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.