The way we tried to hold the line on quality was by laying out the front page each night, choosing the best stories and letting the rest fade away. But we had to have five or six good ones—which we sometimes did, half of them written by our reporting staff—and when we did, I was proud of what I saw in the morning.
But many times we didn’t have enough stories, and we were forced to layout some pretty heinous pages. Press releases from the city (which we accepted as “primary documents”), journalism assignments from a local junior college (a flurry of stories on cupcakes was one memorable result), and the adventures of a local self-promoting “ghost hunter” with a penchant for interviewing attractive women were among what came.
This got us in some trouble with our fellow local journalists. Some had minimal journalism credentials themselves, so they were fairly easy to ignore. Others seemed willfully to ignore everything good my staff did, and focused on the junk that showed up, of which there was, admittedly, plenty.
Our weaknesses were certainly clear, but I felt that what we provided in terms of increased coverage, as well as a greater depth—particularly in city government and business coverage—was worth the trade-off.
What concerned me most was that, other than a system of “badges,” placed on stories to identify who was a pro and who was a CC, the casual reader had no idea who was a journalist with journalism training and who was…not. On our front page, the stories all looked equal.
But they were not equal. Despite today’s proliferation of sites that are open to anyone, not everyone is a journalist, let alone a good one. Journalism is hard work, and finding good sources, quoting them accurately, and putting a readable story together without letting one’s biases influence the telling takes skill and a grounding in journalism standards. This should be apparent, but even now, the average reader is not particularly sophisticated when it comes to what they read.
On the other hand, a handful of our CCs were actually better informed, and better writers, than a lot of the journalists I’ve read. They knew their topic and they wrote marvelous pieces out of the best amateur impulse: Love of the subject. They remain one of the best reasons to read The Sacramento Press. But they are a minority.
Some of our critics had another good point: Writers who write well should be paid. I usually have been, and it was always hard for me to talk to good writers and ask them to contribute for free. Or for $25. Or $50. This is, in some ways, the new reality in journalism, and many start-ups and even established publications pay poorly.
But in general, here’s another “legacy” adage that holds true: You get what you pay for.
As quality control continued to be a problem, we hired one of our interns to manage the CCs—at least to the degree that they would allow themselves to be managed. It was ultimately their choice. But under her watch, we offered copy-editing (to take it easy on readers) and insisted that CCs who wanted to review a play or a concert go through us, after promoters started getting two or more requests for free tickets from people claiming to be reporters from The Sacramento Press.
And we dealt with divas wanting to cover all of the plays or comedy shows or baseball games in town. It’s a wonder the CC coordinator didn’t go completely mad. I would have.
And then there was the whole issue of deadlines. When someone is writing for free, enforcing a deadline is nearly impossible. So we had stories showing up eight hours late. Or two days late. Or four. Or never.
Nevertheless, our professional staff got kudos for their work from the people who mattered: our subjects and others who were watching closely. Members of the city council, the mayor’s office, homeless advocates, and the artists and business people about whom we wrote were pleased with the quality and attention to detail of my staff, and with our responsiveness to their concerns.