What’s wrong with Oakland’s political coverage?

As much as I adore Oakland, I have to admit that it always feels great to get away for a while. At home I tend to forget how incredible it feels to fall asleep in silence and make it through a full eight hours without getting woken up by sirens, motorcycles, or the mentally ill. Getting out of town also gives me an excuse not to blog for a while, which is nice, because getting something thoughtful and informative up here on a daily basis is kind of…um, challenging.

At least once a week, someone asks me why I do this, and the truth is that I don’t really know. I believe people should know what their government is doing and where their tax money is going, and there just doesn’t seem to be any reliable source providing that around here. Leaving town reminds me that it isn’t just because I love Oakland. I do, but beyond that, I think I’m just hopelessly geeky when it comes to local politics. Even on vacation, I can’t seem to get my mind off it.

Everywhere I go, I find myself quizzing locals about the current metro controversies. I spent Thanksgiving learning about my hometown’s narrow (and expensive) escape from annexation by the big city next door. During a weekend getaway earlier this month, I was reminded that Oakland’s struggles with development, density, and affordability are far from unique, and hardly limited to urban areas. (I also learned that tiny Frisco, CO has the same height limits through the entire town as planning staff proposed for Telegraph Avenue this summer.)

Whenever I visit the Electric City, my hostess barely gets a chance to greet me before I demand to know what’s happened with the 10th Street Bridge since my last visit (I like to think of the bridge as their version of the Ninth Avenue Terminal).

So naturally, when I grabbed a copy of the local paper to enjoy over coffee this weekend, I headed straight for the metro section. (I usually like to start my Sunday mornings with the Week in Review, but the Gold Dust Casino and Lounge wasn’t selling the Times.) I was astounded at the quantity of their local government coverage. On a good day, I’ll find maybe three stories in the Tribune worth adding to my little news feed on the side here. I’m coming up on two years of doing this in April, and I don’t think there’s ever been a day when I marked more than five. If this blog was called A Better Great Falls, there were nine stories I would have tagged. Nine! In one day!

A reference to local bloggers in an article about their longtime city manager’s retirement spiked my curiosity, so of course the second I found an internet connection, I did a little exploring. My perfunctory search found seven regularly updated blogs covering local politics! Two provide ABO-style detailed information with minutes and agendas and staff reports and the whole deal. Two! In a town of 56,000 people (and about 400 bars)!

All this just makes me wonder – why is Oakland’s political coverage so piss-poor? I mean, the Trib has basically one and a half writers covering government here, and the Chronicle has one plus a twice a week columnist. Last week the Express announced big changes to their model, which basically boils down to filling the paper with user-generated content, a move that might have been exciting if they had made it, say, 10 years ago. Instead, it just makes them look more depressingly out of touch than usual (does Stephen Buel not know about the internet?) and at best, about two years behind the trend.

And our metro blogosphere is no better. One acquaintance has a habit of sweetly referring to ABO as the best Oakland blog, which warms my heart, of course, but usually ends up making me feel kind of depressed. I mean, it’s pretty easy to be the best when you don’t have any competition. The only blog in my “Oakland Politics” links section that updates with any frequency whatsoever is Dogtown Commons, and if I’m being honest, it isn’t actually about Oakland politics at all. I just stick it there because I love it so much, and Dellums and Tucker come up occasionally. In terms of metroblogs that aren’t specifically politics-focused, there’s Living in the O and Oakland Goods, and that’s about it. What gives? Great Falls has dozens of active metrobloggers! You can see from my links list that we have a fair number of blogs out here, and I like most of them when they do write, but that only happens like every two months or so on average.

I used to think that quality local news coverage was dead everywhere. But apparently not. Shouldn’t Oakland’s residents have at least as much information about their government as a small town in Montana? Do people here just not care?

18 thoughts on “What’s wrong with Oakland’s political coverage?

  1. Dogtown Commoner

    “if I’m being honest, it isn’t actually about Oakland politics at all.”

