How Important Is Local News To A Community?
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
What's the role for local media in the 24/7 digital age? We'll look at the changing relationship between the media and public and how local news organizations will survive in the future.
DEAN NELSON (Guest Host): I'm Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University, and I'm sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh during this hour of These Days on KPBS. In our digital, 24/7 world, people can get their news and information in an instant. Many news organizations, like newspapers, TV and radio stations, are in a frenzy to reinvent themselves to keep up with these changes. The news they deliver might be pretty much the same as before, but the model under which they operate is not. Everyone is vying for their piece of the pie, or the web, and everyone is trying to figure out how to make it economically sustainable. Joining me to talk about how these changes are affecting local media organizations and the news they’re providing to the public are Jeff Light, editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Welcome back, Jeff.
JEFF LIGHT (Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Thank you.
NELSON: Greg Dawson, news director for NBC 7/39. Hi, Greg.
GREG DAWSON (News Director, NBC 7/39 TV): Good morning.
NELSON: Grant Barrett, engagement editor for the Voice of San Diego and a familiar voice to San Diegans as co-host of Public Radio’s A Way with Words. Welcome back, Grant.
GRANT BARRETT (Engagement Editor, Voice of San Diego): Howdy.
NELSON: And, finally, Tom Karlo, general manager for KPBS. Hello to you, Tom.
TOM KARLO (General Manager, KPBS): Hello there, Dean.
NELSON: Listeners, we’d also like to invite you in on this conversation. After all, the media exists to serve you, the public. Tell us where you’re getting your news information and how well the local media are doing. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Jeff Light, let’s begin with you since you represent the oldest form of news in this circle, the printed newspaper. The Union-Tribune has gone through some pretty major changes over the past decade. Recently the paper went through another round of layoffs and restructuring. That seems to be the recurring theme with the paper. How is your organization doing these days?
LIGHT: Oh, I think we’re doing well. And you’re right, there’s been a lot of change sort of even preceding the sale of the paper to Platinum and the new management team that’s been brought in has been pretty focused on moving the business forward so, yeah, we’ve got a lot going on. I think we’re doing quite well.
NELSON: And can you quantify that? What do you mean by quite well?
NELSON: Advertising sales dollars up? Readership up? Those kinds of things?
LIGHT: Yeah, every, you know, I think the most important thing to start would be, yeah, revenues are increasing and we’re doing well and exceeding our budget so, you know, I feel like the U-T’s a prosperous business and, you know, that had not been the case just a few years ago.
LIGHT: So that’s sort of the first order of business in getting those things taken care of. So we’ve got a lot of change coming up, already in the pipeline, and, you know, we’re working hard. We’ve got a lot to be excited about.
NELSON: We’re going to talk about those changes in just a minute but let me hear from some of the others. Greg Dawson, what about local TV news? How well is TV news doing these days and your station in particular?
DAWSON: We certainly come through, you know, a really challenging couple of years and I think all of us in the media felt it and kind of a double whammy. We had the change in the industry with fragmentation, you know, really picking up in a fast way. In TV, we had the digital conversion where, you know, all of the signals went digital, which put far more people into digital cable that had more choices, which you’re going to take advantage of.
DAWSON: And then the economy hit at the same time. So it was kind of that perfect storm that was a real tough period to go through. But we’ve come through that. Same thing, I think, that the U-T’s seeing, you know, revenues are increasing. Hopefully, that will continue. That’s, I’m sure, a different show of whether the economy is really rebounding, you know, but assuming that is, that’s going well. And I think it has forced us to take a look at what we do, refocus ourselves, you know, and come up with a better plan for the future in really an exciting way. If it weren’t for the difficulties of going through it, this is one of the most exciting times we’ve ever seen in this business.
NELSON: Yeah, there’s a chance to reinvent for everybody, isn’t there?
DAWSON: Yeah, absolutely. And some new technologies that I’m sure we’ll talk about. You know, they…
DAWSON: …that lead to that, that allow us to do things we never thought possible even two years ago.
NELSON: Okay. Tom Karlo, KPBS has the advantage of being a TV, radio and web media service. How do you see this all coming together for local news?
KARLO: Well, Dean, over the last couple of years we’ve seen dramatic change in the media landscape…
KARLO: …both locally, nationally and internationally. And for us, as a nonprofit organization, we’ve actually been growing. And one of the major things that I did about 18 months ago was decide that I didn’t want us to think of ourselves as a television station, a radio station and a digital website. And we…
NELSON: Right, you’re trying to merge them.
KARLO: Yeah, and what we were is, we had a TV department, a radio department…
KARLO: …and a web department, and I really brought them all together and said we’re going to be one content division and we’re going to focus on producing thoughtful news analysis, longer format stories of important issues that are affecting our community. And the work that each of our content producers develops, will be able to be distributed to the way people are using media.
KARLO: And so it’s a new concept because what I’m trying to do is think about the fact that maybe in 10 or 15 years, we’ll still be producing local, thoughtful news analysis of the issues that are important to San Diego but our shipping department might change.
