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Posts Tagged ‘Chronicle’



Press Clips: Merc Up, Chron Down, Politicker WTF?

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

kenmclaughlinHats off: Mega-kudos to Ken McLaughlin of the San Jose Mercury News for a smart and solid Sunday package on what California’s wannabe governors say they’d do about the state’s budget meltdown.

Using what Calbuzz likes to call “actual  reporting,” he contacted all five contenders to ask the same set of seven fundamental questions about state finances, ranging from their stance on the two-thirds vote requirement to how they would bridge the partisan gap on fiscal matters.

His report, along with the complete responses he received from four of the campaigns can be found here.

McLaughlin is what was once known as an actual newspaper reporter, who properly avoided eye-rolling at some of the answers he got — leaving the chore of providing truthy context to three of California’s most popular quote machines –- Larry Gerston, Barbara O’Connor and Dan Schnur. But even this trio of go-to chrome domes seemed restrained in their commentary by the limits of the formal newspaper form.

Calbuzz, not so much. Here’s a report card on how the candidates did, from worst to first.

EGBrown3Jerry Brown: F General Jerry figures that everybody already knows who he is, so why should a little thing like California going down the toilet make him bother to break a sweat and respond to a serious newspaper’s serious questions about the crisis? Here’s why: because when the Merc reported seven different times that Brown “declined to answer the questionnaire (saying) that he was on vacation and not yet a declared candidate” it made him look like a jerk.

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Meg Whitman: D You’d think with all the money Her Megness is forking out to her army of media retainers, they’d come up with something better than the generic campaign mush they put in her mouth. Example: “Political posturing would be off the table,” she said in answer to how she would ease partisan dysfunction. Really? Off the table? Whoooaa, that’s some tough stuff there, eMeg. Which goes to our oft-expressed concern about her candidacy to date: it’s one big pile of platitudes without a glimmer of political experience, savvy or instinct within it.

GavinNewsomGavin Newsom: C No surprise, Prince Gavin’s answer to everything is, “Come to San Francisco, where I’ve paved the streets with gold.” To his credit, Newsom comes out foursquare in favor of dumping the two-thirds budget vote requirement, but most of his answers are tiresome retreads of his self-congratulatory self-appraisal of his own record. Until the Chronicle favors us with some perspective on his claims (see next item) California voters are on their own to figure out how much of it’s true.

Steve Poizner: B Poizner mostly offered warmed-over campaign rhetori126719_poizner_GMK_c but two things stand out: 1) unlike Meg, he doesn’t lay the solid waste on with a trowel, and also seems to understand he isn’t getting paid by the word; 2) alone among the candidates, he talks specifically about ways and means to modernize and apply basic management techniques to government that don’t begin and end with Attila the Meg-style reflexive cutting and wholesale firings.

tomcampbell1Tom Campbell: A Dudley Do-Right does it again, emerging as the best-informed, most thoughtful and most candid one of the bunch. Campbell’s economics intelligence is buttressed by his sweat-the-details understanding of the fine strokes of public finance. A former Director of Finance, he has proposed a serious and balanced approach to addressing the deficit in both the long and short term, and his answers to the Merc put the rest of the field to shame.

Chronicle Watch II: Still MIA - Prince Gavin sent out a release the other day announcing a major campaign swing through Southern California and making the case for himself this way:

“Mayor Newsom announced his candidacy for governor earlier this year by releasing an online video on GavinNewsom.com that ties his record of success as mayor to his vision for California’s future.

“’In San Francisco, we’ve not accepted excuses. We’ve protected people’s civil rights, created a universal health care program, protected teachers from layoffs and enacted a local stimulus plan that will put people back to work and save jobs. And we’ve done it while balancing our budgets and seeing our bond ratings go up.”

No knock on Newsom for peddling this self-aggrandizing narrative wheeze – it’s what political candidates do. But, as Colombo would say, there’s just one thing that keeps botherin’ us: Are Newsom’s claims true? If so, to what extent? If not, where’s the evidence to disprove them?

Unfortunately the one and only institution in a position to easily address the issue is the Chronicle, Newsom’s hometown daily paper, which has spent years covering the guy, but doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to answer the key political questions anytime soon.

By giving Newsom a pass now, effectively granting him a big ole’ summer fling in the Free Spin Zone, Chron editors are missing an opportunity for important public service journalism, booting a chance to show they’re still a vital statewide voice and reinforcing the notion that newspapers are too clunky and slow to help define swiftly emerging narratives of a crucial, nationally-watched campaign.

