The Vallejo Times-Herald’s headline writer was decidedly NOT impartial this week.
Local commercial news media in one-paper towns are obliged to do their best to present a balanced perspective, especially on controversial topics. True objectivity is difficult, but the public’s primary source of news needs to do its very best.
And yet, consider the Times-Herald’s headlines Oct. 13-16, each of which accompanied a sweet photo of the fast-tracked Trump/GOP sham nominee, Amy Coney Barrett:
VALLEJO TIMES-HERALD HEADLINE DEPARTURES FROM ORIGINAL AP HEADLINES
Original AP headline on Oct. 13: “Barrett vows fair approach as justice, Democrats skeptical”
VT-H headline: Barrett vows fair approach
Original AP headline on Oct. 14: “Barrett bats away tough Democratic confirmation probing”
VT-H headline: Barrett unscathed by tough questions
Original AP headline on Oct 16: “GOP pushes Barrett toward court as Democrats decry ‘sham’”
When approached by email, Times-Herald Editor Jack Bungart let me know that staff does not write the paper’s headlines. Their “pagination hub” converts from an Associated Press headline according to “what fits in each situation.”
So who or what is the “pagination hub” serving our friendly staff at the Vallejo Times-Herald? Is there bias at work here? Who, exactly, is responsible for the seemingly partial editing of the AP headlines that came up with these pro-Barrett Times-Herald headlines?!
Come on, Vallejo T-H “pagination hub”. Who are you? In the future, give us a more nuanced and accurate first look at the day’s highly controversial news.
As I read the headline, “Times-Herald staff will work out of Vacaville office,” my heart sank a little. It’s a sad, albeit inevitable, sign of the times to see the Vallejo Times-Herald leave Vallejo.
My relationship with local newspapers began before I could read. Twice a day, the Vallejo papers (morning Times-Herald and evening News-Chronicle) were tossed onto the porch by a kid flying by on his bike. Between the covers of each issue lay a fascinating world of first, pictures and comics and later, articles and ads. As I grew, my favorite stories were society-related. Each baby shower, wedding and anniversary event carried 2-3 pictures, an extensive guest list (using the “Mrs. [husband’s name]” designation for the women) and descriptions of the fashions of the day on display.
There were the columns like Dave Beronio and Marion Devlin. Oh, and the ads — for the Redwood Inn, Levee’s department store, Terry’s Waffle Shop, the Grotto, City of Paris, Stillings toy store, Higgins shoes, Home Bakery, Market Town, Liled’s candy store, Casa de Vallejo, the China Barn, Red Top dairy, the Golden Bubble, Tarantino’s, Helen Lyall’s, the Village, Palby’s, Vallejo Travel, the Elbow Room, Passini’s, and later, on the growing east side of town, Rudy’s supper club, Purity market, Toby Jean’s hamburgers, Gentleman Jim’s, Springhill Foods and Yardbirds.
Over the years, I turned to the Vallejo paper daily for horoscopes, Ann Landers’ sage advice, to catch a movie (at the Rita, then then El Rey, and later at the Cinedome 7), see who was racing at the hardtops, and to check out the newest sounds at Munter Music.
As TV news gained prominence, the morning and evening editions of the Vallejo newspaper were combined into the one evening edition. However, the paper’s strengths of excellent journalists, columnists, photographers and staff were undiminished. The Vallejo Times-Herald gave us in-depth stories about the in-our-backyard Zodiac killings, lurid Associated Press pictures of the Vietnam war along with how our hometown recruits were faring, and extensive coverage of local sports.
We got the big Vallejo stories, like the sinking of the Guitarro, a nuclear submarine, in the Mare Island Channel (for which Vallejo was awarded “Laugh-In’s” ‘Fickle Finger of Fate’), Joey Pallotta’s world-record catch of the largest sturgeon ever out in the Carquinez Strait, and the amazing boosterism of local residents like my Aunt, Donna Jean Hines, to bring the Marine World theme park to Vallejo. We also got the “little” but vital stories, like upcoming class reunions, GVRD summer playground dates, and the annual County Fair prize winners.
The Times-Herald kept me informed as the city leaders tore down our Carnegie Library for an ugly, needed-but-not-right-there senior high-rise and closed lower Georgia street in the first of 37 failed attempts to “save downtown.” I heard they passed on Sunvalley Mall to build Larwin Plaza. Our community college left our community.
