‘How I wrote the story’: Making sense of a pissing match

Doug Smith keeps an open mind when a gadfly takes on a small town

I love the story you’re about to read: a slice of life, set in one idiosyncratic neighborhood, peppered with mean-spirited behavior. It’s the story of a gadfly, the kind of story everybody who works in local news gets to do–or is forced to do.

The reporter is Doug Smith. He was working as a general-assignment reporter in a regional edition of the L.A. Times when an editor suggested he examine a quirky local gossip sheet in a rural hillside community above Pacific Coast Highway called Topanga Canyon. Doug (who is now a Metro education writer) knew this would be a time-draining, frustrating piece, with only one reason to pursue it–in his words: “I can’t resist a story.”

'How I wrote the story': Making sense of a pissing match

'How I wrote the story': Making sense of a pissing match

Read the first 12 grafs to get a sense of the atmosphere. Then we’ll hear Doug describe the unseen struggles that put the piece together, followed by the rest of the story:


“TOWN TATTLER”
By Doug Smith

These days, the second week of the month swoops down on Topanga Canyon with all the foreboding of a full moon over Transylvania.

That’s when the normally civil gossip of this mountain village turns into shrieking denunciations and outraged denials.

The consternation is about an eight-page newspaper, The Balance Sheet, dedicated to “stirring up controversy and saying upsetting things about some people in the community.” It caught Topanga by surprise in December when it showed up in each of the town’s 2,900 mailboxes.

Combining the venerated American tradition of the town crier with a Libertarian viewpoint, a streak of dark humor and the voice of a banshee, The Balance Sheet brazenly promised to expose “how the good ol’ boy network appears to control the town by two means: The power to reward and the power to harm.”

No one was spared, nor was any particular decorum observed. A county Health Services Department inspector who had been summoned to investigate a property owned by the publishers–Kathleen Kenny and Art Starz–was quoted as telling a patron in the town cafe, “Tell Miss Kenny I will be at her house next week with the sheriff, a witness and a bazooka.” The inspector said the comment was merely a joke.

Even more biting was the attack on popular Topanga architect Bob Bates, who is also a longtime officer of a civic group called the Topanga Assn. for a Scenic Community. The Balance Sheet reported that Bates had been seen cashing a TASC check in the local market to pay for two bottles of red wine and $70 of Lotto tickets.

Bates declined to comment to The Times, but, in a letter published in The Balance Sheet later, he said the check was reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses and denied buying wine and Lotto tickets. The Balance Sheet insisted that the story is true, saying its reporter witnessed it.

With barbs such as these flying about, most people in Topanga just don’t want to talk to outsiders about The Balance Sheet–generally referred to as “that rag.” Even the editor of the town’s established newspaper, The Messenger, declined comment, except to say, “My heart goes out to you as a reporter.” Those who would talk said they simply hope the journalistic venture will soon go away.

The origin of all this spleen appears to be a festering dispute involving several neighbors on Cave Way, a leafy one-lane cul-de-sac of tightly packed homes.

From disagreements about such concerns as killing gophers and growing roses in place of native plants, the conflict escalated to a disputed property line and allegations of illegal building, progressing along the way from name-calling to rock-throwing, rifle brandishing and complaints to county authorities before one of the combatants turned to the ultimate weapon–desktop publishing.

Reaction to the newspaper was swift and equally shrill. The second issue, out in mid-January, contained an obituary page for their advertising revenue, publishing letters of several merchants pleading to have their ads withdrawn. Beside them was a transcription of a phone message that one advertiser received from longtime resident Joel Axelrod, warning, “We . . . will talk to friends urging them to never have any contact with you or your commercial ventures unless you contact the community and disavow any contact with ‘Balance Sheet.’ ”

Axelrod did not return phone calls from The Times.

- – - – - -

That’s a pretty easy read for all the pain Doug went through. Here’s his story:

I’ve been around long enough to know better than to get in the middle of a pissing match in a remote and notoriously clannish community that I don’t know anything about. So I wouldn’t have touched this story on my own. But it happened that a new editor in our office had taken up residence in Topanga and had a copy of The Balance Sheet, a local 8-page newspaper, delivered with her mail. There’s an adage that says a lot about the inner workings of newspapers: News is whatever happens near where an editor is. This new editor, who didn’t know any more about Topanga than I did, asked the reasonable question, ‘‘What the heck is this Balance Sheet about?’’ It’s an editor’s prerogative to have other people get the answers to their questions for them. So she asked if I might take a look into this interesting new publication to find out what was behind it.

