What's to Become of Us? And Other Berkeley Trivia

By Becky O'Malley
Friday November 16, 2012 - 10:10:00 AM

Now that the election is behind us, it’s time once again to speculate on that eternal existential question: Why bother?

The motto behind this journalistic endeavor, which has taken a variety of forms in the past ten years, is that if people knew what was going on they’d do something about it. This has turned out to be only partially true, because some of the people some of the time want to know something about what’s up, but lots of people lots of the time would rather not know, thank you.  

In the period when we could afford to pay reporters and printers, a lot of information got thrown at the civic wall like beatniks’ spaghetti, and some of it stuck. But often it didn’t.

My own most recent involvement with figuring out what dominates the Berkeley brain has been bracketed by two official crusades to make homelessness and other unsightly forms of street life disappear, both of them spearheaded by self-styled liberal/progressive elected officials. In my garage last time I looked (I try not to do that too often) there is still a twenty-year old sign saying “Assemblyman Bates Supports Measures N & O”.

Twenty years ago N and O were the letters identifying ballot measures equivalent to this year’s Measure S: attempts to legislate misery out of sight. That pair of proposals rousted me out of the political torpor induced by twelve years working to establish a technology company and raising my kids.

I’d spent my early adult years working in the civil rights and anti-war movements, managing political campaigns, going to law school and working as a journalist, but at that point I’d been assuming that the local leftish ensemble, Berkeley Citizens Action, was looking out for my interests and the causes I cared about. It was a rude shock to discover that some of the BCA-backed city councilmembers and legislators I’d supported with my votes and small contributions over close to twenty years were backing a clearly unconstitutional ordinance aimed at restricting freedom of speech.

I joined in the effort to try to explain what was wrong with N and O, but we failed and it passed, partly because there was no longer a local newspaper which reached Berkeley voters. However the ordinance was thrown out when it reached federal court, and civil libertarians hoped a stake had been driven through its heart.

No such luck. Fast forward to Brave New Berkeley 2012, and some of the same cast of characters (including Tom Bates and Linda Maio, still officeholders after all this time) try again—minus the flagrant First Amendment violation. But this time Berkeley voters nixed their plan, and by a healthy margin too.

What’s made the difference? I’d like to hope that a resurgent local news scene helped.  

In the intervening time, we’d done our part by taking over a failed start-up, the Berkeley Daily Planet, supporting it through eight years but never managing to attract enough advertising revenue from local businesses to break even. What we did manage to do was to attract others to the Berkeley news scene, so that it finally looked like a serious market to a number of publications.

In 1992, as I remember it, there was nothing but the printed San Francisco Chronicle, and the Comical, as we called it then, had a standard template for their Berkeley stories: everything you ever wanted to know about Bezerkeley, a fantasyland where screamingly funny stuff happens all the time. There also was a weekly faux-local paper, predominantly shopping news, operated by a conservative regional chain which produced duplicate issues with different mastheads in towns throughout the East Bay hills and studiously avoided controversy of any kind.

The Daily Cal, then as now, varied widely in quality from year to year and only reached people near the UC campus. The East Bay Express was a literary standout, but not much for news.

Things are a good bit better now. The Chron does occasional serious stories about Berkeley, even if they don’t always understand what they observe. The weekly Hills chain has been subsumed into the larger, more professional Media News chain which provides factual stories about Berkeley written by decent reporters. Its variously flagged front pages, which now include the Berkeley Voice, the Contra Costa Times, the Oakland Tribune and the San Jose Mercury, reach quite a few Berkeley readers.

The Daily Cal, which has lots of diligent student reporters who manage to cover many stories, can serve a wider audience thanks to the internet. Online, Berkeleyside.com, anxious not to be considered just a blog, sometimes offers very respectable stories reported by the owner-operators, employee reporters and freelancers, as well as providing a platform for advocates and naysayers of all kinds. And lots of lively locals (Jane Stillwater, Richard Brenneman, Ted Friedman and others) are blogging away with abandon, sometimes on local topics.

During the recent election all of these sources supplied voters with what added up to an impressive variety of useful information and opinion on Measure S which probably contributed to its defeat. Readers seemed to get what it was about.

(The Express, on the other hand, three or four owners down the line from its salad days, is sadly but a thin, shrill echo of its former substantial self. It ran a single story on Measure S by a writer whose beat is usually entertainment—one-sided at best, advertiser-driven at worst.)

Here at what’s left of the Berkeley Daily Planet we keep chugging away at informing the public, as much as it’s possible to do that with an all-volunteer army. We’ve been lucky to get contributions from some fine pro bono reporters in the couple of years since we ended commercial print publication. We continue to get excellent opinion, analysis and criticism from people who could hold their own in any arena. ..

News reporting is difficult and time-consuming, and it’s not reasonable to expect volunteers to do it for very long at a stretch. News analysis, as we define it (lots of facts colored by some opinion) attracts writers who understand what’s going on from a participant’s point of view, but even they get burned out. Opinion writing depends on passion, which waxes and wanes.

Publishing all of this online, even on a weekly schedule, is a good bit of work. And I’m not getting any younger, nor are the grandkids. The time has really come to wind down.

But as I’ve been writing this, two unsolicited news stories complete with photos have come in my email, along with an offer for a timely and useful service feature from an expert in her field. The faithful columnists have sent along their weekly pieces, which have devoted fans. KPFA fans are sounding off on their upcoming election.

It seems wrong to turn such generous free-will offerings down cold. And a new incarnation of Measure S is bound to appear on the horizon sooner or later—as we all learned in Grade Six, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Nevertheless, we’re thinking hard about a way to shift gears, to lessen our time commitment while still serving as a watchdog when injustice appears on the horizon and continuing to provide a forum for the bounty our Berkeley community offers. In the next couple of months or so, as we enjoy the winter holidays, we’ll do that by not worrying so much about deadlines, posting whatever comes in when it’s convenient rather than creating a new issue every Friday.

Some friends have suggested converting to a blog format, where writers, including me, can do their own posting in a linear, sequential framework. Others think the Planet should become a journal of opinion, perhaps a quarterly, or maybe a magazine devoted to long-form articles on local or wider topics. Many long for another print publication, but that’s even more time-consuming and very expensive.

We’d like our readers, as they have many times in the past, to write in with their ideas about what the next step should be. My address is bomalley@berkeleydailyplanet.com. We’re waiting to hear what you think. After the new year, we’ll revisit this question.