    Shucks, I thought you hadn’t noticed. Don’t blush when you read this, but I would probably write about local politics more often if it weren’t for the fact that you cover the territory in greater depth and with more insight than I ever could. Oh, and you work a lot harder, too. If I wrote about local politics more often, all my posts would just end up saying “What V Smoothe said,” so it seems easier to just cede that ground to you.

    As for your question, I think that many people here actually don’t care, or else have just become resigned. It’s depressing to pay close attention to local politics when nothing good ever seems to get done. It’s a vicious circle — lousy government breeds apathy and resignation, and apathy and resignation lead to lousy government. Even Chip Johnson, whose columns address Oakland politics at least once and often twice a week, seems to write the same depressing things over and over (that’s not a criticism of him at all, it’s just a depressing fact of life about Oakland government).

    In a smaller place like Great Falls, people may feel more empowered to actually make a difference, and they also may feel more invested in their community in general. Despite the Oakland Pride “movement,” I think most Oaklanders see Oakland as the place where they happen to live, and not much more than that. In addition to the lack of coverage of local politics, I’m surprised their aren’t more neighborhood-oriented blogs and websites a la the GLG or Harrioak, etc. There are some, but not an overwhelming number for a city Oakland’s size.

    Anyway, this is just my first reaction. It’s an interesting question — maybe Dellums can set up a Blue Ribbon Commission or a Task Force to study the matter.

  2. Jessica

    Thanks for the plug. I wish other bloggers would update more often, too, but you and I both know it can be quite time consuming.

    I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your insightful coverage of city politics, without which I would be totally out of the loop. It’s not like there’s anything to read in teh newspapers, after all.

  3. len raphael

    as scant as oakland political coverage is, emeryville coverage is a black hole. year’s ago there was a rumor that songi sold a faxed newsletter for emeryville, once.

    must be great to be an elected official or a bureaucrat in a place like oakland where except for a few of you bloggers, an occassional traditional journalist, and the residents and interest groups who somehow find out about particular actions, the pols can operate free of all citizen review.

    you do oakland a great service, but we gotta figure out a way to institutionalize/commercialize the reporting so several people can devote at least half time during biz hours to the reporting function. maybe a subscription model until oakland’s retail biz picks up sometime later this century.

  4. Martin G. Reynolds

    One could argue the city of Oakland and all its goings on could stand to have two or three reporters covering this town’s government.

    It’s a huge animal with many layers. Frankly, the economics of the news business these days don’t allow you to have that many reporters covering one city’s government. To do that, we would have to not cover Oakland schools, the port, Alameda County _ something would suffer.

    We have to make choices.

    The fact you see three stories about Oakland or its related institutions in the paper each day is very good, considering the Tribune endeavors to focus on Oakland, but also has a responsibility to reach beyond its borders, as we have readers up and down the I-80 corridor _ to Richmond and all the way to Hayward.

    The community you mentioned in your blog of 56,000 and its paper likely don’t have those regional responsibilities to be concerned with.

    I find this blog to be one of the more informed I have come across. Most recycle what news organizations produce and then run on with Exlax of the fingertips with no journalistic contribution, other than the valuable notion of opinon, which of course has its place.

    That said, I find the need for these kinds of forums essential, and that blogs like this are an important part of the conversation, but rarely do they amount to journalism. I am pleased to see this one at least endeavors to adopt a measure of standard. And I frankly agree with your premise: More information is good.

    I would completely agree, there needs to be more resources devoted to the coverage of Oakland government, but rest assured, it is a priority.

    Reporter Kelly Rayburn is hot on the trails of the Dellums administration, has a weekly column “Citywise” that sums up the various goings on with the City Council without the burden of an entire story for each item. This enables him to focus on more step-back pieces.

    As a news organization we have had to decide what’s most important: Process or perspective. And we have largely chosen the latter. We need to frame what is happening in the city for readers, around issues like Children’s Hospital, the Port, police, City Hall and the like.

