In Humboldt County, some people think about mileage when shopping for food. Not in terms of how much gas it will take to get to the Safeway, but how many miles the food traveled before it landed on the store shelf.
Enviro-foodies tell us that if you care about global warming you need to focus your diet around food that traveled no further than 150 miles from farm to table, or you will warm the Earth each time you heat your dinner. Buying local helps keep the local economy healthy, too.
People need to think about the information they consume the same way they do about the food they eat. That's because the news industry these days looks very much like agribusiness. And if we don't pay attention and value where the news we read, see or listen to comes from, we will find ourselves eating information produced in bulk by low-wage workers from someplace far away. And I don't think that's healthy for our community.
That's the fear that rippled through the news industry last week when William Dean Singleton, the head of MediaNews Group of Denver, told an industry group about how he plans to further consolidate his newspaper empire. Already his newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area -- the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times and those belonging to what used to be the Alameda Newspaper Group -- are all edited from a central location.
I must admit that on one level the concept appeals to the former reporter in me. That's because my job satisfaction grew in proportion to the number of miles that separated me from my editor. The best job I had put me 3,000 miles from my editor. He might as well have been in India as New York.
And that's what Singleton thinks. He owns the Times-Standard and more than 50 other local newspapers in California. He also owns local newspapers in 12 other states.
For now, he is focusing on functions such as copy editing. And since his copy editors tend to be low-paid people straight out of college with little experience in their community, that job might as well be filled by a more experienced, educated person in India. When I first started out, every newspaper had an old guy on the copy desk who knew the name and occupation of every person in the community. But that guy went the way of the darkroom. On Oct. 20, USA Today quoted Singleton saying this after his speech to the Southern Newspapers Publishers Association: "In today's world, whether your desk is down the hall or around the world, from a computer standpoint, it doesn't matter."
I'm not one of those people who rail against outsourcing. We live in a global world and as long as the guy in Bangalore is paid a wage that enables him to feed his family a decent meal under a decent roof, more power to him and to the company that employs him. I'm against slave labor anywhere and in corporations that take advantage of desperate living conditions to eke out greater profits.
But I can't believe you can produce quality news thousands of miles from the locality where the news occurs. Singleton's vision would work if he were to consolidate back-of-the-newsroom functions and spend more on local news gathering. That means that even as he ships production jobs west, he hires more reporters here and pays them better wages so that they stay and accumulate valuable community know-how. You need the old guy in the back when you hire reporters from outside the community who leave every two years for better paying jobs.
You need to be nearby to report neighborhood news. It's hard to imagine someone from a consolidated reporting staff far from Eureka talking to Donald Keys at the Rescue Mission, as Sean Garmire did recently to try to put a human face to our homeless problem. But even if T-S Editor Kim Wear's job ends up in Pleasanton or Bangalore while the reporters remain in Eureka, the Garmires of the new paradigm would have a much harder time getting the OK to spend time and effort on such a story.
In June, Singleton gave a speech in Sweden to industry execs and quoted his company's mission statement: "To be the leading provider of local news, information and services in our strategically located markets by continually expanding and leveraging our news gathering resources ... We will continually strive to improve our profitability, while being a strong community partner and strengthening our work environment for our employees."
So I think it is important that Singleton understand what it means to be a strong community partner and that his readers and consumers appreciate the localness of the local news his papers produce.
A healthy community needs a good source of news and information; one that is fairly impartial and which exists to inform day in day out. Part-time bloggers and news hobbyists can't fill that role. We need newspapers, or at least electronic versions of newspapers, to be there to tell us things we don't want to hear, and to help us comprehend stuff happening around us that we don't understand.
If you are the type of person who cares about where your food is produced you should care about where your news originates as well. There is no organic label that separates the homegrown from the cheap import in the news business. But you should be able to smell the difference.