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Changes ahead daily newspaper headlineCity council members in the Southern California city of Carson are considering cancellation of the city’s subscriptions to a local newspaper and inviting city residents to boycott the paper. According to a councilman leading the effort, the Daily Breeze newspaper “over-reports the negatives and under-reports the positives.”

The approach is a mistake. City officials should be thanking the Daily Breeze for covering things in Carson, even if the paper doesn’t always get it right. It should be encouraging people in the city to subscribe to and advertise in the Daily Breeze, and any other publication that even occasionally sends a reporter to sit in on a City Council meeting.

Perhaps the Carson City Council hasn’t noticed that newspapers are having a tough time. Most papers are so understaffed that they seldom cover city council meetings in their own cities these days and are much less likely to cover a meeting in a suburb. The Daily Breeze was once known as the Torrance Daily Breeze and at one time it did a bang-up job covering Torrance. Nowadays, not so much. Other cities in the area, really not so much.

The Daily Breeze recently published a fairly detailed account of political maneuvering in nearby Carson, something that Editor Mike Anastasi says might have had something to do with the unrest within council chambers. But while the editor insists otherwise, Carson receives little day-to-day coverage from the Daily Breeze and much of it is crime news. Worse, council members said, the paper is quick to report that a crime occurred in Carson when it was actually outside the city.

City officials have some valid gripes. Just about anyone who deals with a newspaper more than occasionally has some valid gripes. They are imperfect enterprises. But the Carson City Council, and even more so the people of Carson, should consider themselves fortunate that a newspaper of any sort pays them any attention at all. Most small-city governments receive almost no coverage, so there is less and less likelihood that anyone will notice when the mayor does something stupid, the council makes a giant mistake or the city manager uses his city credit card to buy a set of golf clubs.

Carson isn’t far from the city of Bell, home to one of the messiest and juiciest municipal corruption cases of the past decade. The city manager was slipping himself taxpayer money at every opportunity and the City Council members didn’t care because he was taking care of them as well. It was a situation that would not have occurred, could not have occurred, 20 years ago when the Los Angeles Times semi-regularly attended Bell Council meetings and routinely scrutinized the city budget. By the time the city manager’s greed got the best of him, no news outlets of any sort were covering much of anything in Bell.

Carson officials have every right to be upset with the Daily Breeze if the newspaper has been sloppy about pinpointing crime scenes or generally badmouthing the city. The way to fix that is to make a few phone calls. Not a big deal. But inviting the paper to stay away, canceling subscriptions and urging advertisers to go elsewhere, isn’t going to make anything better and it almost assuredly will make things worse. My advice to the council is to invite Daily Breeze reporters in to talk, to cover meetings, to take a tour of the city, even to do an expose’ on whatever issues ail Carson. True, the council members might bring unwanted attention to themselves, but their job is to serve their cities and their constituents. The people of Carson are not served by being ignored.

Many Partisan readers have probably also seen references to troubles in the daily newspaper scene locally  in the past couple of weeks, and some have responded much like the Carson folks, negatively.

It came out last week that reporters and others at the Salinas Californian are having to reapply for their jobs, under different job titles, and that they’re likely to be playing a game of musical chairs, journalism style. There won’t be quite as many jobs as there are applicants.

Also flirting with death spiral status, Monterey Herald Publisher Gary Omernick told his staff Tuesday night that another round of layoffs approaches. First word was one or two people. According to an account in the Californian, the layoffs could come from any of four departments, not all from the newsroom. The publisher said the paper wasn’t making its financial goals. It has been widely reported that the Herald is for sale, along with the Daily Breeze and some 70 other papers in the Digital First Media group. Boosting the bottom line, through layoffs or other means, could boost the sales price

One potential buyer, of course, is the giant Gannett newspaper chain, which owns the Californian. There are better options. Much, much better, but cancelling your subscription won’t do anything to advance them.

There also has been talk of Google buying the newspapers, which certainly seems odd at first glance in that the rise of the Internet has played a significant role in the decline of newspapers. Google executives have said they don’t want to see newspapers dry up and blow away because most of the news you see when you sign onto a Google page comes from newspapers. Without newspapers, where does Google get news items for your edification and amusement? From City Hall press releases?