I didn’t need to look at it more than a couple of minutes to understand that a lot of anger and frustration was behind it. Not so clear was whether it was the work of a your ordinary well-meaning citizen who was pushed over the edge by hard-hearted bureaucrats and evil neighbors, or a person who was really crazy in the first place. I didn’t really want to find out–it’s so tiring and perilous digging inside people’s psyches for information that you know in your heart will never find a place in a family newspaper. I could have said, ”No. Prima facie nut case.” But I didn’t. It was pretty obvious there was a story here. And I can’t resist a story.

The publisher, Kathy Kenny, didn’t want to be found. She published her fax number in the paper, but did not answer my request for an interview. My only other lead was one advertisement, for a lawyer. It turned out to be her lawyer, and, my luck, he thought an interview would be OK, so he gave me her number. I got her answering machine and left a message, having thought carefully beforehand how to phrase it. Instead of saying I was interested in her, I said I wanted to write about The Balance Sheet. She returned the call and told me she had refused other requests, but was flattered that I showed an interest in her publishing venture.

After the first few minutes with Kathy, I knew it was going to be a long interview. The first thing I noticed was that there was no answer to any question, no simple explanation for any occurrence, just a gossamer pattern of stories nested within stories which eventually would lead to her point. I didn’t think she was crazy, though I certainly agreed with her own assessment that she over-analyzes–a line that I knew I had to get into my piece. I learned that there was a key moment in her dealings with each of her enemies, a turning point in which friendship evaporated, trust was betrayed and justice fell to tyranny. She examined each of these in microscopic detail, recalling nuances and key words of conversations that took place two years ago.

After a four-hour interview, I had pieced the basics of the story together. My conclusion was that Kathy was not crazy. Actually, she was very intelligent, articulate and sympathetic. I was sure she was being singled out by her neighbors and that she had not received fair treatment at the hands of the Coastal Commission and County Building and Safety Department. The house next door, on the lot she was told would qualify for no more than 600 square feet, was really big! There must have been some funny business there. Had her tormentors in the in-crowd been able to turn the town postmaster against her, too, leading to intrigues over the distribution of The Balance Sheet that took her an hour to explain? It didn’t seem likely, but how could I tell? After all, it was an ingrown town.

One thing I felt confident of, though, was that Kathy probably brought her troubles upon herself just by demanding too much consistency in life. Just as people don’t talk in rhymed couplets, they don’t always say what they mean and they don’t always say the same thing today that they said yesterday. None of us can stand up to a Kathy Kenny poring over our every word and deed with the determination of a medieval scholar. It seemed pretty likely that before this was done, Kathy would reach one of those turning points with me, would put together inconsistencies in my comments and actions and that I’d likely become the subject of a future article in The Balance Sheet. So be it. My only responsibility here was to get as close as I could without libeling someone to giving my readers the truth.

I decided I’d have to check out at least a couple of Kathy’s complaints, even though I knew there wouldn’t be space in a newspaper article to detail even one of these convoluted tales. I started with the Post Office. A couple of calls there told me that she had encountered some needless hassles and was required to follow rules that more popular people were not. But it was more a matter of confusion than conspiracy. My calls produced a promise that future issues of the paper would get red carpet treatment–and this was honored.

It was an easy decision to drop this from consideration as part of the article. Katy’s assertion that the state Coastal Commission had given a neighbor permission to build a house far bigger than permitted by development regulations took a lot more work. What I found out was that the woman she sold a lot to jimmied the topographical map, thus getting a more favorable reading on the slope intensity formula. The architect who did it (I tracked him down in Hawaii where he was doing post-hurricane rebuilding) was evasive, saying he changed the map when he noticed the topography had changed because of grading, or maybe it was erosion. This seemed to me worth a separate article, so I proposed writing a sidebar, which the editors okayed.