    It’s easy to sit back and denounce what is not being covered. It’s entirely more difficult to figure out how to make sure what needs to be covered gets covered.

    The way to do that is through partnership with the community and the blogesphere. People have a lot of information to share, and they should feel their newspaper is open to hearing about it, which I am.

    So please, drop us a line. We’re here to listen and respond, as well as carry out our vision, which is to focus on Oakland’s triumphs as equally as its tragedies.

    Best, Martin G. Reynolds
    Oakland Tribune managing editor
    510-208-6433
    510-390-1779 cell
    510-208-6477 – fax
    mreynolds@bayareanewsgroup.com

  5. Deckin

    As someone who tried it and came up way short of ABO (and virtually all others), I think one of the reasons is that apart from editorializing, it’s just so damn hard to actually get to the places (council meetings and the like) where one needs to be if one is to add anything more that isn’t already being said. What’s needed is for someone actually in city government to start a blog and really get things going. Surely there are those with axes to grind; what better way to leak than to do it online? I think a big part of it is the monoculture downtown. If there were more independent/competing interests, we’d start getting more heat, and maybe more light.

  6. len raphael

    if the trib is committed to in-depth coverage of the biggest city in the eastbay, but doesn’t have the ad revenue to support that goal, how about doing something like a for fee subscription web site. one price for personal subscriptions, one for businesses etc. that model failed for the nyt’s but that’s because they have so much depth on their regular site. i don’t know what you pay reporters, but even 2,000 subscribers at $100/year should cover one or two. if it doesn’t work, it’s not like you’ll have a big startup cost.

  7. Leila Abu-Saba

    I found this site via Chip Johnson – wow, thank you! I’ve been trying to pull back on my political blogs, and cut back on the time I hang out on the neighborhood e-list, arguing about what to do about crime and blight. Now I find you and I think -uh-oh, another ReALLY GOOD REASON to spend more time online.

    I’m not sure why there’s so little Oakland metro blogging. I know of some quasi famous Oakland blogs/bloggers – Kid Oakland who blogs at Daily Kos, and the Oakland chapter of Drinking Liberally (a Democratic party netroots group).

    You’ll find plenty of energy and organizing on the local neighborhood email lists. Maxwell Park, Glenview, the Dimond all have lists. In my neighborhood, the Laurel District, 450 people are subscribed to the Yahoo news group. The local councilwoman and her staff keep an eye on the posts and a couple of community action groups use the space to organize their “real world” activities.

    There’s very little political reporting though – it’s more like bitching and kvetching. We’re all in our houses or at our jobs, firing off emails over the back fence about stray dogs, rowdy kids, break-ins and graffitti tags. Sometimes the dedicated activists will put together a block party, work party, garden project, or the bigger events we have in the summer (music festival, Solstice festival etc.)

    I understand that many have found your blog by googling “recall Dellums.” Now there is an idea I could get behind. He’s a distinguished man and has accomplished good things in his earlier career, but he’s not doing much for this city now. We need a mayor who actually works. (and how about his Clinton endorsement, way to predict the mood of the electorate, Mr. Mayor)

    Keep up the good work. I will be bookmarking.

    My own blog focuses on “signs of hope” generally for peace in the Middle East, but I have been covering the environment and food for the last four years as well. I do mention Oakland and my life here pretty regularly. Although my blog is more widely read in the Middle East and among people who follow Middle East politics, I assert that I am an Oakland blogger.

    We have so much to be proud of here. The reality of this city and the possibilities I see give me hope for urban life in America. I’m always plugging some great group or another and ending with “and they are based in my hometown of Oakland, Ca, for which I am proud.”

    Jewish Voice for Peace and the Oakland Institute are two that come to mind.

    I will be back. Congratulations on the great Chip Johnson profile.

