Newspapers and politicians share same dwindling base

I recently placed a help-wanted ad for a press secretary, someone to get out the word on behalf of the Women’s Caucus. Assemblywoman Patty Berg, my boss, will chair the caucus for the coming year, and it seems likely they’ll make news a time or two.
We heard from seasoned public-affairs veterans and fresh college grads. The qualified and the over-qualified sent resumes. People with experience in the Building, but with little experience with the press, also applied. There is an enormous amount of talent in Sacramento.
Very few members of the working press, however, sent in their resumes. But it wasn’t for lack of interest: It’s just kind of traumatic for a member of the press corps to seek a flak job inside the Capitol, unsettling to consider moving to “the dark side.”
Instead, reporters put out not-so-subtle feelers. They wonder out loud what a thing like that might pay. They say they might have a friend who’s interested. Most queries end after I make clear we’re not looking for the next Steve Maviglio.
Still, it’s easy to see why so many reporters do “turn to the dark side.” I did it myself a few years ago, and feel an embarrassing lack of regret. It’s especially understandable when you read so many tales of newsroom layoffs, buyouts and consolidations.
A lot of things are growing in California, but newspaper circulation isn’t one of them. Owners, threatened by myriad paper-free technologies–from Craigslist to the ubiquitous blog–want to wring even more from even less. Reporters and editors are put on notice that cuts are coming.
And yet savvy billionaires still want to buy newspapers, and they’re not doing it at fire-sale prices either, which makes you wonder why so many people are getting so rich on an industry that is supposedly in so much trouble. Who knows: The economics of paper and ink are as mysterious to most of us as the zeroes and ones that drive our computers.
A television-producer friend of mine is ready to make a switch of her own, from 15-second “stories” to long-format documentaries for the same news network. After so many years of rejecting every sentence longer than 10 words, it will take an entirely different part of the brain to weave a compelling tale over the course of an hour. But she’s determined. And where does she turn for help? To her friends from the world of the printed word, people familiar with stacking sentence on sentence, idea on idea.
That reminds me of a city council meeting years back. Council members were saluting top scholars from around the state who had enrolled as honor students at California State University, Long Beach. One by one the best and brightest headed to the podium to announce their major. Bioethics. Law. Anthropology. Psychology. Then a young woman leaned toward the microphone and said, “print journalism.” Not Journalism or Communications, but specifically and forcefully: “print journalism.” And I waited, pen and pad in hand, as the rest of the scholars made their way to the mic, half expecting to hear: “steam-locomotive repair.”
But that was nearly a decade ago, and the presses have been rolling ever since. And their sway over the political process remains as potent as ever. Voter participation seems to be in a parallel decline, and those citizens who actually do cast ballots are probably in the same dwindling pool of newspaper readers.
Patty Berg’s district, for example, runs from Bodega Bay all the way to the Oregon border, and is peppered with papers of all sizes: dailies, weeklies, every-other-weeklies and the occasional monthly. Which brings us full circle to that help-wanted ad in the first paragraph.
Will Shuck, a former
reporter for daily
newspapers in Long Beach and Stockton,
is chief of staff to
Patty Berg, D-Eureka

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