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Milk the Story



In the Eel River Valley of Northern California everyone is tied by blood or business. That was how New York Times columnist Dan Barry led a March 23 story about how the collapse of the Humboldt Creamery affects dairy farmers here.

The column was 1620 words long -- almost as long as the first five stories combined that the Times-Standard devoted to the crisis in its first 11 days of coverage.

In one sense it isn't fair to compare the coverage at a small town paper with that of the Gray Lady. The lowliest Times reporter is at the top of the profession and is backed with the best resources in the business.

So let's compare the coverage with one of the smallest papers out there, the Ferndale Enterprise. On March 26, the Enterprise gave us a 935-word profile of Jose Alvarado, a 19-year employee of the dairy, now working 60-hour weeks as he worries whether he will continue to have a job. At home he's got four kids, including a three-month old baby.

The Enterprise has published 18 pieces on the crisis. I know this, because I was able to read them on the Web. The Enterprise doesn't publish its stories online. But it has posted its stories on the Creamery, because, it wrote, "of the importance of the story to our entire region."

That's a paper that gets it.

Back in 1991, I was a poorly-paid, inexperienced reporter for the Desert Sun in Palm Springs when the 7.5 magnitude Landers quake shook me out of bed at 5 in the morning. The top newspapers and TV networks flew in reporters from across the country. They were all far more seasoned than any of us and some came with star billing. But as the local paper, we considered the Coachella Valley and surrounding area our turf and no way would we let any national news organization put out a better story on the quake. The Desert Sun had the entire newsroom, including sports and the social columnist, on that story for what seemed an aeon.

When the CEO of your region's biggest business goes on the lam, that's a big story. And when you are a small paper and you get a big story, you sink your teeth into it and you don't let go.

I can't recall odder coverage in my five years as a Times-Standard reader. Ghilarducci disappeared for a week and the T-S reported the news with a 429-word story. It devoted more words to the guy with the Hitler assassination attempt documents. Since that first story, five reporters worked on Creamery stories, not counting a column by James Faulk. But it would be better to put one reporter on full-time. Five reporters working part time on a story can't develop sources. Remember how many stories Thadeus Greenson wrote about former police chief Dave Gunderson. The Creamery affects far more people than one crazy cop in a town of 1,100 people.

Six journalists, 10 stories, and the reader is left with more questions than answers. The longest story didn't come out until March 28, and that one was shorter than this column.

What about the milk? When I grab a carton of organic Humboldt Creamery milk I wonder how the creamery separates the organic cows/milk from the non-organic. That was before I had any doubts about the guy running the operation or the finances of it.

In Dan Barry's story, farmer John Vevoda says that the Creamery's collapse has put him in a cash crisis. He'll be forced to give his cows cheaper feed. As a milk buyer I ask: Can he do that? Do the milk producers not dictate the quality of feed? How bad a feed quality are we talking? Are there farmers even worse off that will use the worst feed, and how does that affect what's in my kid's sippy cup?

As investigators pore through the Creamery's cooked books, is anyone checking out the cows and the equipment? You might recall that shoddy operations at a one peanut plant forced an entire nation of school kids off peanut butter. Meanwhile I feel for Vevoda, who Barry said threw up in the middle of the night because of the stress this has caused. What are our other farmers going through? How as a community should we react? Is there anything we need to do?

James Faulk gave us this: "So, here's to hoping that Humboldt Creamery lands on its feet, that it succeeds despite what may have been the dishonest machinations of its former CEO, and that it continues to function as an example of what a locally branded company, one that stays true to its roots, can do. And I for one will be buying Humboldt Creamery milk."

He wrote: "I submit this column to the universe as a cosmic hail Mary on behalf of the company ..."

We don't need a Hail Mary. We need good information. It is hard for me to argue that the community needs to support the local paper, when people who comment to the paper's articles ask better questions than do the reporters who bylined the articles. The acting head of the company won't comment? Find other sources. In a small town it is hard to keep secrets. There's 200 employees at the company. Find them and call them. Find the dairy economist at Berkeley who can explain the ramifications. Maybe the cheesery up the road has a clue what's going on. This doesn't take investigative reporting. It takes old-fashioned reporting. You talk to one person after another until you figure out what the hell is going on. And then you let your readers know. That's what the Enterprise is doing. That's what the T-S needs to do.


Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism at Humboldt State University.

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