Friday, March 26, 2010

One tough week

It was a difficult week in Monterey County, with inexplicable tragedies.

The mystery of the woman who burned to death in a quiet Monterey neighborhood on Monday has been solved — partially, at least. Police say the 61-year-old woman apparently doused herself with isopropyl alcohol and lit a match. The woman was described as a "recluse" and it is unlikely that anyone will ever know what brought her to such a sad end.

And then, on Tuesday, a group of thugs sprayed bullets all over an East Salinas neighborhood, and a stray bullet killed a 6-year-old boy.

Tragic, senseless, outrageous . . . there are not enough adjectives to describe what happened to Azahel Cruz Alcantar. And there is not a place in the afterlife miserable enough to accommodate the wretches who continue to wage ugly violence in Salinas neighborhoods.

Azahel's death had a profound impact on his family and friends, but also on the police, rescue personnel and others who were forced by their profession to respond to the shooting. And that includes the Monterey County press corps; many of the reporters and the photographers who covered the shooting are distraught.

We offer our love and our prayers to Azahel's family.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Latest News on News

Calamity. Gloom. Doom. Despair.

That's pretty much what you read these days about the modern state of journalism. In true navel-gazing form, much of the gloom and doom is documented in the news media, by journalists who have proven to be more aggressive tracking the demise of its own industry than it did in watchdog pursuit of the more complex and ultimately more devastating economic debacles of the past several years.

Most of the headlines have centered on the declines in print media. But a report released this week by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism points out that television and radio are also in a free fall, with revenues down 22 percent in 2009. Newspapers saw revenue decline by 26 percent last year, which brings the total loss over the last three years to 43 percent, according to the report.

If you've paid any attention at all, you are likely aware that reductions in news resources have naturally followed the revenue losses. Fewer reporters, photographers, editors and support staff results in a diminished ability to chase stories that deserve to be told. According to the Pew report, the newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity since 2000, or 30 percent.

The Monterey County media are not immune to the issues, but the bleeding in this region is not as severe as it is in many of the larger markets. We are all fortunate to be providing uniquely local news to a readership and to a viewing audience that is engaged in the community and interested in what is happening in their cities. Most of us have managed to hang tight, without the outrageous wholesale reductions we read about at newspapers and television stations in urban areas. The economy here is as bad as it is elsewhere and local media outlets are certainly not what they once were, but at least we're not losing readers and viewers and revenue at the same pace, on the same scale.

Among the more telling elements in the Pew study this year was a content analysis of newspapers. It showed that smaller newspapers devoted much more of its print news hole to covering the economy last year than their larger counterparts — and they were "able to cover the overarching impact of the recession at the grassroots level." Smaller newspapers also focused more attention on health and medicine storylines than did larger newspapers, according to the study.

Also during 2009, Michael Jackson's death accounted for only 3 percent of all newspapers' coverage in the month following his death, while the economy and Iran's presidential election dominated print media. Across the media spectrum, Jackson's death was ranked the ninth most important story of the year, but it did not rank at all among most newspapers' top 20 stories.

There are, of course, two ways of looking at that content analysis: Either newspapers are missing a bet by not bowing to the pressures of the lowest common denominator or else they still managed to provide readers with responsible journalism about issues that truly matter, despite the gloom of their own industry.

If only it was that easy! If only newspapers could take solace in the knowledge that they are sinking under the weight of the high ground.

Consider how the mainstream press stacks up against the so-called new media — how the mainstream seem to be providing what it believes citizens need to know, as opposed what citizens are actually interested in. For the first time in its annual report, Pew was able to analyze the differences between the popularity of mainstream media stories and the hot topics in the new media. It found that in the 47 weeks studied during 2009, blogs and the mainstream press shared the top story just 13 times. Of course, most of the hot blog entries were nothing more than opinionated analysis expressed about certain hot-button topics.

More telling, perhaps, is the differences between the mainstream and Twitter. On Twitter, the top story was the same as the mainstream press in just four of the 27 weeks studied. As the Pew study points out, the vast majority of Tweets were not opinionated or analytical at all. (There's not much opinion that can be packed into a message with only 140 characters.) Most of the Twitter posts were simply designed to alert people to something interesting, to pass along information, according to the Pew study. Of those Twitter feeds that contained news links, the vast majority tend to simply repeat the headline from a website.

