The Littlest Press Shop

Sacramento reporters like Brown’s scaled-back press approach; mostly

Just five days into his latest term in the Sacramento statehouse, California governor Jerry Brown announced that he was cutting $6.4 million from offices controlled by the executive branch, including his own. In a state facing a $26.6 billion deficit, the sliver of a sacrifice was a symbolic maneuver; preparing to argue with California’s Republicans for a tax hike to help close the hole, Brown was showing that frugality starts at home. He eliminated the office of the First Lady, ended the $1.9 million-a-year secretary of education position, downsized his D.C. staff, closed field offices, and—as promised in a debate with his moneyed-up 2010 opponent, Meg Whitman—cut his press and communications staff.

“Cut” might not be strong enough a term for what Brown did to the press shop, actually. “Slashed” works better. Or “hacked.” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s press operation was a Hollywood-style thing: separate press and communications offices that included, at their peaks, about seventeen total staffers. The slimmed-down Jerry Brown outfit has three: press secretary Gil Duran and two deputies (plus up to three interns at a time and a fellow).

The idea, says Duran, who has been in the top job for just over two months, is “about having what you need. If everybody works hard, we have adequate staff.” It’s a byproduct of Brown’s more as-it-comes philosophy. “Some people think they can control every news cycle and how things are perceived,” says Duran. “We simply focus on getting the governor’s message out. I think we’re more a traditional press shop.”

Sacramento’s press corps—itself cut, slashed, and hacked in recent years—has had to adjust. For the most part, the capital’s reporters seem pleased to see things getting “back to normal,” a return to the pre-Arnie days when reporters could catch the governor in the halls of the Capitol or swilling bourbon after hours at the Torch Club. But there are grumbles about a slower flow of information out of the newly svelte press office and its effects on transparency. And nearly all wonder how well the governor’s press trio will serve them when a bumper news cycle hits. In scandal-rich California, that test is likely to come sooner rather than later.

In some ways, Jerry Brown doesn’t need a press office at all, big or small. Brown is like his own press shop—and always has been—personally returning calls, happy to give frank if shrewd comment. He’s been back in office just three months and a number of reporters are already enjoying the retro vibes he’s brought to the capital. Unlike the celebrity governor who was perennially encircled by his entourage, Brown is out and about in town, striding down the corridors in the Horseshoe—the section of the Capitol that houses his office—and just as available for a quick comment or long spiel as he was while in office in the late seventies and early eighties.

“It sort of reminds me of every other governor besides Schwarzenegger,” says Bob Salladay, a senior editor at California Watch who covers Sacramento. Salladay, who worked for the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle before joining California Watch, recalls the days when governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis were often seen walking Sacramento’s alphabet streets. “My editor almost ran Pete Wilson over crossing the street in the capital,” says Salladay. Brown seems to operate in much the same free and visible way—nearly every reporter I spoke to mentioned a time they’d snatched the governor in a hallway for comment or spotted him out. Schwarzenegger, who would stay at the Hyatt Regency in Sacramento, took a car from the Capitol building to the hotel’s doors, half a block away.

Schwarzenegger and Brown’s style differences are just as pronounced when you get either man in front of you, say reporters. At press conferences, the former governor would take three to four questions before bowing out; the current governor spoke for forty-five minutes at his budget unveiling. One-on-one, some say, it’s just as hard to stop him.

Duran says the governor’s personality is a significant part of the reason the press office can function with such a small staff. Schwarzenegger’s communications office focused heavily on creating events around policy initiatives—sometimes using cheesy set pieces like fountains flowing with red ink to underscore the point—and the governor liked to be well prepared with detailed briefings. Brown prefers events that others have put together and likes to fly off the cuff when he attends them. There is just as much work, Duran and his staffers say, it’s just focused differently.

“Schwarzenegger always came off publicly, and I think privately, much more as a 30,000 foot guy—the macro guy,” says John Myers, Sacramento bureau chief for The California Report, a public radio show out of San Francisco-based KQED. “He liked to deal with the broader brushstrokes of the state’s problems and wasn’t well versed in the details, and didn’t want to be. He left that to his staff. Brown seems to be much more interested in digging down into details on the state’s problems and into addressing them all the time, in every place, in every way he can.”

