Creative destruction. That's the term people in the news business bandy about these days in a sort of optimistic pessimism about the state of their industry. It comes out of economic theory that referred to constant change within capitalist systems. Out of this constant change comes a "revolt from within" when you have an area that stagnates. That's what happened when the oligarchic newspaper industry failed to change its basic structure even as both its customer and advertising base evolved. When industry gets so dug in that it can't make needed structural changes, it must be destroyed before it can be rebuilt.
When I read the Times-Standard, these days, I think about creative destruction in a sort of pessimistic optimism about the survival of our local newspapers. For too long, the Times-Standard has stagnated. But times were never this rough for newspapers. Hard times force us to assess what we can't live without and what we don't really need.
People who think I'm too harsh on our local papers argue that they operate with skeletal staffs on skeletal budgets. But I think a drastic reassessment of needs must take place. When you have little time, you don't spend four hours playing golf. When you have little money you don't buy expensive sneakers. If you flip through the pages of the Times-Standard it is clear that some things are essential and some can be tossed.
What should stay? News that as much as $100,000 was missing from the court system over an eight month period last year because of sloppy record keeping and probable embezzlement. And news that St. Joseph Hospital suspended four nurses and the nursing supervisor at its ICU, canceled the contract of the doctor in charge of the unit and that some sort of investigation is taking place.
A reporter from USA Today once told me that every time she hears about something that raises her eyebrows she wonders this: What's the chance it is an isolated occurrence? When $100,000 goes missing from the courthouse because of sloppy record keeping, you have to wonder where else we might find sloppy handling of government money. When you combine the St. Joseph's story with last year's story of a toddler overexposed to radiation at Mad River Hospital, you have to wonder what is going on in our local hospitals. Especially when St. Joe's won't publicly discuss its case and the California Dept. of Public Health earlier this year turned down Mad River's initial plan to correct its problems. We need more of these kinds of stories.
To expand under tight resources something else has to go. That's where creative destruction comes in. You must be willing to adopt radical ideas and destroy stuff you thought were basic. So kill the international and national news. It takes up too much newsprint and I know from worrying about the budget of the Lumberjack newspaper how much that costs.
Now I know how big a story Iran is these days and how important it is for people to be knowledgeable about the world outside Humboldt. But you can get online for free the same superficial international and national coverage that the T-S reports. So don't waste expensive newsprint on it. Readers can't find online what's happening in the county courthouse or at St. Joe's unless the local papers first report it. We also need more state news. When the papers report that state budget cuts will leave our low income residents without dental care or in-home health care we need to know how else the state budget crisis will affect us.
Here is my second radical idea. Toss out the idea of local competition. With the Eureka Reporter gone and every other paper fighting for survival there isn't any real competition. So while the Times-Standard doesn't have the staff to gather enough local news to fill those pages that now report the global and national news it could report news from other papers in the area if there were some sort of news sharing agreements in place that would be beneficial to all.
Another new term in journalism is distributed reporting. That's when reporters of different news agencies pool their resources to report a big story together. About four years ago I suggested to five local newspapers that together they come up with one topic relevant to local readers and pledge to devote one particular week each year to it. The individual stories would differ. But Humboldt County readers would get at least one week a year of deep coverage of an important issue and no one newspaper would have to devote tremendous resources to it. It would be a way of working together for the best interests of readers. Three of the papers yawned at the suggestion.
The big papers have been pooling resources for 150 years. It's called the Associated Press, which is currently led by Times-Standard owner Dean Singleton. If the local papers created a local AP we wouldn't have to have more than one reporting the same story. Together they would be able to report more local news. It would work if each paper assessed its niche and stayed within it and figured out a way to protect against or compensate for reader migration. To do that, you need to have a good sense of who your readers are and what they want and need.
Finally, kill post-event coverage. We don't need old news. Anyone who attended the Oyster Festival doesn't need to read about it and anyone who missed it doesn't care. Instead tell us whether it is safe to eat the oysters we buy. That's the type of news we'll eat up.
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism at Humboldt State University. She is the author of the book Investigative Reporting: From premise to publication, which has just been published by Holcomb Hathaway, Publishers.