By this time, word that I was writing about Kenny had gotten around Topanga. As I began making calls to the people she identified as her tormentors, a pattern emerged. They all declined to talk to me. From experience, I know that people almost always have something to say, so I concluded that they had all talked it over together and decided on silence as a course of action. I can’t say I was disappointed, because the time to write was upon me, and if I had been able to collect all the counter-charges these people would surely have against Kathy, I’d have had to go back to her for clarification. That would really soak up my time. As it was, I spent several hours-plus in phone calls and one more three-hour interview at her home. It was questionable whether the article was worth that, but it certainly wasn’t worth three times that.

But the fact that the alleged villains would not talk to me left me with a grave problem in writing: how to be fair? I had gotten to the point that I really liked Kathy and sympathized with her plight. I believed she was a victim of an intolerant community. But I also believed she brought many of her troubles upon herself through her pit-bull persistence. I think she’s the kind of person who would get someone to help her because they felt her cause was just, and pretty soon start picking apart their faults and deficiencies until they couldn’t take it any more. I had to avoid letting my article drift into a judgment of either side, which is of course what Kathy hoped I would do, but I also felt a considerable burden on me as the writer to take some kind of stand, to give the readers enough information to sort the situation out for themselves.

Two snips of quote helped tremendously: the editor of the local mainstream newspaper who said he felt sorry for me and the neighbor who said he wanted to change phones. Sometimes the key to writing a story like this, which demands that you gather reams of information that ultimately has to be left out, is developing an instinct for the detail or quote that just has to be included. Both these lines met that standard. Without offering any direct information, they illustrated the kind of bitterness and irrationality Kathy had stirred up in the community. Neither comment had a natural place in the story, though, so I worked hard to create a context for them and to interject them in a way that didn’t stop the narrative. Kathy’s comment about someone mysteriously transmitting a virus into her computer made a perfect counterpoint. She told me this in our last interview, on the telephone. I had almost finished writting then, and I was only calling back to be sure the new Balance Sheet was indeed coming out. But I immediately saw the advantage of using this as an ending. It summed up the incredibly bleak emotional content of this story and left a clear understanding, I hope, that the battle going on in Topanga was as much a matter of perception as reality.

Fairness was only half my problem. The other half was finding a way to make this story interesting. I found Kathy compelling as a person, but I couldn’t simply write a profile of her. She wasn’t important enough on her own for that. I had originally intended to make the newspaper the subject of the piece, but came to see that there was no way to make sense of The Balance Sheet without first explaining Kathy’s personal problems.

Gradually, after several consultations with my line editor, I began to think of the story in terms of an event in the life of Topanga. (It’s amazing how much more comfortable a newspaper lead becomes when even the simplest thing has happened.) The event I settled on was not a specific one, but a recurring one–publication of The Balance Sheet.

Because the story line was going to be very complex, I needed one quick image that would set the tone for the whole. I rejected using an anecdote, because the piece was going to be full of little narratives. There was the biographical information on Kenny and her boyfriend and co-publisher Art Starz–a good tale in itself–the deterioration of their relations with their neighbors, the saga of their applications to the county and then the struggle to start the newspaper itself.

What I needed was a unifying idea. I settled upon an allusion to the newspaper’s monthly arrival as the dreaded coming of a vampire. Usually such hyperbole is unforgivable in a news story, but I decided it was acceptable here because this was a story about exaggeration.

My initial draft introduced Kathy and Art lower in the narrative than the final. I was attempting to create a sense of suspense over how this neighborhood dispute escalated the publication of a newspaper. My editor, Steve, thought this didn’t work, and proposed moving the principals higher up. I immediately saw he was right and did it that way. He also asked me for a little more detail on how the feud built up, which led to the line in the 10th graf about disagreements about such concerns as killing gophers and growing roses in place of native plants. Afterward, I couldn’t imagine that I ever left the roses out. Throughout, my editor made other fine suggestions that really made it much better, particularly in finding ways to cut out about 10 inches. Bad editing can ruin a good story. This was a case of good editing making a good story much better.

One last note on the editing: After listening to Kathy’s tape of a critical phone call from the author Carolyn See, I knew from the pit of my stomach that it was really her. But another editor wanted to be sure I actually confirmed this with See. It took me two days to track her down in a hotel in Ohio. A conversation of about two minutes yielded one more quote–about the spirit of Topanga–that I knew immediately had to be included. Just shows why you should always make that extra call.

