Editorial: First, the Bad News . . .

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday December 12, 2006

You work this job too long, you find that you’re often tempted to repeat yourself. In a recent letter, a Berkeley librarian voiced a complaint on behalf of herself and presumably others: “Many readers are tired of the constant divisiveness fomented by the Daily Planet. The paper should present some news on issues and culture that build community rather than encourage bickering and false differences.” She suggested, as an alternative, another nice story on the library’s new website like the ones that had already appeared in the Daily Cal and the East Bay Daily News.  

Presumably the “divisiveness” this librarian complains about refers to our recent reports and reader commentaries about the governance of the Berkeley Public Library. Inevitably, I was reminded of an editorial that appeared in September 2003, responding to complaints by the Berkeley Unified School District about our reports of problems at Berkeley High. At the risk of boring long-time readers, I’ll just quote, once again, a sermon by the Rev. Frank Logue, a rector in a small town in Georgia. He chided his congregation for wanting only cheery sermons using this analogy:  

“Small town local newspapers are known to be like sundials, they only work in the sunny hours and so are filled with good news. But, even our local Tribune and Georgian too often have to report bad news.”  

Luckily for Berkeley readers, they have the corporate version of the small town press, the papers owned by Media News, including the EBDN, to work the sunny side of the street. But if you want all the news, the real news, sometimes you have to see into the shade as well. Another quote which appeared both in Rev. Logue’s sermon and in the previous editorial was from the Wicked Witch of the West, Evillene, the most entertaining character in The Wiz, the updated version of The Wizard of Oz. Her signature refrain, which could be that of many Berkeley folk, is: “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news!”  

There’s a certain kind of Berkeley reader who wants all local stories to end with everyone holding hands in a circle and singing “Kumbaya.” Many of us have roots in an older form of leftist ideology that believed that good people with good intentions would eventually triumph in the end, despite the bad news coming out of, for example, eastern Europe. And from what used to be called the right, we have the unbelievable example of most of the national press swallowing Bush propaganda over most of the last four years, even though the majority of Berkeleyans and some others challenged the official version of what was happening in Iraq from day one. Such publications reported “the good news” for far too long. 

Then there’s the matter of how stories, any kind of stories, get into newspapers at all. Press releases are the traditional transmission method for stories like the one about the library’s new website. All public institutions seem to have added public information officers who see their jobs as getting the good news into print and keeping the bad news out. We get hundreds of press releases every week, many of them about warm fuzzy topics like the library’s new service.  

We have four reporters who are attempting to keep up with everything our readers might want to know about from Richmond south through Oakland, and they have to decide carefully about how to spend their time. We’re happy to see such feel-good stories surface in the Daily Cal or the EBDN, but when they’ve already appeared elsewhere we’re less inclined to think we need to use them.  

Besides competing demands on our reporters’ time, our available space is limited by the number of ads our salespeople can sell. Prudent management suggests that about half of our square inches should be ads, though we sometimes run more “white space” material than this formula would permit, when you include the acres we devote to letters and commentary. But we’re reluctant to add still more unsubsidized pages just so that everyone’s press release can get into print. 

When I was running political campaigns in my youth, I learned that if I really want to get an important story out, I’d give it exclusively first to a good reporter at a serious paper, instead of sending out a press release or holding a press conference. Lesser media would then copy, and they’d get the story straight because they’d copied it from a pro. Public information officers should consider using this technique. Later on, as a reporter myself, I learned that if I did a strong story, it would soon be in many other publications and on the television news, with no credit to me, of course.  

Nevertheless, it is the holiday season, which was invented in almost all cultures as a way of cheering humans up in the dark days of winter. The holidays inevitably produce the kind of stories which can be expected to build community and make us feel good about ourselves, and we’ll have more space to run them in the Planet since the public sector is headed for its generous winter break. Less Scrooge, more Tiny Tim, that should be our motto at this time of year—not so much “Bah! Humbug,” more “God Bless Us Every One!” We’ll try to keep that in mind.