KARLO: And that shipping department is television, radio, digital media and all the social media type sites. But, you know what, our product is going to stay the same but the distribution part of our organization is going to change. So that way, all the work our people are producing is going to be on all of the different platforms, reaching what I would say is the traditionalists or the mature audience…
KARLO: …on television, the baby boomers on radio, and my children on the digital cell phones…
KARLO: …and we’re there on all of the platforms right now.
NELSON: Good, and also, you know, Grant Barrett, Voice of San Diego, the whole delivery system thing, I mean, you’ve gone to a completely different kind of delivery system of news and information than the traditional radio, television, print, and you’ve gone online only. How’s that working out?
BARRETT: It’s fantastic. Our year-on-year growth is up for every metric that you might possibly look at, user involvement, readership, donations from foundations, donations from individuals, commenting, following us on the social media. Every number is up and it’s great, and we look for that growth to continue in the following year.
NELSON: Why do we need an online news service?
NELSON: I mean, what’s the matter with just getting it the old way?
BARRETT: Well, the old – It’s not really about the medium so much as it’s about the content. You have beat reporters who found these beats that they can develop. We have some incredible people on staff, people like Liam Dillon, who’s a bulldog. He’s just incredible. I sit next to him and I gotta tell you, the man’s a – he’s amazing. And he’s very typical of the kind of people if you can put your teeth into a beat, you can master that beat and generate news by knowing your sources, knowing the organizations and knowing the community really, and having…
BARRETT: …being in touch with that. And so it’s something that the U-T does and can do and probably will continue to do but we are focusing so precisely that we can do a lot more in our areas. You know, we’re not going to defray our attention by focusing too much on other medium – other media or other ways of delivering the content.
NELSON: In this hour, we’re talking about how the changing media landscape is affecting local media companies and the news they deliver. I’m joined in studio by Jeff Light, editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Greg Dawson, news director of NBC 7/39, Grant Barrett, engagement editor for Voice of San Diego, and Tom Karlo, general manager for KPBS. And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. I want to open this up to everyone. With people able to get their news anytime, anywhere, how important is it for you to focus on delivering local news? I think I’ve heard that from all of you in one manner or another. Why is local news the thing for any of you? Tom, let’s start with you. You really hammered on that.
KARLO: Well, for us, we want to be local but I also want to emphasize that the local content that we’re developing is we want to be doing thoughtful news analysis, in-depth of the subject that we’re talking about. We may not follow breaking news when it’s happening. An example would be is if there’s a water main break down in Pacific Beach, for example, we might not cover the fact that that water main has broke and it’s causing a lot of problems down there. But the next day, we might do very in-depth discussions on why did it break, what do we need to do, how does this affect the infrastructure of all of our sewer systems and things like that.
KARLO: So for us, what I think our role is, is to give people a chance to take a longer look at issues. And I do feel that our role is to serve the community, to serve San Diego. We are one of the last owned and operated radio and television stations, locally owned and operated…
KARLO: …and our role is to serve the local community and to also provide people with the stuff that comes from NPR and PBS…
KARLO: …so you can have one-stop shopping and what I think is a longer format type discussions of important issues.
KARLO: Thoughtful analysis.
NELSON: Okay. Good, and I want to hear from the rest of you on this local news thing but first I want to take a caller, Iad (sp) calling from San Diego. Go ahead, Iad, you’re on These Days.
IAD (Caller, San Diego): Hi, guys, I just – I had a quick question regarding the international and technology on the news. I wanted to know, I understand like nowadays technology has been so advanced and we’re getting more like the e-readers and constant updates on iPhones. What I wanted to ask the panel, would you guys predict within a couple of years it’s going to mainly go digital? Are we ever going to see newspapers again?
NELSON: Yeah, let’s have Jeff address this because I know, I mean, your whole background has been in digital media and now you’re running a corporation that has a tree-killing edition of a newspaper as well. So how do you address the digital thing? Are we ever going to see newspapers again?
LIGHT: Well, I would say we very much see newspapers now. If we draw that line out into the future, clearly print is a medium whose time will end, right? So where is that line? It’s hard to predict. There’s a lot of factors involved.
NELSON: There’s a lot of people crying over their coffee right now with what you just said.
LIGHT: Yeah, I mean, I would say that right now print is very, very strong. If you looked at the footprint of the U-T in this market, it is many fold larger, the print piece alone, than any other medium. So, you know, people get this idea, oh, my gosh, newspapers, what will happen? Well, we know what’s going to happen. Eventually, this medium will fade away. Right now, it’s very, very powerful. You know, I don’t really know what that horizon is. I would be surprised if in 30 years you saw newspapers. I think that’s a pretty safe bet. But I’d also agree with what the other panelists are saying, you know, the media do shape how you consume the news and how you produce it. So there is some importance to what the outlet is. But the bigger part of it is the message, right? And this question about local news, I think, is really important. You know, the fabric of the community is directly affected and improved by the amount of local news there is, you know.