Hardly a day goes by that some Partisan reader doesn’t mentioned cancelling a Herald subscription. One reader commented on one of my Facebook postings that she gets all the news she needs from free sources. Because I formerly worked at the Herald and left without a parade, some people seem to think I like hearing these things. Not at all.

In fact, I hate hearing about cancelled subscription and newspaper boycotts I am glad that readers care enough about newspapers and local news to get angry when they feel they are not being served properly, but I urge Monterey County residents, and Carson residents, to cling to their subscriptions as long as possible, or to pop a few quarters into the machine from time to time. (Now if the Newspaper Guild, the union that represents Herald employees, calls for a boycott in response to the new layoffs, my tune will change.)

I have worked for newspapers all my adult life, so I undoubtedly have an inflated view of their value, but I’ll share it with you anyway. A community of any size isn’t really a community unless it has a newspaper, be it printed or digitized. Many folks know I like the Carmel Pine Cone about as much as I like Dick Cheney, but I will freely admit that the Pine Cone makes Carmel a better place and provides the community with a common language, even if they use it to argue.

Many if not most newspapers are shells of what they once were, but I would much rather see continued support while people in the news biz search for salvation in the form of a new business model or even some miracle. As newspapers go, the Herald is rather expensive, but most of you reading this can afford the price. What you can’t afford is letting City Hall, whether in Monterey, Salinas or Carson, decide what you need to know about what is going on in City Hall. What you can’t afford is letting Cal Am just go about its business without anyone paying attention except Ron Weitzman, George Riley and the Partisan.

Renewing your subscription is not the same as signaling satisfaction with the downsized product you’re receiving today. Renewing your subscription is a way to signal your hope for a better product, and for stronger coverage, as soon as someone figures out how to bring it about.

EDITOR’S NOTE: AS ALWAYS, PLEASE FEEL ENCOURAGED TO SHARE THIS ON FACEBOOK, TO LIKE US ON FACEBOOK AND TO CLICK ON THE ADS.

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PURELY OPINION: The Monterey Herald gets one right

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For many readers, a good editorial is one they agree with. As long as the conclusion or recommendation is on target, the supporting information is secondary. For good editorial writers, however, the supporting information is the most important element. After that come the usefulness of the analysis, the crafting of the piece and, finally and in a distant fourth place, the actual position taken.

An editorial is an opportunity for a writer schooled in a topic to use any number of creative tools to analyze and explain an issue of public importance. Unlike the beat reporter, largely constrained by the rules of he said/she said journalism, the newspaper editorial writer is free to use various writing devices to demystify anything from water politics to Dave Potter’s political longevity. That’s why astute readers are likely to disregard the most subjective passages while keying in on the rest of the package.

The importance of the underlying information is why I was pleased to see the announcement in Sunday’s Monterey Herald that Phyllis Meurer has been added to the Herald’s editorial board.

This means Meurer will have a place at the table when the four-person board considers its positions on various issues. Presumably, her vote will carry  as much weight as that of the other members, Publisher Gary Omernick, Editor Don Miller and editorial writer Tom Honig. (Sometimes publishers insist on veto power, which seldom works out well.)

The upside here is that Meurer brings a deep understanding of government, politics and public policy in Monterey County. She is a former Salinas city councilwoman, a onetime leader of the League of Women Voters and the wife of former Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer. What she doesn’t know about public affairs in Monterey County, her husband does.

Some readers of the Monterey Bay Partisan will remember that I was editor of the Herald until February and I wrote the editorials for the past several years. I am not a fan of what has happened to the editorial page since my departure – a sharp right turn in the choice of columns and editorial cartoons and a decline in the number of local editorials and columns. Some of that is a function of the relatively short tenures and divided focus of the editorial board members.

Omernick has been publisher about six years but the realities of modern newspapering require him to concentrate on the business side of the operation, both here and at the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Miller has spent his entire newspaper career at the Sentinel, where he continues to serve as editor even while holding the same position in Monterey. He is counting the days to retirement. Libertarian-leaning Honig also spent his entire newspaper career in Santa Cruz before being replaced by Miller. Honig’s relatively short Peninsula experience prior to his recent Herald assignment consisted of working for the Armanasco public relations firm and the Panetta Institute. I write about their backgrounds not as criticism but to explain their challenge. It’s tough to thoughtfully editorialize on local issues when your idea of local involves a different locality. Meurer’s appointment to the editorial board can help change all that. She has a remarkable depth of local knowledge and an endless list of local contacts to help the Herald unravel the issues.

