Local news is a rough business

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.

13 thoughts on “Local news is a rough business

  1. zorro

    It is great to hear about your website. My comment is that it is going to be extremely difficult for Oakland P.D. to send all of their recruits to the Oakland police academy even if they run two academies. This is considering the ongoing vacancies with retirements, etc. There are accredited police academies all over the state that they could send recruits to simultaneously. I know bigger cities like Oakland, San Fran and L.A. have their own academy and apparently their own way of doing things. However, during this staffing crisis I would think they would send the recruits to what ever academy they could. They all teach the same curriculum which is mandated by the state Police Officers Standards and Training. (P.O.S.T.)

  2. eric

    I commend you for taking the time and editors eye to fairly critique the “sydicating” reporting style and feel of the Oakland Tribune. You are not alone when you question the quality of news reporting in the East Bay- my friends and I still can’t rely on the Oakland Tribune (or the web site either) to justly cover the changing face and culture of Oakland and the bright future ahead.

  3. Buddy Cushman

    It’s nice to find your website — through the story in yesterday’s Chronicle — and make note of the tremendous effort you are making to keep people informed, and help them to find ways to think about day to day concerns. I am writing from Truto, MA where I know live, pretty much a lifelong MA resident. I did, however, live in Okalnad for about 17 months not long ago, on Alice Street, and loved it there in many ways, and remain very connected. I will be sure to check your site daily now to help maintain that connection. In fact, I am giving very serious thought to moving back to Oakland, and try to be an important member in the community, and give to the City. I have about 30 years of experience working with adolescents, and though I worked as an administrator in a San Francisco youth program previously, I would hope to find work with young people in Oakland should I come back…I did work on Aimee Allison’s campaign a little when I was last out there, and I wonder how she is, and what she is up to? Anyway, thank you again, and I will remain a faithful reader, and contributor….Keeping the faith in Massachusetts

  4. Californio

    Why are Oaklanders not concerned with local politics? It’s important to look at who Oaklanders are to answer this. A large majority are blue collar workers, too busy with the duties of earning a living and raising kids to have time for the Byzantine workings of City Hall, the Port of Oakland, and so forth. Some Oaklanders are also recent immigrants with limited English, and if you’ve ever lived in a foreign city, you know how difficult it is to get interested in local politics in a culture that is not your own. The above reasons apply to almost any larger city, however. What’s different about Oakland is that, theoretically, there is also a large base of college-educated, English-speaking, politically motivated citizens who STILL are not interested in local politics. This group has larger aspirations in its politicking; it thinks globally, not locally; it wants an end to the WTO, but can’t make up its mind on speed bumps or spend time getting trees planted in the neighboring streets. For this group, there is less fulfillment in local politics than the effort warrants. (And, as anyone who has tried it knows, the effort required is enormous.) It does seem curious, but even with all its highly political citizens, Oakland will remain apathetic on a local level unless something changes in the mix.

  5. Navigator

    Oakland’s lack of local political interest stems from the fact that too many of its well to do neighborhoods such as Montclair, Rockridge, Piedmont Ave., Lake Shore/Grand etc. are filled with SF transplants ingrained with balkanized neighborhood attitudes. Among many of these residents there is a lack of civic and residential identity to “Oakland.” Many of these residents view their neighborhoods as bedroom communities to SF. They don’t support Oakland institutions and have no loyalty to the city. As a matter of fact, many of these residents feel the need to explain their “Oakland” residency to family and friends. It’s a sad state of affairs when individuals enjoy all that Oakland has to offer while at the same time denying their Oakland identity and without giving Oakland its proper due as a wonderful place. I suspect, some of these attitudes are racially tinted while others are merely elitist.

  6. John

    Dear Navigator: jeez, where to begin regarding your comments? Maybe I will begin by ending – you can’t even imagine how wrong you are. The end.

  7. John

    Hi masb: thanks for your comment. I guess I could ask the same about you, no? In any case, I am a 20-year resident of Oakland. Navigator is wrong because all of the areas mentioned in N.’s post: Montclair, Rockridge, Piedmont Ave., Lakeshore/Grand, are NOT filled with SF transplants. Many, many of the residents have lived in these areas for decades and generations – they did not just arrive after getting buckets of cash from the DOTCOM boom.

    They are just as devoted to their neighborhoods as any other Oakland resident. N.’s saying that residents of those neighborhoods (which are an homogenous social/political constituency) don’t support local institutions or have no loyalty to Oakland only shows how little N. really knows about those areas and the residents.

