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Press for Change

[whitespace] Rowland Rebele
George Sakkestad

Letting the Sun Shine In: Through serving as a government watchdog or by encouraging the arts, publisher Rowland Rebele has spent his life shining a light into dark places.

Publisher, arts patron, homeless advocate--Rowland Rebele puts his money where his beliefs are

By John Yewell

HE CALLS THE architectural style "bastardized English Tudor," but there is no mistaking his home's charm. Situated on an ocean bluff in Rio Del Mar, the 30-year-old house sports a lovely rose garden and two towering eucalyptus trees guarding the front door like sentinels. Inside, there's weathered antique wood furniture everywhere, including a Steinway Duo-Art baby grand in an alcove and a fabulous aged coffee table, on which sits a volume of Shakespeare's collected works. Artwork and antiques from around the world are everywhere--especially etchings and watercolors, as well as a couple of sculptures by one son, Christopher.

From the second-floor office, visitors get a spectacular view of the bay. Mounted over the private fireplace is a 42-pound, 45-inch Alaska king salmon. With all the potential kindling lying about, the fireplace is, for the moment, out of commission: the office is literally stacked to the gills with private papers, newspapers and books. Old photos and mementos cover the walls.

These are the signs of a good life led by Rowland "Reb" Rebele. But it has not been one of self-indulgence.

If we think about newspaper publishers at all, it is usually in terms of megalomaniacs like William Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdoch. Philanthropists we imagine as stodgy, starch-collared, white-maned men who give a small portion of their fortunes to safe causes to buy back their souls.

And when we think of dreamers, we rarely think of newspaper publishers or philanthropists. That is why Rebele--newspaper publisher, philanthropist and dreamer--is in a class by himself.

Rebele (rhymes with "reveille") has spent his life in newspapering, but that hardly sums him up. His business interests have also included such mundane things as motels and mini-warehouses. His dreams, on the other hand, range from building a first-class symphony venue in Santa Cruz County to providing more housing for the homeless. One thing seems sure: as much as he enjoys making money, Rebele's real joy has come from giving it away.

"I gave a talk to the graduating communications class at Stanford a few years ago," Rebele recounts. "My theme was, save your money, then give it all away when you've got enough to live on."

Rebele's causes have included public radio station KUSP, Santa Cruz Actors' Theatre, the Youth Symphony of Santa Cruz, the Cabrillo Music Festival, Tandy Beal's Pickle Family Circus, the Museum of Art and History of Santa Cruz County, New Music Works and the Santa Cruz Homeless Services Center.

Rebele has served on the board of the Homeless Services Center since 1997. Karen Gillette, HSC director, can't speak highly enough of him. "You usually get either incredibly compassionate or highly capable people," she says. "It's rare [as with Rebele] to get both."

His greatest passion is for ideas themselves and the freedom to express them. That is the theme that binds together his support for his two favorite causes: the arts and the First Amendment.

In 1986, Rebele and his wife, Patricia, gave $300,000 to endow the R.K. and Patricia Rebele California Weekly Newspaper Internship Program at Stanford. The program helps pay the wages of Stanford students who intern for weekly newspapers. In 1995, the Rebeles gave UC-Santa Cruz $250,000 to endow the Patricia and Rowland Rebele Chair in Art History for visiting professors, the largest alumni contribution in UCSC history. And in 1997, Rebele gave $100,000 to the Cantor Art Center at Stanford to fund two rooms. In the meantime, he has been involved in various church organizations, hospital boards, United Way fund drives--the list, indeed, goes on.

Personal Journalism

BORN SEPT. 30, 1930, in San Francisco, Rebele graduated in 1951 from Stanford, where he was editor of the Stanford Daily in his final year. Patricia, whom he met in junior high school, graduated as a re-entry student from UCSC in 1988. He worked various newspaper jobs, then served as a naval supply officer between 1953 and 1956. In 1957, after getting his M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, Rebele began shopping around for a newspaper to buy. His first paper, The Coalinga Record, cost $35,000. Four years later, he sold it for $110,000.