When Calbuzz delivered a gentle love tap last week, chiding the paper for ducking its responsibility to examine their own mayor’s extravagant claims, the High Sheriffs of their newsroom got into High Dudgeon about our post, putting on frightful frowns and hurling personal insults at Calbuzz: “So much for journalistic integrity,” one senior editor sniffed at the buzz boys, in an email distributed to staff.

Sticks and stones backatcha, chief, but the plain fact is, this ain’t about integrity – it’s about Journalism 101.

The job of calling balls and strikes on a hometown candidate who’s seeking to spring up the political ladder comes with the territory for what you like to call your major metropolitan newspapers. And for years, under the leadership of recently departed politics editor Jim Brewer, the Chron often performed that duty better than most.

Back in 1990, when another S.F. mayor was running for governor, the paper helped pioneer the “truth box,” that now-routine, campaign watch graphic that helps voters measure the veracity of a candidate’s TV ads. Over the years, they’ve regularly published other, useful fact-checking features following debates, major speeches or campaign appearances by candidates and officeholders at every level.

Because this Internets thing has changed everything about campaigning – most notably the pace and speed with which claims, counterclaims and charges fly around – that kind of reporting is more than important than ever.

So why in 2009, three months after the city’s mayor formally announced his bid to be California’s next chief executive, trumpeting his record in San Francisco as evidence of his worthiness, has the Chronicle not published a single piece that simply lines up Newsom’s campaign trail statements about an issue and submits them to the truth test?

At a time when the state is in crisis, teetering on the edge of financial failure, and their guy is telling everyone he meets that he can fix it, inquiring minds want to know.

Earth to Chris Reed: Calbuzz lists Politicker on our blogroll because we enjoy the work and work ethic of Chris Reed, who proclaims his site “America’s Finest Blog” and juices the predictable conservative cant of his frequent rants with a lively, passionate, hair-on-fire style that’s fun to read and often informative.

And while we usually subscribe to the just-spell-the-name-right school of publicity (that’s two z’s in buzz, mister), we must confess we’re bemused, if not bewildered, by his out-of-right-field attack on our post about a recent PPIC report that undercuts the Republican claim that high taxes are driving rich people out of California. Reed’s rant, which purports to show how the PPIC is “disputing” our report is based on a willful, agenda-driven misreading of what we said and his pique at our failure to confirm his own view of the world:

“(When) I read the actual short report…I didn’t see what I expected,” he writes, in accusing Calbuzz of journalistic crimes and misdemeanors. Huh? And this would be our problem, why?

To be safe, we put in our own call to PPIC to ask if we’d gotten something wrong, and to confirm the obvious: that Politicker was simply trying to conjure up a controversy to drive traffic: “We don’t see any dispute about the results of our research as published” in Calbuzz, a spokeswoman told us. “Interpretation and headline writing are what you do, and we aren’t going to get in the middle of that. But we’re delighted to see our work scrutinized and discussed.” Us too!

Must read of the week: If you can read only one California budget story this week (and why would you want to read more?) make it Dan Walters’ Tuesday column,  which strips the fiscal meltdown down to its essence in 492 plain and simple words. The big fella’ may have lost a few feet off the fastball, but he can still bring it when he needs to.

We’re Just Sayin’: In Newspaper Death Spiral, Save the Reporting

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

By Phil Trounstine and Jerry Roberts

Here’s some free financial advice for panicked newspaper owners: If you want to save some real money, stop publishing the news altogether.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the direction that many papers are headed. With papers across the nation contracting, collapsing and folding, and reporters and editors seeking safer ground – the bad news in the industry is going to get worse before it gets even worse.

Simply put, American newspapers are in a death spiral.

A handful of national papers like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today will hang on, and so probably will some in the category of small-bore, small-impact community papers. But the once-powerful, once profitable big metro papers – the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News come to mind – which combined both the resources and the motivation to serve as public interest watchdogs on school boards, city halls, cop shops, courts, their state legislators and members of congress, all are in big-time decline.

Metros, scandalously slow off the mark in adapting to new technologies, reacted to economic decline by slashing the amount and quality of local news coverage that was the central value proposition in selling the paper to readers. Faced with plummeting circulation, owners and publishers ensured the downward trend would gain momentum, by cutting back on the very product readers were looking for: journalism .

