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A media challenge

Competition breeds quality journalism, and SLO County needs it

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In January, the Hagadone-owned community weekly I started my newspaper career at closed. The Bigfork Eagle kept its website, which is no longer populated by a staff of two dedicated to the unincorporated tiny town at the edge of Flathead Lake in Montana—instead, it’s filled with stories written by the Daily Interlake, the “parent” paper in Kalispell, located 10 miles away from Bigfork. 

The articles are basically regurgitated content from a paper that serves a different audience, by reporters who don’t have the intimate knowledge of that small community of less than 5,000 people. By reporters who don’t only cover Bigfork. 

I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. 

In fact, as I was churning out stories about cherry orchards, the politics surrounding the local dump, and an invasive plant species choking out the lake, I was waiting for the inevitable. The Bigfork Eagle wasn’t generating enough revenue to keep itself alive. And in a world where money feeds the beast, and that beast is a company that owns multiple newspapers with headquarters in another state—a small community paper is never going to get the attention it deserves to continue surviving. 

The Bigfork Eagle’s pages kept shrinking and shrinking until it disappeared. I cried when I heard the news. Maybe I was attached, but it’s also indicative of the trend plaguing community newspapers, and I’m apprehensive that the same thing will happen on the Central Coast. 

I picked up Monday’s Tribune—the daily owned by the McClatchy Company and serving SLO County—and it was the same size The Bigfork Eagle used to be. A light bundle of pages squished together by one rubber band featuring two Associated Press stories and one Tribune story on its front page. 

The Santa Maria Times, the daily in Northern Santa Barbara County owned by Lee Enterprises (notorious for treating their employees like crap), seems to be hemorrhaging staffers at a rapid clip (whether they are laid off or quit) and getting smaller by the minute. The Lompoc Record, also a Lee pub., is reducing the number of times it prints per week. And all of the Lee-owned Central Coast papers seem to have the same content on their websites.

I get it. All those papers are supposed to be my (New Times and the Sun) competition, so why would it bug me if they disappear? 

Because journalism. 

Alternative weeklies like New Times are exactly that: an alternative to the daily. Without a quality daily with multiple eyes on the community, good journalists—and The Tribune has a few—and news that comes out every day, the purpose we serve changes and the number of people keeping an eye on things shrinks. 

Like it could do at the Los Angeles Times if Gannet takes its reputation for cost-cutting and financial efficiency and purchases the paper that recently won a Pulitzer Prize for its breaking news coverage of the San Bernardino terrorist attack. Generally speaking, cost-cutting measures result in smaller staff, less locally generated news content, and smaller papers—which could definitely result in crappy stories, less local ad revenue, fewer local readers, and a closed paper. Good-bye Pulitzer.

A market like San Luis Obispo County needs all the news agencies it can get. Multiple media organizations pushing each other to get on a story first, to tell it best, to find those stories that no one else can find, to befriend local sources who feed them juicy tidbits nobody else knows, to ferret out the truth in whatever form it may take. It’s like this weird brotherhood of competitive storytelling and secret admiration.

That sense of local competition is what can push a journalist to talk about the important things on the fringe—to write a story like the one Kaytlyn Leslie wrote in the April 23 issue of The Trib (“District 3 race gets ugly with online acrimony”). It wasn’t another boring election story: It got into the nitty gritty of how nasty the race is getting for that particular seat on the SLO County Board of Supervisors—basically a name-calling contest. Forget about the issues. 

I can guarantee you that the Associated Press will not be telling you that story. 

Like it or not, the media is basically the fourth pillar of democracy, and without that kind of coverage of local politics, without that scrutiny on all sides of a political race, how is the public going to figure out what’s really going on in their community, with their elected officials, with the people who want to become their elected officials? 

Regurgitated news doesn’t do that. 

Putting national stories on the front page doesn’t do that. 

And writing opinion pieces lamenting the fact that no other media outlet’s writing the stories your media outlet wants them to doesn’t do that either. I hesitate to even step one foot on this path I’m about to tread extremely lightly on, but here goes. I’m talking about an opinion piece written by Daniel Blackburn at CalCoastNews, “Media collusion cultivates corruption.” 

I don’t really want to get into the details, but I do want to say that each one of the media outlets in this community serves a purpose—and to buy into the punditry that dominates national news outlets, let’s just use Fox News as an example, doesn’t help further the journalistic cause. It buries it. It plays into those broad statements people make about the “media.” And to put those statements alongside the shrinking staff and pages that bring news to the Central Coast is like hammering another nail into what people assume is inevitable: the newspaper coffin.

As news outlets of record, our job isn’t to bring you one side, but all sides. Our job isn’t to make statements, personal attacks, or pass judgment. Our job is to bring you the most unbiased whole of a story we can—facts, documents, and attributed quotes included. Our job isn’t to make the story: The story makes us. If we don’t do that, then we shouldn’t be here.

And we need to be here. All of us: papers, websites, radio stations, and TV stations. We should challenge one another to be better than we are based on the stories we tell and the way in which we tell them. 

We are only as strong as our newsrooms and the community that supports us. I shudder to think what this place would be like without us.

Editor Camillia Lanham hopes for a future rich with stories and SLO County news organizations that can add Pulitzer Prize to their vocabulary. Send comments to clanham@newtimesslo.com, or write your own commentary or letter to the editor and send it to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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