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The incredible shrinking newsroom(s)

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It wasn’t a good sign a couple weeks back when the Salinas Californian announced it would no longer concern itself with breaking news. The once-proud daily had been reduced to a three-days-a-week schedule, and who wants to read about a Sunday-night fire on Wednesday?

Unfortunately for all involved, it was possible for things to go down even from there. Now that copy editors have been removed from many newsrooms, the growing trend is newsrooms without editors of any sort. For evidence, look no farther than Wednesday’s announcement that the Californian will now join the ranks of newspapers without any editor on site.

Californian Editor Pete Wevurski already had been spread mighty thin, also serving as editor of the Visalia Times-Delta and the closely related Tulare Advance-Register. As you may or may not know, Visalia and Tulare are not within shouting distance of Salinas. They are, however, part of the Gannett chain, which never met a cost it couldn’t cut.

The new arrangement has the Californian, the Times-Delta and the Advance-Register operating under the editorship of Silas Lyons, the longtime editor of Gannett’s Redding Record Searchlight. If your California geography is rusty, all you need to know is that the drive from Salinas to Redding is three times longer than the drive from Salinas to Visalia. And it’s in a different direction.

Lyons is a fine editor, highly capable, and he may prove to be an adequate overseer of three-plus news operations with little  in common. The Gannett public relations team managed to put the best possible spin on it with a news article that presented  him as uniquely qualified for the geographical challenge. It notes that he grew up in North Fork, a scant 60 miles or so from Visalia, and that his first job out of college was as an intern for the Monterey Herald, for which he covered the California Rodeo in Salinas. It did not mention whether he had visited the city since.

In case you’re not catching my drift here, what concerns me is that readers are best served when the journalists serving them know something about the community whose name is in big letters on the front page. Creating clusters of newspapers led by one person off in Timbuktu might appeal to the bean counters at corporate but I’ll challenge all readers of local newspapers to point to a time when doing so led to improved coverage.

I’m not an objective critic of this trend. I was once the editor of the Monterey Herald. That ended three years ago when whoever was in charge decided it would be better if the editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel was to become the Herald editor as well. Given the resource constraints, Don Miller has worn both hats well though some readers complain that the two papers seem too similar on some days. There are some readers who believe Miller has done a better job than I did. I might be able to name each of them and I wouldn’t think of arguing with them.

My regular golf partner chides me when I grouse about the demise of local newspapering, and he’s right to complain. It’s just the way it is and pointing it out probably does no one any good. I guess I go on and on about it because, in a lifetime of local newspapering, I have seen how much good can be accomplished by competent newspapers and how much important, even critical, news is being ignored these days. That’s why the Partisan exists but it is like a minnow swimming against a tsunami. The bad guys like what’s going on with newspapers.

I was discouraged as well this week when my former former employer, the Fresno Bee, announced the layoffs of eight writers and the transfers of a couple of editors. The Bee had not been spared from any of the previous rounds of cuts but there are those who had thought the bottom had been reached. Not yet, apparently. Among the casualties, Donald Munro, the arts writer. He’s the only person who had been covering music, theater, art, etc., in a city of more than half a million.

As usual, the announcements in Fresno and Gannettland made mention of the digital age, not by cursing its role in weakening the printed word but by promising a warmer embrace in the future. In both cases, it was an example of doubletalk that almost suggested that eliminating some journalists amounted to an improvemernt.

Said Lyons: “The newsrooms in Salinas, Visalia and Tulare have incredibly rich histories covering their communities and are extending that local journalism into the digital age.”

Said Bee Publisher Tom Cullinan: “We must remake our newsroom to drive digital readership while at the same time reckoning with budget and expense realities that necessitate a smaller, more focused, nimbler newsroom.”

Good luck, Tom, and good luck, Silas. If you can figure out how to drive digital readership by shrinking your newsrooms, maybe you can also figure out how to stop my paper from landing in a puddle.

So, you ask, what can you do to help reverse the trend, to help the struggling minnow, to help convince publishers to embark on a strategy of improvement rather than degradation? Simply this. When something important to you is approaching, call the newspaper and point it out. And when something important to you isn’t covered, call the publisher and complain. It might not do any good but it certainly can’t make things any worse.

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  • Margie McCurry May 3, 2017, 7:44 pm

    Oh Royal… I cry and bleed with you. I started writing obits between high school semesters, for a daily paper…and I was hooked. I progressed on through editing college papers, then daily paper police beats, politics, health news… then into radio, then TV news. There is no way I could deal with so many aspects of today’s world, without that exposure. I now pay over $400 a year for daily delivery of a paper with so few pages and such a narrow area of interest, it’s hardly worth turning the pages. Yes, the media world is certainly changing. I just hope it continues to result in well-rounded, intelligent individuals. Thanks for your shared concern… we’ll just have to watch what the future brings to the news world.

