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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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I think Sheldon Adelson made a good choice as editor of his newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and by good I mean someone who will do his bidding, for better or worse.

Much of the publicity about the casino magnate’s acquisition of the Las Vegas daily has focused on the degree to which he will use it as a vehicle to advance his political and financial interests. Among other things, he is said to be interested in luring the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas, a move that certainly could be a good fit culturally.

The R-J’s new editor, announced Friday, is Keith Moyer, who should be a valuable tool in the owner’s effort to expand his already giant footprint in the desert and maybe even to get the Raiders to move. Adelson’s always been a big GOP booster. Without any senior editors actually on board Friday, the paper endorsed Marco Rubio for president.

In recent years Moyer has been a journalism academic in Minnesota but before that he was an editor for the giant Gannett chain, and an editor and publisher for the better-regarded McClatchy chain.

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Keith Moyer, new editor in Las Vegas

I worked for Moyer for several years at McClatchy’s Fresno Bee and it was for the most part an enjoyable experience. He’s a smart and pleasant fellow and he understands journalism. When he came to Fresno from Rochester, N.Y., he brought with him a stable of editors who had worked with him elsewhere and who were fiercely loyal to him. It was, to some extent, a cult of personality. Fortunately, they were a talented crew. A little odd, maybe, but talented.

When Moyer started in Fresno as executive editor, I was a reporter, the muckraking, troublemaking sort of reporter that editors simultaneously love and hate. For reasons that I’ll never understand, Moyer’s team decided I would be more useful on the desk. They persuaded me to become an assistant metro editor, initially in charge of political and government coverage. I don’t know why I agreed to do it. Money, I suppose.

Overall, it wasn’t horrible. Reporters working under me did some good work. At one point we put together a team to investigate point shaving by the Fresno State basketball team. We did a fine job, turning up significant evidence on the gambling front and even more on the illegal recruiting front. Jerry Tarkanian was the coach. However, Moyer lost interest and started killing stories after a bogus lawsuit was filed and it became clear that we weren’t likely to win any big prizes for our efforts.

Unfortunately, other things happened to rival that. For instance, there was that morning in 1997 when Moyer excitedly motioned me into his office.

The city of Fresno had been negotiating for months with an investment group that had obtained the franchise for a Triple A baseball team. They wanted to build a stadium in Fresno, or rather they wanted the city to build one for them. The talks went on and on, in private, and city officials vowed throughout that city money would not be used for a stadium.

Moyer was grinning. He said he had been at a meeting the night before with a representative of the team owners and others. A deal had been struck for construction of a downtown stadium and we were to have an exclusive on the story, a definite big deal.

So tell me the details, I said. Reporters on my team would be writing the story.

Well, he replied, the investment group would put up something like $20 million and the city would put in around $8 million after the stadium was completed, and the county government would provide a loan.

Wow, I said. Then I said it was surprising that the city had agreed to cough up taxpayer money after vowing for so long that it wouldn’t.

“We’re not going to get into that,” said Moyer.

I imagine I said something like “What?” or “Huh?” or “What the hell are you talking about?”

He said he had agreed that our story would not mention the city’s role.

I hoped he was joking. When it became obvious that he wasn’t, I’m sure I said something like “We don’t have any choice.”

His grin was long gone. He was flat out angry when he said, “I knew you were going to be like this.”

The conversation went on for a bit longer, with him doing most of the talking. Finally he said, “OK, dammit, put it in but not before the jump” or words to that effect. He meant don’t mention the city’s investment on the front page. Save it for the continuation of the story on page A16 or wherever. It’s called burying the lede, which usually happens because of a lapse in judgment and not by design.

I can’t find a copy of the story so I can’t be sure, but my recollection is that, at the end of the day, the part about the city putting up a few million dollars of taxpayer money wound up in the third paragraph. Call it a compromise. Based on news value, I would have put it in the first graph, but, like I said, I was a bit of a troublemaker.

Moyer certainly didn’t do anything evil that day or any of his other days at the Bee, as far as I know. Maybe his only sin that morning in 1997 was being overly exuberant about arranging an important scoop, but that’s not how it felt. I believe that if we had done what he had agreed to, we would have become conspirators rather than journalists. It became clear that day that I wouldn’t make it to retirement at the Bee. I moved on in 1998. Moyer kept moving up.

In Las Vegas, there was hope early on that Adelson’s recent purchase of the Review-Journal would not be the journalistic nightmare that it appears to be. There was the noble editor who reported that Adelson was the new owner, something Adelson the gazillionaire didn’t want reported. The optimists in the world of journalism cheered that as a hopeful sign. But that editor is gone now and word continues to trickle out about Adelson wanting to put his stamp on the news side of the operation and not just the financial side. Already there are tales of stories being killed and lists of troublemaking reporters being drawn up.

Adelson’s people reportedly interviewed quite a few candidates before hiring Moyer, who got to know the R-J’s new publisher, Craig Moon, while both were toiling in the Gannett trenches. I hope they get along great and do some solid journalism of the type they are capable of producing.  I also hope that they remember that the newspaper’s job, no matter who owns it, is to cover things like the effort to attract the Raiders — but not to make it happen.