With those comparisons, it appears that the mainstream media is providing news that does not reflect the interests of the majority of its potential readers.

In the end, it may not make much difference, even if Twitter-like sites only provide simple and populist facts so popular among Tweeters. Twitter recently exceeded the 50 million-Tweets-a-day mark, a five-fold increase in the past year. Newspapers boast a daily circulation of 30 million, or 40 million on Sundays (readership is at least twice that as newspapers are shared in homes or in the coffee house). And while newspapers' numbers are declining in both circulation and revenues, Twitter still hasn't figured out a way to make money, even with its rapid ascent.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Kevin Howe: 40 Years Later

We took time out in the newsroom last week to mark an astounding accomplishment: Kevin Howe's 40th anniversary with The Herald.

With all that has happened over the decades at this newspaper, to have survived for four decades is a testament to perseverance. Kevin is the lunch-box minimalist type, but he has also long been The Herald's go-to guy on a multitude of subjects, ranging from the military and veterans issues to guns 'n' horses to the survival of the California condor.

His stories about young Danny Holley about 20 years ago led to abundant changes at the old military installation at Fort Ord. Holley was a 13-year-old boy who committed suicide so he would not be a burden on his struggling military family, and Kevin's stories not only resulted in more military housing at Fort Ord, but it also inspired The Herald's own Operation Christmas Cheer.

Also over the years, Kevin was "embedded" with Fort Ord troops during various foreign incursions and occupations, covering their actions for The Herald.

Beyond all that, Kevin is one of those characters who makes working in a newsroom so, well, surreal.

Preparing for Kevin's celebration, I had fun digging through old copies of The Herald, comparing and contrasting the old "Monterey Peninsula Herald" with today's editions. I was able to find Kevin's first byline at The Herald, which turned out to be a feature story about a local "Up With People!" appearance.

Among the interesting differences between the old and the new (besides the decidedly gray appearance of the 40-year-old Herald), was the near-total lack of local stories on the front page of the paper. I know that when I arrived here "only" 25 years ago, it was stressed upon me that very few events that take place on the Monterey Peninsula could rival the importance of national and international issues, and that The Herald's front page should reflect that understanding.

Of course, that was all before cellphones, the internet, CNN and news radio provided national and international headlines 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Order in the court

Editors from the various competing news outlets in Monterey County don't generally hang out much together. We're cordial when we happen to bump into one another, and we might swap stories about our latest headaches. Or tell small lies about how well we're all doing.

But several of us had occasion recently to come together to consider strategies against a potential threat to our ability to gather news on behalf of our readers and viewers. The situation played out in the Monterey County courts last week when the defense attorney representing Jesse John Crow convinced a judge to rule, at a single court appearance, that no image of Crow be broadcast or published that shows him in his jail-issue orange-and-white striped jumpsuit. The attorney, Tom Worthington, believes that Crow would not be able to get a fair trial if jurors have seen Crow dressed like an inmate.

Crow is being held in Monterey County Jail on a homicide charge in connection to the death of his young wife, Ryann.

The local media professionals were alarmed by the ruling, but we are also aware that, according to the rules of the court, a judge has discretion in such matters. We were worried that the order would carry through to all of Crow's court appearances, so three of us, including Lawton Dodd of KSBW and Anjanette Delgado of the Californian, showed up in court a few days later to voice our concerns.

While we knew that a judge indeed has discretion in limiting photographic depictions within a courtroom, we also suspected that Worthington might throw new kinks into the works.

Just days earlier, Worthington had asked a Santa Cruz County judge to prohibit media from using photographs and images of suspects he represents in another homicide case, photographs that had already been obtained during previous appearances of the suspects in court. The Herald's sister paper in Santa Cruz, The Sentinel, challenged that motion, and a Santa Cruz judge rightfully ruled that Worthington was seeking an unconstitutional prior restraint on the press.

Fortunately, the issue also played out favorably in Monterey County Court. The issue of depicting Crow in his jail garb became moot when Judge Russell Scott ruled that the defendant could dress in "civilian" clothing during all of his court appearances, so that all future images of Crow in court will depict him in a sports coat. Also, Worthington did not ask the judge to bar the publication or airing of images of Crow obtained legally by the media, including the defendant's booking mug shot or the now-familiar video captured by KSBW showing Crow throwing stuff into a dumpster at his house before he was arrested.