A couple of months back, New Times Editor Camillia Lanham wrote a column delineating the importance of journalism at the local level. I want to second her thoughts and suggest a few topics that local journalists could pursue, but haven’t.
Most reporters have a list like this that sloshes around in their noggins. I’ve always carried a mental catalog of stories that I couldn’t get to. I started this current compilation during my nearly eight years at the San Luis Obispo Tribune, between 2005 and 2013.
The Trib would not go after these stories in depth for a variety of reasons I will get into.
The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area
No, not the dust, the death.
This is a Pulitzer waiting to be won. Not only are the dunes a death trap, but they are a showcase for political influence peddling at the state level and the stifling effect a money-making industry can have on local institutions, including and especially local government and the press.
They’re also a pretty decent example of pre-Trump Trump-ism at the local level, with some off-road enthusiasts intimidating opponents, trying to get them fired, confronting them at their homes.
The Dunes is a state campground south of Pismo Beach where folks can come and camp, and also ride off-road vehicles on the shifting sands. It is a family retreat for many from the Central Valley, which has led to its being called “the redneck Riviera.”
No doubt it is a warm and friendly venue for many families and even generations of families. But it is a dangerous place. Some 15 or 20 people have died there since the turn of the century and there are scores if not hundreds of injuries each year.
An investigative team could begin by looking at each of these injury reports; that has not been done. They should look at settlements that families of the injured and dead have agreed to, and talk to the survivors and families.
Because of the Sacramento connection, this would be a good one for Sacramento-based McClatchy Newspapers and the tiniest link in their chain, the San Luis Obispo Tribune.
But for that to happen, Sacramento would have to discern interest from the editors in SLO. That has not happened and is not going to happen.
It’s true that nine or 10 years ago I and two other Trib writers reported and wrote a series about the Dunes. But it was more of an explanatory piece than anything crusading. The mayhem was mentioned in passing, but the series assiduously avoided taking a stance, an aversion that is the very essence of the Trib’s editorial approach.
The editors’ timidity is one reason nothing forceful comes out of the Trib. But in this case there is also a question of money. The off-road industry is a cash cow. None of the community’s institutions—especially media and government—has the intestinal fortitude to question it.
Thus, in my series I was able to insert a piece about possible non-motorized uses of the Dunes. But it was buried, and there was no support from the editorial pages—a stark contrast to the way the Portland-based Oregonian handled its series about Oregon’s coastal dunes.
I know what you’re thinking: Well, the Oregonian has a much larger staff. That’s certainly true, but using a lack of staff as an excuse can be a cop out for editors who don’t want to rock the boat. Leadership matters.
Influence peddling in government
I have a particular interest in this at the Board of Supervisors level, since I covered that body for years. There’s no question that in many cases the people on the dais are not the ones calling the shots.
Local media could begin by using the Public Records Act to look at the supervisors’ appointment calendars, and take it from there. And that needn’t stop with the Board of Supes.
The private sector workplace
Oh, boy, is this a neglected story. Following the lead of the Los Angeles Times, which blew the lid off government corruption in the city of Bell, most news media outlets have looked hard at the public sector and possible abuses there.
Of course they should do this, and I was involved myself in reporting excesses at the county.
But what about the private sector workplace? Working conditions have been in decline for 35 years. You have to have lived through the deterioration to fully appreciate its magnitude.
Every Labor Day I watch to see if any media are going to at least do a token piece on this. Every year I am disappointed.
There’s a reason for that.
One of the workplaces that has suffered the biggest downgrade is the publishing industry. Do you really think any editor who intends to remain employed will launch an investigative series on low morale in private sector workplaces when his or her own newsroom is Exhibit A in for how bad things have gotten?
People clinging to the lower rung of the economic ladder
There’s not much interest in the local media about the people hereabouts who refill your coffee cups or mop the floors of the motels or pick the fruit and veggies. There are some dedicated and conscientious reporters at the Trib who manage to write the occasional story, but that’s about it.
There is no institutional editors’ interest in these folks, perhaps because they can’t afford a subscription to the local rag, or maybe it’s just because they don’t travel in the same circles as the editor.
There is, after all, an old newspaper saying: “News is what happens to an editor.”
Well, I could go on (always!), but these are some of my ideas. Why aren’t they pursued?
Lack of staff is certainly important, but an editor can do plenty even if there are only moths in his or her coin purse
An editor is important. An editor sets the tone and the direction. I’m not going to talk about New Times, in part because it’s a weekly and I’m speaking here largely about daily journalism. In addition, Lanham doesn’t need my advice; she has a vision and is working to carry it out. I’m writing for New Times, so obviously I am on board.
The Trib, on the other hand, has had the same editor since the late 1990s. In my view—others would and will disagree—the tone there is timid. Don’t rock the boat. After all, you don’t build longevity on the job by upsetting those who employ you.
There is one other local news outlet that I have to mention, and don’t worry, I’m not going into another rant, as I have in the past about CalCoastNews.
My strongest feeling about this online website is frustration, because there is such a crying need for a legitimate daily online news outlet here, one that will take the risks The Tribune won’t.
There is a strong tradition of alternative news organizations in this country: the San Francisco Bay Guardian comes to mind, but there are many others. They have used great reporting and editing to serve the public good.
CalCoastNews, which could be great, instead—and I say with this with sorrow—invades privacy by talking about teenagers who commit suicide and “outing” local people who may have signed on to the Ashley Madison dating website. They use their outlet to carry out personal vendettas against institutions and individuals who they feel have done them wrong. They threaten to sue people who criticize them.
This is not the behavior of reputable news outlets, alternative or otherwise. One of my pipe dreams is that the responsible news people who live hereabouts—and there is a cornucopia of them—will buy CalCoastNews and turn it into the great muckraking organ it could be.
Until then, or until the Trib grows some guts, we’ll just have to do the best we can with what we have.