The Times-Herald covered local politics, protests, and picnics with equal zeal. It supported local arts organizations and locally-owned businesses, sponsored Little League teams and maintained a staff of crack reporters whose focus was (and has been) relentlessly local — bowling tournaments, Fourth of July parades, water and sewer rate hikes, church socials, car washes, Hal’s Appliance sales, elections, and the heart of any community: Births and deaths.
Vallejo’s diversity was and is its greatest strength. While much coverage was positive — Filipino community Pista Sa Nayon festivals, and (later) homegrown Black hip-hop stars, for example — the racism that stained every aspect of community life (so deep that Black residents had to literally build their own housing development, Country Club Crest, in order to buy a house in Vallejo) was seldom mentioned. The city leaders remained almost exclusively white, male — Mayor Florence Douglas notwithstanding — and (and since the closet was firmly shut, who knows?) straight, long past the Civil Rights and women’s movements and the rise of the fight for LGBTQ rights.
Times continued to change. A failed VTH strike in the ’70s, which birthed the short-lived Vallejo Independent Press, mirrored the nationwide decline of unions, manufacturing and working class-prosperity. Mare Island Naval Base, arguably the lifeblood of the local economy, closed after 125 years. Again and again, the city leaders’ nostalgia for a ’50s-style downtown won out over common sense, and commerce fled to Fairfield, Concord and Vacaville, resulting in even fewer print ads.
With the rise of the internet and the collapse of ad revenue, the Times-Herald, like most print journalism entities, began to shrink in earnest. The paper was sold to a chain, its building on now-Curtola Parkway, with its giant printing press, clocks of the world, darkrooms, news bays and clattering Linotype machines, also sold and eventually demolished. The staff downsized again and again, reporters doubling as photographers, columns and editorials increasingly nationally-syndicated, and local sports the biggest driver of community news.
Yet the Vallejo Times-Herald hung on, covering local arts, politics, education, business, sports and community events. I still subscribe today, from our retirement home in the foothills above Sacramento, to see who died, the specials at Gracie’s Barbecue and who’s appearing (pre-Pandemic) at the Empress. I read the wacky letters to the editor, featuring endless debates among five or so locals whose beefs go as far back as the Hatfields and the McCoys, and whose letters should be serialized so the occasional reader could have even a clue as to what they’re writing about.
I enjoy the latest jewel of artistic creativity otherwise unnoticed in our midst that Richard Freedman illuminates, and Brendan Riley’s periodic chronicles of our more distant past. Sadly — but glad that it is being covered — I keep abreast of the developments in the deaths of Vallejo residents of color at the hands of police that, if not in part for the dogged persistence of Vallejo journalists in continuing to shed light on these events, would not finally be gaining some statewide and even national traction.
The announcement that Vallejo Times-Herald operations are moving to Vacaville marks the end of an era — for journalism and for Vallejo. We all know what happened when the Contra Costa Times became the East Bay Times. Want to know about Oakland? Just pick up the EBT. Concord? Not so much. And local in general, vs. national/world news? Even less.
So I predict I will be learning more about Vacaville, and less about Vallejo, from the VTH (or soon-to-be “Solano Reporter?”) in the future. No offense meant. It’s the way of the world, and I want the VTH to survive in some, even regional, form so that our talented local journalists can continue to work, and so that “USA Today” doesn’t end up our local newspaper!
I guess we were lucky to have a hometown paper survive this long. That said, give me a moment to mourn and mark the passing of an enterprise that has informed and affected my entire sentient life. Maybe not perfect, just like our world, but trying its damndest to fulfill its mission – to reflect one community, at its best, worst and most mundane, for posterity.
Vallejo Times-Herald reporters, editors, circulation and advertising staff, I salute you for your diligence, integrity and commitment to my hometown, Vallejo. Thank you and farewell.
An economic free fall in the local news industry began long before the coronavirus started wreaking havoc on the national economy.
Since shutdowns to combat the virus began, things have gotten much worse, as advertisers halted spending and publishers slashed more journalists’ jobs and hours despite the public’s need for information on the pandemic.
Cuts to the industry have accelerated so greatly that groups representing journalists have taken a maybe unprecedented step and asked the government to help, by keeping the industry afloat financially during the pandemic and seeding its resurgence once the economy begins to recover.
