In 2001 a reporter, an entrepreneur and a publisher moved from Aspen to Santa Monica. Denounced by the LA Times as carpetbaggers, they went on to found the city’s only running daily newspaper.

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, SMDP is Santa Monica’s paper of record, publishing six editions a week sharing countless stories of politics, crime, education, community villains and heroes that would otherwise go unaccounted for.

The three founding partners — Carolyn Sackariason, Ross Furukawa and Dave Danforth — worked in the business of free micro dailies in Colorado and were attracted to Santa Monica by the similarities it held to Aspen and the news that the city’s only daily, The Evening Outlook, had recently folded.

“We share a lot of the same challenges and struggles when it comes to labor and housing shortages, but we also share a strong underlying economy that is tourist based, a strong sense of community identity, very distinct neighborhoods and a very walkable city,” said Furukawa, who is the one partner who is still active at the paper and has gone on to raise his two daughters in the city.

The paper was founded on the simple principle that local news matters to local people.

“You get people who are having stories done on them and think that what they are doing is the most important thing in the world. It can be the community bridge club and it will be the most important thing they will ever do and you have to remember that,” said Dave Danforth, veteran journalist, publisher and original SMDP partner.

In February 2018, Todd James joined the paper as a partner, bringing with him renewed enthusiasm and investment into back office systems that not only future proofed the organization, but opened growth opportunities that the team hadn’t explored prior.

“As an investor in startups I’m constantly looking for innovative and viable business opportunities, which is why I was attracted to a free print newspaper,” joked James. “In all seriousness, I’ve always admired the Daily Press for its commitment to independent reporting that neither regurgitates the work of other publications nor shirks from asking the tough questions.”

In this day it is rare to find an independently owned community newspaper, but at 20-years-old the Daily Press is nonetheless continuing to prosper. That longevity is due to the founding vision of the partners, the tireless work of its staff and the dedicated support of local residents.

Santa Monica has gone through many changes since 2001 and under the leadership of SMDP’s four editors these shifts have been meticulously committed to the historical record.

Carolyn Sackariason, Editor in Chief 2001 – 2006

Carolyn Sackariason was the first person to hold the title of Editor in Chief at the Daily Press, but behind the scenes she was performing many other roles: reporter, researcher, scheduler, community outreach leader, copy-editor and even delivery person.

In the early days it was an all hands on deck situation to get the paper afloat as the three founders ran the entire operation out of a shared apartment.

“I remember when we launched we did everything… I threw stacks of papers in the back of my Honda Accord and we would be out delivering at 5am,” said Sackariason. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life for sure, but it was really exciting to make an impact on the community and for the residents to recognize how important it was to have a daily newspaper.”

Despite the plethora of other publications that were littering residents’ doorsteps at the time of the Daily Press’ launch, Sackariason’s hard work attending every single City Council, court, School Board, Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood association and you-name-it-she-was-there meeting, paid off. Within a year the Daily Press was an established paper of record.

From the get-go Sackariason was covering hard-hitting and essential community stories, like the senseless stabbing of Samohi student Deanna Maran who was murdered at a party just weeks after the Daily Press launched.

Sackariason was also the first reporter on scene after the 2003 Farmers Market massacre, when 86-year-old George Russell Weller plowed his car through the market, slaying ten people including a 3-year-old girl and 7-month-old boy.

“It’s pretty traumatic and the carnage that ensued was just unreal. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Sackariason, who assiduously covered the fallout of the incident including the ensuing lawsuits and court trials.

Not all the impactful stories she covered were dark and gory.

Sackariason had great fun going door knocking with Eunice Kennedy for Bobby Shriver’s City Council campaign. She loves the quirky nature of local news and fondly recalls writing “Man’s purchase at Smart & Final neither smart nor final,” which documented the lawsuit of a local resident who ingested maggot ridden lettuce from Smart & Final.

Many of the topics that permeated the early editions of the paper are still at the center of community discourse: the balance between development and community character, the challenges of addressing homelessness and the politics of City Hall. Sackariason began the Daily Press tradition of scrupulously covering these debates with deep dedication to accuracy.

Michael Tittinger, Editor in Chief 2006 – 2007

When Sackariason moved back to Colorado, Michael Tittinger took his turn in the big seat. While Sackariason was the hard news junkie who gave the paper its credibility, Tittinger was the imaginative thinker who dreamed up new ways to drive community engagement.

“I almost saw myself as like a creative director and tried to take advantage of the talent in Santa Monica, involving more people to do graphics, columns and different kinds of features,” said Tittinger.

Tittinger converted the Saturday paper into a magazine-esque edition anchored by a deep dive article that is unconstrained by the quick turn-and-burn nature of the weekday stories. Current editor Matt Hall revived this tradition in summer 2021 and it continues to be an important outlet for investigative and feature reporting.