  • Fred Hernandez May 3, 2017, 8:49 pm

    Having worked at the SF Examiner and Monterey County Herald, I have seen much downsizing. I subscribe to the Herald because I support local journalism. I am very aware of its many faults, but I want to make sure that a local voice is not stilled. The road taken by the Californian is a shameful descent based on dollars and dimes. Please support your local newspapers, Pine Cone, Weekly and Herald. Imagine life without them.

    • Hank Armstrong May 3, 2017, 9:05 pm

      Agreed Fred. We’ve reached the sad point where we need to personally invest in journalism and newspapers that matter to us, so we should do it. Refusing to support them because they don’t meet our expectations is another way of giving up–and giving up on the hardworking staff doing their best to keep it alive.

    • david fairhurst May 3, 2017, 9:35 pm

      I could live without the “Slime Gnome” while under the control of pathetic egotist Paul Miller. I do miss The Carmel Valley Sun that ran under a true journalist, Stan Hall. All anybody has to do to see what a (insert the most vulgar profanities here) Paul Miller is, is to read his “comments” about someone he knew nothing about with that great newspaper man’s passing. Newsprint is basic cornerstone of this Nation even before Thomas Paine and his “Common Sense” or Ben Franklin and “Poor Richard”, sadly so much “reporting” now has gone into opinion as facts and “false news” abounds on all sides. I do long for news on the news page, opinion on the opinion page, sports on the…….There are still some papers that do try and exist and “Inflict the comforted and comfort the afflicted”. Try the “Vermont Freeman” or the “Burlington Free Press” to read stories about “feel the burn” Sanders that no one else would do, honestly looking into dealing with rape thought and his wife’s failed collage with questionable financing. One of the best newspapers I ever came across to read was the Buffalo Tribune. It was a truly a “reporters” paper. Every body seems to want instant “everything”, including information. TV is a lazy way to obtain news. Print gives the opputunity to truly do an in depth story and study. It is something good of the past we have just about lost.

  • Eric Petersen May 3, 2017, 8:52 pm

    What has happened to The Californian is truly pathetic. There are two reporters and a photographer who also writes, and some of the best stuff. No matter what, three people cannot cover close to all that happens in Salinas. No fact checking, which has created a situation where often what is printed is regurgitated from the source, no matter how unreliable.

    Take for example the issue of dog parks in Salinas. A councilmember who had never touched the subject before, had a community meeting about dog parks. She didn’t even have the meeting in her district. Then, after a committee of residents finished a proposal, out councilmember took credit, even though she had not been involved, even though the new dog park (which is very nice) is not close to the district she allegedly represents. And she got away with it!

    I don’t know what the circulation of The Herald is, or how much of that is in or near Salinas, but it would be interesting to know. Weekly may be free, but I understand that the circulation is something like eighteen times that of The Californian — and covers local stories far faster and better than the resources of The Californian allow.

    My last gig in Journalism (outside of letters to the editor and press releases) was as News Editor of my junior college newspaper. Good thing I didn’t go in that direction!

  • Craig Malin May 3, 2017, 9:31 pm

    Spoiler-alert. I’m a big fan of newspapers. Still subscribe to the Chicago Tribune, even though I left the region twenty years ago and the paper arrives by mail four to five days late.

    The question isn’t so much about who wants to read about a Sunday night fire on Wednesday, as it is who wants to read about it on Monday morning? That’s a serious question. Because, between Sunday night and Monday morning, several hundred more interesting things happened across the globe (unless the fire was on your block) and they’re all available on your smart phone. And if you can customize your information intake on your television or computer screen to suit your philosophy (not recommending that, but it’s becoming the default for many), just how exactly is this “editor” helping me get the information I want, how I want it?

    I’m paid to solve other kinds of problems, so I may not be able to help much. But my observations are:

    #1 – The free weeklies seem to be the winner.  Without a need to spin up the printing press, distribution network and sky is falling mythology every single day, they seem much better prepared to do the thoughtful and creative heavy lifting of community reporting.  I’ll acknowledge this observation is strongly influenced by the Reader in Davenport and Monterey County Weekly in Seaside.  Both are spritely, interesting publications, with a demonstrated capacity to think – and report – over the long term. 

    #2 – This is counter-intuitive for media folks, but the beginning of the end of newspapers may have been New York Times vs. Sullivan, in 1964. It was a well-intended decision and one that strongly protects my favorite amendment, but if your industry gets a license to lie (except in certain, specialized ways), over the span of a half century your credibility as an industry is bound to suffer.

    #3 – As wistfully romantic as nostalgia is…it ain’t the future.

    • Royal Calkins May 3, 2017, 11:26 pm

      Craig: As you left Illinois, you said you were filing a libel suit against the paper there. The Quad City Times if I recall correctly. What happened with that?

      • Craig Malin May 4, 2017, 6:16 am

        Illinois. That’s genuinely funny (if only to me). I arrived in Seaside from a lovely and progressive little corner of Iowa.

