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Nuts and bolts



The problem with a daily newspaper format is the reporters feel compelled to report news daily, and readers get the impression that they need a daily news feed.

In a rural area, where for 50 years people from Cloverdale to Trinidad have talked about the anticipated start of the Willits Bypass, how important is it to learn every new fact about Humboldt County the second it happens?

Reporters at dailies tend to work so hard producing daily news that they don't have time to live life the same way as their readers. Most of us don't sit in courtrooms or city council meetings. We're at jobs where not much changes on a daily basis, and back home we watch our children and plants grow. The result is a daily disconnect between what's important and relevant to readers - such as the opening of the House of Omelets in Arcata, potholes in front of our homes and new programs for our young people and seniors - and the crime and court stories the newspapers feed us.

Consider a few of the big stories here locally this past month.

First the Eureka Reporter covered daily a misdemeanor trial in Ferndale. Then the Times-Standard did a series of stories on grand jury charges against the Blue Lake police chief over a suspended driver's license. Meanwhile, the weekly North Coast Journal spent 2,400 words on a tiff between Sacred Grounds and Bayside Roasters that led to a libel suit over a hijacked website and a $37,000 libel verdict.

Now, I know that even as I harp on relevancy, many readers came to this column only after satisfying their appetite for the latest tidbit about Anna Nicole Smith's baby.

It's not that the papers should self-censor news when a police chief in Ferndale tosses the dad of a wayward infant in jail overnight for body language that he felt translated into an unspoken obscenity. Or that it's not serious if a Blue Lake police chief improperly wields power.

But a reader often doesn't need more than the initial story and a clear definitive wrap-up when it is over. In the meantime, it's nice to know about street repairs, new houses going up, stores opening and closing and what's going on in the schools. If it weren't that the Arcata Eye's layout is so hard on the Arcata eye, I'd argue that Kevin Hoover's little rag is the most relevant read in the county.

Outside of a couple of dozen people in Ferndale and about a dozen people in Blue Lake, I can't imagine that many people were at the edge of their seats waiting for the latest news on those cases. The Ferndale stories only became a good read because of a strange in-print dustup between Ferndale Enterprise editor Caroline Titus and Eureka Reporter Managing Editor Glenn Franco Simmons over whether the Reporter's reporter made mistakes, and whether a letter to the editor from jailed dad Sean Marsh written in the third person was in fact sent to both papers and printed in only one.

As for the Journal's story, Hank Sims knows how to tell a good tale. But it suffered from the same flaw I've seen in much of the local coverage here: It missed the bigger picture. What's important about the coffee roaster libel story was this: That anything people do on the Internet is potentially libelous. That means that if you go around dissing your co-worker, neighbor, ex-boyfriend or boss in a blog or by shooting e-mails to everyone on your Outlook address book, someone could sue you for libel. Just check out some of the local blogs. There's small-town nastiness out there that that could result in serious libel sanctions.

Here's the bigger picture: Instead of one distracted dad and a rambunctious toddler on a Victorian Main Street, how many Humboldt County children are endangered because their parents in fact, or all but, abandoned them?

Instead of one guy in Blue Lake with a suspended license, how many suspended licenses do we have in Humboldt County? In November, the Times-Standard reported this in a 164-word piece about a sting the Eureka police set up: More than half of the people who get their licenses suspended in traffic court drive away from the courthouse.

Here's an example of how to do it right. On Feb. 6, Heather Muller of the Eureka Reporter covered the abandonment of a 5-year-old German Shepherd after its owner killed himself. Eight stories later (a ninth was expected Tuesday, after this column went out) her readers know not only that Humboldt County has a per capita suicide rate that's twice that of both the state and nation, but who the victims are, what their deaths do to their surviving relatives and friends and the many possible causes for their demise.

The research behind it is impressive, the writing terrific and the reader leaves each 1,500-word-or-so piece wanting to find out more. In trying to find an explanation, she even went to the National Weather Service with the data she compiled and had meteorologist Treena Hartley analyze weather factors according to the date and location of the suicide to try to rule out or nail down gloomy weather as a factor. And she took the time to track down and interview those left behind, which had to be a heart-wrenching experience.

What makes the thoroughness of this series so good is that it is about a serious topic that hits hard for all readers in Humboldt County. Many of us have had or known people who have suffered from depression, and I would guess that most people have had thoughts of suicide at least once in their lives. It's mysterious and dreadful and something we need to know more about.

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

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