  8. Codger

    Fellow Oaklanders — Since most of you, judging loosely from the tone of comments on this fine site (which I, too, have just discovered through Chip Johnson’s column), seem to be younger and perhaps newer to Oakland, here’s the start of what may become a string of occasional thoughts from an older guy who has been in and around this town for 30 years, also a former reproter and columnist at the Oakland Tribune (in its better days):

    On the city in general: All in all, it’s a great place — weather, location, architecture, recreation, a rich and vibrant ethinic mix, strolling, food, neighborhoods, and much more. All of which contributes to why I live here (even moved in later life from the now overly fashionable suburbs through the tunnel to do so.) The progress in the downtown area in recent years is especially impressive. Oakland, however, suffers from major problems that beg to be addressed, including a severe and growing image/identity problem, which in itself may be Oakland’s historically insurmountbale problem.

    On newspapers and news coverage: Sad. The Tribune is a shell of its former self. Yes, it’s due partly to the current state of newspapering and media in general but also a reflection of the history of the Trib itself and the nature of its current ownership (despite Mr. Reynolds’ post above). The Trib today (hint: I was there when it was Eastbay Today), is merely a cog in a media conglomerate that cares little for editorial quality, cultivating a talented news staff, shares and recyles columns and news coverage among other outlets in the chain ,and has little, if any, real clout in the communities it serves. I could go on about this and the “old days” of the Trib — and show more of the codger side — but let me just say this (and you ask for more detail if you’re interested: In the Trib’s heydey — even in my day, which was the twilight of the heydey — the editors, reporters and columnsits who populated the downtown Trib offices and the cophouse, courthbouse and City Hall pressrooms covered this town in the old and true style of hardnosed journalism. It gave a flavor and a feeling to the city — and made a difference. In many ways, it was a tougher town then and in one depressing respect it still is…the CRIME scene. Which brings me to…

    Mayor Dellums: And empty suit. (But a good dresser.) As a City Hall reporter, I covered the end of the old Mayor Redding days and the opening years of the Lionel Wilson years, Oakland’s first black mayor. In those days, for my money, the Citiy Council was certainly more interesting and colorful, and probably more effective. But the thing that plagued the city then — and does so now, in frightful similarity to those days — was crime. Addressing — or attacking, in a big way — this problem should be the city’s, the council’s and the MAYOR’s No. 1 priority. It’s the key to improving or resolving many other issues. The city needs a strong, visible and present, determined and dedicated mayor. In other words, a real leader.

    OK. That’s “30″ for now, kids. Thanks, especially to the organizer of this site.

  9. masb

    I’m another who has been around this town for 30 years. It is sad that their is such scant coverage of Oakland, it’s politics, problems, and successes. I find myself checking in on your site daily just to get a fix on what’s going on in my town. Thanks for your efforts.

  10. Chris Thompson

    I don’t see why this is such a mystery, Echa. The local newspapers can’t muster more thorough reporting because they can’t afford to. It’s as simple as that.

    Take the Trib, for instance. The Oakland Tribune is typical of owner Dean Singleton’s business model; they have a bare-bones staff (is it about eight reporters in the newsroom these days?) that get paid next to nothing (last time I checked, starting salaries were under $30K) and almost never do anything more ambitious than cover the city council meetings, crime, and local sports. It’s as lean an operation as you will find. And still, Singleton’s MediaNews group recently announced 1,100 layoffs in its Bay Area papers. According to Singleton’s most recent SEC filing, his profit margin was 2.5 percent. That’s nothing, and getting worse every year. (Historically, most newspapers have earned double-digit profit margins, sometimes hovering around 25 percent.)

    So even the most no-frills business model, which includes a lot of lucrative suburban papers, is trending down to nothing. He’s cutting to the bone, and he’s still barely breaking even. (see this Romenesko item for a more thorough analysis of Singleton’s problems: http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=123&aid=137993)

    Now, take the Chron. In the eight years since the Hearst company bought the paper, the Chron has lost about $300 million. That’s not a declining profit margin, which most newspapers are worried about; that’s a flat-out loss. The Chonicle is bleeding money, which is historically unprecedented, especially for the dominant newspaper of a major metropolitan area. See this excellent post for more details: http://newsosaur.blogspot.com/2007/05/staff-cuts-wont-cure-sf-chron-woes.html.

