Good Times Pajaronian
News

Lookout Local: Ken Doctor’s False Narrative About Santa Cruz

Media pundit Ken Doctor raised $2.5 million by shopping a false narrative that Santa Cruz is a “news desert”

In times when the “fake news” slur is deployed with regularity to discredit the media’s reporting, maintaining a news organization’s credibility is a baseline responsibility. So what does it mean if a journalistic enterprise’s founding mission is based on a bald-faced lie?

Media pundit Ken Doctor has raised $2.5 million by shopping a false narrative that Santa Cruz is a “news desert”—a community without reporting, one that’s uninformed and parched for news. It is anything but.

For decades, Santa Cruz County has been a hotbed of competitive newspapering. Even with print’s well-documented decline, Santa Cruz defies the trend, supporting multiple sources of local information. 

Although its newsroom staffing has suffered under the ownership of a Manhattan hedge fund, Santa Cruz still has a daily newspaper—unlike many communities of its size. The weekly of which I’m publisher, Good Times, has triple the daily’s circulation and this year was selected as the best weekly in the state, winning the California Journalism Awards’ coveted General Excellence Award. 

But wait, there’s more. The county is also home to Watsonville’s 152-year-old Pajaronian, which back in the day won a Pulitzer Prize and has been modernized since its purchase by Good Times last year. Likewise, the Press Banner, serving the communities of the Santa Cruz Mountains and San Lorenzo Valley, continues a proud 60-year legacy. Tiny Aptos, Doctor’s hometown, has competing community newspapers. And the all-digital Santa Cruz Local has gained traction with solid reporting and a bootstrapped community engagement model.

To characterize Santa Cruz as a news desert insults the amazing work being done by local writers and editors who have been covering devastating wildfires and an unprecedented health crisis under the most adverse conditions ever.

How did the Knight Foundation and the Google News Initiative take Ken Doctor at his word that Santa Cruz was a community that was without civic reporting? As they spend hundreds of millions on news experiments around the world, it’s difficult to do due diligence and fact check every claim of news desertification in grant applications. 

These well-intentioned media funders are trying to help save local news, but instead could wind up destroying the last of the authentic community voices. 

Lookout Local imports expensive Big City talent, such as the Chicago Sun-Times’ top editor. Doctor has also used his fat checkbook to raid the talent of local newsrooms, including Good Times and the Santa Cruz Sentinel, at a particularly fragile time, as newspapers struggle to survive the worst-ever advertising drop with so many businesses closing or operating at reduced capacity. 

I’ve watched digital news sites with similar funders cozy up to special interests rather than hold them accountable. They generally cover the obvious stories—such as crimes, press releases, dining news and scheduled government meetings—while chasing search terms in hopes of boosting traffic. They sometimes lock their premium content behind a paywall and use advanced tools cooked up in media labs to monetize their content. 

The albeit idiosyncratic nature of a small business-supported news model ensures independence, a variety of voices and is sustainable provided there isn’t subsidized competition to divide the traffic, drive up costs, strip-mine talent and undermine the marketing channels on which local businesses depend.

Independent local media has historically given voice to emerging journalists rather than get in bidding wars for established marquee names. Our company, which traces its origins to Santa Cruz in the 1980s, invests in the communities where we operate. We buy and renovate old buildings, start Restaurant Weeks, Burger Weeks and Beer Weeks to help the local restaurateurs, and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for nonprofits through our Santa Cruz Gives initiative.

If Mr. Doctor wants to make a genuine social contribution by erasing news deserts, he should take his millions and move to a real one. There are 188 counties in America without a local newspaper, according to the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Media.

Of course, that would take some real pioneering. 

Most of them are poor and landlocked, too far away to listen to the seals bark on West Cliff Drive or gaze over pinot noir vineyards in the Corralitos hills. 

Dan Pulcrano is the publisher of Good Times and the CEO of the alternative media group Weeklys.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Kate Pierce

    November 18, 2020 at 4:10 pm

    It’s easily summed up with one point: during the fires, when you were evacuated, did you once get useful and timely information from the existing local news? No, because they’re not staffed to offer in-depth, timely, fact based information. I think the editor of a local weekly doth protest too much—all fair minded jouramism is welcome, and any real journalist would agree. It raises everyone’s boat to increase the amount of truthful coverage in any community. Welcome, Lookout!!

  2. Amanda

    November 16, 2020 at 6:33 am

    Competition’s great but predatory competition—funded by tech giants like Google against a local business—is illegal and just plain wrong. Where will all the local organizations be left after Doctor blows through his millions, irrevocably damages the local media landscape and then shuts down because his experimental business model didn’t work?

    Remember Borders and Crown Books? Where are they now? Thanks to all the Santa Cruzans who stuck with a local business, Bookshop Santa Cruz survived. Capitola Book Cafe did not, nor did Plaza. And the community has less options and fewer local bookstores as a result.

  3. Karen Kefauver

    November 13, 2020 at 1:20 pm

    Newspapers have come and gone during my 25+ years in Santa Cruz, and I’ve written for many of them as a freelancer. Only time will tell.

    What’s different is Lookout is fully digital, an app, sparing the significant costs of brick and mortar, publishing and circulation. I figure it’s not so far off in the future that the Sentinel goes fully digital.

    Good Times seems robust to me; I just bought an ad. 🙂 (That will do it!) In any case, this article will provide priceless public relations for Lookout which many will have never heard of until now.

    Thank you, Good Times, for serving our community so well with excellent reporting for so many years. I am confident you will continue to do so with our support.

  4. Chris

    November 10, 2020 at 11:41 am

    Forgot to mention the San Lorenzo Valley Post and Mountain Bulletin, both of which are actually based in and write about the San Lorenzo Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Press Banner is based in Scotts Valley.

  5. Will

    November 10, 2020 at 7:37 am

    Someone is afraid of a little competition after being the only game in town for a couple years. This is good news for Santa Cruz and restores the balance of a free weekly and a strong daily news presence for the community.

  6. Natalie

    November 9, 2020 at 1:19 pm

    Soledad O’Brien said it best with Noah on TDS when she said that real journalism costs money, that’s why these big conglomerates just aggregate stories. Real shoe leather, overnight in hotel room stakeouts and whatnot are too expensive. Idiocracy is now a documentary.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Are you an earthling? Prove it with logic: *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

To Top