Dan Morain, of the Sacrameto Bee, sees Brown in much the same way. “Even though the press shop is much, much smaller than it was under the other three governors that I’ve seen in town—Pete Wilson, Gray Davis, and George Deukmejian—Brown has been, at least in the first three months, by far the most accessible governor.” Morain remembers attending a cocktail party at a rival bureau where Brown arrived with his wife Anne Gust and just “held forth.” For how long, Morain can’t be sure—his feet grew sore, and after half an hour, he ducked out. “He may still be there for all I know,” he says, laughing.

For some, the freewheeling and frugal approach can be tiresome with the clock ticking down to deadline. Los Angeles Times Sacramento Bureau chief Evan Halper says that while he’s found it refreshing to have a governor who’s “been so open and quotable and frank,” reporters are only getting a “kind of random, weird, uncontrolled access to him.”

Sacramento reporters see Brown around, and if he reads something in the paper that he doesn’t like, a reporter can expect a call. But it’s hard to schedule time and coverage. “If you’ve got time to hang around the hallways, you’re going to run into the governor,” says Halper. “It plays to our advantages because we have enough people here that if we know he has some meetings, I can send someone over there. I’d imagine that for some of these smaller shops that are down to one or two reporters, it’s got to be really tough.”

It’s not just the increased if randomized access reporters are adjusting to: Brown’s press op is less of a boutique service than Schwarzenegger’s had been. With so many employees, the former administration acted almost as a research arm for some reporters, tracking down statements, data, and policy documents to provide the kind of contextualizing material for a story that they might otherwise have to doggedly report out. This freed them up to doggedly report out other aspects of a story. The treatment was also specialized—staffers had specific portfolios, both in terms of liaising with press operations at agencies and departments across the state, and liaising with the press. There was one staffer assigned just to handle editorials, for example.

Some reporters are thankful there are now fewer ignorable press releases to delete; “Less propaganda—even if it’s benign propaganda—is always a good thing,” says one. But others say they are finding it harder to get even basic information and comments out of the governor’s office. It’s pure mathematics: three people can’t do the work of a dozen.

“When you’re doing your day-to-day work and you need to get some information it can be very tough under this administration because they have a severely understaffed media operation,” says Halper. The issue then becomes transparency, he says. As the governor was moving back in to the Capitol, Halper says he could barely get a hold of anyone to comment on whispers he was hearing about lobbyists working on the transition team. The day before I called Halper in early March—more than two months into the administration—he was frustrated because the bureau had not been able to speak to Brown in time for a deadline. Five Republican state senators had written an open letter claiming the governor was refusing to consider their concessions on budget negotiations.

Things might be improving. When we spoke, Halper had also mentioned he was having trouble getting Brown’s people to engage on the issue of a large public database the Times had been fighting with the previous administration for access to. But a few days after we spoke, he e-mailed me, writing, “Need to eat my words. Just got word from our lawyer that the administration has engaged and supposedly plans to give us the data we need.”

“There’s some delay,” says KQED’s Myers, who likes Brown’s pared-back approach and its symbolism for a state so deep in the red. “There isn’t the same staff to deal with the flotsam and jetsam of questions you have about what’s going on and the administrations position on things.” He and others note, too, that the press operation is more decentralized. Schwarzenegger’s swollen press outfit would field calls on all issues—from water to prisons. Now, reporters can pick up the phone and more freely call press operatives in California’s myriad agencies and departments.

Whether they will be up to the task is another question. “We are definitely looking to slim down the departments as well,” says the press secretary. “There’s a hiring freeze so there’s a lot of vacancies that will not be filled.”

Duran is the kind of man who inspires confidence that somehow it will all be okay, even if you can’t quite figure out how it possibly could—which is, after all, his job. At thirty-four, he has worked as a press secretary for Brown once before, when Brown was mayor of Oakland in the mid-2000s, and for L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Before coming to Sacramento, Duran was Senator Dianne Feinstein’s communications director in D.C., and he has a young Washingtonian’s sunlight-shunning work ethic. He’s up at 5.15 a.m., never home before 7.30 p.m., and was in the office the Sunday before I spoke to him, shooting the governor’s first YouTube address.