“We have to treat this as an emergency,” said Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild labor union. “There is a real interest in public health to keep people informed in this crisis.”
Staff at the guild, which was founded during the Great Depression, said they cannot remember asking for taxpayer support. The role of the Fourth Estate in covering the government makes such a request awkward.
But since the pandemic began, newspaper chains have instituted furloughs of 10 to 25 percent of their staffs. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, which covers a metropolitan area of more than 2 million people, lost28 of its 32 union journalists this month due to new cuts. Papers in Seattle, Portland, Boston, Sacramento, Reno and elsewhere have suspended print operations and furloughed their staffs, according to Poynter.
In a span of two days, April 8 and 9, dozens of groups wrote to Congress asking it to support local news. The guild wrote congressional leadership seeking financial support as part of ongoing economic stimulus discussions. A long list of advocacy groups, led by Pen America and Common Cause, wrote their own letter. Industry groups led by the News Media Alliance and the National Association of Broadcasters wrote as well.
The cutbacks in advertising are “dealing a sharp and immediate blow to local news publishing,” said News Media Alliance president and chief executive David Chavern, in a statement. “If this continues, there won’t be local journalism in many communities.”
Although other industries have asked Congress for financial support due to the pandemic, requests from the news media raise numerous issues. Congressional leadership has not agreed on what another round of bailout money will look like, with some Republicans resisting policy changes that could benefit one industry or another.
Policymakers are also wrestling with whether aid that has already been approved, in the $2.2 trillion Cares Act, should go to companies that were already struggling. Retailers, for instance, have laid off hundreds of thousands of workers but may not be eligible for aid because of questions about their credit and viability. Many newspaper companies, such as McClatchy, which filed for bankruptcy in February, could carry similar concerns.
Policymakers have also resisted bailing out private equity funds, which have a habit of buying companies, including many newspaper publishers, and then siphoning off profits while cutting staff. Indeed, private equity firms have been behind many of the cuts that led to America losing an estimated one-quarter of its journalists from 2008 to 2018.
Some newspaper owners are likely to be eligible for aid from existing programs in the Cares Act aimed at benefiting workers in a wide range of industries. McClatchy, publisher of the Miami Herald, Kansas City Star and other regional dailies, declined to comment on what aid it might pursue, as did Tribune Publishing, owner of the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and other papers.
There is also the question of whether news publishers would sacrifice some of their independence in asking the government for a special carve-out the way hotels, airlines and other industries have.
Gannett, which recently combined with GateHouse Media in a $1.2 billion deal, announced last month that chief executive Paul Bascobert would stop taking a salary, that it would cut executives’ pay by 25 percent and that it would require most reporters and editors across the country to take week-long, unpaid furloughs on a rotating basis.
Gannett, based in McLean, Va., issued a statement saying it is considering some of the benefits provided to all U.S. companies through the Cares Act. However, the company said it has “no plans to pursue special relief from the government.”
“Maintaining our independence is critically important,” spokeswoman Stephanie Tackach said in a statement. “As a news organization, we play an essential role providing our communities with clear, up-to-date information.”
Schleuss said he understands why any publisher or journalist would be reticent to make such a request, but the pandemic created unique urgency to avoid what he called an “extinction-level event” for the industry.
The guild has called for financial support that requires recipients to remain independent from political influence, halt job cuts, provide board seats to employees and promote diversity and equity in newsrooms.
“In this moment especially, we have to keep journalists employed,” Schleuss said. “People are just hearing crackpot cures and ideas on Facebook because they have no other better source for information. And that’s a real shame for America.”
To address those concerns, members of Congress, who are focused on the issue, are highlighting the unique role that local news plays in society. Nineteen Senate Democrats, led by Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), wrote their own April 8 letter to congressional leadership, asking that any future stimulus packages related to the coronavirus contain funding to “support local journalism and media.”
“Such a provision should be tailored to benefit aid recipients who make a long-term commitment to high quality local news,” they wrote.
Other members of Congress are advancing more specific plans. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) has drafted a bill that would require half of government advertising for things such as the census and military recruitment go to publishers of local news, rather than national outlets. It would also create a tax credit for publishers who hire local news reporters, a new loan program for publishers, and would encourage some publishers to become nonprofit organizations.
Ryan said he began focusing on the demise of local news when the 150-year-old daily paper in Youngstown, Ohio, went out of business last year. He said he hopes his ideas will be considered part of stimulus discussions. A dozen House Democrats have signed on to the idea, but no Republican has.