LIGHT: That has to do with the strength of our communities, the strength of America, right? So local news is really important. That’s why I think what, you know, what Voice of San Diego is doing in a particular way, those are important things for our communities.
NELSON: Well, Voice of San Diego is almost all local news, isn’t it? Or it is all local news.
BARRETT: That’s right. Occasionally, we’ll take a national story and put a local spin on it just like any of the media organizations in town will do but, yeah, local news, that’s our focus. But we leave the – leave the national news or the statewide news or the international news to those sources that have the resources to do that, which we’re not going to spend the money or the time on it because we couldn’t possibly do it well.
KARLO: I think…
NELSON: …yeah, go ahead, Tom.
KARLO: …the comment about newspapers in general…
KARLO: …in terms of I actually think newspapers have a longer lifespan than people think. I think people want choices. I think…
NELSON: This is a radio and TV guy talking here.
KARLO: Yeah. But, I mean, I do. I do. I really feel people want choices. And when radio was strong in the forties and television came, there was a bunch of people that said, shut off the radio, it’s dead.
NELSON: Exactly. Exactly.
KARLO: And, you know what, it redefined itself.
KARLO: And then television became really big, and then it redefined themself with home videos…
KARLO: …and then home videos have gone away. I mean, we’ve seen all these things and each one of these things have allowed people to – nothing’s really exited, it’s just that a matter of fact that it helps to – people want choices. And I use the banking industry as an example. In the eighties, when ATM machines came out, people said, that’s it.
NELSON: The end of the local bank. Right. Right.
KARLO: Yeah, shut up the…
KARLO: Shut down the local branches.
KARLO: And the fact of the matter is, is people want the choices.
KARLO: They want to go to the ATM machine to get their money, they want to go to the local branch to deposit their checks, they want to go online to pay their bills. And I think that people want a lot of choices…
KARLO: …and there are certain people that might want to pick up a paper. Now, it may not be as robust in terms of the circulation but I think people want choices and that’s what we’re in, we’re in the business of providing the content in the way people want to use it.
DAWSON: I think…
NELSON: Yeah, Greg, go ahead.
DAWSON: …the technology, though, will drive a lot of that, I mean, you know…
NELSON: This is Greg Dawson from NBC 7/39. Go ahead. Sure.
DAWSON: You know, the new iPads or the tablets that are coming out allow you to still read that paper in the newspaper form and not read it as a website.
DAWSON: And to me that’s tremendously exciting for all of us because it will shape how we deliver things. And that’s why right now for us, the delivery piece is not what we’re going to spend a lot of time and attention on because we can’t affect that change. We’re not the engineers who are dreaming up those next gadgets.
DAWSON: And they’re going to come out very quickly and it’s going to continue to progress so…
NELSON: You’re telling me content still matters, Greg?
DAWSON: That – I think we’re all on the same page. Right now, we’re all focused on how do we continue to, you know, deliver the best content and then produce it in a way that’s then accessible in any form.
DAWSON: You know, and that – I think that’s what we’re spending our time on right now.
NELSON: Let’s stop here. We need to take a short break and when we return, we’ll continue talking about how the delivery of news is changing and what it means to San Diego. I’m Dean Nelson and you’re listening to These Days in San Diego.
NELSON: I’m Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University and I’m sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and you’re listening to These Days on KPBS. We’ve been talking about local news and the changing landscape of the news media here. Jeff Light from the Union-Tribune, with all of the cutbacks in your shop in particular—everybody has done it obviously but yours seems to be the – at the Union-Tribune, the largest. Can we expect to ever see major investigative pieces like the Duke Cunningham scandal or the Tailhook scandal or something like that? I have this feeling that with all this emphasis on local news and hyper-local news, that those bigger pieces maybe aren’t going to happen anymore.
LIGHT: No, I think those big pieces absolutely will happen. You know, you’re looking at, in the print side, an industry that’s been very hierarchical, conservative, slow-moving, controlled and, you know, those qualities do not lend themselves to today’s environment. So, you know, you see these companies sort of restaffing themselves, re-engineering how they approach things, rewiring their culture to be leaner, more creative, more public facing, more engaged. I wouldn’t confuse any of that with a loss of the core values or capabilities, I really wouldn’t. So I’m not concerned that that will go missing. I don’t think it will.
NELSON: Really? Okay. Because I was just thinking, if I were a corrupt politician, I would think these are the happiest days for me because nobody’s going to be investigating me.
LIGHT: Yeah, no, I don’t buy into any of that. The – You know, I saw a agenda (sic) for a media summit in Washington recently that somebody sent me and the titles of the talks were like ‘Age of Corruption,’ you know, ‘Death of Journalism.’ You know, I think people are confusing the way, the practices, the sort of ritualistic way that news had been produced in newsrooms that are based on a manufacturing environment that dates to the post-Civil War. So there’s a lot of practices involved there that people are very married to that aren’t necessarily essential to the work of journalism. So, you know, there are…
LIGHT: …hundreds of journalists at the U-T and altogether in San Diego, many, many more. There are plenty of people to do the hard work. I really – I just don’t – I don’t really agree with that perspective.
