Haste makes shit.” That’s the sage advice SLO Chamber president Dave Garth offered one of the bosses here regarding last week’s Shredder column. Turns out those seagulls that I complained about inexplicably adorning the SLO City Chamber of Commerce logo, miles from the ocean, don’t. That was, ah, Pismo Beach’s chamber. SLO’s chamber only has a few squiggly lines on its logo. The squigglies and I regret the error.
So that’s another column that isn’t likely to win a Pulitzer Prize next year. They just announced the latest winners and the interesting thing isn’t so much that I was skunked again (I knew I wasn’t going to win right after the bathing suit portion of the contest); the interesting thing is that the newspapers that did win are some of those that have taken the biggest beatings from the economy.
There was, of course, the New York Times, which annually rents a wheel-barrel for the ceremony to haul away its share of the bounty. No real surprise. The Times, even with its revenue plummeting and bankruptcy possible, is still the best newspaper in America.
(The Pulitzer, as big a deal as it is, is actually not much of a prize. It only pays $10,000 not because they couldn’t afford more, but because they know if they paid any more the winners would quit their journalism jobs.)
Some of the other prize-winning papers were more interesting. A little paper won the big prize. The Las Vegas Sun, the former afternoon daily of the town that now operates roughly as an insert distributed in the dominant Review Journal, won the coveted public service award for a series exploring construction deaths along the Las Vegas Strip.
I heard an interview with the winner, Alexandra Berzon, in which she said she was freer to focus on investigative and in-depth stories because her paper no longer had the crushing obligation of doing the daily crime and government stories.
For anybody who has ever worked at a newspaper, that statement settles in pretty deep. People who don’t work in the news business might imagine a life where reporters spend their days following their hunches, digging further and further until they score a blockbuster scoop. There are probably fewer than 100 reporters in America with that luxury. For the rest, life is more like working next to a coal furnace that must be constantly fed and stoked. You’re told to go ahead and go for the great stories as much as you want, so long as you feed that furnace first, and constantly, with the little stuff.
Stories have to be produced for every issue, whether they’re the definitive word or not. Compromises are constant. Feed that furnace.
Another winner, in the local reporting category, was the East Valley Tribune, a suburban Phoenix newspaper that recently laid off reporters as it switched to a free format. One of the guys laid off worked on the series that won them their Pulitzer.
In other words, they’ve gutted the vehicle that won them the big prize. The at-home readers of the Detroit Free Press, meanwhile, had to wait several days to receive the news that the struggling paper in their struggling town had won. Their journal reported on a sex scandal that brought down the mayor. The paper has since been reduced to being delivered three days a week to save money.
What is the lesson to be learned? Maybe it’s that you pay a steep price for prize-worthy reporting. Or maybe it’s that newspapers have to decide whether they’re primarily going to focus on the news that is packaged up and handed to them in press releases and government meetings or if they’re going to focus on enterprise reporting. In other words, are they going to feed the ever-hungry furnace, or try to do something that will really matter? Too often, they can’t do both.
This year’s prizes may help make the argument that the investigative, public affairs journalism that really matters doesn’t necessarily have to sit within the confines of the coal-fired furnaces that demand daily cops, court, and meeting news.
Weeklies have long partially filled that niche, but what about the not-for-profit online news sites that are sprouting from the devastation of the business? There are such sites as the Voices of San Diego that have a small team of reporters routinely breaking stories over the big daily. Many laid-off reporters, including the one who helped the Phoenix paper win the Pulitzer, are hoping to find new lives in such new models.
Better to take your time, do it right, is the argument those sites are making. As an angry man once said: Haste makes shit.
• Let’s give a 21-flush salute to the SLO City Council, which decided to go ahead with their plans to build two brick shithouses next to the dog park for a cost of about $500,000. There has to be a cheaper way.
• The Atascadero City Council, meanwhile, is talking about making its meetings less accessible to the public by cutting online broadcasts. Please recall that this is the council where, when nobody records the meetings, the members tend to threaten each other with physical violence. For everybody’s safety, please continue to broadcast.
• You all don’t deserve a new contest but I’m going to give you one anyway. Tune in next week for all the details and fabulous prizes.
Shredder can be reached at shredder @newtimesslo.com.