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SAN ANDREAS � Relaxing on the patio of the Pickle Patch Deli on a recent sunny afternoon in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Ralph Alldredge talked up small-town journalism between bites of a fat BLT sandwich. “Our feeling is that what people want more than anything else is local news,” said Alldredge, longtime publisher of the Calaveras Enterprise, a 6,500-circulation newspaper only a half-mile drive from the deli. “That’s the thing we can do best.” Eleven months ago, the 64-year-old decided it was time to give the Enterprise his full attention. An attorney for 37 years, Alldredge surprised many by resigning from his other job as a business litigator at 1,400-lawyer K&L Gates. He then sold his home in busy Berkeley and moved with Claudia, his wife of 41 years, to Angels Camp, a tiny burg best known for its annual Calaveras County Jumping Frog Jubilee. Alldredge is now only a 15-minute drive from his newspaper office, and plans to be as hands-on as possible. “I never really wanted to be in a big firm and I’d become more involved in the newspaper,” he said. “Instead of a dual career, I’ll have a second career.” After one more big trial early next year � he represents the San Francisco Bay Guardian in a predatory pricing suit against a couple of competitors � Alldredge will start winding down his legal practice. “I’m only going to do consulting work on trial matters, and some mediation,” he said. “That’s what my experience puts me in the best position to do.” Alldredge got into the newspaper business because of an unexpected tragedy. He and Bob Piccinini, owner of the Save Mart chain, had agreed in the late ’90s to put up the money so another friend, Darell Phillips, the publisher of the Manteca Bulletin, could own his own newspaper. But the day the three were closing on the purchase of the Calaveras Enterprise in February 1998, Phillips drowned in the waters of a creek swollen by El Nino rains. Suddenly, Alldredge and Piccinini found themselves owning a newspaper. At the time, Alldredge was working for Legal Strategies Group, a small litigation boutique in Emeryville. He was only there part-time � billing about 1,200 hours a year � and was familiar with newspapers after having represented or defended several in antitrust cases over the years. “This looked like a good opportunity,” Alldredge said, despite its coming to him in such a regrettable way. For most of the last decade, though, Alldredge � a focused fellow who was dressed casually this day at the Pickle Patch Deli � was an absentee owner, making long-distance calls and communicating by e-mail, while making the 2 1/2-hour drive from the Bay Area one or two days a month. Now, he said, he’s working in his newspaper office three or four days a week. “My duties are pretty much those of a traditional CEO,” he said, “providing overall strategic direction, making decisions on important business and editorial matters, developing new products � and dealing with important personnel matters.” Alldredge said his legal background and exposure to newspaper economics during his antitrust cases also make him the San Andreas newspaper’s lawyer and chief financial officer by default. Besides, having been raised on a farm in remote eastern Washington, Alldredge truly enjoys San Andreas, the unincorporated seat of Calaveras County, about 45 miles northwest of Stockton. He appreciates the slow pace of rural life and loves running a community newspaper in a town small enough � with a population of about 2,600 � for people to stop him on the street with story tips and ideas. “That’s one of the wonderful things about a community like this,” he said. “You know the people if you want to. You get to know the people where you shop, where you eat. You run into people on the street. “People take the time to have a complete conversation,” he added. “You can sit and really chew that subject until it’s truly masticated.” The Calaveras Enterprise, which publishes twice weekly, is located in a one-story building with a virtual maze of offices for each department. It’s on the Gold Rush town’s historic Main Street and sits across from buildings that house Calaveras County’s museum and historical society, archives and arts council. The so-called “death tree,” on which death notices once were posted, stands out front. A direct man who can be both a tough boss and a folksy friend, Alldredge � who has four grandchildren � mingles easily with his 20 full-time employees. He pokes his head into each department to see how things are going and engages in playful banter. His right-hand man at the Calaveras Enterprise has nothing but good things to say about the boss. “I’ve been on five papers and worked with a lot of publishers,” editor and general manager Buzz Eggleston said. “This guy is as good a journalist as I’ve ever worked with.” Alldredge has a good eye for holes in stories, Eggleston said, and has an analytical mind that fits well with journalists. Even better, he said, Alldredge will admit if he’s wrong. “He lets me argue with him, and we disagree on lots of things,” Eggleston said. “So what we’ll do is walk through it, argue it until one of us says, ‘Ya know, you make a lot of sense.’” A wall in the Enterprise’s reception area proudly displays a handful of awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association for columns, environmental reporting, sports and feature photos. Community news is the paper’s mainstay.
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“We have no wire service, and we have no national news,” Alldredge said. But the staff “covers all the bases � the board of supervisors, the schools, the water district, the fires that come through every summer.” There’s even a sheriff’s log, which on a day last month contained items that gave a feel for small-town life. Among them: “4:35 p.m., Copperopolis � Report of black cow in the roadway. Owner advised” and “1:09 p.m., San Andreas � Reported verbal dispute over cake prices.” Alldredge said if residents want state, national or world news, they can always subscribe to the Sacramento Bee or The New York Times. “But if they want the local news of Calaveras,” he said, “they get it from us.” One of the big stories recently has been growth, what with more and more people moving in from the Central Valley or the Bay Area all the time. A recent report, Alldredge said, showed that Calaveras County’s population increased 253 percent over the past 30 to 35 years. “There’s a lot of interest that the growth in Calaveras will be the right kind of growth,” he said. “In places like this, you notice when another 30 acres gets cut and paved over.” Alldredge’s pet project is the newspaper’s Web site. For a small paper in a relatively remote county, a Web site provides greater exposure to the public than the print edition itself. Alldredge said visits to www.calaverasenterprise.com recently increased by 30,000 to 40,000 a month. “As an organization,” he said, “we’re reaching a whole new set of readers out there.” Alldredge wouldn’t discuss how much of his own money he’s put into the Calaveras Enterprise or how much he earns as its publisher. The closest he got was admitting that he and Piccinini made a “substantial investment” in the paper initially and he earns “not nearly as much” as he did when he was billing $575 an hour for K&L Gates. Alldredge said he bought out Piccinini four years ago and that he and his wife, as sole owners, have begun to turn a profit from the newspaper. Money wasn’t what convinced Alldredge to step in when Phillips died, though. It was a sheer love of the newspaper industry. “In addition to the wonderful, colorful kinds of characters, you have that public responsibility of being the free press,” he said. “You’re the one who has to be watching [the powers that be] and keeping them in check.” Alldredge said he likes to quote Scott Newhall, a now-deceased friend and former executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle: “It doesn’t matter if they love you or hate you. You just want them thinking about you every day.”

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