NELSON: Well, in fact, go ahead. Greg Dawson from NBC 7/39.
DAWSON: It’s funny. As we went into, you know, the difficult times of the last couple of years…
DAWSON: …I probably, you know, echoed that sentiment of…
DAWSON: …uh-oh, this is going to be bad for America, you know…
DAWSON: …fewer investigative reports, etcetera. And I think what it’s forced all of us to do is refocus and reprioritize what we do. And it’s those things that are kind of, you know, for us breaking news, spot news, you know, that’s bread and butter…
DAWSON: …of what we do. We’re very good at it. We’re going to keep doing that. And then there’s the bigger picture, the more, you know, in-depth pieces, and then there’s all that stuff in the middle. And it’s the stuff in the middle that we’ve kind of started weeding out, that those little stories that it happened today but is it all that big a deal? Well, maybe not. Where we used to be able to run around and get all that, we can’t anymore. And we’ve refocused around some of the beats that Grant was talking about. You know, Gene Cubbison, who’s always been our political guy, but he’s more focused than ever on it. Rory Devine is now almost exclusively doing education, which she was always kind of doing education but…
DAWSON: …now that’s her full time beat. We have somebody on military now full time. So we’ve taken the approach of we can’t be all things to all people anymore so let’s find those things that are core to our values and our strengths and that are important to the audience. And I think, you know, we’re getting better as a journalism, you know, institution than we were before when we were running every which direction.
NELSON: Well, and you’re doing an interesting thing with your partnership with Voice of San Diego…
NELSON: …and so there’s this kind of crossover thing going on between your television station, Greg, and with Grant, with you at Voice of San Diego. Talk to us about that partnership a little and why that’s important.
BARRETT: Yeah, the Voiceofsandiego.org does spend a great deal of time on what we consider to be the best kind of investigative journalism. At the same time as the digital era brought on a change in the way that we were – the news was being delivered, it also opened up government records and the amount of data that is available now compared to ten years ago that we can just get. Database journalists are real people who have real jobs and they can sit there with a spreadsheet or a MySQL database and generate news. And we have that kind of talent on staff, and I believe that all the organizations here probably have that kind of talent. And so there are some plus sides to the digital era. We’re doing that kind of stuff. We are looking at the records. The open records laws are something that are hard won and often fought for and sometimes there are regressions but for the most part, they do the job that they need to do. So we take that data, we generate stories about salaries, about budgets, about discrepancies, about graft and fraud and that sort of thing, about a mortgage swindle. Kelly Bennett did this fantastic expose on this guy who is now in prison because of the work that she did in discovering how his swindle worked, who he swindled, what happened to the money, what he did to these people, and it was a…
BARRETT: …personal story as well as a statewide story, just fantastic stuff. And so in our partnership with NBC, we can take that kind of journalism, package it up, and say, look, here is this issue explained in a nutshell.
BARRETT: You know, this is the core of the story, here are the parts that are important, here are the people who are important, this is why you should care. And a lot of the journalism that is being done now, when we talk about getting rid of the fat middle, the stuff that was fun to do but maybe didn’t impact our readers, a lot of the journalism that we—I think everyone at this table—is focusing on now is the journalism that matters most to our readers, listeners, consumers, users, whatever you want to call them. And so they want to know why does it matter to me and we’re…
BARRETT: …we’re telling them that.
BARRETT: And that’s why we’ve partnered, is to really better serve the audience. They’re doing great work, you know…
BARRETT: …people are coming to their website but by putting in on air, it gets to – in front of more people and, you know, it’s really all about serving the audience.
NELSON: Let’s take another caller. Barbara from Vista, good morning. You’re on These Days.
BARBARA (Caller, Vista): Yes, hi there. Thank you for being there. I am a contributor and a member of the station. I would like to say this. I disagree with almost everything that’s been said. I think that the world of the screen has really dumbed down a good deal of Americans, too many. And this is the reason: they skim, they don’t read for in-depth information. Many of them do not know the difference between a fact and an opinion.
NELSON: Okay, let me stop you there.
BARBARA: And a lot of people are brainwashed.
NELSON: Actually, Barbara, if I could interject – Could I interject? Who is the they you’re referring to? You’re talking about the journalists or the readers? The audience?
BARBARA: No, I’m talking about the public.
NELSON: Oh, okay, okay.
BARBARA: I’m talking about the people sitting…
BARBARA: …behind the screens who are reading.
NELSON: Got it.
