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Little Newspaper That Could : Armenian Weekly Survives, Thrives

March 09, 1989|ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writer

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.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 10, 1989 Valley Edition Metro Part 2 Page 9 Column 1 Zones Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
An article in Thursday's Glendale Section incorrectly reported the cost of a dinner tonight honoring the 30th anniversary of the California Courier. The banquet for the English-language Armenian community newspaper costs $100 a person to attend.

Paper Toasted

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.

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