When we chat, he insists that his tiny staff of equally hard workers is up to the task of handling press for the head of the world’s eighth largest economy. The team is busy, but everybody pitches in, he says, answering phones and writing press releases (one reporter described the operation as “quaint.”) When I ask about charges that the office can be slow, he says that he and his staff comb through phone messages and e-mails every night and that “everybody gets a call back.”

They might not, of course, get the answers that they’re looking for all the time. Or get them immediately. With so few staffers, the team must prioritize. I called three times and e-mailed twice before getting Duran on the phone. After we spoke, he wrote to me unprompted to say, “By the way, I would have called you back sooner but I knew it was a magazine/blog piece and I had some time.” And there went my lede.

Duran, who admits to being something of a pressure junkie, doesn’t spend time worrying about how small his team is. He wouldn’t even if he had the time to spare. “It would be nice to have another person but I’m not counting on it; we have higher priorities right now,” he says before shrewdly putting it back on us—the always-frustrated pen-and-notepad class. “I would think that reporters understand how it is. Newspapers have been downsized as well. As a reporter you’ve got to do a lot more stuff. I’ve seen people carrying around cameras—talk about juggling.”

And for the most part, reporters do seem to understand. Anthony York who covers the governor for the Times, says that while, yes, turnaround isn’t necessarily as quick, “It’s like a restaurant, you don’t want to judge it too much until it’s been open for a couple of months.” One of the difficulties, says York, is that there are few pre-existing relationships between those in the press shop and the reporters they now work with. They’re still in the courtship phase. He says the responsibility to get things working quickly is just as much the journalists’ as it is the governor’s staff. “It’s incumbent upon journalists to articulate their concerns and to make clear to them: you can’t disappear when I’m on deadline. You can’t just not answer your phone or not respond to e-mails.”

“We try not to judge a press office in the embryonic stages of an administration,” Halper agrees. He insists that despite his few gripes, he’s been generally impressed by Brown’s press operation. “To be frank, there were people who Schwarzenegger brought in who we just thought were complete incompetents in the beginning and they grew into some of the most seasoned professionals in the business. And Brown’s shop gets better every day.”

But it has yet to be truly challenged, say most of the reporters I spoke to. “It’s a gamble when you have a strategy like this,” says Myers. “Right now it’s working for him because he only has one thing he’s doing and that’s the state budget problems. It’s hard to know how that’s going to work when multiple things are happening at multiple times.” Halper helps paint such a situation: “Frankly, if we have a major earthquake at the same time as we’re trying to have a special election to get tax increases extended, and then something else happens, like a fire, any administration is going to be hard-pressed to handle it, even the last one with its press operation of seventeen. I don’t see how these three people get all the information coordinated and out.”

Deputy Press Secretary Elizabeth Ashford says her team is already handling a tough news cycle spinning with big-ticket events. “I think the press sees our world through the lens of what they’re writing about on any given day,” she says. The budget crisis drags on and draws focus, true, but the tsunami that followed this month’s earthquake in Japan did more than $40 million worth of damage to the California coastline, and the administration has been sending resources to Japan as well as coordinating diplomatic outreach. Plus, adds Ashford, there is the busywork that comes with any new administration—one of the most labor-intensive and complicated phases of any governorship.

When I ask Duran about the prospect of a more tumultuous news cycle, he is more cavalier than his deputy. In fact, he sounds a little like his boss. “We can do anything,” he says. And he’s happy to act like the boss too: one of Duran’s first moves was to implement cuts of his own, cancelling a subscription to a morning news clips service that had cost the office over $200,000 a year. “Whatever the governor has to deal with is what we have to deal with.”

Surely though he’d call in some extra hands help in the office should multiple stories explode? “No,” he says, echoing again like the folksy new throwback governor. “I would bring a blanket.”

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,