        Under Iowa law, the statute of limitations runs until June 17. The Times has one last chance to correct twenty-eight statements that are either, or in combination, knowingly false, recklessly false, purposeful avoidance of the truth or defamation by implication. All the name-calling, opinion, rhetorical hyperbole and standard issue non-actionable lying under NYT v. Sullivan, they get the standard issue pass on.

        If they don’t retract the twenty-eight statements in accordance with Iowa law, they will be sued, and they will lose. I’ll post up a copy of the lawsuit on my website if / when it is filed. If that occurs, it will likely be the week beginning June 12.

  • david fairhurst May 3, 2017, 9:42 pm

    By the way Royal, The Fresno Bee was one of the great papers of the Central Valley and know as much as we disagree on, well most things, I thought you were an excellent editor of the Herald too, in spite that some days (from what I have been told) you let your temper get the better of you. Put it this way, that once also great paper really fell apart after you were no longer there, that “speaks” volumes of your skill and plus I thought you balanced the politics of left and right justly (and that ain’t easy).

  • Royal Calkins May 3, 2017, 11:27 pm

    David, I lost my temper mainly when people tried to pass off second-hand nonsense as reality.

  • Tom May 4, 2017, 1:17 am

    This is not just a problem with the Californian….all local newspapers have taken a hit with the advent of the internet and the 24hr cable news cycle, not to mention the SF Chronicle, and San Jose Mercury, etc. All the mainstream newspapers are about as thin as the Palma High School Newspaper. It looks to me like an education major in journalism is becoming about as useful as a degree in transgender studies. I used to enjoy picking up a local paper and reading it over coffee at the local coffee shop. Those days are gone, unfortunately. By the time you can pick up a current daily newspaper, it’s already old news. The best one can hope for is some interesting local societal coverage, but since the passing of Herb Caen, there’s been no equal….not even close. Newspapers have gone the way of blacksmith shops vis à vis the advent of early automobiles. Now, if you want the news over a cup of coffee, better bring your laptop to a free wifi enabled coffee shop. Sad…..

  • Jean May 4, 2017, 12:30 pm

    A good newspaper in the morning is one of life’s great gifts.

  • Karl Pallastrini May 4, 2017, 8:15 pm

    Jean is correct. A good newspaper with morning coffee is one of the great things in life. But…the local papers are behind the wheel with National news, Sports and just about everything that is current. When you send the County Herald to Chico California for printing, coupled with the expensive and complicated delivery system…you are way better off on-line.

    It’s over. Only the Giant time-warn papers of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia will continue to print. We are at the end of local anything. Weekly’s are sufficient to cover news and opinions in small markets. That’s what we are…a small….inconsequential small market. When the Advertising pages far out-number the pages of national and local news, the dye is cast and the picture is clear. May the Californian, the Monterey County Herald and the Santa Cruz Centinal rest in peace. There time has come and gone.

  • bill hood May 5, 2017, 5:55 pm

    A friend of mine, who was a Carmel councilman back in the 1970’s, when I was with AMBAG, kept a pile of Herald’s back from that era. The paper was a bulky one – great coverage of local, state, national and international news, although the first two were the best. Its advertisements, and this may be the real reason behind the demise of the dailies, took up a whole section. There used to be a ad section called “New Today” and the small little 4 or 5 line ads took up 3 or 4 full pages just themselves. The internet has been great in some respects, but for an old timer like me, it is ruined other wonderful things in our lives back then which are no longer available. Requiescant in Pace.

  • Jean May 6, 2017, 9:15 am

    Royal,

    When are we going to have a party, so I can connect the familiar names to people I’ve never met? Would be a great event.

  • Jean May 6, 2017, 9:17 am

    It could be a no-host bar and we could drop $ into a container to support the Partisan.

    • Tom May 7, 2017, 12:52 am

      Good idea, Jean. This would be a fun gathering, I’m sure. I love meeting and discussing the events of the day with loony-tune liberals. Maybe we could discuss using tax payer dollars to fund attorneys for illegal aliens. I’d love to know why that makes more sense than changing the immigration laws if they are, indeed, unfair.

  • Ann Hougham May 7, 2017, 7:22 am

    And “they ” say it’s progress……are we humans using wisdom gained from experience past to intelligently evolve and make the world a “better” place? Apologies…..just ranting here.

  • bernard cleyet May 29, 2017, 6:52 pm

    “Good luck, Tom, and good luck, Silas. If you can figure out how to drive digital readership by shrinking your newsrooms, maybe you can also figure out how to stop my paper from landing in a puddle.”

    I thought there weren’t any puddles in the internet. Anyway, during Winter wet papers supersede the lack of local news, and balanced opinion in the “The Californian”. Back in the early fifties, when I was a bicycling paper man (boys are under twelve), delivery was to the porch if weather inclement. Now they are thrown from a moving ‘bile which always results in holes in the plastic bag. Next winter I’ll try out the Herald, if it’s wet, I’ll give up and go internet only.

    bc pleased to discover MBP, and: http://www.cleyet.org/The-Californian-is-wet/.

    Hey! Hire Jeff Mitchell, the only “The Salinas Californian” interesting columnist.