Tittinger also launched a quotes of the week section gathering witty or salient remarks from local figures, which predated the now viral “overheard at” social media accounts and made the community feel more involved with the paper.

He loved working with the intern team and remembers sending young reporters on a range of unique assignments such as spending a night in a homeless shelter or visiting every single Santa Monica Starbucks in one day.

Now that Tittinger is back living on the East Coast in an area without a local newspaper, he notices the sharp difference in community and accountability.

“I think it (a daily newspaper) really keeps people engaged in the community,” said Tittinger. “Just to know you have a local newspaper that’s keeping an eye on everyone and everything and is ingratiated in the community is invaluable, it really is.”

Kevin Herrera, Editor in Chief 2008 – 2014

Kevin Herrera was but a plucky young reporter when he began at the Daily Press, but he advanced quickly under the mentorship of Sackariason and Tittinger and went on to become a seasoned editor. Herrera remains closely connected to the city and currently serves as the Marketing and Communications Manager at Downtown Santa Monica, Inc.

“One of the things that I really enjoyed about and still enjoy about working in Santa Monica is that it is very much a small town and tight-knit community… which made work at the Daily Press a real joy because people were engaged and that made you feel like you were actually doing important work,” said Herrera.

While he wrote many impactful stories during his time at the paper, Herrera’s greatest pride comes from the success of the reporters who worked underneath him.

“A lot of the writers we brought in started off as interns and have now gone on to write for Reuters, the Associated Press, the Hollywood Reporter, so I’m really proud of playing a small role in those people’s careers,” said Herrera.

One aspect of his role that Herrera struggled with was a growing sense of division and vitriol within public discourse that began during his time as editor.

“I will say that (the work of an editor) became more challenging over the years because of the sort of change in discourse,” said Herrera. “I just felt that there was a lack of respect and just a change in how people communicate with each other. It felt like there was no more spirited debate… it’s just ‘you’re wrong, you’re wrong and you’ll never change my mind’.”

This polarization and rancor is not unique to Santa Monica, but is a trend that has spread across the country. Despite this shift, Herrera maintains a deep love for the Santa Monica community and an appreciation for the value of local news.

“I think the value of local news is greater than I think it ever has been because there are so few local news outlets left,” said Herrera. “It’s crucial that we have media outlets like the Daily Press that cover the day-to-day stuff that is important to people.”

Matt Hall, Editor in Chief 2014 – present

Matt Hall took the helm in 2014 and has been steering the paper ever since, including through the especially turbulent times of the pandemic, where under his leadership the Daily Press did not skip a single issue.

One of Hall’s greatest contributions to the paper is something readers will never notice, but staff will be eternally grateful for and the longevity of the paper is in part due to. Having come from out of town, Hall approached the paper with fresh eyes and redesigned and streamlined the production cycle so that the daily issue is ready for the printer by 6:30 p.m. instead of 11:30 p.m.

“That has made us vastly more efficient, which is critically important because that’s helped us survive in the modern era,” said Hall. “Newspapers are not a particularly stable business and so shoring up the foundation on the production side… gives us the ability to continue publishing and means we haven’t had to lose any reporters.”

Hall has also made countless editorial contributions over his seven years at the paper. Notably, he was the only reporter, to his knowledge, on scene during the May 31 riots of 2020.

“I was on the ground in the mall as people were looting it. I was on Fourth Street as they smashed into REI,” said Hall. “So that’s certainly a data point in the city’s history that I think no one else covered as well as we did.”

Hall said one of the key community trends he has witnessed during his time as editor is the coarsening of public discourse, the burgeoning distrust of institutions, and an erosion of a basic understanding of the different realities people live in.

“I think that was present in the local news cycle here long before it really exploded into the national,” said Hall. “I think Santa Monica in many ways has always led the nation in a lot of trends and for worse that was a trend that was present here.”

With what Hall calls the “de-evolution of the belief in facts,” the role of accurate news, and in particular of accurate local news, has never been more important.

During his time he has also come to notice the powerful effect that local news has on individual people’s lives, citing examples of an article about a community member’s accomplishments helping them get into college or get a job. There have also been multiple times when a photo he took so precisely captured an individual at their best that their relatives have come to him and asked to use it at that person’s funeral.

It is in part these moments that sustains Hall’s passion for his work alongside an understanding that the paper serves a purpose that extends beyond the immediate response of readers.

“We’re not only churning out a paper for tomorrow’s readers… we’re writing a story so that anybody in the future who needs to understand what this community was like has a written record and that only happens at a local level,” said Hall. “I think that’s an important part of what we do.”

Clara@smdp.com