Back when I was a young reporter at the Daily Californian in El Cajon, I had a publisher who I didn’t particularly like. I thought he was clueless about the news business and how reporters should do there jobs. I didn’t believe he cared about quality, and that whatever an advertiser wanted, an advertiser got. I didn’t like that. He was from the East Coast and often complained that anyone who went to a West Coast J-school hadn’t been properly trained.
His name was Paul Zindell. As far I know he’s now out of the newspaper business, but still lives in San Diego County.
Back then, I was a hard-charging reporter — completely faithful to the Church of Journalism. I believed in truth, justice and the journalistic way.
Mr. Zindell had a couple of famous catch phrases, phrases that still echo in the minds of all of us who once worked for him:
- We don’t need any Woodward and Bernsteins here
- I can get any mother off the street to write stories
- We don’t need to hang the mayor
Back in the day, I thought he was an idiot. These days, I think he was right — well, sort of.
There is and should be a place in journalism for Woodward and Bernstein, and there is a time to hang the mayor. It’s just that those situations are rare, and for the local journalist, pretty close to non-existent.
Ninty-eight percent of a local journalist’s job isn’t to be hard charging. It is tell the stories of neighbors and communities. The thing I realize about Mr. Zindell is that he angrily told us what we shouldn’t be, but he never told us what he should be. He didn’t tell us, because he didn’t know. He had only part of the insight, which was that local news isn’t about uncovering scandal. It’s about telling neighbors about neighbors. He never told us that.
But when I was at the Daily Californian I covered a story that taught me everything I really needed to know about local journalism. It’s a story that I reflect on often when I think about journalism these days. The story was about a young single mother with three children and a house. There was a big rain storm and the hill behind her house started to melt away, slowly sliding into into her rear sliding glass window. Over the next two weeks, I covered every inch-by-inch change of this woman’s life. Why? Because when I was out in the community, talking to friends, family and sources — it was the story everybody asked me about. Every where I went, everybody wanted updates. More than any “hang the mayor” story I ever wrote, the story of the mother without home owners’ insurance who was slowly losing her modest dwelling was the most read and talked about story I ever covered. There was no scandal. It was just a story of a neighbor facing a crisis. It was a story about a real person.
I still don’t agree with the way Mr. Zindell ran his paper, but if he had been able to do a better job of getting news staff to catch his vision (if what he was saying could be called a “vision”), the Daily Cal might still be in business today. It was that, and fixing a fully dysfunctional circulation department.
I now believe the best journalism, the jouranalism that is most needed, and the journalism that will save the journalism business, is the little journalism, the small journalism. It is the journalism Paul Zindell wanted but didn’t know how to ask for or get.
[tags]journalism, newspapers, el cajon[/tags]