Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Losing the News" Local Chapter: Puppies and Pop Warner

The man who owns the biggest press and the most ink in these parts used his column Sunday to review Alex Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “L0sing the News.” Derek Dunn-Rankin recapped Jones' 300-year history of the popular press and “its role in shaping the world’s longest running democracy.” Dunn-Rankin tells readers he learned from the book that the “iron core” of the newspaper’s job is not letters to the editor, sports or celebrity gossip: “ It is hard news that can only be generated by expensive reporting. It is news produced by time-consuming digging, fact gathering, and analysis. It is the news generated at the state legislature or the local sheriff’s department ...”

Old Word Wolf hopes Dunn-Rankin’s isn’t just arm-chair philosophizing but plans to use this new knowledge to set the tone for his own newspapers.

Long before Dunn-Rankin read Jones' book, the journalist's sense of purpose and ability to do that traditional job were long lost here in Arcadia and, apparently, in other Sun Coast Media zones, as well.

The day before the owner’s column ran, news editor Christy Arnold, lost it, big time. Her Saturday column became a self-defensive rant built on sarcasm and bad analogies before getting around to screaming at her readers. In five lines of capital letters (“GET A HOBBY. GET A DISTRACTION IN YOUR LIFE THAT MAKES YOU A LITTLE HAPPIER AND A LITTLE LESS NASTY TO OTHERS...”) she tells everyone to go away and stop bothering her about spelling errors, their personal opinion of the president, and the amount of a “bad news” they are forced to read.

Arnold’s reasoning is “we do the best we can.” Specific examples support her claim: “Want to announce your child’s 6th birthday? We’ll put it in the paper. ...Want to announce your wedding anniversary? We’ll let all your neighbors and loved ones know...” She goes on to list honor rolls, Pop Warner football, fundraisers and pet photos as exhibits D, E, F, and G in her we-do-it-all-for-you defense.

What she omits, however, is more interesting than either her display of bad temper or her feel-good examples. There’s no mention of covering city government, county commissioners, monitoring school district operations, keeping an eye on the public budgets – those little journalistic jobs that that help keep open government open. Old Word Wolf used to complain that biweekly school board news has been essentially rehashed agendas. As it turns out, those were the good old days. DeSoto readers don’t get even that anymore because a photo of pet goldfish (her example, not mine) is her priority. She’s doing the best she can.

Meanwhile, DeSoto readers are left in the dark about how “citizens’ boards” are chosen and when and where their meetings are held. How are background checks weighed when someone with a dubious life story is appointed by friends in high places to positions of power? How many husband-wife teams teach at the schools, staff government offices and make it difficult to impossible to take corrective steps when necessary? Where are the reports on all these “informal” meetings held at eateries and from pickup trucks, local commissioners leaning window-to-window ... to talk about what? Why does the school board vote unanimously, week in and week out with not one member initiating a public discussion about thousands of dollars of expenditures? Why do school board members say, at meetings, “we are not required to respond” when a man with a polite but potentially embarrassing question takes the podium? Christy Arnold's column tells readers that “doing the best we can” means “we’ve been intimidated by the powers that be so we're going to stick to Pop Warner and puppies.” We're doing the best that we can.

I hope Derek Dunn-Rankin plans to have a chat with Editor Arnold about what a newspaper’s job really is -- “Digging ... information .. that lets us better understand the world around us" is his choice quote. I hope he shares with her his vision about a paper that upholds traditional journalistic values: "accuracy, balance, holding government accountable and the separation of news and editorial viewpoint.”

And then I hope he has the same chat with Arcadia Editor Susan Hoffman.

And then I hope he will forgo his yacht-club membership for a year to put a real reporter – not a family friend or relative of the local hospital administrator – in charge of being democracy’s watchdog in our little town. We're doing the best we can -- but the "journalists" aren't helping much.


  1. They talk the talk, but never walk the walk.

    I canceled my Venice paper after they laid off the excellent police reporter, their photographer, their former smart city reporter was replaced with someone who can't even get quotes right.

    I was told by someone who has worked there for years that they kept all the low paying and reporters who admit to not caring and work for cheap.

  2. Once again, you have taken a column out of context to prove whatever point you are going for this week. Arnold's column was about rudeness, and how it seems that people seem ruder these days. She used the newspaper as an example (maybe because she works there and sees it first hand), but also pointed out cashiers and sports coaches as well. How about printing a direct paragraph from her column:
    "Let’s start appreciating that we all — from those at the grocery store to those wearing Bucs jerseys to those at your local paper — are trying to do our jobs while being inundated with negative remarks and unwarranted attacks from strangers."
    Maybe that strikes too close to what you actually do at this blog.
    Technology has allowed you to give a voice to your id, without being hampered by the contraint of things like manners or respect. How sad for your readers that you choose to only show them this one side of yourself, because the argument that you are really nice, just a little picky, wore thin a long time ago.

  3. Let's see: the issue is journalism that serves the community (or not) and the commenter's reply is a personal attack. I think you hit a nerve, Wolfie.

  4. Well, puppies and Pop Warner would be all fine and good if it were actually news. A 6-year-old's birthday? Also not news. A photo of someone's goldfish? Not news. (You might want to hire some real photogs back. Throw in some more real editors while you're at it.)

    One more tip for news folk that you should have learned in j-school -- the public doesn't really care if how you do your job or how tough it is. They just want you to do it. Thick skin is necessary in this field.

  5. You're right. It wasn't a good column ... it was juvenile and silly. I appreciate the support, Anon No. 2, but it was the worst column (actual column) I've written in years.
    Thanks for making me better.