BARBARA: Many of them do not read on a – The average American, I believe, the NEA found, the average American today reads on a fourth grade level, if that high, and cannot, does not have the ability to interpret, to compare, to question even. Is this a fact or is this an opinion? And what is the source that’s giving me this information? So they’re easily brainwashed, which is very frightening to me. I think the demise of print journalism, and I see it as that, we are subscribers to the U-T and we’ve noticed the difference in the size of the papers. They’re so much smaller today. But we do read papers. I try to read – get the New York Times to subscribe to it but, no, we can’t get it delivered to our house and it’s too expensive to buy it daily at the newsstand. So I do go on the web just to read it, that’s about the only time I’m ever on the compute, quite frankly.
BARBARA: And I really can’t read it the way I would enjoy reading it because I’m clicking on various articles and hoping I can get them on my screen, and it’s just not the same thing.
BARBARA: And I really – I think many Americans don’t even know their history. They know nothing about current events.
BARBARA: Too many of them can’t discuss it intelligently so we’ve dumbed down our whole society.
NELSON: Barbara, thank you for your call. Tom Karlo, you want to talk about the dumbing down of our society if, in fact, that’s the case?
KARLO: Well, I believe that we have lost a little bit of what I call thoughtful news analysis…
KARLO: …in depth discussions of important issues, and I think news has gotten a little more breaking news and faster sound bites, faster quicker stories, smaller stories. And that’s what our role is. I actually agree with Barbara that I’m not sure our populous is well informed and well educated on important issues when they go to the ballot box. And I think that’s our role at KPBS. We’re not trying to get in the breaking news business, we’re trying to get into the thoughtful news analysis where people have a chance across television, radio and the web to be well informed. And I talk to people in the community and they watch a program like the PBS Newshour on our air at seven o’clock…
KARLO: …at night or our show, television show, San Diego Week, and they say, you know, it was refreshing to actually have a chance to get an in-depth discussion of the important issue. And I believe it’s important for us pay attention to what Barbara’s saying…
KARLO: …because I see young people who will say to me, oh, I get my news from The Daily Show. And, you know, I love The Daily Show…
KARLO: …but I also put it in perspective.
KARLO: And, you know, that’s the role that we are trying to achieve in San Diego and with KPBS is really more in-depth discussions to help…
KARLO: ..the populous make, you know, informed and educated decisions.
NELSON: Jeff Light from the Union-Tribune, stories are getting shorter at your newspaper. The paper is shrinking. As Stephen Colbert would say, we’re winning the war against liberal journalism because the actual size of the paper is shrinking.
LIGHT: Oh, for sure. The number of pages in your average American newspaper is much smaller and that’s a reflection of the change in some of the business model underpinnings. But there’s probably more there than I would venture most people are reading every day. So it seems to me to be plenty. You know, I’m of two minds about this conversation because I agree than an enlightened and informed community is fundamental to what we’re all trying to do, right? So that’s our work.
NELSON: It’s pretty crucial to democracy.
LIGHT: And I do believe that there is an impact of the media so if you’re watching television, you’re having a different experience than reading a book which is different than reading it on your phone, right. Those things are all different. That said, you know, I guess I’m not convinced that this worry of the intelligencia, that everybody else is getting dumber and they’re getting smarter, I just don’t agree with that.
NELSON: And do – Greg Dawson from NBC 7/39, you’ve heard this about television probably your entire professional career.
DAWSON: Yeah, and I think, you know, every medium has its different role and, you know, local television news, you know, has focused more on the surface and it’s funny, you know, years ago people would say, well, you know, for more depth, read the paper. And, you know, or watch, you know, KPBS. And that has been the role and I think we’ve always encouraged people, no one source should be your only source for news and information. And I think you see that in studies that it isn’t. You know, more and more you’re seeing things that say people are going to multiple sources, and they are weighing the biases and, you know, the place that they’re coming from, you know, in a fairly encouraging way, that they do see that, okay, I’m getting this over here, now, you know, I think as things become more fragmented you do worry about people only seeking out the source that they like to hear.
DAWSON: I think that’s one of the, you know, one of the scary parts.
NELSON: That’s one of the problems with online…
NELSON: …information is that it’s sort of tribalizes the groups.
NELSON: And reinforces and you only go to the place that you know is going to reinforce that. Grant Barrett from Voice of San Diego, you’re part of that whole scheme.
BARRETT: Oh, yeah, I’m part of the cabal, is it?
NELSON: Yes. Can you justify yourself?
BARRETT: Absolutely. One of – Just to respond to what you just said, you know, at the Voice of San Diego, we make a practice of pointing out great journalism elsewhere. So if you’re coming only to us just for our point of view, you’re getting more than that. We make a point of presenting the U-T stories when they’re great, our competition around the state and even national stories if they matter. We look for the San Diego angle, of course, so you’re getting a little more than that. But to go back to Barbara’s original point, her passion is amazing and I find that in the e-mail and the calls that we get and the personal one-on-one conversations that we get from our readers at the voiceofsandiego.org, there are an immense number of people who have an insatiable curiosity about this community and have an unending need for news and they cannot get enough of it. And she really would find that if we were to open up Qualcomm and bring all those people there that every seat would be full and the middle of the field would be full and the parking lot would be full, and there’d be a queue running down the 8. I mean, she is not alone. There are tons of people, thousands, shall we say even a million in the county, who care as much as she does.
