascended to new heights, commuter routes out of town grew longer, economic pressures on families and long hours for mom-and-pop businesses fractured the time available for local pursuits. He struggled to bring the paper to the community with the Forum Club, which invited readers to join journalists for picnics, theatre jaunts and visits to restaurants voted "Best in East County." He launched "The Easties," a kind of local Academy Awards for amateur theatre groups—a competition that grew fierce enough to prompt accusations of ballot-stuffing. 

Said Saint, "We aren't competing for news, we're competing for attention."

Attention-getting is an overtime job. Wrung out by the stress of selling ads in a variable economy and weekly reporting on six communities for little or no remuneration, Steve and Trudy Saint sold Forum Publications to Jay Hearn, who combined all of the editions into two, giving each community about half a page. The writers at the Review went their separate ways—though some, like Greg Eichelberger at the East County Californian, are still a presence in area journalism. The Saints moved to Colorado Springs, where they freelance, edit an environmental paper and can be followed on Facebook.  

Ralph Nader predicted in the 1960s that, eventually, most communities would be served by a single newspaper and several radio and television stations all owned by one company. That has largely come true. With an average 10 percent  readership for print newspapers (and falling), the online, 24/7 news cycle is the life experience of most people.

And that brings us to Patch.com, the brainchild of AOL, born in Connecticut and headquartered in New York City. The Patch franchise is in more than 860 U.S. communities and functions as a "community-specific news, information and engagement platform driven by passionate and experienced new media professionals."  New media, not news media, though, obviously, news is at the core of this apolitical, indispensable resource.

Lemon Grove Patch went "live" on Oct. 12, 2010, with Leslie Wolf Branscomb as editor. The Lemon Grove Review was reborn that day on your desktop. It's free and supported by advertising. The editorial pressures are no different from those that confronted all of the past editors of the Review. Branscomb has moved on and the current editor is the appealing, heart-and-soul-in-her-work Christine Huard, ably abetted by Ken Stone and other writers. There is absolutely no reason not to know what's going on in your community because it's all right there on your computer screen.

To the beat reporters and tough editors, who withstood withering schedules and economic challenges at the old Review, thank you. Just two small words acknowledging your mighty service to free speech and freedom of the press.

Howard Owens March 13, 2014 at 08:33 AM
Correction: Actually, East County Online was a joint venture of Steve Saint and Howard Owens. They were co-owners. It was jointly launched, with Owens serving as publisher of the online venture.
Helen Ofield March 13, 2014 at 01:34 PM
Howard -- Thank you for this clarification. You are a cultural carrier of East County journalism history and one of its gifted writers, and I value your input. Thanks for reading a column that was written written nearly 18 months ago!

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