He and partner Lowell Blankfort then bought three papers in San Diego County, the Chula Vista, National City and Imperial City Star newspapers, which they worked until 1978. His formula for success against the nearby big-city competition, The San Diego Union Tribune, was simple: produce a good paper and promote the hell out of it.

"For suburban papers to survive, you had to be differentiated," Rebele recalls. "We were intensely involved in the local community." Rebele would pair his newspapers with "shoppers" (ad-only papers) and use the latter, which were distributed free, to promote the former.

"We hammered away constantly at circulation," Rebele says. "Plus we were producing a newspaper that people really wanted to read."

One of the things people really wanted to read was the editorial page. When it came to expressing opinions, what Rebele calls "personal journalism," he believed in making the paper lively. "You have to be fair and not alienate people, but not pull punches," he explains.

But he acknowledges that there were risks. In small communities--witness Santa Cruz--people develop intense rivalries. "We did have animosities because of our stand-taking journalism," he admits. "In our news columns, we tried to be fair and objective because that's the role of a paper in part. It's also the purpose of a paper to raise hell."

The papers thrived because the suburbs of San Diego were growing fast, and there was a lot of new money coming into town. In 1978, Rebele and his partner bought several small papers around the country, each time infusing them with their financial and journalistic philosophy before selling them.

"Each paper ran its own show," Rebele says. "They did responsible reporting, responsible editing, and took editorial stands that were defensible and based on facts.

"We didn't always agree with them editorially, but who does?" Rebele continues. "That's not what defines a newspaper, agreement."

The Right to Know

REBELE'S DEVOTION to informed debate speaks to his belief in the importance of the role newspapers play in a free society. Watching over public officials and giving citizens an arena for expressing their views are for Rebele a cornerstone of democracy.

At the same time, he doesn't kid himself about the popularity of journalists, who seem to rank even lower than politicians in the public's esteem these days. His personal frustration with the profession is less about reporters sometimes being irresponsible than about their frequent failure to be bold enough.

"We have too many lazy reporters who are satisfied with the first answer, who don't go to enough sources," he says in a fatherly sort of way, encouraging the profession to do better. "There's no substitute for a good reporter who digs."

How, then, does journalism strike a balance between fulfilling its obligation to investigate and doing it in a way that doesn't alienate readers?

"I think people are always going to hate us." He chuckles a little as he says this. "You have to be a masochist to go into this business. It's part of the deal."

Rebele accepts that deal because he trusts people to be responsible with the facts.

"An informed public is most of the time a right-deciding public." When he says this, there is a certain innocence in his manner, a Jimmy Stewart-like quality that does not allow for sophistication or excuses. He takes this government of the people, by the people and for the people stuff very much to heart. And he is adamant about government keeping up its end of the bargain.

"You see too many instances of public officials who are hoarding information the public has a right to know."

Rowland Rebele
George Sakkestad

Paper Tiger: Reb Rebele's office reveals him to be something of a pack rat. But in all those stacks of papers is the evidence of causes he believes are worth fighting for.

Open-and-Shut Case

THE SUBJECT of open government has gotten a lot of attention of late. Gov. Gray Davis has placed a virtual ban on direct contact between administration officials and the press. Locally, questions have been raised about information policy at UCSC; some members of the Santa Cruz City Council have complained about too much public business being conducted in closed session; and there have been recent allegations that the Soquel Creek Water District has abused California's Brown Act, which governs the holding and conduct of meetings of legislative bodies.

Rebele has spent his life promoting open government and the public's right to be informed, a commitment that grew out of his belief in the civic role of journalism. Today, he is the president of the California First Amendment Coalition, an organization of 500 members--200 newspapers and 300 individuals--which has been helping newspapers and individuals keep government honest since 1990. Rebele came to the organization through rooting out corruption not in government but in the industry he loves, journalism.

In 1988, when Rebele became president of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, the organization was riddled with internal conflict. An investigation by Rebele eventually resulted in the resignation of CNPA executive director Mike Dorais in 1991.

