Monday, December 01, 2008

Not-so-distant look back at competitive news coverage

Charlie Fern, an editor in the early '90s at the now-closed Vista Press, a daily newspaper in North San Diego County, reminded me recently in a Twitter comment of the strong competitiveness we had in the newsroom in those days. The 50-year-old Vista Press was in direct competition with the San Diego Union's North County edition. The Union (this was before it merged to become the San Diego Union-Tribune) was huge by comparison. Still, Charlene, who was managing editor -- and my boss -- of the Vista Press, an Andrews McMeel Universal-owned paper, recalled that we scooped the SD Union on a regular basis. Maybe it was because the reporters all had fire in their bellies to get it first. This last weekend, she started a Twitter conversation about her view of some print reporters and their current complacency. ""Do what you say and say it in color," Charlene said, "because it matters." The Vista Press, she wrote on Twitter (quite complimentary), "was at its best (when Cathy Scott, Russell Klika, Leslie Hueholt, etc., were there), proving a small paper could run circles around a metro. We had a great, competitive staff, for the most part, and a lot of competition. That drives excellence." She also reminded me of a breaking story I wrote, on deadline and calling it in from the scene, of a garbage truck worker who, while standing behind a truck with a full load, was buried alive underneath garbage. It took an army of law enforcement -- and even medium-security California state prisoners -- 12 hours to locate his body. I remained at the scene and Charlene held the presses until the story was done. It made the first edition in the morning, beating the other papers in the area. "Holding the presses was thrilling, even if I got in trouble for it," she said. While at the Vista Press, I also covered Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, went on training missions with Marines on base and out to sea, and to Somalia to cover Operation Restore Hope. Fellow reporters and photogs at that small paper mostly moved on to bigger and better journalism jobs: Klika, for one, became a combat photographer, with two tours of duty in Iraq, and is now a civilian combat photo instructor for the National Guard; Leslie moved on to the Tulsa World; Deniene Husted to the Los Angeles Times, I went to the Las Vegas Sun, and Charlene, well, she went to work at the White House (after first going to the Texas governor's mansion) as Laura Bush's personal speechwriter. Many others who came before us have moved upward and onward too. North San Diego County was a fertile training ground for us. We worked our tails off, learned to crunch on deadline and also felt the sense of accomplishment with the occasional scoop over our seemingly giant neighbor, the SD Union. It was David and Goliath, and occasionally David won. Photo, by Russell Klika, of Cathy gearing up to board a military helicopter at Camp Pendleton to cover an exercise over the Pacific Ocean.


Charlie Fern said...

I realized when I was at the Vista Press (after having worked at both the Galveston Daily News and the San Diego Union) that the small-to-mid-size market papers may have been the minor leagues from which the major metros drafted, but the talent at that smaller-circulation level was superb for the same reasons you listed in your blog, Cathy.

A lot of us were new to the newsroom, either fresh out of college or other careers, and we were as idealistic and inspired as we were well-drilled in the school of thought that reporters are observers who record and report facts (not opinions), who arduously checked those facts, cleared quotes, cited three sources, and quoted on both sides and opposing opinions of an issue. That's what I expected in the newsroom because that's what my professors and editors expected of me at the University of North Texas and thereafter. It wasn't always easy, but we achieved that.

I remember having conversations with you, Russell, Leslie and a few others in the newsroom about those times when you covered really tough the landfill death...about ethical issues like crossing the line and becoming part of the story. It was either you or Leslie who said you felt compelled to help dig through the trash to find the man who was buried alive, before it was too late, instead of standing around with the other reporters, watching it all unfold in front of you (and losing hope as the days rolled by). Didn't Russell tell us about a car crash he photographed, where he decided not to step in and help the victims, and how hard it was to make that decision?

Do you suppose journalists even have those sorts of conversations anymore...late at night in the newsrooms, before deadlines, during coffee breaks...over vending machine snacks and cups-o-soup? Do they even have real deadlines and coffee breaks anymore?

A friend of mine was a reporter in Anchorage, Alaska some years ago, and her then-husband (Ben Wear, who is now a columnist now the Austin American-Statesman) worked for a competing newspaper in the same town. She used to tell me stories about the rivalry between the town's two major metro papers, and the perhaps friendlier debates she and Ben had at home about who beat out whom on a particular story. Even then (in the mid-90s), she and I lamented the death of the two-newspaper town, because we knew that the end of competition meant the end of truly competitive reporting.