NELSON: I want to ask a different question of Jeff Light. In fact, I’m going to let one of our callers ask him. Hugh from Mission Hills, go ahead. You’re on These Days.
HUGH (Caller, Mission Hills): Yes. I’m glad that someone brought up the Duke Cunningham story for which I think the previous San Diego Union received some journalism award. But what has the new ownership of the San Diego Union done about on the subject of investigative reporting about nobody caught the mess that put us – that – what was going on that put us in the financial mess that we’re in now. That goes to KPBS and their – whatever they do about it. It certainly goes to the San Diego Union that has Duke Cunningham in prison. He probably did some good for San Diego with that nonsense that he got involved in with defense contractors, bringing business to San Diego. But certainly, who – everybody missed that story. What’s going on with any of the media?
NELSON: Well, I’m glad for the call, Hugh. Thank you. Anyone want to jump in there? What are we – This was a part of my earlier question. Are we missing a big picture with all of this focus on local news? Tom Karlo.
KARLO: Well, I think local news is what we’re supposed to be reporting on, too.
KARLO: And looking at investigating these types of stories…
KARLO: …that Hugh is talking about. A few years ago we didn’t have as robust news department as we have right now, and we’ve gone to the beat system and we have two reporters that focus on metro or city and county governance, and they’re looking into those stories now and we’re asking them to look into those stories. So investigative reporting is something that is on our radar screen and we hope that we don’t miss, in the future, those kinds of stories because I think they’re important.
NELSON: Where were all of you on this whole pension thing?
BARRETT: Well, if you’re asking if we were reporting that the pension obligation was growing, yes, could anybody – were we predicting this is going to lead to the fall of San Diego at that time? Well, no, because the stock market was going great and everybody could point to numbers saying it’s not going to be a problem. I mean, that’s how they got into it. So I think to ask the news media to predict problems in the future is pretty rough and, you know, but I think that, you know, as they were making the deals with unions, we were reporting on they’ve cut a deal, they’re not going to get huge raises but they are getting better pensions. Now putting it in perspective, you know, probably not well enough but that’s not, you know, necessarily our expertise either in predicting what that’s going to do down the road.
LIGHT: Yeah, this is a story that…
NELSON: Jeff Light from the Union-Tribune.
LIGHT: …is a big story across America and the Minneapolis StarTribune won the Pulitzer on pension coverage two – I guess two years ago, so it’s not impossible to catch. Now this issue here, I think, sort of predates the Platinum ownership and certainly me, so it’s, you know, it may be in the previous administration. You know, we, as journalists, are responsible for guarding the public trust, right? So people do have a high expectation that we will writ these things out and prevent bad from happening, and it’s a big responsibility. That’s not to say that everybody’s going to be able to catch everything in advance. It’s just not going to happen. The responsibility that we have, I mean, we’ve reorganized our newsroom to commit seven people to, in one way or another, working on investigative stories, so it’s something that, you know, we take very seriously and we need to build that capability which I think was damaged by cutbacks over time. So, you know, I think in the media you saw, well, I guess I would say in many businesses you saw in the recession the need for very quick adjustments. So people—I think you used the word scrambling in the opening of the show. I think at that point people really were scrambling.
LIGHT: Quickly trying to figure out in the heat of battle what to do. Not all those decisions, I think, were strategic or thoughtful or the right decisions about, you know, how to staff these organizations.
LIGHT: So I think right now we’re at a point of rethinking those things and trying to put together organizations that will meet the public demand and the public responsibility that we have.
NELSON: We’re going to take a break. I’m Dean Nelson sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh. And when we return, we’ll continue talking about the rapid changes in how news is delivered and how local news organizations are changing as well. You’re listening to These Days in San Diego.
NELSON: I’m Dean Nelson sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh. And you’re listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about how the changing media landscape is affecting local media companies and the news they deliver. I’m joined in studio by Jeff Light, editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Greg Dawson, news director for NBC 7/39, Grant Barrett, engagement editor for voiceofsandiego.org, and Tom Karlo, general manager for KPBS. And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let me ask all of you to respond to this in one way or another. It seems like in the need to get news out as quickly as possible one of the things that sometimes get sacrificed in that speed is accuracy. We have Union-Tribune’s reporters posting things online without going through editing. We – I assume the same is happening at all of your places and then we have citizens writing back in and calling us on it and saying, hey, you got this wrong. There’s a credibility issue there, isn’t there, with that kind of speed? Go ahead, Tom Karlo.
