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Why a Newspaper Now?

Mike and Becky O’Malley
Tuesday April 01, 2003

A newspaper? Why a newspaper? Why now? We’ve been asked these questions often by friends and family in the last three months. From time to time, we’ve even asked ourselves why we’re doing this. It’s a lot of work. It’s time consuming. It’s expensive. We were comfortably retired from the business world, enjoying our grandchildren. 

There is a standard repertory of high-minded answers to these questions. A very few newspapers, perhaps in the low hundreds nationally, are locally owned. Berkeley’s Ben Bagdikian has devoted many years of his life to documenting this depressing story. Most metropolitan papers have been swallowed up by national chains which themselves have become part of monopoly media conglomerates. Even the weekly press, once touted as the alternative to chain papers, has been taken over by out-of-town organizations. The Berkeley Voice and the Montclarion, once lively local products, are now run by the Knight-Ridder empire on an ever-diminishing budget. The Oakland Tribune briefly flourished under Bob Maynard’s stewardship, but was sold to a dull suburban chain after his untimely death. The East Bay Express, formerly a literate local alternative, is now owned by the shrill and formulaic New Times corporation. 

Why does it matter who runs newspapers? Tip O’Neill, then Speaker of the House, once said, “All politics is local.” News is local, too, especially coverage of local government. In towns like Berkeley, daily life for many residents is most affected by action or inaction on the local level, but without a local newspaper citizens can’t find out what’s going on at City Hall, and why. The Bay Guardian continues to offer an independent perspective for San Franciscans, but it doesn’t really cover Berkeley. The San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times occasionally publish reruns of their standard Beserkeley story, but not much more. 

The Daily Planet, founded about four years ago by three young MBAs from out of town, endeared itself to Berkeley readers by the ingenious technique of simply reporting, in a straightforward way, the news about local government that people needed to know. When we took it over, concerned commentators opined that we would use it as a vehicle for advancing our own political agenda. That’s true, we will. What they don’t know is what our agenda is. 

Among the bits and pieces of newspaper paraphernalia we acquired as the Daily Planet’s assets was a desk calendar published by the Freedom Forum, the nonprofit foundation established by the heirs of the Gannett newspaper family. It’s a nice design. Each daily page reprints the First Amendment in full, coupled with a fresh quote about the importance of a free press. Some of the authors are surprising. Who would have thought that Newt Gingrich said, “One of the things that almost never works is secrecy -- particularly secrecy in defense of dumbness”? We like this calendar a lot. 

We are really old-fashioned liberals at heart, brought up on liberal slogans like “the truth will make you free” and “open covenants, openly arrived at.” We have a measured belief that progress is possible, and have often supported “progressive” candidates in elections, but we don’t believe that all change is progress. We have also acted on our belief that the best of the past should be preserved for future generations to enjoy. 

Our agenda is a simple one: Tell people what’s going on, give them a paper to discuss it in, and trust that they’ll make the right decisions. The last few months have tested our belief in the wisdom of an informed public. One of the most discouraging aspects of the country’s turn toward the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive aggression is not how poorly it’s been covered in print. In fact, the failed effort to head off the Iraq war has produced an outpouring of some of the best prose this country has ever seen. Molly Ivins, Norman Mailer, Henrick Hertzberg, Tony Lewis, Jon Carroll. There’s a seemingly endless supply of cogent argument from articulate writers, and it doesn’t seem to have worked. 

But we still want to do what we can with what we’ve got. Local coverage well done can still give local citizens the information they need to take responsibility for the actions of local government. How this translates to the national and international levels is a discussion that should be going on right now. It can take place in a newspaper like this, among other places. Joe Liebling, a cynical commentator on the press in the middle of the last century, used to say that the press was free for those who owned one. Now that we seem to own one, we want to share it with Berkeley citizens, so that together we might be able to figure out how to save the world. 

And what better place for a free press than Berkeley? Berkeley was chartered on April Fools’ Day and named for a philosopher. Carol Denney likes to remind us that Berkeley was the home of the Free Speech Movement because of the University of California’s determined opposition to free speech, not because free speech was protected here. Berkeley needs a newspaper which remembers its complex and paradoxical past, and which understands and accepts its responsibility ty for shaping the future.