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The Big Picture



Open any sports page in just about any newspaper and you get a great rundown on what's happening with teams from around the state and nation. But that's not the case for news.

The local papers here tend to give you a smattering of somewhat relevant local news, one or two of the biggest national stories off the wires and very little that happened elsewhere in the state. To stay informed, I read the Times-Standard, the Eureka Reporter, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Arcata Eye and I listen to National Public Radio. But I shouldn't have to. And I still don't feel very informed. Try this: Google the term Google News Map and you'll find a nifty site that ranks news stories in a visual presentation comparing news obsessions across the world. It gives you an idea of the stories you miss.

It is frustrating when a story not covered is one that is both important and relevant. That was the case with the state legislature's failure to pass a budget over the summer.

Considering that California is one of the world's largest economies, when legislators here leave for vacation without a budget in place it is a pretty big deal. For many people in Humboldt County, the state budget crisis equaled personal crisis, because payments from the state disappeared for almost two months. If you live paycheck to paycheck, that's a long time to be without one.

Between all the local papers there were just a handful of stories on the effects of the budget stalemate here in Humboldt County. I found that surprising. The state is the largest employer in the county and an awful lot of people here depend on state-funded social services. I have no idea how many small businesses supply goods to the state, but I'd bet the number is significant.

But then there's this: According to the San Francisco Chronicle on Aug. 14, a Harris Poll found that 51 percent of respondents said they paid no attention to the budget impasse and only 12 percent said they paid a lot of attention.

As a newspaper publisher, I might say that means that readers don't see the issue as important or relevant to them. The Chron said "The findings were not surprising given the often abstract nature of government finance ..."

Geographically, we are a long way from Sacramento. It seems like dollars take a long winding route getting from there to here. But I think we have a chicken and egg problem here. A story rarely becomes a story until a reporter does the story. If newspapers begin with the idea that government finances are abstract, that's how they will report them. And if stories are written that way, they will likely be dull and readers won't care about the issue.

It's the job of the press to not just report an issue but to get readers to care about news that's important. To do that it's the reporter's responsibility to spot the relevancy for the reader.

The combined handful of stories that the Times-Standard and Eureka Reporter did were good stories. They focused on real people hit hard by the budget crisis. T-S reporter Karen Wilkenson wrote about a child-care center operator in Briceland that had to borrow money to pay employees. Steve Spain from the Eureka Reporter noted that some state-funded children's centers were on such a thin thread they couldn't afford to make repairs or buy extra toilet paper. Carol Harrison at the ER reported how the stalemate cost Mad River Hospital $30,000 a month in interest payments on loans needed to cover lost Medi-Cal reimbursements, and how one nursing home in mid-August was waiting on $250,000 from the state that hadn't come.

But the impasse lasted almost two months. And it occurred during the summer when in Humboldt County, things couldn't get any slower. It warranted continuing coverage.

Here's some stories we missed:

On Aug. 10, the Sacramento Bee reported that a North Highlands computer company was waiting on $500,000 for hardware and software it sold to the state. An owner of a company that supplied water-softening salts to state prisons saw its cash flow evaporate. On Aug. 19, the Bee reported that some 266,000 college students in California might not get some $6 million in student aid in time for the start of the school year and 1,600 former foster kids wouldn't get some $6 million in aid owed them.The story reported that 70,000 community college students depended on state aid that was held up.

On Aug. 16, the Press Democrat reported that the stalemate was holding up some $10 million in Sonoma County roadwork projects, not counting Highway 101 projects. On Aug. 21, the paper reported that a women's health clinic in Santa Rosa was able to stay in business only because a small lender had advanced it an interest-free loan.

In the San Francisco Chronicle's Aug. 16 "Two Cents" feature, people expressed concerns that the budget impasse would disrupt chemotherapy treatment, Alzheimer's services, Cal State faculty raises,a small business' pending contract with the state and physical therapy at an adult day care.

The local papers should have seized the opportunity to explore how dependent we are on the state, and how many people and in how many ways politicians and policy makers in Sacramento can disrupt our lives. Instead of seizing on data that shows that people don't care about an issue that is really important, they should see it as a challenge: Here's an important issue that people don't understand. How can we, as the press, get people to care?

Here's what I'd like the local press to do next time a big story happens on the state level: Gather your reporters together from all your different beats — schools, business, city governments, environment, crime, etc. — and have them search out people on each beat affected by the state's action or inaction.

Or perhaps we have to take a completely different approach to state politics. After all, people are interested in the national sports stats not because they play sports, but more likely because they play fantasy sports. Perhaps we need to set up a fantasy league for lawmakers, with wins and losses measured by voting stats or the success or failure to pass bills and bring home pork. But wouldn't it be sad if the only way to generate more interest in state legislation was to give it a Second Life?

Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She can be reached at [email protected].

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