KARLO: Well, you know, just to start off on that conversation, that’s something that I’m very concerned as we see this explosion of media and people able to create their own blogs, their own news sites, and these are news things that don’t have the checks and balances. And I think all of us in this room don’t let anything out in our medium without it going through some sort of editorial review. And it’s important, and we want to be accurate, we want to be impartial, we want to be fair, and we want to present people with good information. And one of the things that I’m concerned about is that there is these bloggings that are out there and these sites and these news sources that are not checking their facts, they’re not checking what they’re saying, they’re biased in their own way. And it is a concern is, is the public getting well informed information? And I know from KPBS’ standpoint, we work on this very much and we have three senior editors that review everything that’s going out before it goes out. And, you know what, there’s been a couple of examples the last year that I’m not going to talk about where we actually said something that wasn’t accurate because we got it from a blog and we didn’t check it. And, you know what, I just want to reiterate that to our staff all the time that we have to do this, and this is one of the checks and balances…
KARLO: …that we have to do as our own industry to make sure that we can remain trustworthy to our public with accurate information.
NELSON: Sure. In fact, I want to hear from the rest of you on this very topic, but first I want to take a call. Jeff in La Mesa, thank you for calling. You’re on These Days.
JEFF (Caller, La Mesa): Hi. Yeah, I just wanted to say one thing that really bothers me is that supposedly we’re supposed to get both sides. People always, you know, try and be balanced, and I hear people say things that are blatantly not true. They’re like – they’re just false, and nobody calls them on it. Just to give you an example, like back, you know, last – this last year, in the healthcare debate. They start talking about death panels and I heard death panels discussed on legitimate news shows without anybody saying, well, stop for a second, there’s no such thing as a death panel, it’s not in the bill. Nobody ever said that. And so people get the impression that a lot of this stuff that’s getting thrown out there is true and nobody calls them. And I hear people just basically blatantly lying and it never gets called on and it really bothers me.
NELSON: I think it bothers all of us. Grant Barrett, Voice of San Diego.
BARRETT: Jeff, let me ask you, how did you find out that they weren’t true?
JEFF: I – I read the bill. It was really easy. They had the page up and so you go to the – you pulled it up online, read the page, and there’s – It was talking about end-of-life counseling and it was talking about how when people are, you know, towards the end of their life, how they’ll provide a counselor for the rest of the family. There was no such thing as a death panel. It doesn’t say death panel at all. And all you had to do was read the page that they even said and a lot of these newspaper things and on TV and radio, if you just read the page that they’re talking about, you could see that it wasn’t true.
BARRETT: Well, you’ve got a couple of points there. When Greg said earlier that it’s important for people to consume more than one media outlet, every head in this room nodded. So we’re all agreed that you’re doing the right thing. You are consuming a media in the right way. But the other thing you’re doing, which I think brings to light what at least what the U-T and the voiceofsandiego.org do is, we often provide primary source documents, which is what you used to prove that’s wrong. And, you know, when you’re on the air and you’re doing a live interview, as somebody who does a radio show, I can tell you this, you misspeak. You make mistakes and sometimes it’s hard to keep up. It is almost impossible to do a live television or radio show and do instant fact checking. It’s been tried and it’s almost always a big failure. But what you get over the course of your consumption of media, be it from one outlet or many outlets, is you get a steady improvement of the kinds of facts and detail that you’re getting. The story starts out vague, it becomes specific. It starts out mildly accurate to perfectly accurate. It happens throughout all of the media here. And I don’t think that KPBS does it any differently, the Voice or the U-T or NBC, that we do strive for perfection. But as I always say to people who call the radio show and say, you know, I’m sorry I made a mistake there, I didn’t mean to say that. I’m like, look, the default human state is error. We are born in error, we die in error. And to be anything other than in error is an improvement on our normal condition. And so…
NELSON: You’ve just taken us to a whole ‘nother level and let me just say I’m grateful for it. Greg Dawson, let’s go back to the whole accuracy and speed thing. I mean, this is a problem with live television, as Grant has brought up, right?
DAWSON: Absolutely. And that part of it, of misspeaking or the facts changing as you’re reporting the story…
DAWSON: …has been around forever and will continue to be. That’s just part of the process. I think, you know, what we try to do is bring people into that process and say here’s what we know now and here’s where we got it from. Make sure attribution is there and so that it’s clear. I think, you know, there’s a lot of talk these days about transparency and I think it definitely applies to us as well. We have – In our newsroom, we’re very cognizant of it. Fortunately, we have a veteran staff, people who do ask those questions and stop and think before publishing, you know, hopefully, and not that we don’t all have our mistakes in the past. But very often it comes up where somebody’s ready to push the button to send it to the web or to send out a Tweet or whatever it might be but there’s a question. And we all stop and say, wait, let’s make sure this is answered first because, you know, what will continue to separate us from the bloggers and everybody else is our credibility. It’s really the only thing we have, you know, in the grand scheme that does set us apart. So we have to protect that and being five minutes behind or five hours behind, I don’t believe, you know, is important enough to risk that mistake. Not that, you know, we don’t make them…
DAWSON: …but they’re made, I think, in an honest way and not just in a rush.
NELSON: Okay. Okay. I think the whole idea of having the audience kind of participate in this and call us out on it is one dimension of this kind of interactive dimension that we have with the news media these days. But there’s also probably a desire by some to say, okay, I want to alert the news media to something that’s going on. In fact, Barry, if you’re there, we’re going to take a call here from Mission Beach. Why don’t you ask your question here?