The only people in Topanga who actually would talk to me were the realtors. I think they wanted the publicity. That was okay with me. Realtors can be good for comment because they know their communities well and relate to them on a visceral level. One of them added an essential touch, the quote about people battling over property lines and trash cans. That turned out to be the glue that brought all these crazy happenings into a coherent picture.

Next I tackled the sidebar on the house that had been built at too large a scale. I called the owner of the house back to ask for her comment about the alteration of her topographical map. In our first talk, she refused to answer any questions and threatened legal action if I made any mistakes. However, when I told her what I knew, I could feel her turn ashen at the other end of the phone. She was terrified about being shown up as a cheat.

After reading the sidebar on the house, the editors decided not to run it. They thought it was too mighty a condemnation of a single property owner who fudged on process when it is probable that the practice is widespread. They suggested a broader investigation on the problem could be done, focusing on this as one example. I had no argument with that. My only complaint was that this anecdote helped to show that there was merit behind some of Kathy’s complaints. I had been asked to shorten my mainbar by several inches, and the editors wanted to strike the paragraph about the house next door. I fought on this, and won, arguing that it would be unfair to Kathy to leave it out, even in its highly telescoped version.

My last duty was to call the owner of the house back to deliver this news. I didn’t think it would be fair to leave her awaiting an ax that was not going to fall. She was greatly relieved.

All the work on the sidebar was not wasted, however. We had the piece reviewed by our lawyer who had only one question. Had we established through independent research that the house was larger than Coastal Commission rules should have allowed? We were able to answer ”yes” without hesitation.

- – - – -

Let’s return to the story. I’m sure you already have some appreciation for Doug’s struggles and how well the smoothness of the writing hides them. The story, having introduced The Balance Sheet’s iconoclastic style, now begins to describe where the hell the newspaper came from:

In some ways, The Balance Sheet is only an extreme manifestation of the type of neighborhood dispute that is not at all uncommon in Topanga, a collection of dwellings–from antiquated shanties to space-age mansions–scattered along circuitous backcountry roads. Inhabitants follow the credo that one should live and let live–as long as no one crosses the line.

“In Topanga you could walk nude down the street smoking dope and no one would notice you,” said Gary Harryman, an agent for Malibu Realty. “But God help you if you cross over their property lines, pester their dogs or molest their garbage cans. Then you’re in trouble. I don’t think they’d hesitate to shoot your ass.”

The disputes that sparked The Balance Sheet pit several residents against Kenny and Starz, her longtime boyfriend. The couple bought four small lots on Cave Way after returning from a two-year cruise to the South Seas on a 27-foot boat. Kenny, 51, and Starz, 56, put their savings into the Topanga properties while supporting themselves by selling a book that Kenny wrote on celestial navigation and a marine flare device that Starz invented.

They bought three lots at a county auction and the fourth later, two in Kenny’s name and two in Starz’s so they wouldn’t come under county requirements to consolidate contiguous lots.

On one lot, they built their dream home, a 660-square-foot, one-bedroom hexagonal tower, the maximum allowed by the California Coastal Commission. Though the finely crafted house, echoing a Thomas Jefferson design, will be featured in the April issue of Fine Home Builder magazine, Kenny said she got her first taste of neighborly disapproval when a photo of the house turned up in the window of the TASC office, with the words, “This is what we don’t want in Topanga.”

Kenny said she felt wounded by the experience, especially since no one ever told her why they objected to the house.

Real trouble didn’t start, in Kenny’s view, until her once-friendly neighbors gradually became aligned with the Topanga Assn. for a Scenic Community.

“Like a lot of people, they eventually got indoctrinated into the club,” Kenny said, characterizing the group as being on the far-out fringe in matters from architecture to psychic empowerment.

“They like little old shacks, is what they like,” Kenny said. “They’re irrational. They’re into pyramid power.”

The neighbors did not respond to The Times’ request for an interview. And Susan Nissman, chairwoman of TASC, declined to comment.

Relations heated up some more when Kenny and Starz filed for a permit to build on a second lot three years ago, just before stricter land-use standards promoted by TASC went into effect.

