Whatever Became of Interpretative Local Journalism?

By Becky O'Malley
Sunday April 06, 2014 - 02:54:00 PM

A fellow ex-Pasadenan riffed in his column last week about the difficulties attached to covering the news while also trying to make money. I imagine he remembers the Pasadena Star-News from our childhood (I’m just a bit older), a prototypical small-city daily which has been published in one form or another since 1884. By the time I noticed it, it had been acquired by Barney Ridder’s nascent Ridder Publications, which was M&A’d into Knight-Ridder, briefly the largest newspaper chain in the country, or maybe even the world. But throughout the 50s and early 60s it was the voice of a reasonably self-sufficient quasi-urban streetcar suburb not unlike Berkeley in its relationship to its metropolitan area (L.A.). 

There used to be such a thing as Local News, in an era where there was also Local Government. Now all government with any power is regional, or statewide, federal or global. 

The Pasadena Star-News today is just another minor cog in the Media News machine, which local readers may know as the owner of: the Contra Costa Times, the Oakland Tribune, the Berkeley Voice, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the San Jose Mercury-News, the Montclarion, the West County Times….you get the idea. Media News has managed to ring metropolitan areas, including the San Francisco Bay Area, with look-alike clones of formerly local papers both print and online, into which homogeneous chain-generated content is dropped as needed, along with a smattering of local content. 

Jon Carroll’s column, entitled There are indeed some worthy news websites, was a response to a reader’s complaint that a previous column was “unduly pessimistic about the ability of online media to cover serious political and social issues, particularly those without notably sexy narratives.” It came from Frances Dinkelspiel, whom he described as “the co-founder of Berkeleyside, a website that covers that very kind of thing.” 

His response to her: 

“I think she's right; I think that my failure to mention sites like hers was an oversight. There are good people doing good work online. They are keeping alive a fine tradition of journalism. Berkeleyside is intensely local; even the links are to stories of largely parochial interest. 'But hey, if you live in Berkeley, it's great. That's the point of local journalism: to distribute information to people who need it. And Berkeleyside does have a lot of small ads, mostly for local businesses. It clearly has a revenue stream - but, as she said, no one has found the magic bullet yet, one that combines revenue with investigative journalism, what used to be called 'muckraking'." And that's the problem. People get into the media business to make money. I hope that doesn't come as a shock. That's their primary motivation. They know that with excellent market penetration comes money, and with money comes power and perks.”
Well, no, not really. It seems that Jon has missed the old joke: How do you make a small fortune in the newspaper business? Start with a larger fortune, of course! 

In our lifetime, that could apply to almost every news enterprise in the country, all the way from big enterprises like Knight-Ridder, sustained for a long time by the profits of previous generations of the Knight and Ridder families from way back in the day when you could actually make money in media, down to “intensely local” publications like Berkeleyside.com featuring, yes, “stories of largely parochial interest”. 

The Berkeley Daily Planet, it’s true, was founded by three Stanford MBAs who expected to turn a profit. But they quickly bailed, replaced by owners (us) using profits from the dreaded technology sector who never did manage to break even, let alone make money—an expensive folly. But we never expected to make money. 

The three founders of Berkeleyside.com freely admit that they still aren’t drawing salaries, which means that they’ve been subsidizing at least 3 FTEs (foregoing the salaries they could be getting elsewhere for their own valuable work) out of their own pockets, a generous contribution to the local scene worth hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. In fact, a substantial portion of Bay Area journalism these days is underwritten by Frances Dinkelspiel’s family, more credit to them. 

The Center for Investigative Reporting, originally founded by an heir to the Eli Lilly fortune, merged with the Bay Citizen in 2013. Both non-profits have in recent years been supported by her cousin, the late financier and philanthropist Warren Hellman, and a lot of the San Francisco Chronicle’s front page these days carries the CIR byline, which means that the for-profit but not profitable Chron is being partially subsidized by non-profit (and non-union) reporting which depends on philanthropy for sustenance. 

(A similar investigative outfit, Pro Publica, originally was and perhaps still is funded by gifts from Berkeley’s Herb and Marion Sandler, who also made their money in finance.) 

Does this prove that “…no one has found the magic bullet yet, one that combines revenue with investigative journalism, what used to be called ‘muckraking.’ "? 

It’s more complicated than that. 

In my lexicon I distinguish three kinds of news reporting. The first is what used to be called just “reporting”. The reporter goes to an event, notes what happened, and tells the reader about it, without much analysis. Berkeleyside.com’s solitary paid reporter has been doing a good job of this, reporting on City Council meetings and such, “distributing information to people who need it.” 

“Investigative journalism” is somewhat different. Investigative journalists push beyond scenes which take place in public, mining records for data, asking questions of bystanders. It’s hard for local level publications to pay for much of that. 

