12:15pm | In 2007, Nick Schou was not only writing for the OC Weekly but lived in Long Beach — and so if anyone seemed like a given to follow then-OC Weekly editor Will Swaim to Long Beach to be part of the original cast of The District Weekly, it was Schou.
But he stayed put. And he's pretty damn glad of that today.
But why didn't he come along for the ride? "To be honest, it was a multiplicity of reasons," he says. "I was happy where I was, and I enjoyed writing about Orange County."
Schou was nonetheless dismayed to see how The District Weekly's story came to an end. "I think it's very sad the way things turned out," he says. "The people who lost out the biggest on this whole deal were the people that were committed to … doing serious, important journalism. It's a real tragedy how that story ultimately unfolded.
That in 2011 Schou would be a writer at all, never mind one having written for the same publication for 15 years, is not a future he always saw for himself.
But he did start off down that path, writing what he calls "a lefty political column" for Occidental College's not-very-creatively-named campus newspaper, the Occidental. The possibilities began to emerge when a Los Angeles Times writer read a Schou-penned story on a campus speech-code controversy and used it as a basis for one of his own.
"I almost went straight into daily journalism," Schou recalls. "I contacted the writer [of the above-referenced story], Bob Baker, and he said, 'Oh, you should be writing for the L.A. Times. You're a natural.' And I was like: 'Whoa, okay, cool!' … But I ended up having about a three-minute conversation with the managing editor, and he was like, 'I'm sorry, but we're having a hiring freeze.' This was the economic recession in the early '90s, you know? So that didn't happen."
Then there was his detour as the great labor leader that never was. Schou worked for a year as a research analyst for the hotel workers' union in L.A. and was so turned on by the job that he flew to Guatemala "with the idea of learning Spanish so I could become a union organizer."
Six months later he was still in Guatemala and had no desire to leave, but he flew back to the U.S. to keep an appointment with the AFL-CIO organizing institute. "And I promptly realized that I didn't want to be a union organizer. I was not cut out for it," he laughs. "In fact, I had been warned about that by the hard-core organizers of the union. They were like, 'Nick, we admire your commitment to the struggle and everything, but you've really got to think about where your strengths are.' … I realized that the union movement was going to have to struggle on without Nick Schou."
It was then that Schou got tipped off to the formation of the OC Weekly by his former advisor at Occidental. "I'd never even really set foot in Orange County. It was just this scary place for crazy conservative people or whatever," Schou says. "But I decided, 'Alright, let's see what this is all about.' [And] I really liked the vibe [at the OC Weekly]; I liked all the people working there. It was an exciting, young, talented crew."
Schou landed an internship with the OC Weekly, and before long he had written a couple of news stories for the paper, "which was a big deal, because [as an intern] you were lucky if you got to do anything more than fact-check back then."
It wasn't long before Swaim hired Schou as a full-timer, by which time Schou had met his future wife, who also interned at the OC Weekly. Today, Claudia Schou runs Media Boutique, an active public-relations agency here in Long Beach, where wife and husband live with their six-year-old son. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
"It was a tiny little operation back then," Schou says of the OC Weekly in the mid '90s, "and I was the news editor, so I was in charge of the two-page news section spread, which usually had two stories, a cartoon, and a pull quote. It was like $200 for the whole section, which meant I had to write as much of it as possible and farm out the rest to hapless interns and underpaid freelancers. But it was a lot of fun; it was exciting. I was young — 25 or 26 years old."
If timing wasn't everything for Schou, it certainly wasn't working against him, as the 1996 passage of Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, meant "no shortage of stories about people being arrested, collectives trying to establish themselves, [etc.]"
It was in the same general time frame that Schou read a series of articles authored by San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb. Entitled "Dark Alliance," the series exposed the CIA's involvement with a Nicaraguan drug ring linked to the Contras, the rebel group made famous by the Reagan administration's choice to covertly support the Contras (including via arms sales to Iran) even after Congress had banned such support.
The LA Weekly ran the "Dark Alliance" series in its entirety, and within that meta-story Schou saw the promise of a local angle concerning a former Laguna Beach police officer who had apparently become a weapons dealer and money launderer, providing police scanners and even a rocket launcher to members of drug ring. "I said, 'I am going to make that guy my target. I am going to find out everything I can about him, because that's too wild not to write about,'" Schou recalls. "That's how I got to know Gary Webb."
In the course of researching his own stories along this line, Schou became friendly with Webb, consulting Webb via fax and even providing Webb new information.
It was from this vantage point that Schou had a close-up view of what he calls Webb's being "drummed out of journalism," a story Schou ended up telling his first book, Kill the Messenger: How the CIA's Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb. "[Writing that book] was the only way I knew how to make sense of [Webb's being betrayed and committing suicide]," Schou says. "I didn't write it for money. It was something I felt very passionate about."
Kill the Messenger, which was published in 2006, fared well critically, eventually landing Schou a spot at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on a panel with journalistic luminaries such as Charles Bowden (who penned the forward to Kill the Messenger). But Schou wonders — though sans regret — if the book might have done better commercially if he had made it more tabloidish or one-sided, such as going with a popular assertion that Webb was assassinated by the CIA. "But that's completely untrue," Schou says, noting that the evidence of Webb's meticulously planning his own suicide is beyond question. "I still get that all the time. It just makes me wonder how many more people would have read the book if I had tried to go down that crazy road. … Most of the interest in this story goes down that road — deeper and deeper conspiracyism. And it makes it so easy to discredit serious journalists' work, throw it in that category."