    It’s the same story with the alt-weeklies, one of which, the East Bay Express, I used to write for. The Bay Area is uniquely hostile to local print news coverage. It’s a very, very crowded marketplace, which more specialty publications like the ethnic and neighborhood press springing up every day. The advertising has migrated to the web; Craigslist destroyed classified ads, which accounted for about 25 percent of revenue. All of these are national trends, but it’s happening here, in the heart of Silicon Valley, first and at a much more accelerated pace. Comparing any of these papers to the dominant paper of an isolated, semi-rural town with very little competition (as you noted, the local casino didn’t carry the Times) is really apples and oranges.

    In addition, I’m not at all convinced that Bay Area residents care about local news. Why should they? So many of the most desirable readers are transplants from somewhere else, so they have no historic stake in the community they’ve moved to. Many of them are childless tech professionals who won’t read about local schools. Violent crime is almost exclusively black-on-black, so they hardly live in fear for their lives and don’t have a stake in reading about law enforcement, at least until someone breaks into their car for the third time. Why should a bunch of techies, lawyers, and architects want to read picayune local coverage, when the New York Times and whatever bloggers they’ve settled on are free? And better than whatever appears in the local press, which can no longer afford to attract and retain talented writers and reporters?

    This is really a long-winded defense of my former editor Steve Buel, who has undertaken the enormous task of taking independent a paper that enjoyed the financial and administrative advantages of chain ownership. Facile jokes about how he’s never heard of the Internet don’t do justice to the ambitious and difficult project he’s embarked upon.

  11. Deckin

    First off, kudos on the Chip Johnson thing. My God, he even mentioned my old site–one more reference though and I may post again; it’ll hurt you all much more than it’ll pain me! Seriously, though, I think that article would have done a world of good prior to June 2006, no? When we were fighting tooth and nail against the Stop De La Fuente idiots on an hourly basis, if the rest of Oakland had tuned into what was going on and the predictions we made (all of which, have sadly come true), maybe there would at least have been a run-off and who knows what might have happened. Still, I guess better late than never. To Codger, some of us have employment with the Trib that predates the EastBay Today debacle. I used to deliver that paper when it was THE paper of record from Oakland all the way to Concord and down to Dublin. No one in the East Bay read the Chron back then and a Trib route in the afternoon was concerned the plum of all routes. The Sunday edition ran to something like 3 pounds and Thursdays weren’t far behind it. What happened is the Bay Area got smaller, Oakland got more violent and less relevant, and people all started to view themselves as San Franciscans at a distance. Oh well.

  12. Codger

    To Deckln — My Trib days predate EBToday. I’m an SF native who grew up on the Peninsula. Delivered the San Mateo Times when it was the local paper of record. It, too, has fallen victim to the Singleton empire. The Trib’s big mistake, dating to Sen. Knowland’s regime, was pulling out the the EB suburbs and letting Dean Lesher take over, though nothing would have prevented the general decline the newspaper biz is experiencing today. Regards.

  13. Jonathan C. Breault

    An electorate generally gets the government it deserves. An uniformed and disengaged citizenry cannot expect to be governed by highly intelligent and well prepared people. The tragic and incipient demise of quality journalism as we have known to date portends continuous dysjunction in the society. Print journalism is not supported sufficiently in the internet age to serve the educated public as it did in times past. The best society can hope for in this sphere is accelerated interest and diverse participation in the blogshpere. ABO is a good example of how Oaklanders can remain informed. The wonderful advantage to this sort of dialogue is that citizens can interract with each other and better ideas can emerge. Oakland is not well run and it is precisely because citizens don’t pay attention and ridiculous people are in charge.

  14. Martin G. Reynolds

    From Chris Thompson’s post:

    Trib staff: “is it about eight reporters in the newsroom these days?”
    Incorrect. It’s a little less than twice that including columnists.

