BEING THERE MAKES FOR BETTER LOCAL COVERAGE
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, April 10, 2006 -- Looking over a stack of newspapers, one conclusion jumps out: the giant regional papers and the local papers are really two different species.
Our examples for today include the region-wide Los Angeles Times, the more local Daily Breeze, and two very local papers, the Random Lengths News and More San Pedro. It is true that they are all fashioned from newsprint and ink and all manage to find their way into street corner boxes, but the superficial similarities are overshadowed by significant differences.
The differences do require a certain amount of inspection to become entirely clear. Let's consider.
First, let's take a look at our regional behemoth: The Sunday edition of the Times is looking better lately. It's now set up a little cleaner, with the stories aligned in a more traditional format resulting in a better aesthetic.
The problem is that looking at the front page, it is hard to find anything that represents news.
It's more like a feature magazine printed on less expensive stock: "In Politics, Leaking Stories is a Fine Art," by Richard T. Cooper and Faye Fiore leads off at the top left. Leaking secrets is a big story this week, but this article is more analysis and historical essay. The story begins by talking about the leak of a Pentagon document back in 2003; it is only after the jump to page 26 that we read of anything more recent.
At the top right-side of the front page, we find, "Phone, Cable May Charge Dot-Coms That Want to Race Along the Internet," dealing with the threat that new internet fees could be charged on a discriminatory basis. It's not a bad article as such stories go, but again, it's not local news and it's barely even national news, just an old story with some new speculation about what might or might not happen. (Remember the story that AOL might charge bulk-email senders for special treatment?)
There is more: a story about the abortion controversy in South Dakota, the fact that California's state capitol (approximately 400 miles away) lowers its flags to half-mast in honor of our war dead, an article about the Rwanda war crimes tribunal, and an overblown account of the financial difficulties besetting a former baseball player.
As with the story about government leaks, the article on former Los Angeles Dodger Steve Garvey begins by recounting an anecdote from the year 2003 (did the Times editors forget to reset their calendar watches?). That Garvey has had problems is old news. He made headlines several years ago when it was revealed that Garvey, known as "Mr. Clean," had a child out of wedlock. Now we are to understand that he owes money. Fascinating.
The closest thing to a local news section is the eighteen page California section, and again we see a lot of feature articles rather than news. When I use the words "feature article" here, I mean that often, the story is trying to describe what is becoming common or normal rather than what is unusual or abnormal. Describing the latest teen fad is a feature article. Describing yesterday's murder is news. The latest scandal is news. Analyzing the history of scandals is a feature article.
The closest thing I could find to a hard news section was a column on page 4 called "In Brief" that yielded up about three column inches to tell of a police officer (and candidate for mayor of Long Beach, CA.), who was arrested for exposing himself near the L.A. Zoo, and an equally brief story about a shooting in San Francisco (like the state capitol, approximately 400 miles away).
In the Real Estate section we get stories about how agents now use text messaging, in the travel section we learn about hotels offering wireless internet access, and there is all kinds of advice on how and where to get the best deals, what to wear and where to eat. Feature articles.
And so it goes. This kilogram-monster of a paper has just about everything imaginable except what we imagine ought to be in a newspaper. Where are all the crimes and fires and indictments and city council meetings and commission findings, where are the legislative votes and typhoons and traffic jams caused by trucks turning over?
It's a bit curious, but these are the questions that came to mind after reading the Times. There was the nagging sensation that something was missing, and what turned out to be missing was the news.
To give you an example, the morning radio news wouldn't seem complete without some report of a "big rig" (ie: a truck pulling a 67,000 pound trailer) turning over or jamming three lanes. The daily death toll from gunfire continues, robberies happen, and the mayor and city council continue to spar. You know -- the news. It's what we used to expect in our major newspapers.
So how do the media in the next level in the hierarchy, the local newspapers, stack up compared to the Times?
The blunt answer: much better.
Our example for today is the Daily Breeze, published in neighboring Torrance, but it could have been the Long Beach Press-Telegram or another local daily from Pasadena or Glendale or downtown Los Angeles.
