Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The News Business

I grew up in a small town. It is part of the greater San Francisco/San Jose metropolitan mega-city, but it had and still has an identity – a charm uniquely its own. Most (but not all) of the cities and towns between San Jose and San Francisco can make this claim even though one would be hard pressed to define the end of one municipality and the beginning of the next. Like the Los Angeles basin, all of these different governmental units have physically grown together, but still maintain some kind of identity all their own.

Some of that distinctiveness is passed down through tradition, some by way of the architecture, history, family legacy, etc. These small towns often are characterized by a city center or a “downtown” that is usually rich in cultural history. Perhaps there are annual events such as a Forth of July pick-nick, the local high school home coming parade or the Christmas Tree lighting ceremony that celebrate municipal unity. In the small town I grew up in and others in which I have resided since, these and other similar events provided the glue that bonded the neighbors and neighborhoods alike.

It is impractical as well as unrealistic for the local “major news outlet” to cover such events; time and space do not permit. The San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle are not in the business of covering the minutia that occurs in every small town in its coverage area. These newspapers should leave this type of news reporting to the appropriate stewards – the local weekly newspaper. They do more than just cover the newsworthy events that are important to the locals; they help to promote the civic aura that helps to define a town’s character.

The small town weekly will only report on statewide, national and world events as they apply to the town it represents. For instance, if a local kid is injured or killed in Iraq, the small town paper gives a name, a face and a family to what would otherwise be nothing more than a number worthy of a sentence at the most in the major metropolitan newspaper. The small town paper reports the local school’s honor rolls, noteworthy achievements of the town’s residents and advertises local businesses. The employees of these papers often wear many hats and are driven as much by passion as they are by pay. Indeed, often these efforts are of a voluntary nature.

When I was a kid, few “jobs” were available to those under the age of 13 or 14. Those that were consisted of baby-sitting, mowing lawns, dog-walking and house-sitting. These jobs were nice for earning some pocket change, but to earn any “real” money, there was one other option: Paperboy. When I was a kid, these jobs were highly coveted and did not see much turnover. Typically, a kind of retirement occurred at around the age of 15 when a work permit and a regular, part-time, minimum wage job flipping burgers at a fast food restaurant or pumping gas at a gas station (before self-serve), etc. became the preferred form of employment.

Every Wednesday afternoon, my papers were delivered in my driveway and after school I would start to fold, band and bag them. It took two trips to complete my route and for my efforts I earned what seemed like a considerable amount of money. I don’t remember how long I did that gig, but even way back then, the local paper in my town and countless others were dying a slow death. It was not long before it folded up all together. I was able to get a route for a daily paper in the somewhat larger nearby town of Palo Alto. It published six days per week (not on Sunday) and was the “main” newspaper at a time when the San Jose and the San Francisco dailies (there were two in SF at the time) did not pay much attention to the mid-peninsula.

I was able to acquire the route next to the one my street was on. Within a few months my “home” route opened up and I was handling two routes totaling well over 100 newspapers, six days per week. It paid pretty well and kept me busy every day after school. Sometime during my tenure, the San Jose Mercury started to offer daily delivery up and down the peninsula (the San Francisco Chronicle already did in some areas). Those poor unfortunate paperboys had to be up at or before the crack of dawn to deliver their papers – and deliver a huge Sunday paper. I don’t know if any saw this “big city” invasion into suburbia as a harbinger of things to come, but it was.

While delivering the Palo Alto Times… actually while folding them for delivery, I started to read it. I never really bothered to read it or any other paper before, but the Times almost immediately captured my attention. In fact, many times I got so engrossed that my customers would complain about late papers. It was a passion that I hold to this day. Although my hands don’t get nearly so black from newsprint as they did in those days, holding the paper in my hands while reading it lends more than just familiarity and nostalgia – it breeds a sort of authenticity. It has a character that I have so far not been able to capture from computer generated on-line news.

Unfortunately, the Times’ days were numbered too. The Times and its sister paper, the Redwood City Tribune, were purchased by the corporate parent of the Chicago Tribune, the Tribune Company and merged into one paper – the Peninsula Times-Tribune. It was all downhill from there. The purchase and merger happened towards the end of my career there and the paper managed to hold on for a few more years. However, when the Tribune Company tried to sell off the paper and could not find a buyer, it simply shut the paper down. The paper, with its 100-year history has been silent ever since.

Although many of these small local papers have been pushed into oblivion by the corporate giants; and many more have had to make major adjustments just to stay afloat, there is a resurgence of the local news provider that can’t be ignored. In my own hometown and in Palo Alto, new publications have risen from the ashes of their deceased predecessors. They provide local coverage of local events and advertise local business. Additionally, it would appear that in many cases, local control has been maintained – they are free of corporate cost cutting and business planning from executives 2000 miles away. They are once again in the news business, not the business of news.


mckay said...

i miss those sunday mornings when i had all the time in the world to sit in a sunny corner and read the paper. haven't done that in years.

Michael K. Althouse said...

mck ~

I love the smell of a brand new newspaper and... I have to read it first. Not the whole thing - just the front section, the metro section, sometimes the business section, and on Sundays the forum section. I could care less about the sports section and the rest. I'm just funny that way. After I'm done or after noon, I don't care anymore.


Anonymous said...

I don't like the feel of newspaper but I do look forward to reading the front page, the metro section and that's it.

Good story again, Mike.

Ellen said...

I miss the small town newspaper we used to get when I lived in NH. It was fun to read about all the people you knew and of their achievements. It wasn't all about: if it bleeds, it leads... but more like who hit x-number of home runs in the baseball game, etc. Every once in awhile it's nice to hear good news.

Now, I read just the Sunday paper, after I carefully dissect it apart for my favorite stuff first. It's amazing how much junk is in there!

BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

A sad but appropriate distinction.

I try to read the paper on Sundays, and find that with my work schedule now, it becomes somewhat laborious to make the time and effort to do so.

Have a good weekend.

Saur♥Kraut said...

You know, it's really pretty sad when you think about how much we're missing now. Michelle's hubby and I were just talking today about how OUR sons were in there, playing on PlayStation and XBox, when WE couldn't wait to get outdoors and do stuff. Of course, maybe we're just too nice! If they didn't like us, they'd probably be outdoors, too!

Snaggle Tooth said...

Our local MPG weekly just got merged with an even larger corporation, was serving more than the 30 towns, going for over 60 now.
They've changed the flagstaff, the columns, the format, n most annoying is reading want-ads for places near the Boston area.
But on the up-side, it no longer takes two weeks to finally findout what happened to block the roads on your way to work yesterday, n now they have color process photos. Coverage still seems pretty thin for the local flavor, tho, n editors are all from out of town...