    “Reporters get paid next to nothing (last time I checked, starting salaries were under $30K)

    Incorrect. Starting salaries are around $40,000 with benefits and many make more than that.

    “They almost never do anything more ambitious than cover the city council meetings, crime, and local sports.

    Ridiculous. I don’t even know where to start on this one, Thompson is so off base.
    Just for example, the Tribune undertook a groundbreaking Not Just a Number project last year to highlight the causes of crime in the community, particularly looking at homicide. This Online and print project was submitted for the Pulitzer Prize last year and won what is regarded as the Online Pulitzers called the ONA awards. The Tribune was up against CNN and other major news organizations and took two awards.

    Take a look:
    http://journalists.org/2007conference/archives/000887.php

    We have also taken a lead role in the Chauncey Bailey Project, which is examining the death of Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey. The investigation is being done out of the Tribune offices with journalists and organizations from across the Bay Area participating.
    http://www.chaunceybaileyproject.org/

    In addition, the Tribune has lots of multimedia features and was the first newspapers in the Bay Area and nation to train its reporters and editors on how to produce multimedia. We began this effort more than two years ago before many were even considering it.
    http://www.ibabuzz.com/multimedia/

    There are so many other stories, blogs and projects we’re doing and have done, Thompson’s assertions show he doesn’t read the paper or look at the Web site. You can’t make judgments about the quality of the journalism is you don’t actually READ/View it.

    “It’s as lean an operation as you will find.
    That is true. We are lean, but we still do great journalism.

    And still, Singleton’s MediaNews group recently announced 1,100 layoffs in its Bay Area papers.
    Not quite Chris. Buyouts have been offered, but there will not be 1,100 layoffs. That is the number of employees the organizations has not the number who will be let go. There will be a reduction in staff across the entire Bay Area News Group, not just the editorial division. But we are hopeful those voluntary buyouts will avert layoffs, and it remains to be seen just how this will impact the Tribune.

    “According to Singleton’s most recent SEC filing, his profit margin was 2.5 percent. That’s nothing, and getting worse every year. (Historically, most newspapers have earned double-digit profit margins, sometimes hovering around 25 percent.)”

    I don’t know what Dean’s filing said. But true, back in the day, papers did make those kinds of profits.

    This post illustrates the need for accurate information, and the damage that can be done when people run off at the fingertips about things they don’t know. The rest of Thompson’s post has merit, and raises some interesting questions.

    I am happy forums like this exist so the record can be set straight.
    Best, Martin G. Reynolds
    Oakland Tribune managing editor

  15. Chris Thompson

    Well, confusing the number of employees being offered buyouts with the number of layoffs was certainly embarrassing; when friends of mine in the business told me that 1,100 people would be laid off, it sounded rather extreme, but I took their word for it. My bad.

    But citing the Chauncey Bailey Project doesn’t exactly help Martin Reynolds’s case that the Trib is doing ambitious work. Any paper that aspires to serious investigative journalism wouldn’t have waited until Bailey was killed before digging into an alleged crime family that worked in Oakland for 30 years. For example, the Yusuf Bey family’s security company didn’t have a license to do business in the state, yet its employees patrolled the lobby of the Oakland Mariott, which until recently was just around the corner from the Trib’s newsroom, every day. How this and countless allegations of sexual abuse, fraud, murder, and torture could have failed to merit a Tribune investigation until late last year still mystifies me.

    But again, it’s not like the Trib has the resources to do it. They’re broke, understaffed, demoralized, etc. It’s not their fault.

  16. Becks

    Thanks for the shout out!

    I too have wondered about why there are so few of us blogging about Oakland. I think a big part of the reason is that many bloggers living in Oakland prefer to focus on national issues. I’m sure there are dozens of political bloggers living in Oakland, but they’re too wrapped up in the presidential race, national political scandals, etc.

    That said, it’s a big depressing how few political and metro blogs we have in comparison to other cities. Hopefully that will eventually change.