Seems like the 24-hour news cycle put a few more nails in that coffin, with talking heads starting more and more sentences with "I think" and "I feel"; taking liberties with fast and loose (and inaccurate) quotes; refusing to get off their butts and do some honest investigative reporting, deep digging and analytical writing on both sides of the issues.

Some also point to unions and guilds for lazy print reporting, but that's a topic for another expert in another blog.

I will tell you this, though: I am still shaking my head about a conversation I had a few months ago with a professor at St. Edward's University. She said she asked her students where they got their news every day, and none too few of them agreed that they got it from....The Daily Show and the Colbert Report.

Ain't it grand?

That's all the news that's fit to print tonight. Thanks for sharing.

Deniene Husted said...

Those were good times. I often wonder, given that there were so many disgruntled "oldtimers" back when I first entered journalism, what it must have been like in the 1960s, or even earlier.
I think we all lament what has happened to our industry and how it is impacting society. I used to say that strong newspapers reflected strong communities. Maybe the trick is to rethink communities as they relate to cyberspace. That said, can anyone tell me how to "Twitter?" I need to get on board. :-)

Charlie Fern said...

Hi, Deniene! Great to see you weigh in. And great point that "strong newspapers reflect strong communities"....speaking of that, I was happy to learn that the Austin American-Statesman got on board with the Twitter community before most other newspapers around the country. I met Robert Quigley from the Statesman at a conference (TPRA) on social networking and his presentation about how he got the Statesman to use Twitter was fantastic. He's @statesman on Twitter, by the way. Another presenter at the TPRA conference (October in Round Rock, Texas) was a social networking expert named Connie Reece. You can ask her about getting started with Twitter. @conniereece is her Twitter ID, and you can google her and find her contact information.

All that said, I wish the Statesman would stand and deliver some more real news. This town is loaded with intrigue, and rarely does it seem that anyone touches it .... more than just some surface reporting. And when was the last time we saw those old rules being enforced...about citing sources and the number of sources per article and both sides of an issue being covered? They need to take the time to really think about an issue and ask the right questions for their readers.

For example, on the local (TV) news today they reported that motorists would no longer be able to pay tolls with cash on one of our major toll roads (183). From now on, motorists can either use a TXTAG or they'll get a bill in the mail for the toll.

What the reporter/anchor failed to mention is that the mailed bill will be a higher price than what motorists would otherwise pay with cash at a tollbooth (a toll-road worker told me this the other day). So, in essence, for anyone who doesn't have a toll tag, their toll costs will increase. People want to know these things. Why didn't they stop to ask that question? It boggles the mind.

Maybe someone at the Statesman will dig around and find a story in there somewhere. The Statesman has a lot of great and clever, folksy writers, but it suffers a shortage of old-school (or at least energetic) journalists like we had back in the day at the VP. I'd like to think the quality of news in Austin would dramatically improve if the Statesman had some serious competition other than the entertainment/niche tabloid Chronicle (who would like to think they compete, but don't).

Maybe reaching out to the community through Twitter is a start. Time will tell...

Charlie Fern said...

Sorry folks, I meant PRSA, not TPRA. I lose track of my acronyms when the caffeine wears off.

Cathy Scott said...

Deniene and Charlene-- Russell just chimed in with a comment to me via e-mail. Great to hear from you guys. Deniene: To Twitter, just go there ( or charlie and check out how everybody does it. Sign up and plug in. Follow the people we're following, or who follow us. That's how I got started.

Here's Russell's comment:
"Hey Cathy, thanks for the plug on your blog. Been training for a mission in Afgan with a Special Forces unit. Klika and SF. ... Hope all is well."

Charlie Fern said...

Deniene and Cathy, also look at this piece on Twitter by Connie Reece:

Connie Reece said...

Charlie, thanks for sending me here via a link (and for directing people to my Twitter/Mumbai post).

Cathy and Deniene, please add me on Twitter ( and I'll follow you back.

My colleague Sheila Scarborough is in Ohio right now, teaching reporters from Cox Newspapers in several cities there how to write for the Web and how to use blogs to interact with their readers -- something traditional media has never had to do before. It's a strange new world for journalists.

Another good blog to read is "Old Media, New Tricks," by Robert Quigley of the Statesman and Dan Honigman of the Chicago Tribune. They talk about how traditional media is under economic pressure to adapt to new media. Good place to pose your questions about journalistic standards. (I agree that even though the medium is changing, the standards for reporting shouldn't.)