Steve McNamara is one of the principal advisers who brought the San Quentin News back to life in 2008 after it had been dormant for more than 20 years. Together, McNamara and his colleagues took on the unusual mission of training a handful of prisoners to run a newspaper.
When then-warden Robert Ayers was nearing retirement and wanted to revive the newspaper, he recruited four professional journalists, McNamara, John Eagan, Joan Lisetor and another adviser who, according to McNamara, did not last long.
“The guys at the prison had no prior writing experience, and that’s amazing when you think about it,” McNamara said. “Publishing a newspaper is a big deal – something news writers don’t do.”
The 82-year-old Irishman is the former owner, publisher and editor of Pacific Sun, an alternative newspaper serving Marin County since 1963. As an adviser to San Quentin News, McNamara took on the responsibility of keeping it afloat when it struggled financially (as it still does.) He played an instrumental role in the paper’s expansion, at times saving it from its own success by careful management of its sporadic cash flow.
McNamara did not exactly welcome the News’ expansion beyond the walls of San Quentin. “I was apprehensive,” he said. “It was kind of cool when no one knew we were here.”
However, because of McNamara’s business savvy, news and publishing experience, San Quentin News now prints more than 25,000 monthly issues and distributes them to all 35 of California’s prisons and beyond, in addition to publishing a website.
A believer in strong writing, McNamara brought 53 years of experience to San Quentin News. This made the Princeton graduate (Class of ’55) a good choice for directing the paper’s resurrection, particularly with prisoners who, like himself, once knew nothing about journalism.
“I had never worked for a newspaper, ever. Not in elementary school, not in high school, not in college,” McNamara told the Mill Valley Historical Society in a 2014 interview. “Princeton had a very good daily newspaper, but I’d never gone near the office. I had no idea of how you worked for a newspaper.”
McNamara started his journalism career at the Twin City Sentinel in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1955. He went on to work on publications in Miami, Fla., and Europe before landing at the San Francisco Examiner as a magazine editor. He was the owner, editor and publisher of the Pacific Sun from 1966-2004 and was the prior owner of Marin Sun Printing which has been printing San Quentin News since 2010—something he arranged after the prison’s print shop closed due to budget cuts.
“There are a lot of things I didn’t know before I came here,” said McNamara. “I was startled by the realization that inmates get out and return with the same frame of mind or worse.” He said training prisoners to be journalists is not the point, emphasizing the fact that they learn all kinds of life skills.
“People will always want access to information. The question is how will the information be delivered?”
The fruits of McNamara’s success with the paper have not gone unnoticed. Every month prisoners across the country write to San Quentin News asking for information on how they can start a newspaper. One piece of advice is to do the impossible: find another Steve McNamara.
Smiling, McNamara recalled how some friends of his once asked him to come along with them for a get-together in their “men’s group.” “I have one,” he told them, referring to the men at San Quentin. “And they’re way more interesting.”
Reflecting on his decision to come inside one of the world’s most infamous prisons to work with men who have done some bad stuff, he said, “I was astonished at how smart and insightful people were who wore blue shirts and pants.”
What advice, if any, would McNamara give to other up-and-coming prison journalists in California and around the nation who want to start a newspaper? He advised them first to find a warden like Ayers and then organizational support on the outside.
“I think it’s a great idea” for inmates to create newspapers, said McNamara. “It’s a time-intensive manufacturing business that depends on creative people for its success. You guys are the leaders. You do an amazing job, especially with all the barriers that come with it.”
Displaying a proud smile, McNamara said San Quentin News is growing while other print publications are shrinking. It’s “an unfair advantage,” he said, because the News serves a special readership without internet access.
On the future of journalism McNamara said, “People will always want access to information. The question is how will the information be delivered?”
Many people in McNamara’s position would not spend day after day of their retirement in a prison volunteering to help prisoners. That he did so is a testament to his character and his willingness to make society a little safer, one felon at a time.
McNamara is no longer an active adviser to the men at San Quentin News as of December 2015, but he continues to keep an eye on some of the paper’s finances through the Prison Media Project, an organization he created to fund the paper.
The weekly staff meetings are not the same without McNamara and his astute comments and advice. He took off the training wheels and let the guys ride on their own. If at some point they fall, they’ve also learned how to pick themselves up.
Steve will always be a friend and mentor to the men who worked with him.
We heard you, Steve, and we’re still paying attention.