The Berkeley Daily Planet After Ten Years: Why a Newspaper Now?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday March 15, 2013 - 02:35:00 PM

De profundis, a plaintive cry from a would-be Planet contributor: “I have no idea what you're doing, but every other publication on the planet can state what it's looking for. Until I get that from you, I won't be submitting.”

Well, yes, I can understand that sentiment, and it’s a wise decision he’s made. In the ten years since the O’Malley family launched this ship of fools, I’ve often wondered myself where it was supposed to be sailing.

It’s also been ten years next Wednesday since the Bush II administration launched an even more foolish endeavor, the pointless invasion of Iraq which resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths both Iraqi and American, and which has left behind it a ruined landscape in continuing chaos.

The two launches were not unconnected. From our first editorial, written by Becky with copious input from Mike and other family members: 

“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, Henrik 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.”
Our first month of operation produced an outstanding example of how the mainstream press could get things really wrong. Technology columnist Henry Norr was fired from his job at the San Francisco Chronicle by then-editors Phil Bronstein and Robert Rosenthal, putatively for taking time off work to participate in an anti-war demonstration. 

The Planet’s op-ed pages hosted a variety of comments about the legality of the firing, but a year later Norr settled his suit. 

From my piece at the time

“The Chronicle’s Monday story about the settlement claims that ‘Norr’s termination occurred as a result of events arising out of his role in anti-war protests against the current war in Iraq.’ Norr concedes that his Iraq opposition, including his arrest in San Francisco, played a part in his eventual firing, but he thinks there’s more to the story.His statement, published in Monday’s Chronicle article, says that ‘because I didn’t violate the ethics policy the Chronicle had in place at the time, it is clear I was fired because of my political views—my opposition to the war in Iraq and Israel’s occupation of Palestine.’
“In an interview with the Daily Planet Monday, Norr went on to say that ‘I can’t prove it, but I have a strong suspicion that one of the main reasons I was fired is because of my support for Palestine.’
"Norr’s July 2002 column about a billion-dollar Israeli Intel plant built on land guaranteed to Palestinians in a 1948 treaty was the subject of a heated campaign by pro-Israel groups, and he incurred further criticism for a vacation trip to the Occupied Territories with the International Solidarity Movement.”
Bronstein and Rosenthal now run the Center for Investigative Reporting, lavishly funded by the late financier Warren Hellman and a major supplier of copy for the Chron. Norr has never again worked for a newspaper. That’s the ball game, fans. 

We should have learned from reporting on Norr’s experience that whose ox is gored can cause major bloodletting. A 2006 op-ed by an Iranian student criticizing actions of Zionists in general and the government of Israel in particular engendered a nasty campaign against the paper and its advertisers which ultimately contributed to the demise of the printed Planet. 

On Day One we did acknowledge that a Berkeley paper was not likely to alter world history “..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.” 

We continue to believe that the truth might make the people free, but a better slogan might be that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink (or in its naughty schoolyard version, you can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her [or him] think. ) 

It turns out that just giving citizens information doesn’t cause them to take responsibility for the actions of local government. Who knew? 

Berkeley, with no term limits, has turned into a gerontocracy wherein mayor and councilmembers once elected are set for life. Our city council is awash in retirees, the majority of whom were in office when we took over the Planet and before. Voters choose familiar names on the ballot with no understanding of what their position might be on key civic issues, if there indeed are any such. 

And it’s not as if we didn’t try to tell them what was coming down before it landed on them. Ten years ago, for example, the city boasted four public pools: now it has only one, and that one has severely restricted hours. We reported extensively on the step by step neglect and disintegration of the pools which have been destroyed under the Bates administration, but it had little or no effect on votes either at the ballot or in the city council or school board. Yet Berkeleyans still bemoan the loss of the pools with no clear understanding of why they went away—and they seem to be prepared to eternally re-elect all the politicians responsible . 

The current online-only publication, with no employees and no budget, can’t contribute much to the public discourse—it’s just a pale shadow of what we were doing in print. But we lost much too much money on the print paper and can’t afford to do it again. 

We are deeply grateful to the citizen volunteers who have stepped up to the plate to provide coverage online, but working for free (some even with full-time day jobs) they can’t be expected to report all the news all the time. Other civic-minded people who could be contributing have understandably decided not to take advantage of the free internet space which we’ve been offering, choosing other ways to make their voices heard or perhaps getting weary of the whole megillah. 

We get statistics on “page views” which seem to show that a lot of people, in the tens of thousands at times, are still reading the online Planet, but we know that compared to the former print readers it’s a drop in the bucket. There are still a thousand or so “subscribers”, people who are so determined to see what we offer that they’ve signed up for a weekly email which provides hot links to major stories. 

With the aid of a local copy shop, for a short time after the print version folded we provided a way that stories from the website could be printed up on demand for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t read on screen. Unfortunately threats by the usual suspects scared the printshop owners enough that they decided not to continue that project. 

Ten years later, our oldest granddaughter is graduating from high school, and the others aren’t far behind. We’d like to enjoy them while we can, and we have other projects and responsibilities as well. Deadlines are seeming onerous. 

It’s again time to consider the question our confused wannabe reporter raised: why are we here and what do we want to do? 

There’s now a patchwork quilt of Berkeley-centric publications both online and in print which when agglomerated do a pretty fair job of letting the small number of those who care find out what’s going on. That might be enough. What do you think? 

As always, we welcome your comments, as long as you’re willing to sign your name to back them up. The address is still opinion@berkeleydailyplanet.com