The permit application for the house on the second lot was delayed more than two years. In the meantime, as a result of complaints from a neighbor, the county cited Kenny and Starz for rebuilding an old structure on one of their other lots without a permit.

Kenny and Starz filed a permit application that is pending and have hired a lawyer who is considering filing a lawsuit against the county, contending that old structures throughout Topanga have routinely been rebuilt without permits. In fact, three other structures on the block also have been cited as illegal.

Kenny, a former private investigator and X-ray technician, said she began to suspect collusion between TASC and the county agencies.

The final straw for the couple came in November when the county informed Kenny and Starz that their application to build a house on their second lot had expired and they would have to reapply. Two days of furious writing brought out the first issue of The Balance Sheet, intended, Kenny said, to bring some balance to the community.

In it, Kenny, an intense woman who indulges an admitted bent to “over-analyze,” and Starz, an affable man who smiles a lot and speaks sparingly, detailed dozens of slights, insults and abuses they say they have endured.

“Our lives day by day have been torn apart by gossips and do-gooders in this town,” Kenny wrote.

A blow-by-blow of the alleged harassment had dozens of items, including 12 visits by the county Department of Health Services, four by sheriff’s deputies, seven by other county agencies and one by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the latter on a complaint that Starz was illegally selling firearms. (He says he has a U.S. permit for his flare device.)

Kenny and Starz did not get much sympathy for their suffering. Carolyn See, the novelist, left a message: “Please keep your hate rag out of my mailbox, take your craziness elsewhere. I swear you guys are worse than a possible golf course.”

“It’s really against the spirit of Topanga, which is be free and easy and don’t get crazy,” See said in an interview. “The fact that someone can do a paper like that, is the downside of the fact that everyone can have a personal computer.”

The first barrage of calls was nothing compared to the following month, when Kenny and Starz set up their answering machine to play the threatening message received by a Balance Sheet advertiser and printed a note in the paper promising readers, “Terrorist recordings may be heard 24 hours a day . . . ”

The phone rang incessantly for days, Kenny said.

The second issue introduced broadside attacks on the neighbors, without actually naming anyone.

In one article, Kenny lambasted the Coastal Commission over a three-story house just completed on a lot adjoining hers. She once owned the lot but sold it, she said, after being told by Coastal Commission staffers that the the commission’s slope-intensity formula would allow no more than 600 square feet. Then the commission granted the buyer a permit to build a house of 1,641 square feet.

Kenny then published a map of the property, outlined the slope-intensity formula and sarcastically asked readers to explain how the commission decided the larger house was acceptable when her proposed one was not. She offered $1,000 to anyone who could figure it out, confident that no one could.

Another Balance Sheet article, weaving a convoluted tale about an elderly woman who lived unhappily in a nursing home until her death, appeared to link a neighbor to a scheme to gain title to the woman’s house through conservatorship proceedings. (The neighbor declined comment but switched phones before saying he would have nothing to say, explaining that he feared Kenny and Starz were monitoring his portable.)

Those few Topangans who consented to talk about the paper said they were shocked by such reports.

“There is so much innuendo and half-truth in there, implying things that aren’t true at all about her neighbors,” Harryman said.

“She’s a vicious person,” said another real estate agent, Marty Brastow.

Brastow said the community has adopted the strategy of ignoring The Balance Sheet, “until they run out of money or they get bored, whichever comes first. . . . People generally talk about it for a couple of days and say, ‘Did you see that stupid thing, or did you see that nasty thing they said about so and so?’ and, ‘Isn’t it ridiculous!’ and ‘Forget about it.’ ”

The Balance Sheet did fail to come out on schedule in March, providing its detractors brief hope that Kenny and Starz had worn themselves out. But it wasn’t so.

The fourth issue finally arrived, its muckraking nastier than ever, directing its latest attack against a county building inspector.

Kenny vowed that the delayed publication was no sign of flagging energy. She blamed a computer virus that erased all the copy, forcing her to rewrite the whole edition.

She was pretty sure someone put the virus in her computer by telephone modem.


RECOMMENDED READING: Those of you who enjoyed the assault on the business’ worst cliches (posted June 11) may want to check out my Sept. 4 on-line chat on the Washington Post’s Web site.

Chat URL: http://www.discuss.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/zforum/01/bob0904.htm