I can’t stop blushing! I’d like to offer a grateful welcome to all the new visitors checking out the site because of Chip Johnson’s column about local blogs, and thank everyone who’s commented or e-mailed about it for their kind words. My little space on the interweb has gotten more traffic today than I’ve ever dreamed of, and I’m confident that I won’t be breaking my new record for quite some time, if ever. I do hope that at least some of my new visitors will find the site worthy of regular visits in the future.
Wednesday’s post complaining about local news coverage has drawn a ton of comments, including a defense of the Tribune’s Oakland coverage from managing editor Martin Reynolds. I have enough to say in response that I figured it deserved its own post.
My initial (and totally snotty) reaction to Mr. Reynold’s comment would be that the Trib doesn’t cover the Port or Alameda County in any meaningful way, most stories the Trib runs about Oakland’s government are simply recycled press releases that fail to provide any perspective, and that I would imagine that the Great Falls Tribune faces similar, or possibly more difficult, regional reporting challenges than our paper, since it’s responsible for covering communities as far as 80 miles away.
For illustration, I would point out that not a single one of Kelly Rayburn’s stories about the police recruitment strategy have included any discussion of the source of the requested $7.7 million, which I covered here earlier today. Regarding the Port, I would note that today’s paper has a Port story, and it’s about free Habor tours they provide during the summer.
I love the Harbor tour as much as anyone, and I go every year, but come on. How is this timely or newsworthy? On Tuesday, the Port Commissioners will be asked (PDF!) to allocate extra money ($100,000 plus “an amount disclosed to the Board of Port Commissioners”) for a demolition contract they’ve already approved due to extensive vandalism of the buildings involved. (Vandals stole copper wiring, piping, and ceiling panels.) They are also entering into an ENA with Oakland Maritime Support Services for development of an area adjacent to the Army Base. As a part of their continuing efforts to employ renewable energy, they’re entering into a 20-year agreement to with Western GeoPower to purchase geothermal energy from a proposed new plant. These are all important issues and potential stories with broad implications, yet they are ignored in favor of a cute, but irrelevantly timed, human interest item.
But complaining about all of that would be mean, unproductive, and also beside the point. My intention isn’t (and, honestly, wasn’t) to beat up on the Trib or Kelly Rayburn or Francine Brevetti. The Trib and its reporters bear the brunt of my complaints because it happens to be my local newspaper. The criticisms I level against it could just as easily be made about any number of newspapers in any number of markets all over the country. I’m certainly not singling out the Trib as the worst out there. I imagine it’s somewhere in the middle – better than some, worse than others. (In a second comment, Reynolds points out the Trib’s experiments with online and multimedia reporting, which I commend.)
In their comments, Reynolds and former (and sorely missed) Express writer Chris Thompson both do a good job explaining the challenges facing local newspapers. Thompson also raises the issues of ethnic papers providing additional competition in Bay Area markets, which adds a layer of complexity I hadn’t thought about before. (Commenter Len Raphael offers a link to an International Herald Tribune story related to this issue.) Clearly these are…let’s say, interesting times to be working in dead tree media.
Many commenters posited that lack of interest in local politics is responsible for lack of coverage. I certainly think that’s a big part of the problem (and really, my frustrations with the relative lack of interest in local government, not my frustrations with our newspapers, was the intended point of the post). But I also think that the relationship between interest and quality/depth of coverage is a bit more complicated. Dogtown Commoner points out (I think, correctly) that the scope and breadth of Oakland’s seemingly intractable problems turn people off of local politics. But there are plenty of things the Council does do that impact quality of life in Oakland, and I’d like to think that if people were better informed, they might also be more interested.
Again, this isn’t about picking on the Trib. I don’t think Kelly Rayburn is a bad reporter (for the most part, I like his work) – the problem is that he’s using a broken model. I hate the standard he says-he says story format, and have noted over and over again that it doesn’t provide adequate context to allow readers to understand what’s actually going on with any given issue. But the problem with format is not the Trib’s fault – this is how virtually every paper in the country writes stories, and what journalism programs apparently teach you to do. I just don’t find it very informative.
Obviously, what I do here is far too opinionated and just plain wonky to serve as a template for what local newspaper writing should look like. Blogs like this will always be supplementary sources for a small, self-selecting audience that desires far more detail that the average person. But I think there’s a balance to be found somewhere between spending a couple thousand words detailing the specifics of the Mayor’s policy proposals or AC Transit’s ridership and finances and essentially rewording a press release with either no additional information or a handful of supplementary quotes that may or may not be accurate. (I have to admit, I have a hard time seeing where the “journalistic contribution” is in these kinds of stories.) I strive for this balance in my work for Novometro – whether or not I’m entirely successful at it, I can’t say.
Shrinking profit margins and loss of classified ad revenue to the internet certainly means that sooner or later, we’re going to end up seeing a major change in the way local media operates, and the way local news is covered. I desperately hope someone is able to find a profitable model for doing so, and that the change we see isn’t that local coverage disappears. For my part, I will continue doing my best to make more information available to Oaklanders through this blog. I will also continue to point out what I see as problems with local media, not because I enjoy being mean, but because I want them to be better.