Steve Moss, 56; Started Two Weekly Papers and 55-Word Short-Story Contest

Times Staff Writer

Steve Moss, who founded two alternative weekly newspapers on California’s Central Coast and dared would-be authors to master the 55-word short story, has died. He was 56.

Moss died April 24 from complications of epilepsy at his home in San Luis Obispo, said his brother Kioren Moss. In recent years, Moss had struggled with depression caused by his medication.

Diagnosed with epilepsy at 13, Moss wrote openly about it in San Luis Obispo’s New Times, the alternative weekly he started almost 20 years ago with two friends and a few thousand dollars from his retirement account.

Five years ago, he founded the Santa Maria Sun, a weekly community newspaper whose mission he compared to creating a “town square where everybody could participate,” said Bob Rucker, general manager of New Times.


In 1987, Moss thought up a succinct short-story contest -- “storytelling at its leanest,” he said -- that brought entries to the New Times from as far away as Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Each story had to be 55 words or less and contain the classic ingredients associated with the best short stories: a setting, a character or characters, conflict and resolution.

Imagine if “Twilight Zone” had been only a minute long, or if O. Henry only had a business card to write on, Moss told the New Orleans Time-Picayune while promoting “The World’s Shortest Stories” (1998), the first of two anthologies he would edit. “The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death” was published in 2000.

Creative writing teachers praised the stories in the oftimitated contest as great tools for teaching word economy and the basics of short-story writing. It also helped that the stories often amused. A brief example, Jeffrey Whitmore’s “Bedtime Story” from “The World’s Shortest Stories”:

“Careful, honey, it’s loaded,” he said, reentering the bedroom.


Her back rested against the headboard.

“This for your wife?”

“No, too chancy. I’m hiring a professional.”

“How about me?”


He smirked. “Cute, but who’d be dumb enough to hire a lady hit man?”

She wet her lips, sighting along the barrel.

“Your wife.”

The latest winning examples of these shortest of stories will appear June 2 in New Times.


Stephen Donnellan Moss was born Sept. 18, 1948, in Riverside, the son of Harry Walter Moss, an attorney, and Elizabeth Donnellan Moss, a psychiatric social worker.

He graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in fine art and did graduate work at the now-defunct Brooks Institute of Fine Arts and Syracuse University. While in New York, he started writing for one of the city’s new alternative weeklies. In 1983, he moved to San Luis Obispo and printed the first edition of New Times in August 1985. His two papers now employ 50 people.

“He wanted his papers to be fair and never arrogant,” his brother said. “He was always looking out for this profound sense of justice. Plus it was a lot of fun.”

After New Times ran a story critical of Alex Madonna, the conservative rancher and owner of the colorful Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo threatened to pull advertising. When Moss visited him in the booth that Madonna used to hold court at his inn, he used humor to connect.


Moss was “heartbroken” when the man he considered a mentor died last year, and when Moss died his family purposely buried him near Madonna’s “giant boulder of a headstone” in the city’s Old Mission Cemetery. “It seemed appropriate, and when people want to visit Steve’s grave it will be easy to find,” his brother said.

Early on, the family knew that Moss’ humor would serve him well, and a fourth-grade report card bears testament. It is framed so only the front and back are visible, “not the middle with the crummy grades,” Kioren Moss said. On the back, the teacher wrote, “Steve would have done better if he would have spent more time studying and less time on foolishness with his friends.” In “parent comments,” his father replied: “We both appreciate Steve’s weakness for foolishness. It may yet prove a strength.”

In addition to Kioren Moss of Ventura, he is survived by two other brothers, Harry Moss Jr. of San Francisco and Francis Moss, an Army captain who is on his way to Iraq; and two sisters, Alice Moss of New York City and Laura Moss of Minneapolis.

A journalism scholarship in Moss’ name has been set up at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Checks may be made out to Steve Moss Journalism Scholarship Fund and sent to the fund in care of New Times, 505 Higuera St., San Luis Obispo, CA 93401. The scholarships will be awarded based on writing ability, not grades.