Editorial: Reporting on the News from the Home Front

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday July 10, 2007

A visit from our friend the journalism professor prompted many “whither newspapers” conversations around dinner tables last week. These were a continuation of earlier similar discussions with local friends about recent developments in what used to be called the corporate mass media. I say “used to be called” because as newspapers are increasingly the playthings of large corporate empires their influence on the masses seems to be diminishing.  

The Professor used to be a working reporter in the Bay Area before she moved into Midwestern academia, so the takeover of the Chronicle by the Hearst corporation and almost every other publication by Media News was especially noteworthy for her. A deathwatch blog is being maintained on the Chronicle web site as a tribute to axed reporters by their former colleagues. It’s sobering reading, the only way fans can find out whether their favorites are gone for good or just “on vacation.” A case could be made that it’s the best and the brightest who are leaving, possibly because they’re the ones who have other options. Some notable losses: Anna Badkhen, reporting on foreign news (she showed promise of being a worthy successor to the superb Frank Viviano, lost a few years ago in the Chronicle’s pre-Hearst decline); Marc Sandalow, who wrote clearly and authoritatively about what was going on in D.C. (despite my surprise at first seeing his byline, since I knew him in kindergarten); Patrick Hoge, who made a short but valiant stab at the Berkeley beat, one of the few Chron reporters who might have had a chance to get Berkeley right; and top editor Narda Zacchino, a pioneer in understanding and promoting the role of women in the newsroom. 

We talked to various friends who are still there about what the plan might be for running the paper with many fewer staffers, and they all told us there didn’t seem to be any plan that they could discern from their own vantage points. One mentioned the general modus operandi of Hearst papers these days: no hard news at all on the front page because that might alienate the post-literate reader.  

The new Hearst style is BIG photos with soft features at the top of the front page, he said, and that certainly describes recent Chronicles. The universal target of horrified dinner table Chron critics was the day the big story over the fold was that women don’t really talk more than men, a psychological research result that had come out at least three days previously and surprised no one anyway. A close second was “It’s going to be hot tomorrow!”—and it wasn’t, by the way. No star reporters or brilliant editors are needed for front pages like these.  

And while the Hearst Chronicle is busily engaged in chewing off its own leg, the Media News ring-around-the-bay becomes ever more homogenized. The news from the Berkeley City Council is now frequently supplied by one guy, a former gossip columnist who watches it on cable TV, and it’s often reprinted in several sister publications, for example, in the East Bay Daily Snooze, the “Berkeley” Voice (which with a different front page is also the Montclarion, the Albany Journal and many more), the Oakland Tribune, the Contra Costa Times, and even (why would they care?) the formerly excellent San Jose Mercury News. When the guy gets things wrong, as he sometimes does, his mistakes are amplified a thousand-fold by his corporate empire.  

A modest bit of good news is that the new owners of the East Bay Express, despite my previous skepticism, do seem to be on the up-and-up. The New Times chain’s characteristic snarky tone has all but vanished, along with the reporters who used it as a substitute for facts, and they’ve gotten an honest and sincere young man to write about what’s going on at the Berkeley City Council—he even shows up in person at the meetings.  

Why, one might justifiably wonder, do the proprietors of a competitive publication cheer this change? Well, we’re first and foremost 35-year residents who care a lot about what happens in Berkeley, the East Bay, the Bay Area and the whole big world outside of California. We continue to believe that the more people know about what’s going on, from whatever source, the better government will work. With the corporate dailies on the fast track to oblivion, alternative weeklies like the stellar Bay Guardian and a reconstitituted Express have an important job to do. 

And community newspapers like the Berkeley Daily Planet and a fast-dwindling list of others have an even greater responsibility. The ongoing shenanigans of local government are increasingly ignored by big corporate media. We do our best to keep our corner of the universe clean. Trying to keep track of everything going on in our home town and at least the major outrages in neighboring cities is a big job for our small staff, but there’s really no one else to do it. The alt-weeklies do short takes and long exposes, but by their nature they can’t report as well on the mid-range bread-and-butter stories. The Post papers have historically covered the African-American community in the East Bay, though they’re trying to broaden their focus. 

Jon Wiener, another professor (UC Irvine), has a generally excellent piece in the current Nation on the New Times, Inc., takeover of the L.A. Weekly. Most of the points he makes are spot-on, but one of them is a bit off from our perspective. 

He complains that “the New Times strategy is relentlessly local,” lamenting the virtual disappearance of references to the war in Iraq from the pages of the Weekly. He says “the paper focuses on what Tim Rutten, media columnist for the L.A. Times, calls ‘hyper-localism—it's the prevailing commercial wisdom regarding all newspapers.’ But there's plenty of evidence that L.A. readers are as interested in what’s going on in Baghdad as in Beverly Hills.” That’s as true in Berkeley as it is in L.A., but our readers and theirs do have some other choices for national and international news if they look for them.  

What they don’t have, increasingly, are any other choices to tell them what’s going on at home, in their own city, their neighborhood, and in their kids’ schools, and that counts too. And how local people are responding to what’s going on in Baghdad is just as important as what’s happening in Iraq, because at home is where stopping the war in Iraq will have to start. The Planet does offer Bob Burnett and Conn Hallinan and the fine reports from New America Media to provide national and international perspectives, but our main focus is on the news you can’t get anywhere else, the local news. We don’t consider ourself an alternative paper because increasingly there’s nothing to be alternative to—the local dailies died years ago. 

And doing our job as we see it, this is our cue to remind you one more time to keep a tight eye on the Berkeley City Council as they try to slip out of town to make their annual contribution to the earth’s carbon footprint. Their most egregious misdeeds traditionally take place during the last two or three council meetings before the summer recess, which nows stretches into mid-September. Keep your eye on the final innings in these ball games: the mayor’s proposed changes to the rules governing public comment, the council’s attempt to duck the controversy over the development on the Wright’s garage site in Elmwood, and the megaplex project which has been baited with a Trader Joe’s store on University. Remember, it will all be over, for good or ill, by the end of the month.