What drives Schou journalistically is not popularity but accurately telling stories that interest him, and telling them fairly — something quite different than trying to strike a pose of journalistic objectivity, which Schou calls "a myth. I think it's a pretentious concept that journalists created to hide behind as a sort of shield against being more courageous in their quest for the truth. I think the ultimate responsibility of journalists is to be fair in the pursuit of trying to tell the truth. … That's not objectivity. … [Another] fairness that is ultimately important to keep in mind is fairness to your own readers. I mean, if you're not being honest in your reporting and letting your readers sort of sort out the judgments they're going to make, then you're doing them a disservice."
That strategy doesn’t mean you're not going to piss people off on occasion, as evinced by what you get when you Google "Nick Schou": one of the top results is "Nick Schou liar," a page put up by the Citizen Investigation Team, a group of 9/11 conspiracy theorists Schou profiled in a 2008 OC Weekly article.
"I'm trying to work on another book idea, and one of the people whose cooperation I would need wanted my response to that [page,]" Schou laughs. "[The Citizen Investigation Team] were really pissed off about what I wrote, and God bless 'em, they're never going to let me forget about it. But the article speaks for itself. … I sincerely believe that they believe that they're … really exposing the truth, but they consider anybody who [disagree with them] government plants or agents of disinformation."
"I'm used to pissing people off," Schou continues on the general subject. "When you write about police brutality, for example…I remember this one time I got a call from some off-duty Huntington Beach cops who were extremely pissed off — that kind of thing. So you just get used to that. If you're not pissing people off as an investigative reporter, you're not really doing your job."
Does Schou ever worry about inspiring such vitriol? "We don't live in Russia, where they're, like assassinating reporters, you know?" he says.
But he does recognize some risk inherent to covering stories regarding illegal activity — whether it's being conducted by the CIA or anybody else — although he hasn't suffered any scares along those lines.
And he notes that the risk runs both ways. "When you're doing a story on large-scale marijuana traffickers, people are putting a lot of trust in you to let you be in on their operation and show you how it works," he says, using as his example his recent OC Weekly story "Into the Emerald Triangle" (subtitled "Travels with OC potrepreneur B. Lucky to California's marijuana breadbasket"). "In that kind of story, you don't just protect the sources that are named, you [also] protect the sources that aren't named."
Schou has written a good deal on the medpot industry, a topic he hopes to turn into his third book. "This is America's number-one cash crop, and it's getting bigger all the time," he says. "There's so much happening. Nobody really understands exactly what's going on. … That's a story that I think demands to be told."
But regardless of his personal feelings, Schou has no taste for advocacy journalism. "Now I'm just trying to find interesting stories," he says.
Schou's second book is based on just such a story. Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World, which was published last year and comes out in paperback this December, is based on a series of OC Weekly stories he wrote beginning in 2005 regarding a 1960s spiritualist hippie group with designs on bring peace and love to the world via consciousness-altering agents.
The epoch in which Schou's writerly career is unfolding strikes him as "miraculous" in terms of how drastically the journalistic landscape has been transformed by advancing technology.
"When you have papers like the New York Times predicting that they're not going to have a print version in five years or ten years or something like that, it becomes pretty obvious that the future has sort of already arrived, that print is basically a dead medium — not just to newspapers, but to books, to a large extent," Schou reflects. "Obviously, any serious player in journalism from a publishing perspective needs to create an exit strategy [by way of] online content. That's what all the newspapers and magazines are struggling to do in one way or another.
But Schou doesn't necessarily regard these developments as an existential crisis for journalism. "There's such a hunger for information that it's possible to read a daily newspaper and a selection of print magazines, read books, and also constantly read other stories online — which I do, as well," he says. "I like reading actual newspaper, actual magazines, and actual books. I'd certainly hate to see those things disappear."
That's not to say those in the trade won't continue to encounter certain difficulties. "There's always going to be a chance to write and get published," he says, "but the industry seems to not factor in the making a living for people who do that. It's a tough gig. … I'm extremely grateful to be employed. [But journalism] is not something that you do for money or fame, per se. … The reason why I've stuck with it is to write stories that I think are important and make a difference."
No doubt that's exactly what Schou is doing from his own little corner of Long Beach. Comb through his years of work and you'll find stories carrying the 'Nick Schou' byline that have had legal consequences for some of his subjects. This continues today, as Schou was recently subpoenaed to "basically read [some of] my articles into the record."
And while Schou feels "the powers that be care about journalists really if they can get something out of them," he's less cynical about the feedback today's online journalistic landscape affords him. "I love reading comments — [including to] other people's stories," he says. "Any writer that denies that they have an ego and doesn't care at all about the reaction that their stories get is a strange creature, to say the least. I haven't met anyone like that, myself included."
Nonetheless, while Schou likes positive reaction, as long as he's fair and accurate in his reportage, he's content to let the chips of public opinion fall where they may.
"What am I gonna do," he asks, "not write about anything people might not want to read or might not like?"
Fortunately for local investigative journalism, Nick Schou has no such plans.