During the investigation, CNPA staff attorney Terry Francke says he was "encouraged to seek other employment" by Dorais. In 1990 he resigned to become executive director of a new organization, the CFAC, which was formed by a loose coalition of newspaper organizations called the California Freedom of Information Committee.

In 1991 Rebele helped organize a conference for the CFAC at Stanford, and in 1992 he joined the board of directors. At the same time, Rebele gave the organization a $300,000 shot in the arm. That endowment has now grown to over $700,000, thanks to the stock market and other donations.

"Reb has provided staunch and spirited leadership in keeping the effort focused on helping people and organizations that otherwise would go without help," says Francke.

Today the CFAC is at the forefront of efforts to promote what are called "Sunshine laws," which aim to keep the activities and documents of government open to the public. A Sunshine ordinance is on the books in San Francisco (a task force is considering ways to beef up the law), and the CFAC is considering a statewide Sunshine initiative.

Overall, Rebele says the state of California deserves no better than a C- for its commitment to openness in government. The main problem, he says, is that the California Public Records Act (CPRA), which is supposed to guarantee public access to official records, has no enforcement mechanism. And the courts have not always been much help.

A pair of 1993 Superior Court decisions allowed police to keep investigative files closed indefinitely. And a 1991 decision allowed agencies to withhold documents such as calendars and cell phone records that are considered part of the deliberative process of government.

The only recourse citizens have when denied access to public records is to sue, so many agencies feel free to stonewall reporters and the public. According to a report on the failures of the CPRA by state Sen. Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto), public officials with contempt for openness find it easy to flout the law:

    [A] reporter for a major newspaper recounted how a California Department of Fish and Game official stated that he was denying the reporter access to public records because he knew the reporter didn't have time to challenge the denial in court. The reporter was also told that the agency routinely sends "sensitive" information to agency lawyers [and] claim attorney-client privilege, although statutes do not provide an exemption simply because documents are located in an attorney's files.

Rebele talks about a case in Paradise, Calif., where his newspaper, The Paradise Post, tried to obtain the salaries of the police. The city attorney told the police union, which got an injunction to block the release. Rebele had to take the city to court but eventually won.

"It was an open-and-shut case," Rebele says. "But what so often happens is, there are no teeth in the California Public Records Act. So if an injunction is filed, you have to go to court to fight it. And a lot of people don't have the financial resources."

Rebele has not always been successful in prying open public records. When Gov. Pete Wilson filled a vacancy on the board of supervisors in Butte County, Rebele sued to get the names of those who had applied for the job.

"We said if they were running for office, everyone would know who they were, and that's essentially what they were doing," Rebele points out. "The public should have an opportunity to comment." The governor would not release the names, so Rebele pursued the case all the way to the state Supreme Court. He lost.


THE CFAC HOPES THAT it can turn things around this year in the legislature. The primary focus of its efforts will be to pass Senate Bill 48, introduced by Sher and Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough). Local Sen. Bruce McPherson is a co-author.

"The most important one right now is the Sher bill, to put some teeth in the public records act," Rebele says. "The public's business ought to be done in public. And the people in government, both on the staff side and the elected side, should not shun that."

S.B. 48 would allow citizens who have been denied access to public records to appeal directly to the attorney general's office for a prompt ruling. If the attorney general determines that the record was improperly withheld, a fine of $100 a day would be imposed on the agency until it is released.

Attorney General Bill Lockyer has expressed support for the bill, but with reservations based on fears about being put in the position of judging agencies that his office would normally have to represent in court. Rebele says that, so far, anticipated opposition from organizations representing city and county government agencies has not materialized.

On the other side of the ledger, open-government advocates fear a bill, S.B. 129 by Sen. Steve Peace (D-El Cajon), which would prohibit the collection of any personal information without an individual's consent--including information on government employees or elected officials. Requiring the permission of government officials would effectively curtail open access.

There are also three bills--S.B. 1065, A.B. 1099 and A.B. 1234--which would in different ways make public records more easily available in electronic form or on the Internet.