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Uomo d'affari in crisiMore than a year out of the daily grind of newspaper journalism, I was interested in Monday’s announcement of the 2015 Pulitzer Prizes but not as interested as I once was. Many of those who began their journalism careers when I did have hung up their green eyeshades or have sought more secure work in the used-car industry or fireworks sales.

In truth, Pulitzer announcement day is something that most working journalists would really rather not talk about. It’s the day that friends, or rivals, receive recognition for working for a newspaper that does not require the reporters to take turns writing garden club news or covering Rotary Club luncheons, none of which have ever been newsworthy. It’s the day, in other words, that most journalists don’t win Pulitzers.

The big story of this week’s announcement was not the number of prizes won by the New York Times, recognition that causes great distress among the many New York Times haters on the right, most of whom have never read the Times. Instead, it was that two prize winners had left the industry, fleeing from the uncertain fate of newspapers.

Often there are prize winners who by virtue of talent or good fortune have moved up the industry pecking order by the time the prizes have been awarded. There always seemed to be a young reporter for the Asbury Park Press who celebrated the award at the new desk at the Washington Post. This was different.

A 39-year-old reporter, Rob Kuznia of the Torrance Daily Breeze, was part of a three-person team that won the Pulitzer for a series of articles on a corrupt school district. He had to leave his PR job to join in the festivities. He had departed the Breeze months earlier because he couldn’t pay the rent on his newspaper salary. (By the way, former Monterey Herald Editor Carolina Garcia is part of the editing team at the Daily Breeze.)

It was a similar story in Charleston, S.C. A team of reporters there won a Pulitzer for a series on domestic violence. Writer Natalie Hauff had left some months earlier, however. Not for the Boston Globe or the NY Times but for a PR job in county government.

During the hastily scheduled celebration in Torrance, the executive editor didn’t try to gloss over the reality that most newspapers ain’t what they used to be, pointing out all the empty desks in the newsroom. These are trying times for newspapers, but you already knew that.

So you’re all probably wondering if I ever won a Pulitzer, right? The truth is that I did come kinda, sorta close once upon a time, but it wouldn’t have been deserved.

The journalism in question was the Fresno Bee’s coverage of the Coalinga earthquake of 1983. It was a pretty big earthquake. Forty miles away in the Fresno Bee newsroom, the city editor got so scared he ran down the stairs and into the parking lot before the shaking ended. It would have turned out better for our coverage if he had kept running.

Lots of houses were ruined in Coalinga. A few downtown buildings collapsed. The best part of our first day’s report was the photography of Paul Kuroda, who was only 15 miles away when the shaking started. There no fatalities but quite a few injuries. That led to the huge headline on our first story, but it wasn’t a zinger: QUAKE HURTS 25.

But that clunker isn’t what cost us the Pulitzer. The main problem was that the city editor’s parents were in town that week, so each day as we finished our package of stories on the quake, he needed to leave to see the folks rather than stay behind to plan the next day’s coverage as he should have. That meant that we started fresh each day, with none of the reporters knowing what the assignment would be until 10 or 11 or so. We didn’t have any reporters staying overnight in Coalinga, so we lost all sorts of time traveling back and forth and getting reorganized each morning.

Our coverage was OK overall. I was the lead writer most days and I know how to milk a tragedy. But, beyond the Day 1 photography, there really was nothing special.

Even so, Editor George Gruner was tipped off a couple days before announcement day that we were going to win the Pulitzer for best local news coverage. He kept it under his hat until the big day. Then, just as the prize machine was cranking up in NYC, George got up on a chair in the middle of the newsroom and started to sniffle.

“We almost won a Pulitzer,” he told us. Turned out that the Pulitzer board had overruled the Pulitzer committee at the last minute and had decided that coverage of natural disasters wasn’t a good choice for the big prize. Too easy. Too predictable. So the prize in our category went to Newsday for its coverage of the Baby M case. I don’t remember what that was about but it wasn’t a natural disaster.

We celebrated our near win with near beer.

Oh yeah, the local reporting prize the next year went to coverage of a flood.

I was pleased Monday to see that a long-time acquaintance, L.A. Times reporter Diana Marcum, formerly of the Bee, won the prize for feature writing. She told the stories of people affected by the great California drought. I guess you could say she won for coverage of a natural disaster, but then there are all those New York Times haters who argue that there’s nothing natural about the drought and that, like everything else, it’s the fault of those liberals, especially the ones at the Times. Regardless, here’s a link to her stories, which are very much worth reading.

Here’s how Marcum opened a story, datelined Madera, last December:

 When a man of 91 is downright cantankerous and has been on his land longer than most everyone else has been alive, he wastes no time speaking his mind. So after his new neighbor started sinking a well to plant a water-sucking almond orchard in the middle of the worst drought he’d ever seen, James Turner hurried over.  

“How deep you going to dig your well?” 

 Five hundred feet, Davinder Singh told him. 

“My well is 300 feet. Why, you’re going to take my water!” 

Singh, a man of gentle humor, gave no answer.

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