There was no editor’s column in this space last Friday because I was in Concord on Thursday, serving as a judge in the California Newspaper Publishers’ Association’s annual awards contest. Every paper that enters the competition is required to submit a judge for the regional entries, so I went. My assignment, with one colleague, was to review two categories: investigative/enterprise stories and environmental/“ag” reporting, both for less-than-daily papers above 25,000 circulation, the next group above the Daily Planet’s 2004 figures. Next year, we might be in this group, since our circulation is increasing.
What’s going on in the rest of northern California? Well, it’s surprising how much that’s going on elsewhere is like what’s going on right here in the East Bay. A previously unknown group of Native Americans wants to build a casino, and they’ve asked their congressman to float a special bill to give them early recognition. A school district has gotten way in over its head with costly building projects and has no money to pay for them or staff them. Agribusiness is pushing for genetically modified food, and environmentalists are pushing back. Developers are trying to convince locals that what pays off for their own bottom line is also good for the public interest, and anyone who demurs is called a NIMBY. As the French would say, plus ça change, plus la même chose—the more things change, the more they remain the same.
I’ve been threatening for years to write a journalism textbook which would consist of outlines for perennial stories which could be endlessly revisited. I thought it was a joke, but when I mentioned it to a j-school professor it was received with genuine enthusiasm. The classic evergreen piece is scandals at nursing homes, on the front page of the Chronicle this very week. Another old standby is “Pollution, Pollution!” Any town, almost any time, can provide a pollution story. In the immortal words of Tom Lehrer:
They got smog and sewage and mud
Turn on your tap
And get hot and cold running crud.
One sexy story which popped up in the group was extra-marital carryings-on among public officials. That’s still big news in small towns, evidently. I haven’t heard much on the topic around here for a while, though it was big in times gone by. Either it’s stopped, or no one cares enough to report on it any more.
My colleague and I must have read 40 stories in five or six hours, though I didn’t keep an exact count. From these, we were supposed to choose four in each of the two categories to be forwarded to the state level for the final round of judging. This was not an easy task. Some could be rejected out of hand, but for each final four we chose, there were at least four credible candidates we had to leave behind. As the afternoon wore on, my eyes started to cross and my critical faculties got a bit blunted by fatigue, so I hope I did justice to all comers.
Despite all odds, reporters for some of these little papers are doing a lot of good work. Many of the publications I saw did seem more like weekly magazines than like newspapers. Many consisted of a big entertainment calendar plus one or two pieces which seemed to be at least 2,000 words long, as contrasted with the Planet’s philosophy of doing a larger number of shorter news stories in each issue. There must be a reason for this trend, and it’s probably financial.
Reporting is expensive. The very interesting facts in many of these magazine-type stories were often padded with long discursive introductions, extensive descriptions and colorful character profiles. But a number of the reporters also did the harder and more tedious work of public records searches, aided in some cases by local sunshine ordinances which went beyond the state of California’s provisions for disclosure. They insisted on attending meetings where they were not exactly welcomed by officialdom. They took full advantage of the new opportunities the Internet offers for getting a broader perspective, both geographic and historical.
What I didn’t see was many small newspapers like ours. Presumably a few towns still have local dailies, which wouldn’t show up in our stack. But the old-style community weekly or semi-weekly which reported on all local news seems to be disappearing in many northern California towns, probably because the competition from regional and even national papers has affected their advertising base. That’s too bad, because, as we’ve said many times in this space, democracy depends on people knowing what’s going on. A lot of coverage of entertainment, even when supplemented by the occasional big story about a major scandal, can’t provide citizens with everything they need to know to do their job of watching out for the common good.