The Breeze runs its own feature articles on the front page, but at least they have some local interest. "No Safe Harbor For Smugglers," by Josh Grossberg, begins, "It's hours before dawn and a dozen men assemble on the docks of terminal Island. Wearing orange life jackets, they climb aboard a cutter bobbing in the water and slowly head out to sea. Once past the breakwater, the boat -- the 87-foot Halibut -- revs its engine and picks up speed until the outline of a large vessel begins to loom in the darkness." The article goes on to explore the mechanism by which the U.S. Coast Guard enforces port security. Considering all the controversy over the Dubai port deal, it's curious that the national press rarely considered the reality of what actually happens on the water, and here the Daily Breeze is doing the job.
The other front page story is about the politics of global warming, and how religious leaders and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are working to reduce emissions from motor vehicles. There are also stories about school rankings, the cost of gasoline and in a box, "Q: Did Bush do something illegal?" (It's about the Libby case, and they say he didn't.)
Turn the page, and there is local news: a brightly colored photo shows off a story about the "All Nations Pow Wow, a gathering of American Indians from the Western United States." There are stories on the elections in neighboring Lawndale, CA. There is the story about an ancestral farm next to the Torrance airport: "Ishibashi is back on the farm," tells us that "Tom Ishibashi and his son-in-law Michael Oto, will be nurturing and selling the tomatoes, squash, green beans, onions, beets, sweet pea flowers and raspberries that grow next to the airport's runways." You might accuse writer Ian Hanigan of being overly botanical, but you would then have to say the same about William Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Both are good reads.
There is news that catches the eye and the mind. Even in articles that are more feature story than breaking news, the effect is more compelling than what we see in the Times, perhaps because this news is truly local. It deals with places we live in, people we might chance to meet up with and issues that affect us directly. It is our news.
For the ultra-local papers, this is even more the case. The Breeze has a San Pedro weekly called More San Pedro. In addition, there is a long-running alternative newspaper called Random Lengths News that comes out every two weeks. A couple of years ago, I wrote about the startup of "More," as it is called around here, and wondered whether the two ultra-locals could both survive in competition for advertising dollars. Apparently they could, and they continue to cover people and organizations that most of us either know directly or could if we wanted.
In practice, they seem to co-survive by carving out different niches. "More" is now the place to go to find out what happened at the Harbor Commission meeting or what is on the agenda at the next neighborhood council meeting. "Random" is the place for assertive political rants (I mean this in a nice way).
And it's not that the Times couldn't do something similar if it wanted. Two hundred pages makes for a lot of room on Sunday, and there's certainly plenty of room in the weekday papers too. Perhaps it's just the way the Times sees itself.
It's hard for us outsiders to know the reasons for sure, but one thing we do know is that Times circulation has fallen in the past few years. Perhaps other readers have reacted in the same way as yours truly here. It's our own version of "Where's the meat?"
Finally, we come to an observation that may help to explain this difference between the giant regional papers and the local papers. Each has a different cultural mindset resulting in a different way of doing business, but the difference reveals itself in one particular way.
For the locals, in a word, it's people, as in having people on the scene pretty much all the time. Most everybody I know locally also knows Donna Littlejohn, the reporter who covers San Pedro for the Breeze. Many of us have met and spoken with Paul Clinton, who does much of the reporting for More San Pedro. Three people who write columns for "More" are people I know directly, and two of them serve on the local neighborhood council with me.
In each small market I have lived where there is a local paper, the publisher was active in local affairs and made himself known to the populace. The publisher of the Breeze attends local events, you can meet up with the publisher of Random Lengths in the local coffee shop, and the Long Beach newspaper holds public events on crime prevention. It was similar in Lafayette, Ind., where the Journal and Courier holds sway. Every such venue has a reporter who hangs around, attends city council meetings, goes to the Future Farmers of America or the Homeowners' Coalition events, and generally lets it be known that you can talk to him or her.
Out of this effort comes a lot of local news. People read these papers because they are interested in local news and local papers have learned to accommodate this interest.