BARRY (Caller, Mission Beach): Yes, you pretty well phrased it right there.
NELSON: Sorry about that.
BARRY: It was how do you get a point across to the news media when local government has failed in their duty? My contention is, is that there are a section of local government that is pretty much a shadow government and with very little oversight and I don’t know who to go to. I’m just an individual whistleblower. It’s not the particular thing that happened, it’s the way it was handled and the way it’s been handled for quite some time. So I…
NELSON: Okay, thank you, Barry, for your call. What do you tell listeners or viewers or readers if they want to alert you? Tom Karlo from KPBS, how do they get in touch with you?
KARLO: Well, I don’t have the number on the top of my head and maybe we can provide it for Barry offline but we have a, you know, a number that we make public that can get ahold of KPBS. You can e-mail us…
NELSON: I’m sure there’s a contact us back, right.
KARLO: Yeah, there’s a contact, you can go to the website…
KARLO: …and we’ll take calls and information and we rely very much on people and their information to help get to our editorial team in terms of focusing on stories, especially when there are disasters.
KARLO: In fact, when the fires broke out in 2007, we were on 24 hours a day for 5 days on radio. And we were taking information from people in the community on evacuating, where the fires are, where the road closures are. So, you know, it’s an important part of us getting the information and making the editorial decisions that we do.
KARLO: And there is a number and there is a web address to…
KARLO: …instantly contact us in our newsroom.
NELSON: Jeff Light, same question for you. If somebody sees something and they want to contact the Union-Tribune, how do they do it?
LIGHT: Yeah, I mean, all of our writers have their e-mails right at the bottom of the stories. Just click and send or you can send it to me, email@example.com and, you know, we’re – obviously, this is the life blood of what we do. I just wanted to go back for a second to the conversation about speed and propaganda. And I sort of think there may be a little bit different things, and I agree with what was said here. To me, being first is much less important than being correct, so I’m much more focused on having things be accurate. You need to get things out in a timely way when they mean something to people but I felt this Shirley Sherrod case of a few weeks ago really showed those two problems coming together into one, you know, terrible debacle in other…
NELSON: And this was looking at one piece of a speech and just not seeing it in context and…
NELSON: …making some grand declarations as a result of that.
LIGHT: Yeah, and it was done with ill intent, right?
LIGHT: Things were edited down to manipulate the news and spread propaganda—the death panel conversation came up. You know, those are the things that are very powerful in people’s minds and it’s really the job of everybody who traffics in honest information to help people look at the facts rather than these emotional issues, you know, that they want to believe which often, as in this case, are untrue and damaging. So we’ve really got to be careful about that.
NELSON: Let me close with a final question. I guess this would be more toward Grant and Tom, Grant Barrett from voiceofsandiego.org and Tom Karlo from KPBS. The nonprofit model is – I mean it’s trying to get some legs here as far as providing news and information. NBC is a for profit station, the Union-Tribune is a for profit news organization. How does the nonprofit work and is that really the way of the future?
KARLO: Well, you know, for us, I don’t have to worry about…
NELSON: It’s always been that way.
KARLO: Yeah. I don’t have to worry about a 20% margin or a profit to investors or shareholders or a corporate company. As long as we finish a dollar in the black at the end of the year, I’m a happy boy. So for us, too, you know, the model in terms of commercial media and I think more of television and radio, is that you produce a program to make money. I mean, that’s the concept. And…
KARLO: …you put commercials on and it has to have a return on investment. But in our realm at KPBS, in the nonprofit mode, we raise money in a variety of ways…
KARLO: …including membership, corporate support and philanthropy to, in fact, produce programs that are of value. And those individual programs may not have a, quote, profit or a net…
KARLO: …revenue return. It is a matter that we make a decision on a program on its content and value…
KARLO: …and not on its return on investment. And I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to grow. We’ve talked about things cutting down but we’re adding 5 positions in our newsroom this year and it’s because I can take any net revenue or profit and reinvest it in the organization and not have to send it to a corporate person or…
NELSON: Grant Barrett, we’ve got just a couple of seconds left. Do we have much of a future…
NELSON: …based on foundations and philanthropists?
BARRETT: We do. As I said at the beginning of the program, voiceofsandiego.org, on a nonprofit model, has shown year over year increases in the amount of revenue that’s come in. We call that financial promiscuity, which is make sure that you don’t get all of your money from one source.
NELSON: Thank you. We’ve been talking about how changing – the changing media landscape is affecting the delivery of local news. I’d like to thank my guests this morning. Jeff Light, editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Greg Dawson, news director for NBC 7/39, Grant Barrett, engagement editor for voiceofsandiego.org, and Tom Karlo, general manager for KPBS. If you’d like to comment about this or any topic we’ve discussed today, go to KPBS.org/thesedays. I’m Dean Nelson sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh and you’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.