APTOS, CALIFORNIA — At political news and analysis website CalBuzz, newly elected California governor Jerry Brown is known simply as “Krusty.” His high-spending Republican opponent in the 2010 gubernatorial election, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, is “eMeg.” And so, while most Californians still got their earnest doses of 2010 election news from papers like the Los Angeles Times, The Sacramento Bee, and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as from the local legacy TV and radio stations, a tuned-in slice of the state’s political cognoscenti gathered at CalBuzz for stories like “eMeg vs. Krusty: The Empire Strikes First” and “Humpday: Bell Chimes for Krusty, eMeg in 2016!”. The dispatches were longer than you would find in most newspapers, and laced with sharp insights into both how political California works and why candidates were failing to work it. The writers offered blistering analyses–one of the site’s taglines is “Shooting the wounded since 2009”–and were clearly having fun as they did.
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Skimming its back catalogue of sharp, nickname-laden writings, you might assume CalBuzz is the work of a group of web-native twenty-somethings who grew up watching Simpsons re-runs. In fact, CalBuzz is the work of two well-over-twenty-somethings who grew up in the newspaper business watching little but state politics: Phil Trounstine and Jerry Roberts. Trounstine is the former political editor of the San Jose Mercury News, communications director for recalled governor Gray Davis, and founder of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University. He retired in 2008. Roberts, a former political editor and managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, is famous as the editor who resigned from the Santa Barbara News-Press in 2006 over editorial interference by its owner Wendy P. McCaw.
The pair launched their site in early 2009; they had always wanted to work together, and the timing was finally right. It wasn’t just that both were in semi-retirement. “We felt that with the contraction in the newspaper industry there was very little solid political reporting being done in California,” Trounstine explains. “We particularly felt that nobody was really cutting to the chase and telling uncomfortable truths that needed to be talked about. We were sitting on the sidelines, throwing our shoes at the television set, and we felt we could make a contribution.”
They thus employed a style that is now characteristically CalBuzz: longer pieces that mix original reporting with analysis and media criticism, and that are blunt in their assessments of candidates and campaigns. The focus is politics rather than policy, says Trounstine. During the campaign, he says, they focused on shaping the conversation and defining the narrative. “We asked, ‘Who is Meg Whitman? What are her strengths and weaknesses, what’s wrong with her candidacy, and what’s right with it? What about Jerry Brown: Is he really a flake or a visionary?'”
A typical CalBuzz post is this post-election piece from December 2010 calling out eMeg’s consultants for refusing to attend a public gubernatorial race debriefing. Trounstine and Roberts open by comparing the consultants’ “cowardice” to Dick Cheney hiding in a bunker following the 9/11 attacks. They later translate a reported quote in which one consultant explains why they aren’t attending: “In other words: fuck you fucking fucks.” At the end of the story, they re-extend a long-standing invitation to Whitman to have dinner with them.
The web gives Trounstine and Roberts liberties that they could never take in ink. “For one thing, there isn’t the ossified structure of a newspaper where you have layers upon layers of editors and an excess of propriety and caution that most newspapers suffer from,” says Trounstine. “Writing on the Internet gives one the freedom to speak more freely. A website gives you a great opportunity to cut through the miasma and get to the heart of the matter. Plus, in this particular case, Roberts’s only editor would be me, and my only editor would be him.”
There are other people involved in the project, too. Trounstine and Roberts posted their first piece of CalBuzz commentary in March 2009 on a crude site using the Google-owned Blogger publishing platform. Six months later, Trounstine’s stepson Patrick Wilkes stepped in to design their current WordPress site; he is occasionally called upon to solve technical problems. Calbuzz pays Chronicle cartoonist Tom Meyer for a weekly political cartoon, occasionally features unpaid guest columnists, and employs a part-time salesperson to sell ad space on commission, mostly to political campaigns. “We’re a for-profit to the extent that there’s any profit,” says Trounstine. Neither reporter takes a draw from the site, but revenue covers travel expenses from Trounstine’s home in Apros, near Santa Cruz, and Roberts’s in Santa Barbara.
Between them, the two newspapermen have a combined sixty-plus years of experience covering California politics and, among political reporters and politicians, they have name recognition. “We’ve both known Jerry Brown since the seventies,” says Trounstine. Since launch, they have used their brand to quickly draw in and hold onto a small but loyal audience of consultants, lobbyists, office holders, writers, and other “people in and around political action in California.”
Politicos inside and outside of California are noticing Calbuzz’s influence. The Washington Post‘s The Fix blog named the site one of the best state-based political blogsas did Slate in 2010. The same year, Sacramento’s Capitol Weekly named Trounstine in Roberts in their annual top 100 list.
In that list, the pair came in just behind Jon Fleischman, who runs the conservative California political blog, FlashReport. Fleischman has been described in typically CalBuzz style by Trounstine and Roberts on their site–“knuckle-dragging blogger,” “feudal yeoman”–and has his own nickname to sit alongside eMeg and Krusty: Flash.