Some profitable news outlets have from time to time done good investigative journalism, though few of those which still exist are now profitable. And even the best investigative journalism essentially reports what happened—but it’s often short on why

Muckraking OhMyGod investigative journalism looks for scandal without trying very hard to explain what went wrong and why. There’s a third descriptive term which I see on the back cover of the 1974 I.F. Stone Weekly Reader on my desk, a quote from the Christian Science Monitor’s description of Izzy Stone’s work: he did “interpretative journalism.” That’s something we haven’t heard much about lately. 

There’s a great though lengthy dissection of why investigative journalists are getting it wrong these days in the recent Texas Observer, Robert Jensen’s review of Dean Starkman’s The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism. 

Here are his opening paragraphs: 

“The fundamental failure of Dean Starkman’s The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism—and of mainstream journalism more generally—is hidden in plain sight in the title’s metaphor. Starkman explains why journalists often aren’t alert watchdogs, but he can’t see why limiting the profession to the role of a barking dog is, quite literally, a dead-end. “To explain that rather harsh judgment, allow me to mix metaphors: The best the journalistic watchdog can do these days is bark at people rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and meanwhile the train has left the station. “That’s not clear? Let me throw in a few clichés: Because Starkman is committed to “dance with the one that brung ya,” he can’t see the forest for the trees, and as a result he takes his eye off the prize(s). 

“Still not clear? Here’s some help decoding: The prizes we should be after are social justice and ecological sustainability in a meaningfully democratic society. The trees are the crimes and misdemeanors of various evil and/or incompetent executives and politicians. The forest is our vaunted corporate-capitalist system, the predatory essence of which makes those crimes—and worse—inevitable. The dance is the implicit bargain with powerful people and institutions struck by journalists, who agree not to point out that the whole system is morally indefensible, politically incoherent, and ecologically destructive. 

“Representative democracy yoked to a capitalist system driven by hyperconsumption is no longer sustainable (that’s the train that has left the station), and if we refuse to grapple with these realities the system is going to go down (that’s the Titanic).” 

He goes on for pages in this vein, a lot of words to read on line, but well worth the effort. 

A local example of missing the forest for the trees: the Center for Investigative Reporting’s recent series (picked up by the Chronicle and KQED) about the admittedly seedy condition of Richmond’s 50-year-old public housing units. Yes, the buildings are in bad shape, but how did they get that way? 

Hint: Think deficient HUD funding, not a low-level employee lining his pockets

How does this illustrate “a capitalist system driven by hyperconsumption”? 

  • Public housing is most often funded by financial instruments which function as tax breaks for the wealthy.
  • New construction is always profitable for the building industry, whether it’s needed or not.
  • Nobody important profits much from mundane maintenance, so nobody’s willing to pay for it, although
  • Repairing existing buildings is always more environmentally sustainable than constructing the greenest of LEED-type new ones, even the best of which are "ecologically destructive".
Richmond Councilmember Tom Butt summed up what’s actually going in Richmond in one of his feisty newsletters : 

“Despite growing evidence that lack of sufficient funding from HUD is the root cause of public housing deficiencies, the City Council continues to blame everyone else, including itself, for conditions at the Hacienda that require a $19 million capital infusion to bring the building up to acceptable standards. Not only that, but they are prepared to spend nearly a million dollars of general fund money to relocate tenants while giving HUD a complete pass if HUD doesn’t provide the money. HUD owns the public housing in Richmond and has a responsibility to provide adequate funding to maintain it, yet the City Council refuses to hold HUD accountable.”
What’s wrong in Richmond is not really ‘local’ or ‘parochial’. A quick look into problems with HUD-owned public housing in particular and affordable housing in general reveals comparable situations in Berkeley (and Oakland and Bay View and all over the country). In many ways interpreting what’s wrong with HUD is beyond the scope of news outlets like Berkeleyside.com or the Berkeley Daily Planet or the Contra Costa Times or even the San Francisco Chronicle channeling CIR. 

Tom Butt’s newsletter offers a complete catalogue of links to related stories in the local and regional media, which taken together with his critiques of them should be used as the syllabus for seminars in Interpretative Journalism which should be part of the curriculum of the U.C. J-School. But don’t hold your breath….the professor would have to “point out that the whole system is morally indefensible, politically incoherent, and ecologically destructive”, and that might annoy some of the Regents whose personal fortunes are derived from the building and finance industries and major donors to U.C. programs of all kinds. 

That dog won't hunt, to add to Jensen's rich mix of metaphors. As Jon Carroll said, “with money comes power and perks.” 

NOTE: Per request, a phrase has been added to this text to clarify that the three founder/proprietors of Berkeleyside.com are subsidizing their enterprise by foregoing salaries for themselves, not by subsidizing the site's other expenses, a matter about which I have no knowledge.