“Every politician has a complicated relationship with the media, but it is an essential component of democracy,” Ryan said in an interview. He said local city council meetings and decision-making often go uncovered.
“There is just a general concern that no one is keeping an eye on local government anymore,” he said.
Jonathan O’Connell is a reporter focused on economic development, corporate accountability and the Trump Organization.
DOWNIEVILLE, Calif. — The night before his first deadline, Carl Butz, California’s newest newspaper owner, was digging into a bowl of beef stew at the Two Rivers Café, the only restaurant open in town.
“Tomorrow I have to fill the paper,” he said with only mild anxiety. “The question is, will it be a four-page paper or a six-page paper?”
At 71, Mr. Butz is trim, with wire-rimmed glasses and a close-cropped silver beard, and he dresses in flannel shirts and cargo pants. Since his retirement and his wife’s death in 2017, he considered traveling — to England or Latvia, or riding the Trans-Siberian Railway. But here he was, a freshly minted newspaper proprietor, having stepped in at the beginning of the year to save The Mountain Messenger, California’s oldest weekly newspaper, from extinction.
The Messenger was founded in 1853. Its most famous scribe was Mark Twain, who once wrote a few stories — with a hangover, the legend goes — while hiding out here from the law.
Newspapers across America, especially in rural areas like here in Sierra County, have been dying at an alarming rate, and Downieville was about to become the latest “news desert.” The obituaries for the paper had already been written. Don Russell, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking editor with a blunt writing style who had owned and run the paper for nearly three decades, was retiring, and he seemed happy enough for the paper to die with his retirement.
And then one night Mr. Butz was watching “Citizen Kane” on cable and thought, I can do that. He made the deal quickly, paying a price in the “four figures,” he said, plus the assumption of some debts, without even looking at the books.
Still, Mr. Russell, an old friend of Mr. Butz’s, was a reluctant seller. “His position was, it’s a losing proposition and someone who’d want it would be crazy,” Mr. Butz said. “He called me a romantic idealist and a nut case. And that’s not a paraphrase, but a direct quote.”
For the residents of Downieville — and there are not many; the population is about 300 — who for generations counted on The Messenger to arrive every Thursday, through wildfires and power outages and economic booms and busts, Mr. Butz has become an unlikely local hero, a savior of a cherished institution.
“Thank God for Carl, he stepped in,” said Liz Fisher, a former editor of the paper who lives across the street from its office and runs The Sierra County Prospect, an online news site. “It was devastating for everybody that we were going to lose The Mountain Messenger.”
A cluttered, smoke-filled newsroom
On a recent Wednesday morning, facing his first deadline, Mr. Butz was staring down a blank computer screen in the newspaper’s cramped two-room office above a beauty salon on Main Street. Mr. Butz, a fourth-generation Californian and a former computer programmer and labor economist for the state, readily admitted that he had no idea what he had gotten himself into, and it did not help to learn that the paper’s publishing software was from the mid-1990s.
One of the first things he said he would do after buying the paper was ban smoking in the office, but next to his keyboard was a package of unfiltered cigarettes and an ashtray.
“What is the lead story?” Mr. Butz asked.
“The front page is blank,” replied Jill Tahija, the paper’s only other employee, sitting at an adjacent computer.
Ms. Tahija, who has worked at The Messenger for 11 years, might properly be called the managing editor, but on her business cards it says, “she who does the work.”
Her small black-and-white dog, Ladybug, a Boston terrier-Shih Tzu-Chihuahua mix, bounded around the cluttered newsroom. On every surface were books and trinkets and junk — Civil War histories, annals of the county, dictionaries, empty beer bottles, packages of ramen noodles.
In the archives section are old papers dating to the 1850s, and on the walls are pictures of Mark Twain and some slogans — old saws of newspapering, like “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Mr. Russell, who was on vacation, driving his R.V. up the coast with his wife, when Mr. Butz took over the paper, once told The Los Angeles Times that Twain had written a few unremarkable stories for The Messenger. Mr. Russell had read them on microfilm at a library. “They were awful,” he said. “They were just local stories, as I recall, written by a guy with a hangover.”
