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.