I have a to-do list on my desktop right now, and it is troubling me. On the list are six large investigative stories that need doing -- that really, really need doing -- and except in two cases, tips on those stories have arrived in the last couple of days, long after we planned out this week's paper.
You'd think a newspaper would be overjoyed to have such a full deck of story ideas. I'm not. I think the reason we're getting so many people calling in is that other Humboldt County newspapers have evaporated, or are evaporating before our eyes. The Journal has broad shoulders, but I fear that we simply can't carry the load on our own.
Not long ago there were something like 20 daily newspaper reporters working Eureka and the county, along with maybe 20 more at the community weeklies. Then the Eureka Reporter suddenly died, and the pool of daily reporters was instantly halved. The Arcata Eye, one of the nation's best community papers, shrank its page count and reduced staff hours. The McKinleyville Press is up for sale. Late last month, the Times-Standard, the other Humboldt County daily, announced that its staff would have to take mandatory week-long furloughs in the coming months, unpaid.
The Journal is doing far better than most other papers, but we're not immune. We've eliminated office perks. Most painfully -- for me, anyway -- we've had to cut back on our freelance budget. We've joined the long list of alternative weeklies who have cut their syndicated cartoons. We went from three "In Review" features to two. We stopped paying for poetry, though the poets, bless them, have continued to send it. And it's a big question mark whether we'll be able to run freelance cover stories anytime in the near future. This means that freelance stories like Carol Harrison's excellent, comprehensive investigation into the death rate at St. Joseph Hospital, which graced our cover last week, are out of the picture for the time being.
This will pass. Our budget doesn't have to bounce back much for everything to be back to normal, and I am told that there are signs that things are already re-bouncing for us. What I'm more worried about are those six big, time-consuming, important stories that need to be done now, and the two full-time news reporters we have to do them with.
The credit rating of Times-Standard's parent corporation, the giant MediaNews Corp. out of Denver, Colo., recently fell to the lowest level on the rating agencies' charts. One step above bankruptcy. "At the current rate of cash flow decline, it appears likely that MediaNews will pursue a restructuring of some kind over the near term, even following an amendment to the company's credit facility," says the rating agency Standard & Poor's. The company carries $1 billion in debt. The Times-Standard laid off features reporter Sharon Letts last week.
People have blathered about the coming death of the newspaper industry for a couple of years now. I doubt anyone expected it to happen this quickly, or that a burp in the general economy would have such a dramatic effect on the news business. From where I'm sitting, very scary times are ahead. If I could, I'd give you six good reasons why you too should be scared. Here's hoping that we'll be able to give them in the coming weeks and months.
Let's turn that frown upside-down, though. Have you visited the North Coast Journal's new, improved Blogthing? If not, hie thee to thy computer and check it out right away. You've got two options. You can go to the NCJ's Internet home (www.northcoastjournal.com) and click on the word "blog," or else you can just type the damned thing in directly: www.northcoastjournal.com/blogthing/.
What will you find there? One whole hell of a lot, that's what. The new Blogthing represents a major breakthrough in blog technology. What is that breakthrough, in a word? Autoblogging. Or, in two words, "automatic blogging."
Here's how it works. While you and I go about our business, a robot busily scours the Internet looking for relevant information to bring home and share. When it finds something worthwhile, it pauses for a millisecond, posts that information to the Blogthing and speeds off on its way once more. At which point we, the humans, Journal reporters and readers, pick up whatever little gem the robot has found and hold it up to the light, twirling it this way and that to examine its various facets.
Right now, the robot does three things. It watches a list of local independent blogs -- 43 of them, at this writing -- and informs us when they are updated. It peeks in on Sacramento to see if Sen. Pat Wiggins and Assm. Wes Chesbro have introduced any new bills in the state legislature. And it condenses and clarifies the Times-Standard home page, winnowing out the rewritten press releases and putting reporters' bylines up front. It does those three things right now, but soon it will do much more.
All that plus the regular posts and provocations from the Journal staff, as well as a bustling commentariat. The post-newspaper world has never been so exciting! Just one caveat: Don't use Internet Explorer 6, or the whole thing will look like barf. Maybe we'll try to fix that someday.