At his computer, Mr. Butz was putting together one of his first new features for the paper, a “poetry corner.” (He selected “Thoughts,” by Myra Viola Wilds, an African-American poet from Kentucky who wrote in the early 20th century.) As Ms. Tahija worked on the front page — the next day it would be filled with stories about a local poetry competition, the upcoming census, wildfire prevention and a local supervisors meeting — Mr. Butz shifted his focus to finishing his letter to readers.
In it, he explained why he bought the paper. “Simply put,” he wrote, “the horrible thought of this venerable institution folding up and vanishing after 166 years of continuous operation was simply more than I could bear.”
The newspaper, he wrote, was “something we need in order to know ourselves.”
‘Like losing a friend’
Making a newspaper in Downieville is strictly an analog, ink-on-paper affair; there is no website, no social media accounts. It loses a few thousand dollars a year, and relies mostly on publishing legal notices from the county and other government offices, which brings in about $50,000 a year, for the bulk of its revenue. It has about 700 subscribers and a print run of 2,400 copies, just below the county’s population.
“I’m not going to lose a million dollars but I know I’m going to have to subsidize some of it,” Mr. Butz said. “My daughter is already aware that her inheritance is shrinking.”
Downieville is a remarkably well-preserved old Gold Rush town, perched at a fork in the Yuba River in remote western Sierra County. History is its pitch to tourists, and it has the feel of a backlot for an Old West movie — in its corner saloon, in the one-lane bridges over the Yuba, and in the second-story offices of The Messenger, next to the Fire Department. (A painted message on the door says it is the “oldest volunteer fire department west of the Mississippi.”)
With the demise of gold mining and the shuttering of the sawmills that were once an economic engine for the region, Downieville reinvented itself as a destination for mountain biking and fly fishing, with an abundance of Old West charm.
Residents reacted to Mr. Butz’s last-minute purchase of the paper with a mixture of relief and gratitude.
“A real sense of relief,” said Lee Adams, a former Sierra County sheriff and a current member of the county’s Board of Supervisors.
The paper was always an important institution, but it had become more so in recent years as Northern California dailies like The Sacramento Bee and The San Francisco Chronicle stopped distributing in the region, and rarely sent reporters to cover Sierra County.
“We would have to fall off the face of the earth to make one of those papers on a normal news day,” Mr. Adams said.
The Messenger is more than just a chronicle of weekly happenings — government meetings, births and deaths, the police blotter, the weather — but also a repository of the county’s history. The paper is just a year younger than Sierra County, which was founded in 1852, the year Wells Fargo was established to serve the Gold Rush and the riches being dredged from the river.
When Bill Copren, 76, a local historian and a former county assessor, wrote his master’s thesis on the political history of Sierra County in the mid-19th century, he relied on The Messenger’s archives.
More recently, when officials secured a spot on the National Register of Historic Places for a local school built in the Art Deco style in 1931, they used the paper’s archives to confirm the details of how it was built and who paid for it.
The paper’s closure, Mr. Copren said, would have been “like losing a friend.”
Under Mr. Russell, The Messenger had a distinctive attitude and a brusque, straightforward style. He was averse to political correctness and not immune from using curse words in print.
Mr. Butz said he did not plan to own the paper for long, and wanted to find a younger person who could take over. He said he was thinking about bringing the paper into the digital age, with a website, and was thinking about turning it into a nonprofit publication, accepting donations and grants to keep it running.
But on a recent Thursday morning, the day after deadline, he was just happy to have his first issue under his belt.
His Thursday routine is now established: He gets up early and drives about an hour and a half to a printing plant in Quincy, Calif., to pick up the bundles of freshly printed newspapers. On the way, he and Scott McDermid, the paper’s longtime distribution manager, stop at the Express Coffee Shop for waffles and eggs.
And then, with a truck full of papers, they crisscross the county, past the tall cedars and Douglas firs of the mountains, and across the Sierra Valley, dotted with junipers and cottonwoods, stopping at every shop and gas station, emptying newspaper machines of last week’s edition, collecting money and dropping off fresh bundles of The Messenger.
The story around town is how Mr. Butz saved the local newspaper.
But Mr. Butz, a still-grieving widower — his wife, Cecilia Kuhn, the drummer in an all-female punk band, Frightwig, died in 2017 — sees it another way.
“It’s saving me,” he said.
Tim Arango is a Los Angeles correspondent. Before moving to California, he spent seven years as Baghdad bureau chief and also reported on Turkey. He joined The Times in 2007 as a media reporter.