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A few months ago the Journal editorial staff was talking about cover story ideas and I mentioned that the Times-Standard would be celebrating its 150th anniversary -- its sesquicentennial -- this fall.

(Actually the newspaper began as a weekly on this very date -- Thursday, Sept. 2, 1854.)

Since there is no doubt that a region's daily newspaper exerts a powerful influence on the course of history by selecting what issues to cover, determining how those stories are reported and exerting its editorial leadership, I asked, what if we were to take a historical look at some of the more controversial and contentious episodes during the 150-year period through the eyes of our own daily?

I admit that my idea was a bit recycled. In my Mass Communications I class at Humboldt State University in 1972 -- taught by Professor Mac McClary, who unbelievably is still teaching today -- I researched and wrote a paper on why this county had voted against the Coastal Act of 1972 by a margin of 2-to-1 when much of the state voted in favor.

The Times-Standard was owned during that era (1967-1996) by the budget-minded Thomson chain of newspapers, the largest in the world in terms of number of newspapers. It was typically no-nonsense, pro-business and its coverage of the Coastal Act ballot measure, perceived as anti-business, was not entirely fair and balanced. (The paid advertisements at the time were downright shameful, but that's another story.)

For this week's cover story we enlisted the help of Susie Van Kirk, who many people view as this area's foremost historical authority on local newspapers. She helped select the topics, from the Indian Island massacre to the pepper-spray incidents, and she consented to be interviewed.

It's an interesting story. My feeling after reading the piece, by Journal Editor Emily Gurnon, is that I agree wholeheartedly with a comment made by Van Kirk: that the Times-Standard of old was no different than hundreds of other small-city dailies often reflecting the prejudice and biases of its owners and staff in each era.

We are now in a new era since the purchase of the T-S in 1996 by William Dean Singleton, owner of MediaNews. (See coverstory sidebar) If the previous owner, Thomson, was budget-minded, often sending net profits of 40 percent home to Canada, Singleton started out with more of the same, slashing editorial budgets of papers he purchased and often buying out the competition to create a regional monopolies. (The T-S bought the locally owned Tri City Weekly two years later, in 1998.)

But things began to change in the last few years, as noted by Professor McClary in this week's story. There are those who work for Singleton today who say he has mellowed and is looking more toward how history will judge him. For whatever reason, reporters and editors now say Singleton challenges each newspaper to closely reflect its own community and he believes that as a community changes, so should its daily paper. Staff vacancies are more quickly filled at the Times-Standard and budgets have been loosened. There are often up to 10 local stories on the first three pages every day and the quality of reporting is improving as well.

To us newshounds, these changes better serve our communities and are much welcome. Competition is a good thing.



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