When George Mason drove into Fresno to start an English- language weekly newspaper for Armenians in 1959, there were about 50,000 Armenians in California. They were mostly fruit farmers who had lived for a generation or more in California. And they wanted a way to keep in touch with a culture whose language they had mostly forgotten.
Today, Mason is a Beverly Hills financier and the Courier is based in Glendale, a long way from the hot, dusty streets of mid-century Fresno. His paper’s original editor, Reese Cleghorn, is dean of the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, and the modest paper they founded in the back of a gas station as a post-graduate school lark is the state’s oldest Armenian newspaper.
It is virtually unknown outside the Armenian-American community, but among its readers--immigrants and children of immigrants--it is both a link to the simpler Armenian life style of a generation ago and a fiercely independent political journal that tackles the complex problems of the Southern California Armenian community today.
The Courier has had an unusually long life for a publication serving a community that has undergone tremendous change. It has survived, Armenian scholars say, by adapting to the times.
On Friday a group of California Armenians will toast the Courier’s history and its future at a lavish $500-a-plate banquet. Guest speaker will be Gov. George Deukmejian. Cleghorn is flying out to Los Angeles from Maryland to attend and to see Mason, his old college friend, for the first time in 28 years.
The Courier is now owned by a young Armenian from Syria, Harut Sassounian, has 3,000 subscribers and an estimated readership three times that. It has offices in a modern, Armenian- owned building in the middle of Glendale, a city whose population is about one-fourth Armenian. It circulates in 35 states and 20 foreign countries. Its subscribers, an affluent, worldly group, include Deukmejian and former California Court of Appeal Justice Richard Amerian. It is owned and edited by a Columbia University graduate who writes articles about U.S. refugee policy, and it takes controversial stands that often get its small but avid readership hopping mad.
“The amazing thing about the Courier is the extent to which it has mirrored the community’s growth of self-confidence,” said Salpi Ghazarian, director of the West Coast office of the Zoryan Institute, a nonprofit Armenian educational foundation. “It started out as a small little weekly and has grown to a point where there is more discussion of political and social issues that are difficult and controversial. This is a crisis time for Armenians and the Courier is one of the few papers dealing with that.”
The Armenian-American community is indeed in crisis. With a Southern California population of more than 250,000 and thousands more arriving every month, the community is swiftly changing. The Courier is read by leaders of many of the Armenian organizations that serve the refugees and by many of the organizations still coping with the aftermath of December’s disastrous earthquake in Soviet Armenia.
The Courier began responding to some of those concerns a few years ago, under the leadership of Sassounian, the paper’s editor since 1983. The paper has become lively, political and a good deal more liberal than many of its readers, but so far it has retained the loyalty of its founders and its longtime subscribers.
Robert Shamlian, an Armenian banker who lives in Glendale, has been a Courier subscriber since the beginning. He kept his subscription after Sassounian and his wife, Irene, took over and doesn’t mind the way the paper has changed.
“Usually I don’t agree with Harut’s point of view; he’s a little bit more liberal than I,” Shamlian said. “But it’s nice to have a contrasting point of view. It opens up your thoughts.”
There are at least five Armenian newspapers in Los Angeles today and about a dozen more around the country. Several publish in English and several based in Boston are older than the Courier.
But the Courier is one of only three papers published in English not affiliated with one of the fiercely divided Armenian political parties. Its motto is “The Newspaper for All Armenians” and, even though its readership is limited to a small, affluent group of American-Armenians, it remains free of outside influence.
Sassounian bought the weekly from Mason in 1986, three years after taking over as editor. From the first, he insisted on moving the paper to Los Angeles, the heart of Armenian life in the United States. Once a money loser, the paper has boosted its advertising by almost 75% and turns enough of a profit to support Sassounian and his wife. Sassounian has done it by working late at night, on weekends, and learning about journalism through common sense.
An intense man with enough energy to attend a constant whirl of Armenian events, Sassounian is Syrian by birth and political by temperament. He has a master’s degree in business from Pepperdine University and one from Columbia University in international relations. He speaks Armenian, Arabic, English and French.
Sassounian is one of those Armenians who left the Middle East for the United States in the last three decades. These more recent arrivals derisively call people such as Mason and the Fresno community his paper served “shish kebab” Armenians, suggesting that their interest in their homeland’s culture ends with a skewer of meat.
The Courier under Harut concerns itself intimately with Armenian culture. Sassounian reviews events and political lectures. He travels to Washington and New York to interview Armenian leaders on the East Coast and has written extensively about international issues such as arms talks, Soviet glasnost , the age-old conflict between Armenians and Turks, and the recent heated ethnic protests in Soviet Armenia.
“Harut mirrors a generation,” Ghazarian said. “This generation has a sufficient sense of self to be able to go out into the world and say, ‘This is who we are and this is what we want.’ ”
Sassounian prides himself on doing just that in the column he writes for the Courier. He never studied journalism before taking over the paper, but now says he is hooked.
“It’s such a great feeling to have people react to something you’ve written all alone at a little desk in a little room,” Sassounian said. “You realize that those editorials are important, that people are thirsting for direction.”
When the Courier started, politics and controversy were not on its agenda. It was a small-town newspaper filled with news of people and events. Mason wrote a column entitled “This and That.” Cleghorn wrote one called “Observations of an Odar"--an Odar being an Armenian version of a goy. In California in 1959, Mason believed that an English-language community newspaper was what Armenians needed.
“I said, ‘The Armenians need a small-town newspaper, because the Armenians are like a small town within a town,’ ” Mason said. “We felt that we were the wave of the future, that if there was going to be a community that would survive, it had to be held together by this English-language paper.”
Mason, then in Russian graduate studies at Columbia University, recruited fellow graduate student Cleghorn, a former reporter for the Atlanta Journal and the Associated Press, to help him start the Courier.
For Mason, now a stockbroker who lives in Beverly Hills, the Courier was a business from the beginning, but he says he also saw himself as an Americanized Armenian who was coming home to his roots.
Cleghorn was a Southerner, an American of Irish descent and a newspaperman at heart. He says his days with the Courier were like a foreign assignment, a great adventure.
“I’d never been to California before, and there we were driving across the country to this inland valley,” Cleghorn said. “I remember when we were driving into Fresno and I saw a barn on the side of the highway with, I believe, the name Srabian. It was a raisin company. I thought, ‘Ah, at last, here are the Armenians to read this paper we’re going to start.’ ”
To generate readership, Mason and Cleghorn went through California phone directories page by page, picking out more than 10,000 Armenian-sounding names to contact. They published out of a gas station and later out of a garage. They drove around Fresno getting advertisers and stories.
“It was zesty. It was different. It was a great American story,” Cleghorn said. “There were a lot of warm-hearted people, a lot of funny people. It was Fresno--William Saroyan country.”
Cleghorn left the paper after a few years, drawn by a chance to cover the growing civil rights movement in the South. Soon after that, Mason got a job with a stock brokerage firm and the Courier was demoted to sort of a hobby. He threw it together once a week in between earning a law degree in Fresno and embarking on a career in finance.
The paper languished for more than 20 years as little more than a collection of press releases and a column Mason wrote. Mason now says he was losing about $60,000 a year on the paper. Still, he never missed an issue, sending it to his printer in Fresno even after he moved to Los Angeles and getting it out to faithful subscribers.
“It was unthinkable that you wouldn’t get the paper out,” Mason said. “It was my contribution, my tie to the Armenian community. It was fun.”