With the Trump administration looming like greedy locusts, much is being written about what the media can and should do to help limit the destruction nationally. Simultaneously it will be a great and horrible time to be a journalist covering a president who thinks he’s king.
In his war with the press and other modern realities, Trump has enlisted legions of foot soldiers who believe the New York Times is the ultimate enemy though many of them have never read it. We are entering a time of the new regime communicating with its subjects via Twitter and expecting them to get the rest of the story from the Russians via Facebook.
It’s an upside world, with the traditional media mortally wounded though they have never been more important. Though the right and much of the left dismiss the media, we remain dependent on the newspapers and the networks to deliver most of what we know about this new order.
But what about the local situation? Does the quality of local news matter in this time of national calamity? I say yes, of course, but there is no denying that, overall, much of local journalism seems to be slipping toward irrelevance.
If Medicare and Social Security are diminished, we may know the national ramifications but who will tell us about the impact at home? If Trump tries to punish California for voting intelligently on Nov. 8, who will tell us about grants that have gone missing or field offices being closing? Of friends being loaded into trains? If you think we can count on KSBW and the Monterey Herald to keep us up to speed, you’ve been away for a while.
Just as numerous advocacy organizations are regrouping, news organizations nationally are reconsidering their missions, and it certainly is not too soon for a community conversation about the state of the local media. Consider this a status report and a call to action. A diminished news corps plays into the hands of the Trumpistas nationally and also makes it much harder for the public to follow along as corrupting influences chart the course for our institutions locally.
The one bright spot, the only bright spot locally, has been the success of the Monterey County Weekly in filling in some of the gaps created by the erosion at the Herald and the Salinas Californian. At the end of this report, look for some thoughts about what the community can do to encourage the Weekly – and possibly others — to take on a larger load.
As some of you know, I was an editor at the Monterey Herald for more than a dozen years and then the chief editor for a couple of years until the bosses there became tired of my ways. (Cost-cutting played a role.) I still have friends at the paper and at other media outlets that I will be mentioning. Media people tend to look at media critics the same way police officers look at Internal Affairs and I’m hoping they won’t take my analysis too personally.
For decades, and longer, the Herald was the dominant news organization of Monterey County. Arguably, it now shares that distinction with the Weekly and KSBW. How times have changed.
The Herald was founded in 1922 by Col. Allen Griffin, a real-life Army colonel with a distinguished military career both before and after becoming a newspaperman. Newspapers back then were different. They were solidly black and white and equally stodgy but they took stands. They pointed out problems in their communities and campaigned for solutions. Griffin fought, with some notable success, for preservation of historic buildings, especially Monterey’s Colton Hall, elimination of coastal blight, eradication of billboards, and for trees. He had some influence on how Highway 1 was configured as it snaked through the Peninsula.
The colonel was a Republican but Democratic administrations repeatedly tapped him for trade missions. He was a member of every important organization in town and he was eager to share his opinions, either in conversation or in print.
Unfortunately, 14 years before his death, the colonel sold the Herald in 1967 to the Block family of Ohio, which operated it as part of a small chain. In a trade of assets, the Herald was then acquired in 1992 by a larger chain, the E.W. Scripps Co. It was traded again in 1997 to the Knight Ridder chain, which made it part of bigger and better brand name after a rocky beginning.
The Knight Ridder chain began its Peninsula tenure by firing the news staff and forcing the employees to apply for their old jobs. It was an unsuccessful attempt at union-busting and it cost the Herald much goodwill in the community. Some strong people were lost in the process.
The good news was that Knight Ridder was one of the largest and most prestigious newspaper chains in the country and the Herald, for a period, had the resources it needed to serve the community adequately.
I joined the paper in 2000 as city editor, heading the local news operation. Many have grown weary of my recitation of how many people worked for the Herald when I started and how many remain, but the information remains informative.
The newsroom back then employed almost 50 ink-stained wretches. The “cityside” news operation, producing the local report on courts, crime, politics and the like, amounted to 24 people. Today, the entire newsroom staff numbers about a dozen and the volume of local news has declined almost as dramatically. Good public officials like seeing a reporter in the room when the council or commission meets. Bad public officials prefer to work in the dark.
While the end of the 20th century had been fat years for the newspaper industry – with annual returns for individual properties often exceeding 20 percent and even 30 percent – the new century was not quite as kind. Contrary to the impression you may have, the high profits continued at many newspapers but only because managers were forced to trim costs so dramatically. Initially, it amounted to mere belt-tightening. Eventually, it would become a case of self-destruction, selling of the seed corn.
