Marcia Parker, the publisher and COO of CALmatters, was honored this month at the 140th Annual Winter Meeting of the California Press Foundation with the Jack Bates award. Named after the executive director of the California News Publishers Association, this award is given to “an individual for distinguished service to the California Press through effective leadership in addressing newspaper challenges and assisting journalism education.” Previous award winners include Richard Cameron, a journalism professor at Cerritos College, and Karlene Goller when she was the deputy general counsel at the Los Angeles Times..
Marcia joined CALmatters in February to help our nonprofit news organization build a sustainable business model. When she’s not raising money, she’s working with our 137 media partners, doing community outreach across the state and much more. Marcia recently also accepted an invitation to join the board of the Institute for Nonprofit News.
Despite our crazy schedules at CALmatters, Marcia manages to find time to mentor journalists, advise media startups through the Matter accelerator, lecture on innovation ot Northwestern University’s San Francisco campus and be actively involved with the Online News Association.
After a long career in newspapers in many decision-making roles, including as managing editor of the Contra Costa Times, she taught at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism for several years and ran summer professional development programs for California newspapers and training programs for high school journalism teachers. She later managed AOL’s Patch hyperlocal news sites on the West Coast.
If you care about this state, it’s time to sound the alarm about the crisis in media and what it means for the health of democracy in the world’s sixth largest economy.
Media is declining nationally, but unique pressures have made California into America’s laboratory for a dangerous experiment about what happens to the public interest when policy is made without the public’s awareness or accountability.
In just the last three weeks, four major announcements about California media indicate a troubling downward spiral is accelerating.
The state’s leading paper, the Los Angeles Times, launched a “sweeping reorganization.” Its newsroom also voted 248-44 to unionize and the publisher behind the reorganization (the fourth in the last four years) was put on leave during an investigation about sex harassment.
The Sacramento-based McClatchy Co., the nation’s second largest newspaper chain, also announced a major reorganization, followed by resignations of editors at the flagship paper, the Sacramento Bee, and at the Fresno Bee. The reorganization comes after the company lost nearly $240 million in the third quarter in 2017.
Digital First Media, the Denver-based publisher of several prominent California newspapers, began the second round of newsroom layoffs in less than a year. Before the latest cuts, there were 39 newsroom staff at the chain’s Mercury News in San Jose, down from 440 in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, in the online world, Facebook announced a new algorithm that downplays news publishers, causing speculation about whether the negative impact will be a “5 percent tweak or a 50 percent catastrophe.” The change prompted an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg from San Francisco Chronicle editor Audrey Cooper. “The San Francisco Chronicle won’t go out of business because of this decision,” Cooper wrote. “But smaller publications very likely could, and virtually all news organizations will lose money that pays for reportage.
It’s hard to say what these changes mean for these publications. Is there still some chance of turning around the trends? If not, how much longer can they last?
But this is a story about what’s at stake for you. What difference does it make if they shrink or close? Why should you care?
I believe the stakes are high indeed—it’s also why I co-founded CALmatters, a nonprofit journalism venture that works with all of the state’s badly needed media to raise awareness about state issues.
You will see one of the best examples of the impact of media decline this week when Gov. Brown gives his final State of the State speech.
In the 1990s, when I covered this annual speech for the LA Times, it was a major event. It came in the evening so it could be broadcast statewide in prime time. The day of the speech, reporters spent hours in briefings with cabinet members and staff explaining the policy initiatives that would be introduced in the speech. Back then, there were more than a dozen journalists in The Times Sacramento bureau and page three of the paper’s A section was dedicated every day to news about California only. The State of the State speech was always on page one.
As recently as 2007, the year the iPhone was introduced, there were 34 newspaper stories about the State of the State speech by our previous governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. But last year, there were only six about Brown’s speech. Nine of the publications that covered the Schwarzenegger speech no longer have reporters in Sacramento.
Brown is also the first governor in decades who has not followed his State of the State speech with a traditional appearance at the Sacramento Press Club. It wasn’t long ago that the tradition ended, but most reporters covering the Capitol today have never seen a governor at the Press Club.
There are many consequences to the public interest and the quality of state decision making when reporters aren’t asking questions and the public has little awareness about the issues or the debate.
Special interests, of course, have as much at stake as ever and their influence is only increased when there is less scrutiny.
Like climate change, it’s also hard to attribute individual events to the greater trend. But if news about the state is diminished, it’s obviously harder for citizens to participate in a process that can’t function without them. So it should not be surprising that fewer than half of registered voters cast a ballot for governor in 2014, a record low.
The governor should also know there is risk to his own policies when major decisions are made without engaging the public.