Rebele--a kind of happy warrior in the mold of the late Sen. Hubert Humphrey--sees these bills not just as goals in themselves but as the continuation of long efforts to keep government open. "The CFAC has a limitless future, because the task of fighting for access and defending the people's right to know, which we think is the bedrock of democracy, is an ongoing fight," Rebele says. "It's going to get more difficult to access information as records end up in an electronic format."

More difficult? Wasn't the Internet supposed to open up access to information?

"The web is exploding, but it has become a way of fooling people that they've been informed," Rebele says, suspicious of a government that claims to be open but expends so much energy withholding information. "What they can give you on the web is what they want to give you."

Broken Wingspread

SINCE LEAVING SAN DIEGO County, Rebele and his longtime business partner, Lowell Blankfort, have owned papers in California, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois. Rebele's longest association has been with The Paradise Post, which he and Blankfort bought in 1977. He also owns Paradise Printing, which produces such papers as The San Francisco Bay Guardian, The San Jose Business Journal and the Sacramento, Chico and Reno News & Review papers.

Rebele moved to Aptos in 1980, and it didn't take him long to get his feet wet in the affairs of his new home. His introduction to the impassioned world of Santa Cruz County politics was a rocky one.

In the 1980s, Rebele became involved in the debate over what was known as the "Wingspread" development, a proposal to build a 468-room hotel on property between McGregor Drive and the ocean in Aptos. As part of the deal, the developer, Ryland Kelley, promised to build recreational facilities and a three-theater performing-arts complex, as well as to fund the arts center's operating deficits from the hotel's income.

As an arts patron, Rebele became chair of the Wingspread Arts Foundation (at the time he was also president of the Santa Cruz County Symphony board) and pushed hard for the project. Although it was approved by the Board of Supervisors on a 3-2 vote, it lost by a 2-to-1 margin in a 1988 public referendum. The project was strongly opposed by environmentalists.

"We weren't able to convince the community, and I was too new to advise him [Kelley] well," Rebele recalls. "I learned a lot."

Ever the arts promoter, Rebele still laments the defeat for the arts facilities. But as a member of the county's Cultural Council Facilities committee since 1989, Rebele remains hopeful that a site for a new theater and symphony will one day be found.

For Geoffrey Dunn, executive director of Santa Cruz Community Television, how Rebele handled the Wingspread defeat spoke volumes about Rebele's ability to allow for people to disagree honestly. Dunn opposed Wingspread, and when it was defeated, Rebele did not hold it against him.

Four years later, when Dunn started Santa Cruz Magazine, Rebele was one of three people who put up money to get it off the ground.

"We were on opposite sides on Wingspread, but he supported me anyway because he wanted an alternative paper in Santa Cruz," Dunn says. "He puts his money where his mouth is. I just think he's a hell of a guy."

The magazine lasted four years, and Dunn says he had many long talks with Rebele about the business. "Without his encouragement I couldn't have gone forward," Dunn says. "The newspaper business is tough, and I admire anyone who can succeed in it."

Future Shares

WHEN IT COMES to the future of the thing he loves most--newspapers--Rebele is at once confident and apprehensive. Competition from the web and elsewhere, as well as a perceived decline in interest in journalism among young people, concerns him.

"I think the future of newspapers as less profitable and less widely read vehicles is assured," he laments. "But well-edited, stand-taking, objective, complete newspapers will always have a market."

For Reb Rebele, what newspapers do is just too important not to last, in some form, forever. The worst enemy of good journalism is not corrupt public officials but indifference.

"Fighting for the right to know is a constant battle, because people are apathetic, even though they don't say so in surveys," he says. "To some extent people do know how we should value our freedoms here and how important they are--how different it is in this country than in China, where you can be put in jail for 14 years just for wanting to start a political party. We take it for granted."

And Reb's future?

He has the arts, important causes like services for the homeless, his wife and three children, and the California First Amendment Coalition. And, of course, his ongoing business interests. He says he plans to be at all of it to the end.

"I'm gonna die with my boots on."

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From the April 7-14, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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