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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Are "Free Papers" Disliked Because They are "Anti-Government?" Or For Asking the Wrong Questions?

Earlier today, I was reading a piece on free newspapers at GradetheNews.org, an oline project associated with the journalism programs at San Jose State University and Stanford University, which critiques San Francisco Bay area media.

The article caught my eye because I regularly hear traditional MSMers expressing fear and loathing for these publications, and because I have a developing theory that such publications may well prove to be a kind of stop-gap between the old era of dead tree newspapers and the New Media era of online journalism.

The article, which bore the byline of Michael Stoll, laid out the usual criticisms one hears within and without the journalism profession about free papers - they lack substance, they pay lousy wages to terribly overworked reporters and thus have high staff turnover rates, they aren't always accurate and they tend to publish a lot of fluff.

Three publications were the focus of the article's analysis - the San Mateo Daily Journal, the San Mateo Daily News and the San Francicso Examiner, which is owned by the same people who publish the Washington Examiner here in the nation's capitol.

Although most of the criticisms were familiar and in many respects understandable, I found myself thinking the author was indulging in a bit of overkill as I continued reading towards the end. Then I came upon a section subheaded: "Anti-Government Reporting?"

"A number of the people in local government described the Daily News' coverage, not just its editorial commentary, as 'libertarian,' 'anti-tax' and 'anti-government.' None of the 41 Daily News stories we reviewed showed an obvious political slant. But critics said it is most apparent in subtle use of adjectives that belittle most government action.

"Said former Mayor Bay of East Palo Alto, 'You know if the Daily News reports something it indicates that something happened, but you don't really know what it was. You take everything in the article with a grain of salt.'

"Daily News Publisher Price disputed the criticism. Self-respecting journalists ought to be 'rabble rousers,' he said.

"The Daily News has been an aggressive requester of public information. In 2003, with the help of the [San Jose] Mercury News, the paper went to court fighting several Peninsula cities to get access to the salaries and names of public employees making more than $100,000 a year, for which it won a '
bouquet' from Grade the News. The papers ultimately ended their fight without success."

Isn't that interesting? I wonder if the salaries of any of the friends, employees or appointees of the former Palo Alto mayor were among those successfully kept behind the closed doors of local government? I wonder if Stoll checked?

In my own experience as managing editor of a chronically under-funded and under-staffed suburban daily that often locked horns with Maryland officials, particularly on our frequent Freedom of Information Act requests, the criticisms voiced by the former mayor sound rather familiar.

That's not coincidental. The big urban dailies tend not to give local news much more than lip service. That's one of the reasons free papers, which are almost always intensely local, often find receptive audiences.

But local officials like the obscurity they enjoy as a result of the big dailies' preoccupation with the "important news," so they are doubly disturbed when snoopy, often inexperienced and young, journalists with those darn free papers start coming around asking questions, however ineptly that might be.

Thus is created a certain, shall we say, confluence of interests among professional journalists who naturally aspire to decent salaries and big newsrooms and local officials who naturally aspire to be left alone away from prying eyes to do their deals with generous developers, state and federal grantsmakers, captive community organizations and pliant neighborhood associations.

I was reading the second installment of a three-part series. The opener made a case for another familiar criticism, the contention that free papers are too willing to allow advertisers to determine or otherwise shape editorial.

Having had some unpleasant chats about editorial integrity with advertising staffers seeking "something nice about Joe Blow who just bought a half-page," I experienced lots of deja vu in reading the first installment. I'll post a link to the third piece in the series when I see it.

One other note here: When you get to the end of the article, the author's tagline indicates that he worked for the Examiner before it was sold to the present owner. That fact probably should have been pointed out much higher in the copy, like about the third graph or so. And in the same vein, I should tell you that the local Examiner publishes my weekly new car and truck reviews.


A journalist colleague who works for a chain of very successful controlled circulation weeklies in Maryland read the above post and said it sounded quite familiar; so much so in fact that he sent along the following account of a recent exchange he had with a local government official regarding an event being sponsored by the County Executive:

She was literally begging me to come. I said no, it's an obvious photo- op (she agreed).
She mentioned again that I should come, and bring a photographer, if only to see county employees dressed in period costumes and the high school girl registering to vote by signing a gigantic reproduction of a voter registration card.

Here's where her tone changes from light and funny to righteously indignant and offended. I asked how much is this costing tax payers. She first said "Im not going to tell you." I told her I would request it under the PIA. "Are you serious," she asked. I assured her I was. Her response was that it cost "nothing."

I persisted and was told it was covered in their office's budget. So what's the cost, I asked again. Finally she told me $300 but we got a great deal."

We went through a similar conversation when I asked who got the money. I had to tell her that not only would I PIA the information but that I would make sure she had a copy of that request in her e-mail in box before we hung up the phone.

She then told me and told me that the County Executive got a 30 percent discount on the costumes. I asked "Can anyone else get this discount? Could I?" She said it is the discount the company gives high school drama teachers. (Who are poor and need the break).

So, apparently the answer is no. The spokeswoman was angry with me and complained about me asking these questions about a nice event celebrating an important historical moment. This reaction has been more frequent from the County Executive as I ask this more and more. They see it as unfair and mean. I'm ruining their good events. Raining on their parade.

My response? "If you don't want people to ask what it costs or be obligated to say, then go work in the private sector." A little terse, maybe, but I'm getting frustrated with the attitude, the personal attacks and the obfuscation.