Under pressure from investors used to fabulous profits, Knight Ridder put itself on the auction block in 2006 and was sold to McClatchy Newspapers, a smaller but relatively prestigious chain based in Sacramento. Unfortunately for the staff and the readers, McClatchy spun off the Herald and several other KR properties to MediaNews Group, William Dean Singleton’s chain of bargain-basement, cost-cutting newspapers.
There were some twists and turns after that and each brought expense cuts and layoffs mirroring national trends. Eventually, the MediaNews Group morphed into something called Digital First Media, which tried to revitalize its holdings by putting greater emphasis on breaking news online rather than in print. It was a sound idea but it was executed slowly and the ownership, a New York-based hedge fund, lost interest.
Of significance locally, Digital First also acquired the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 2013, presenting the opportunity for cost-cutting through consolidation. Early on, the publisher and ad director of the Herald were assigned to the same duties at the Sentinel and soon after the editor of the Sentinel, Don Miller, was assigned the same role at the Herald, displacing me.
There were and are obvious opportunities for the two papers to share some of their journalistic roles as well but they have been slow to take advantage of the geographic closeness, seemingly intent more on controlling costs than on increasing reach. Recently, the features pages of both papers have been produced by the Sentinel and the two papers help each other out with some sports coverage, but otherwise there has been little overlap.
Since 2013, copy editing and page layout for the Herald, the Sentinel and several other Digital First papers have been handled by a crew based at Digital First’s paper in Chico. That enabled the coastal papers to lay off several copy editors. The only remnant of the old copy-editing staff in Monterey is workhorse wordsmith Christy Hoffknecht, who is responsible for coordinating matters with the Chico desk.
In charge of the news operation is Miller, who spends more than half his time in Santa Cruz and who had been expected to have retired by now. He was the longtime No. 2 editor in Santa Cruz, working for many years under the now retired executive editor of the Sentinel, Tom Honig. Honig now works part time writing editorials for the Herald and the Sentinel. (After leaving the Sentinel, Honig worked briefly for the David Armanasco PR operation in Monterey and for the Panetta Institute.)
In some ways, Miller and Honig are more at home in Monterey than in Santa Cruz. The Sentinel for decades was a sharply conservative voice in an increasingly liberal community. (I worked there, too, for a couple of years before moving to the Herald.) In private and in editorials, they were openly hostile to the city’s left-wing politicos, though the tone has moderated in recent years. For years, before taking on their Peninsula responsibilities, they regularly attended the Panetta lecture series and became fairly chummy with former Monterey Mayor Dan Albert, the Cannery Row fellows and others from the Peninsula power structure.
Honig may not be a registered Libertarian but he should be. Miller’s political leanings are not as clear as Honig’s but he is no rocker of boats. They are joined on the editorial board by Publisher Gary Omernick and Phyllis Meurer, the former Salinas City Council member and wife of former Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer, who now works for the Panetta Institute. Together, they have supported most development projects, including the ill-considered Monterey Downs, and all pro-development candidates. Phyllis Meurer, in fact, played a leadership role in a ballot measure campaign intended to advance the Monterey Downs project, which has since died a natural death.
To some extent, most daily newspapers attempt to reflect their communities editorially. In much the same way that the Sentinel was never in tune with Santa Cruz, the current Herald leadership seems to have misread the Peninsula and the rest of Monterey County, which is a deep shade of blue. It may not be as liberal as Santa Cruz, but few places are. The paper has become a constant champion of Cal Am Water and seldom misses an opportunity to dismiss environmentalists as nettlesome obstacles to progress.
Under Miller is City Editor Dave Kellogg, a veteran editor who spent much of his career with the sports staff at the San Jose Mercury before becoming sports editor at the Herald. Few editors anywhere work harder under more trying circumstances. Having too few reporters to supervise does not make the job easier.
Many recognizable names are gone from the cityside news operation. Larry Parsons, Virginia Hennessey, Julia Reynolds, Dennis Taylor, all departed. Significantly, they were among the strongest writers ever to work for the Herald, and Hennessey and Reynolds were two of the strongest investigative reporters. What remains is a small reporting crew with a big heart but limited range.
The only survivor in the sports section is John Devine, who has covered high school sports in Monterey County longer than anyone. Few reporters anywhere work harder.
Covering county government and the all-important water beat is Jim Johnson, who is remarkably thorough and accurate but who seldom endeavors to dig beyond Cal Am Water’s official line even though water and Cal Am’s role in delivering it amount to the most important local stories of the time. You may have noticed that when something big happens in the water world, such as another setback for the deslination project or another Cal Am rate increase, the Herald quotes Cal Am’s spokeswoman at length but seldom seeks input from the company’s highly visible critics such as George Riley and Ron Weitzman.
