Starting Nov. 2, the newspaper I once edited, the Oakland Tribune, will be officially dead, its remains combined with several other papers under the name East Bay Tribune. This may make Oakland the largest city in the United States without a daily newspaper all its own. But what does that mean?
As the managing editor in 1991 of the Tribune owned by Bob and Nancy Maynard, I ran a newsroom with 130 full-time professional journalists. Attrition over the decades has left today’s Tribune with just a dozen reporters. That’s less than 10 percent of the staff we had. As the FCC’s Steve Waldman reports in Information Needs of Communities, the biggest impact of this shrinkage is a shortage in something called “local accountability journalism.”
Here’s just one example of why journalism matters and what Oakland has really lost:
Twenty years ago, 10,000 people fled for their lives when a 2,000-degree inferno raged over three square miles in the city, killing 25 people and gutting more than 3,000 homes – the most destructive wildfire in state history. During the first week, the Tribune published 500 stories, columns and photographs, the entire staff working 20-hour days. We created a hot line and began publishing a free bulletin board that people used to find loved ones and donate things to families who had lost their homes. Within 48 hours, a nine-member investigative team had filed more than a dozen public records act requests. Within a week, we published Bitter Lessons, which explained a dozen things the fire department and city had done wrong and needed to fix to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again. On the first day of the 1992 session, the state legislature took up 10 fire-related bills following up on the issues we had raised, things as basic as banning wood-shingle roofing. We stayed with the story, helping the community rebuild. (For more details, see the letter I wrote at the time here.)
If the same kind of disaster were to strike Oakland today, could the dozen remaining reporters do what ten times as many did before? No. There would be good social media helping people replace lost items but not the kind of investigation that changes laws – local accountability journalism – and that’s what’s been lost with the collapse of the economic model for traditional newspapers. Bob Maynard called the daily newspaper “an instrument of community understanding.” We need some new instruments, more projects like California Watch. The faster we can put new news organizations and forms of journalism in place, as the Knight Commission argues, the better off we all will be.