  8. masb

    Hi John – I am a thirty year resident of Oakland – Rockridge is my past, downtown is my present. I have been enjoying my relationship with Oakland throughout. I guess my flip response to you was predicated by your seemingly hostile comments. I wonder how many of the posts you have actually read? Granted, sometimes the posts are opinionated (why not – this is a blog, not a news organization) but most of the time I find them to be loaded with information backed up by various credible resources and worthy of attention. A lot of time and effort is spent sharing this information with us and I thought your comment “get a job” was unworthy.

  9. Navigator

    Sorry if I ruffled some feathers, but the observations mentioned above come from personal experiences. There are people living in Oakland who deny their Oakland identity. We have people living in Rockridge pretending they live in “Berkeley” and making statements like “Rockridge isn’t really Oakland,” Even the Oakland Board of Realtors advertise homes in the Claremont area of the North Oakland Hills as “Berkeley” because of a shared zip code, and who knows what else. They are in effect perpetuating the negativity that exists in many neighboring cities regarding Oakland.

    Many Montclair residents will tell friends and acquaintances that they live in “Montclair” before ever mentioning the dreaded “O’ word. Well-to-do Oaklanders, in large do not support their own city. They support SF, Walnut Creek, Emeryville etc. Go to Jack London Square on any weekend and the place is a ghost town. It’s a shame that a city of 400,000 residents can’t, or wont, support its own institutions or get involved in making the entire city better by participating in the civic process.

  10. Hilary

    Chip Johnson’s article certainly brought your blogsite to my attention. I don’t much like player haters. I don’t like bashers. What are you doing to help Oakland, other than sitting in the “shadows”, criticizing, complaining, blaming? As a person who volunteers to improve situations, not in Oakland mind you, but in the Berkeley public school district, I help deal with issues of race, violence, homelessness, education and economics with a severe shortage of funding on a microsmic basis. I can only imagine what Mayor Dellums is faced with dealing with the City of Oakland. Get some perspective.

  11. Navigator

    It’s not a matter of bashing. There are attitudes in Oakland which need to change. From the destructive behavior of a small segment of the population, to the general “It’s not my problem” attitudes of its well-to-do residents.

    Let’s face it, there is an underclass in Oakland which costs the city millions of dollars just to keep up with their uncivil, destructive, and self-centered behavior. The upkeep for graffiti removal, cleaning the streets of litter, repairing destroyed property, is an expense which suburban cities like Walnut Creek for example, are largely spared . Anyone who drives around downtown Oakland sees the litter near the bus stops, the graffiti on just about every utility box, mail box, light standard, newspaper rack, door way etc. The new bus shelters on Berkley Way near Sears have already been vandalized and the bus shelters littered. The new parking meter boxes dowtown are already covered in graffiti. This is an expense caused not by the affects of weather and time, but an expense caused by an unproductive segment of society bent on uncivil and destructive behavior. No one is asking these individuals to contribute anything to society other than to just control their destructive impulses. Even conforming to that, seems a tall order. Unfortunately, the vast majority of residents who want to live in a clean and orderly society are forced to live by the standards of the uncivil.

    Oakland is a city which tolerates this type of behavior. We have a police department which can’t, or wont, protect private property. We have a public works department which rewards the vandals by allowing their blight to fester for days, weeks, months, and in some cases, for years. These vandals know where to go in order to have their “work” memorialized.

    This mediocrity permeates throughout Oakland city government. A city government with a 1 billion dollar budget which can’t even accomplish the straight forward task of keeping its downtown free of litter and graffiti. This mediocrity is allowed to fester because of the general disinterest of the well-to-do class in local government. As long as their immediate neighborhood needs can be addressed at some level from City Hall, then, downtown and the rest of the city can be ignored. We need professional people from Montclair, Rockridge, Piedmont Ave., Trestle Glenn, Ridgemont, Lake Shore/Grand, and throughout the city to become involved in local politics.

  12. len raphael

    nav makes a valid generalization about the middle and upper middle residents of oakland apathy about civic affairs of their city. over the last several months going door to door for various temescal matters, i’ve been dismayed by the apathy and cheered by the extremely high quality effort of the relative few who are engaged. and that goes for people on both sides of local issues who don’t have immediate financial interests at stake.

    but for the apathic, it was summed up for me the other day by 30 something professional whom I asked to sign a nominating petition and was told something to the effect that “i only vote on national issues. I’m a renter”