Still, there already has been grousing in some quarters—progressive quarters—about Meurer’s new role. I believe much of it is misplaced and, even if it isn’t, it really doesn’t matter all that much.

One issue on the left side of the political dial is her leadership role in the successful campaign against last year’s Measure M, which was intended to stop the proposed Monterey Downs racetrack development at Fort Ord. She told me she was motivated largely by her belief that the proper government decision-making process is preferable to decision-making by referendum. I strongly disagree with her, largely because the government process in the land-use arena is easily and often corrupted. But because she probably doesn’t see the government process the same way, her position is sincere if not valid.

During that campaign, I called Meurer to ask how she defended the highly deceptive advertising her camp was using in its campaign against Measure M. I wasn’t satisfied with her answer, which essentially was that the other side was being deceptive as well. But I did come away feeling that she truly believed what she was saying. Some of my environmentalist friends who were on the opposite side of the issue have suggested that she was somehow bought off. She was not.

Also from the progressives comes concern about Meurer’s husband, Fred, who ran Monterey’s City Hall for decades before retiring and taking a position with the Panetta Institute. Fred was an exceptionally capable and accomplished city manager who could balance a budget in the morning and fix the Planning Department copy machine before lunch.

In recent years, unfortunately, Fred Meurer has been vilified by some as a tool of business interests, the hotel industry, the good ol’ boys of local commerce. I understand the perception. The local economy and city government revenues are so dependent on the hotel industry and other elements of the local power structure. (Did I mention Cal Am yet?) I don’t embrace the accusation, however, because when a City Council has five members, city managers quickly learn how to count to three. Those who didn’t like Meurer’s administration should have spent less time complaining and more time getting their candidates elected or lobbying the successful candidates. Fred Meurer would have been an equally forceful and successful manager on behalf of an entirely different sort of city council.

Phyllis Meurer is an independent and highly capable woman who has nothing to apologize for as she assumes this new role. While I was at the Herald, the publisher talked often about bringing a woman from the community onto the all-male editorial board. I made a series of suggestions but never mentioned Phyllis because of Fred’s City Hall role at the time. If not for that, I certainly would have recommended her.

It doesn’t particularly concern me that she favors Monterey Downs. For reasons I never understood even though I was there, the paper editorialized early on in favor of that project. Never mind that it is seriously misplaced and doesn’t have an adequate water supply and that horse racing is the sport of scoundrels. It doesn’t concern me that her husband has been a huge figure in local politics and public policy for decades. I am won over by knowing she brings with her a wealth of knowledge about how things work around here, about who pulls the strings and even about where the bodies are buried.

One thing that does concern me is that her new role could help cement the Herald’s fear of offending Cal Am. Fred Meurer has been a consistent supporter of Cal Am, which has developed a loyal following in the business community by engineering a pricing structure that favors large commercial customers over residential water users. Phyllis Meurer will provide a valuable service if she demonstrates her independence and research skills in this area.

During the recent campaign over Measure O, the unsuccessful ballot measure in favor of public ownership of the Cal Am water system, Monterey County Weekly published an absolutely excellent editorial in favor of the proposition. Beyond the appropriate conclusion, what made it so strong was the information and analysis it presented. It was unusually long, long enough to discuss each significant issue and explain it to a population that was clearly confused. It was so well researched that it would have been instructive even to the staunchest opponent of Measure O. The Herald’s editorial opposing the initiative was little more than a rehash of Cal Am talking points.

It is my hope that with Phyllis Meurer aboard, the Herald will be reminded of the importance of research no matter which direction the paper leans on specific issus. As I said at the start here, editorials succeed not by how much they persuade but by how much they inform. I expect Meurer to provide some of the necessary information and, when she doesn’t have it, to ask that it be provided in some fashion before an editorial decision is made. If she draws from her strong League of Women Voters experience, the Herald and its readers will be well served—even when its opinions are all wet.

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