Claudia Melendez Salinas covers education, social services and immigration-related issues while sharing Salinas coverage with Johnson. Melendez is a champion of the underdog, which helps her stand up to the challenge of being responsible for covering a dozen or more school districts, several colleges and other important topics. She is responsible for some the paper’s most ambitious reporting of the past couple years.
James Herrera was the Herald’s longtime graphic artist when he was pressed into service as a reporter, mostly covering Seaside and Marina. He has done an admirable job of mastering the basics but lacks the experience to dig much beyond the official agendas. He is doing a job that two reporters once handled.
Carly Mayberry’s experience is mostly in the entertainment industry. She has done solid work covering the city of Monterey and other lighter assignments but, like Herrera, isn’t generally equipped to push officialdom for details beyond what it wants to give up.
Tommy Wright was a young and ambitious sportswriter when he was reassigned to cover courts and cops for the Herald. Again, he has done an admirable job under difficult circumstances but it would take many years of experience and strong supervision before he could be expected to produce work like court reporter Virginia Hennessey put out on a regular basis.
I don’t mean to criticize any individuals here. Blame for the Herald’s deficiencies rests squarely with the ownership. But no matter where the fault rests, what the community is left with is an inadequate daily report from an overburdened news staff and superficial analysis by an opinion staff with little local foundation. Yes, this is the opinion of a disgruntled former employee, but that does not mean it is wrong.
Once there were separate news, sports and features staffs. Now the sports staff is one person and there is no features staff. Two photographers remain, solid professionals Vern Fisher and David Royal. I’m betting one will be gone within a year.
Over the past year or so, Melendez has produced some strong work on school-related topics and on a troubling rape case but the others have had virtually no time to address anything beyond the daily grind. Investigative reporting, or the euphemistically named enterprise reporting, takes time and time is money. The shareholders don’t like to share.
The situation at the Salinas Californian is even more dire. It is owned by Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, which has contented itself over the years with watching its products deteriorate in order to keep the cash flowing in the corporate direction.
Forever, the Californian was a six-day weekly but it now publishes only three times a week. Its Alisal Street headquarters was recently sold and the staff soon will move to smaller quarters. A short-term rental would seem prudent.
With the looming retirement of veteran journalist Roberto Robledo, who has handled just about every newsroom task, the news staff will be down to two reporters and there is an open question about whether it will remain that way. Columnist and City Hall reporter Jeff Mitchell once covered the Salinas hospital’s troubles well and he has produced significant City Hall coverage but he now works principally on health issues under a special grant, so his voice is usually missing from the daily report.
The newspaper offices close at 5 p.m. and so does the search for news. Salinas is better off with the Californian than without it, but that’s the about best that can be said of the situation.
Fortunately, there is the Monterey County Weekly. Usually, weekly papers in communities with dailies are called alternative papers, but the Weekly has become required reading.
Originally known as Coast Weekly, the paper was formed in 1988 by Bradley Zeve of Carmel Valleyy, who has become an active figure in alternative press organizations. While most papers of its type focus largely on entertainment and food, the Weekly has put greater energy into coverage of government, politics and the environment.
For much of the time I worked at the Herald, I found that the Weekly covered pretty much the same topics and, with a weekly deadline instead of daily deadlines, often did a better job explaining the fine points. I was surprised, and still am, that it didn’t adopt a flashier strategy but it has worked out well for the community.
In my humble opinion, the Weekly has unnecessarily expended much of its energy in recent years with its online effort, breaking daily news on its website, often interesting crime news of relatively low importance. With the recent departure of Editor Mary Duan, a true newshound, that seems to have fallen off, which will be a good thing if it results in more time for more thoughtful journalism.
The editorship of the Weekly has been a bit of a revolving door in recent years, in large part because of short-staffing in the management ranks and a grueling workload. Veteran reporter Sara Rubin is the interim editor and, by all appearances, has earned the permanent title but I’m hoping she can negotiate for some additional help with production duties.
There is little to fault with the Weekly’s news coverage — except for volume. The reporters have been breaking stories with some regularity, much more often than their counterparts at the dailies or the TV stations, and they weigh in frequently with solid explainers on long-running stories or environmental issues. They have done well with the Monterey Downs saga and the continuing story of severe erosion issues surrounding the Cemex plant in Marina.
My first suggestion for the Weekly – and I’m hoping for some community support here – is that it step things up.
