Walking the Beat: Local News, Part 2

May 28th, 2010

Looks like you're stuck with me awhile longer. Got an email yesterday from the new Star-Advertiser informing me that this is one of the Advertiser blogs they'd like to continue running. I'm cool with that.

Before I return to my regular Career Changers topics, just wanted to share a few thoughts on how journalism has changed since I was a reporter back in the 70s. A big part of it is the physical aspects of the job. Prior to the advent of email and internet searches, reporters had two options: pick up the phone or interview people face-to-face. That's why they were assigned "beats" to cover.

Like cops, reporters were expected to know their territory -- not just who's who or the latest incident, but also the back streets and alleys where sometimes you'd find the real story that was hidden in the shadows. They were a part of the community they covered, and showed up at town meetings on a regular basis. Hometown news was just that: it was the stuff that mattered to you, even if it might seem manini in the big scope of things.

On the metropolitan and national level there was also that same sense of connection between reporters and their subject material. My college journalism adviser was Maurice Carroll ("Mickey" to his students and colleagues), a veteran political reporter for the NY Times. He worked out of the City Hall news bureau, where he shared office space with newsmen from other papers to be close to the action.

For better or worse, computers and the internet have changed the nature of journalism. I remember tapping out stories on a manual typewriter, then after Mickey went through them with a pen to cross out lines and make editing changes, I'd often have to cut up paragraphs and reorder them with Scotch tape. The physical process was more time consuming -- but it also gave you more time to think about what you wrote before it got printed.

During my senior year of college, Mickey invited me to have drinks with him at an old Irish tavern near City Hall where reporters and politicians hung out together. Perhaps, that was one reason there was more civility -- politics wasn't the blood sport it is now, and reporters weren't deliberately sniffing around for personal scandals to muck up the news. They treated each other as human beings, who could disagree over beers and share a laugh about it.

In recent years, I've been on the other side of the news because of my involvement with the public beach access issue, which became a hot topic when the gate went up on L'Orange Place in Kailua. What amazed me was how many reporters and TV news people I spoke to who hadn't been to any beach in a long time. They also didn't show much interest in coming out to Kailua to see what people were so upset about. To be fair though, they probably don't have much time to get out of the office, since reporters are being asked to cover more stories as part of their daily work load.

So when I heard about Pierre Omidyar's plans for a "new approach" to journalism called CivilBeat.com, I was hopeful it would be getting back to the roots of small town reporting: walking the beat. I thought maybe they'd hire writers with an intimate understanding of the people and places they were covering. Instead, they hired an editor from Denver, and some of the CB reporters had just moved here. Okay, I get the outsider's perspective thing... but is that what locals really want?

I also figured since Civil Beat would be free of the deadline constraints that daily newspapers and TV newscasts have, they could report on issues that have been getting scant public attention. You know -- the small town stuff we all have to deal with on a daily basis, but doesn't warrant coverage because it's not on fire, or doesn't involve a vehicle crashing or someone being killed.

So far, Civil Beat has been mostly focused on the same stories the dailies and TV news have been covering. Granted, they are looking for new angles, and I like the idea of not allowing "anonymous" commenters to flame each other on their site... but if you ask me, the reporters are being a tad TOO civil over there.

I think what we all want to see more of from our local news media is a willingness to ask tough questions of government leaders, and not shy away from challenging politicians -- or anyone -- when they say things that are untrue or blatant attempts at spin. When someone publicly contradicts themselves, why aren't they being called out on their conflicting statements or actions?

Anyhow, just wanted to get that off my chest. Next week, back to career related matters. That's if the new Star-Advertiser doesn't cancel my blog!

4 Responses to “Walking the Beat: Local News, Part 2”

  1. Michael:

    See, did I not say I didn't hear the Fat Lady Sing Yet?

    If you own a laptop, Life's a Beach. Get a chair, with canopy and type. Make the Beach your office. Just don't get sand in your puter.

    I would try to stay away from things titled Civil ?????
    Is that the meaning of Civilization to realize what is Civil? I never use BIG words since BIG words are just made of smaller words, I just have to type more.

  2. Rich Figel:

    Well, I'm not saying reporters should make the beach their home office. But the upside of technology is reporters and bloggers can now take their own photos and make videos using little Flip cameras, then upload them to websites in minutes.

    That's another thing Civil Beat should be doing. Sometimes a picture or short video is worth a thousand words and tells the story a lot better!

  3. Z:

    I'd say that the move away from small town reporting started when television news broadcasts came about. I grew up on a neighbor island, and we did have our local newspaper, but every time we turned on the 6 o'clock news, everything was Oahu, Oahu, Oahu, Oahu.

    With the advent of the internet, there is an opportunity for small town reporting to come back, but the difficult thing is to find enough reporters and generate enough good content to get consistent readership. Although that's probably a problem even for the big news outlets.

  4. Rich Figel:

    Z- When I moved here from the mainland in 1985, I was amused by how "local" the TV news was -- things like high school sports wouldn't get much mention on TV news in the NJ/NY area. Even yesterday on KITV one of the "news" stories was about a student being suspended for chalking a sidewalk! Slow news day, I suppose. Or is just a lack of weekend reporters due to budget cutbacks?

    Re small town reporting, examples of what the internet can offer are Ian Lind's blog and some of the outer island blogs in which they focus more on their areas -- I'd like to see a central site that brings together bloggers who post newsy items related to specific geographic locations and outer islands. Also, you could have short video blog posts like the one that Larry Geller did about the Chinatown rat problem, which eventually the newspapers and TV news stations wound up showing to a mass audience.

    There's no shortage of news to report. I can name stuff off the top of my head just in Kailua and Kaneohe that hasn't been covered, which involves millions of dollars of taxpayers' dollars that are largely unaccounted for. Example: why hasn't anyone followed up on the $8 million dollar settlement over the Kailua sewage plant about 10 years ago, which created the Kailua Bay Advisory Council and gave KBAC $3 million to supposedly improve our ocean water quality? What did they do with that money?

    Hint: hundreds of thousands of dollars went to an executive director who was living ON THE MAINLAND while she set up contracts for a $400,000 "demonstration garden" landscaping project next to Kawainui Marsh, right behind my house -- $200,000 of that came from a State Department of Health grant. Yep, the Dept. of Health was funding a garden project that NO ONE ASKED FOR!

    I tried telling both dailies and TV news about it, but apparently it was too "complex" for them to do a story on it so they chose to ignore it. But this is exactly the sort of thing that makes people skeptical about government and fuels Tea Party anger about wasted taxpayers' money. When I started looking into KBAC and the other State/City departments and agencies that deal with ocean and clean water matters, I saw a lot of overlap and redundancy -- why isn't anyone in the news media asking whether various departments can be consolidated and streamlined to make government more efficient?