When I covered Gov. Pete Wilson, there was a common playbook when the governor wanted to use the bully pulpit to pressure lawmakers by getting the public behind his major initiatives. The story was often leaked to me at the LA Times in hopes it would run in the Sunday paper. Then the governor would do a press conference in Los Angeles on Monday because that’s where he could get the best television coverage.
The media is no longer part of the policy process like it was then. And neither is the public.
One of the best examples is the recent response to the state’s crumbling roads and highways. It’s an enormous problem with a backlog of repairs estimated at more than $135 billion. It’s so bad that the governor called a special session to try to fix it and traditionally Republican business groups got behind a tax increase.
But there is no more bully pulpit in California. The governor made little use of the media to help the public understand the need for a major expense and to help legislators cast a risky vote. Instead, the plan that includes a 12-cent increase in gas taxes passed largely out of sight—narrowly—with $1 billion worth of backroom deals to key legislators.
Now, one legislator is facing a recall for his vote and an initiative to repeal the gas tax increase is likely headed to the ballot, with opinion polls indicating there may be a public backlash from an uninformed electorate. If the repeal passes, it’s back to square one for the next governor.
California is facing many other big issues today. It has the nation’s highest poverty rate. Half of California households are struggling to afford the roof over their heads. Schools suffer a yawning academic achievement gap. And public pension debt is threatening bankruptcy for municipalities.
It’s also an amazing state that is leading the world on climate change and its futuristic tech- and trade-driven economy is doing so well that it just set a record for unemployment and tax revenues have increased the state budget under Brown from $130 billion in 2011 to $190 billion this year.
So what is the State of the State? Most Californians will never hear what Brown says it is in his speech on Thursday. And if it’s a question you want answered, it’s time to sound the alarm about the state’s rapidly deteriorating media. Your support of CALmatters will also help our work to provide all of the state’s media with news about California that matters.
CALmatters is pleased to announce three new additions to our Sacramento-based team, starting in January. Since our launch in 2015, the new positions will grow CALmatters’ total staff to 18 full time members. The jobs — for social media, videography and higher education coverage — will expand CALmatters’ coverage and improve our ability to explain important state issues through new storytelling formats.
“This is a big boost for CALmatters to attract top-level talent with the cutting-edge expertise it takes to communicate in today’s rapidly changing media landscape,” said David Lesher, editor, CEO and co-founder of CALmatters. “We are grateful to the donors who make this work possible and who support our non-profit mission to increase awareness, accountability and transparency about the major issues in California.”
Meet the new team members:
Byrhonda Lyons will produce video journalism at CALmatters. She developed social media strategies and video content that significantly increased traffic for environmental government agencies in California and Montana. She is the creator and host of a podcast on American history and former morning drive host on public radio in Montana. She was a writer and editor for publications in Oakland and in San Quentin state prison. She has a masters degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.
Felicia Mello will cover higher education for CALmatters. She is an award-winning, multimedia journalist with experience producing stories online, in newspaper and magazine print publications and on radio. She was an editor at patch.com and director of an online publication in Las Vegas. Her freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, the LA Times Magazine and National Public Radio. She has a masters degree in journalism from UC Berkeley and she speaks fluent Spanish. CALmatters thanks the College Futures Foundation for supporting this position.
Trevor Eischen is the social media editor for CALmatters. He was the Social Media Editor at Politico in Washington, DC. where his work and strategies have increased Facebook and Twitter traffic more than 200% in 2.5 years. Trevor was responsible for training a 200-person newsroom and distributing multimedia political news on a range of online platforms. Earlier, as the Senior Web Producer at Politico, he worked with developers to optimize the user experience. Trevor has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and history from the University of Missouri.
The additions in January follow recent CALmatters announcements about the hiring of Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar to a new position as Director of Revenue and the election of Richard Koci Hernandez to the Board of Directors. Priyanka, a former marketing director at Informa and entrepreneur who launched one of the first hyper-local news sites in California, will lead CALmatters work in developing earned revenue. Koci, as he is known, is an internationally recognized innovator in multimedia and an associate professor at UC Berkeley. He is working with CALmatters and Byrhonda, a former student of his, to develop CALmatters video strategies.
CALmatters, an independent and non-profit organization, is now the largest news media covering state policy issues in California. Its work is shared with more than 130 online, print and broadcast media partners statewide. Its reporters cover all of the major issues in California including education, the environment, healthcare, poverty, politics and fiscal issues. It has ongoing and major collaborative projects with the Los Angeles Times and with leading radio stations under a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For more more information, go to calmatters.org where we encourage you to sign up for our newsletter and to support our work by becoming a member of CALmatters.