The Weekly’s news staff numbers about eight plus the occasional intern. I don’t have any real numbers, but it appears to grown little if any over the last decade. True, most papers have lost staff; some have lost most of their staffs because of tight times. But the status quo isn’t going to position the Weekly to take a bigger role in protecting the community from the bad guys nationally and locally.
The paper is thick with ads, so I feel comfortable guessing that Zeve has the assets needed to greatly expand the news staff and the space to be filled with news. If he’s waiting for encouragement, here it is.
My second suggestion is in the same vein. It’s also about stepping up.
Back when I used to hire talented young reporters, one of the first pieces of advice I gave was to think big. Don’t try to be one of the better reporters on this staff, Be the best and then be better. If you didn’t have the ability to succeed here, I wouldn’t have hired you. Think bigger.
I have similar advice for the Weekly. Don’t settle. I’ll use this as an example, but don’t think I’m picking on you, David Schmalz.
Schmalz has done a lovely job covering the Cemex issue and several others in his relatively brief time at the Weekly, but he received perhaps the most attention for his recent piece on financial issues surrounding the family of Monterey Downs promoter Brian Boudreau.
It was a fine account, well researched and well packaged, but the information had been sitting around for a while and didn’t really connect significantly with the Monterey Downs controversy. People acted as if Schmalz had a Pulitzer on his hands. The community is starved for investigative reporting and anything that hints of it is likely to received outsized appreciation.
The point is simply this. Good work needs to become routine and truly special work is needed with some regularity unless we’re willing to concede victory to the dark forces. There is plenty of trouble to be explored in Monterey County and, given what’s happening in the rest of the county, the list of topics will only grow.
I could go on and on about the important local topics that have received no or little attention from the local media, including, in some cases, the Partisan. The Herald and the Weekly have written about the controversy over city rental practices at the Wharf but neither has provided anywhere near the depth that Willard McCrone has in the Partisan. Schmalz has written some interesting pieces about some funny real estate transactions involving developer Nader Agha and his downtown headquarters, but no one else has followed up.
The county Board of Supervisors is putting growers in charge of monitoring groundwater in the Salinas Valley, all but ignoring the interests of environmentalists and the general public, but the topic hasn’t made print.
There’s funny business afoot at Carmel’s City Hall but no one including the Carmel Pine Cone is picking up on it and the Pine Cone probably won’t bother with it until someone manages to offend the publisher.
Oh, TV. Almost forgot.
KSBW does one thing exceedingly well. With a small news crew, it manages to cover almost every significant piece of breaking news in not one county but three – Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito. The news director, the assignment editor, someone there is a magician.
Beyond that, KSBW and, to an even greater extent, KION, shouldn’t even be mentioned in a discussion of news involving process, procedure or politics. In fact, it should be discouraged from covering topics such as Fisherman’s Wharf leasing policies or desalination because the staff has neither the time nor the expertise to cover them well. A bad news story is probably worse than no story at all.
So where does that leave us? Here’s where.
Under the current ownership, the Herald is almost a lost cause. Unless the entire news business goes through a dramatic turnaround, the staff will continue to shrink and the quality will continue to slide. The Herald has one of the most expensive subscription rates in the nation. I’m not recommending that anyone stop reading it or stop advertising in it, but I wouldn’t suggest anyone put a lot of energy into trying to fix that situation.
I suggest that people who don’t read the Weekly start reading it. (It’s free and you can find it in news boxes all over the county). And when you see something you like, let them know. And when you see something you don’t like, let them know. If you know of news, call ‘em up. If you think they are missing the news, call ‘em up.
If you advertise, advertise with the Weekly. Don’t cancel your Herald or KSBW ads but increase your budget and get your face in the Weekly.
No, I’m not getting a commission. My relationship with that publication has been a rocky affair. I thought its endorsement of Dave Potter in the last election was absolutely indefensible. Some onlookers at one recent event thought Zeve and I might have been on the verge of actually scuffling over something I had written. But it is locally owned, clearly headed in the right direction and obviously has the potential to help fix some of the things that need fixing around here if Bradley is willing to spend a buck or two.
Finally, the community should also look for other opportunities to increase the amount of time, energy and space committed to uncovering and solving the community’s problems and trumpeting its achievements. To that end, the Partisan and some of its supporters are contemplating an effort to expand our range and upgrade our offerings with a structure that involves more than a couple of old guys popping off now and then. Yes, we would be in competition with the Weekly and the rest, but competition’s a good thing.
We’re thinking a Web production with more features, wider participation, and a more sustainable financial structure. The plan isn’t even a plan yet, it’s that amorphous, but you will be hearing more about it. If you have encouragement or support to offer, if you’d like to be part of it, chime in below or send me your thoughts at email@example.com.