The result: readers found their local newspaper was not something they had to have in their daily lives. So circulation declined even further, leading newspapers to cut back more, leading to further decline in readership and further cutbacks. That’s the death spiral.

BROKEN BUSINESS MODEL: THE DECLINE OF CLASSIFIEDS

The internet upended the traditional model for newspapers – aggregating a mass audience and selling it to advertisers – by fragmenting the very notion of a mass audience. Instead of one-stop shopping for news, weather, sports and comics in the daily paper, consumers now had an almost infinite number of new sources of specialized and in-depth information about specific subjects of interest to them – along with the power to engage in a conversation with those producing that information.

Dumping most of their resources into hanging on by their fingernails to their old franchises, publishers and owners failed to invest adequately – in bodies or in dollars – in exploring in a big enough way how they could use the new technology to build on their greatest strengths: the expertise and intelligence of their reporting staffs.

Suddenly then, the revenue to cover their vast overhead nut started disappearing. Nowhere was this more dramatic, or more damaging, than in the rapid loss of classified advertising.

Yes, once upon a time, BCL (Before Craig’s List), newspapers sold classified advertising. It was like printing money. Every line was a source of revenue. And significantly, classified advertisers really didn’t care how big the home delivery circulation of the paper was because people looking for a job, home, car or repairman bought the paper because they needed the classifieds.

Today, people looking for any of these things – especially jobs – don’t bother with the newspaper. They go online, usually to a site that has no connection to their local newspaper.

When newspapers could no longer rake in cash from classifieds, they became more heavily dependent on display advertising. And display advertisers – from big national chains like Target to local restaurants and shops – do care about the size of circulation. They might pay $10,000 to place an ad in a large circulation newspaper but only $2,000 to place that ad in a paper with smaller circulation. It’s all about paying for eyeballs.

In order to survive, newspapers needed to focus more sharply on their primary business – local news. People interested in what was happening in Uzbekistan didn’t need the L.A. Times to tell them about it – they could go online and find all and more of the information they sought. What people couldn’t find was what was going on in South Central or West Hollywood. That’s not on the Internet, except when it’s aggregated by sites that pick up the work paid for by local newspapers.

But when classifieds dried up, newspaper managers responded by cutting the one thing crucial to saving their business – those who produced the local news that readers could find nowhere else. Less compelling content (and the rise of the Internet and other channels of information) led to declining circulation, which made newspapers less attractive to other advertisers. Stockholders and owners long used to annual profit margins of 20% saw their dividends shrinking so they demanded further cost savings. And the death spiral deepened.

For some papers — like the San Jose Mercury News, for example — where the business model depended on classified advertising for more than half its revenue — the evaporation of classifieds was a devastating blow to the bottom line. But instead of making itself indispensable to readers by increasing resources for local news, the publisher cut the newsroom budget even further. (See “death spiral” above)
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WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

There are only two ways to stop the spiral. And at this point, it’s not clear either will work.

– Newspapers can invest more resources, not less, in local reporting, leaving every national, international news and sports story to the national papers and wire services. They have to concentrate all of their force and fire power on their own communities, making themselves indispensable to local residents. People need to feel that they have to take the local paper to know what’s going on in their hometown. It’s the only way to maintain and grow circulation.
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– Or, a business like Google or Yahoo, which is expert at online advertising – including personalization at the individual user level – can begin to pay reporters in communities to produce content. We’re talking about covering city councils and school boards, writing about local development and utilities, local sports and arts, etc. This might kill local newspapers, but it might save local reporting.

Why can’t local papers themselves do this? Maybe they can – and the Hearst Corp. is trying in Seattle, where they’ve shuttered the venerable Post-Intelligencer but kept a small staff of local reporters on hand to try to do its job online. Freed from the costs of paper, ink, presses, mail rooms, bundlers, delivery trucks, pressmen, racks and real estate, maybe they can find an online business model that works. But it’s clear that news operations that have to carry all those legacy costs can’t make enough on the Internet to sustain themselves.

Why should we care? Because city councils, school boards, water and sewage boards, police departments and more will have no one looking over their shoulder, rummaging through their waste bins, blowing the whistle on bad behavior or commending admirable work. Because democracy works only when there is an informed citizenry. Because corruption loves a vacuum. Because when you turn on the light switch, the cockroaches run for cover. Because we cannot afford to leave politics and policy in the hands of politicians and policy-makers.