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By David Lesher, editor and CEO at Cal Matters, an independent public interest journalism venture covering California state politics and government

January 25, 2018 (Sacramento) -- Dear Californians,

If you care about this state, it’s time to sound the alarm about the crisis in media and what it means for the health of democracy in the world’s sixth largest economy.

Media is declining nationally, but unique pressures have made California into America’s laboratory for a dangerous experiment about what happens to the public interest when policy is made without the public’s awareness or accountability.

In just the last three weeks, four major announcements about California media indicate a troubling downward spiral is accelerating.

The state’s leading paper, the Los Angeles Times, launched a “sweeping reorganization.” Its newsroom also voted 248-44 to unionize and the publisher behind the reorganization (the fourth in the last four years) was put on leave during an investigation about sex harassment.

The Sacramento-based McClatchy Co., the nation’s second largest newspaper chain, also announced a major reorganization, followed by resignations of editors at the flagship paper, the Sacramento Bee, and at the Fresno Bee. The reorganization comes after the company lost nearly $240 million in the third quarter in 2017.

Digital First Media, the Denver-based publisher of several prominent California newspapers, began the second round of newsroom layoffs in less than a year. Before the latest cuts, there were 39 newsroom staff at the chain’s Mercury News in San Jose, down from 440 in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, in the online world, Facebook announced a new algorithm that downplays news publishers, causing speculation about whether the negative impact will be a “5 percent tweak or a 50 percent catastrophe.” The change prompted an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg from San Francisco Chronicle editor Audrey Cooper. “The San Francisco Chronicle won’t go out of business because of this decision,” Cooper wrote. “But smaller publications very likely could, and virtually all news organizations will lose money that pays for reportage. 

It’s hard to say what these changes mean for these publications. Is there still some chance of turning around the trends? If not, how much longer can they last?

But this is a story about what’s at stake for you. What difference does it make if they shrink or close? Why should you care? 

I believe the stakes are high indeed—it’s also why I co-founded CALmatters, a nonprofit journalism venture that works with all of the state’s badly needed media to raise awareness about state issues.

You will see one of the best examples of the impact of media decline this week when Gov. Brown gives his final State of the State speech.

In the 1990s, when I covered this annual speech for the LA Times, it was a major event. It came in the evening so it could be broadcast statewide in prime time. The day of the speech, reporters spent hours in briefings with cabinet members and staff explaining the policy initiatives that would be introduced in the speech. Back then, there were more than a dozen journalists in The Times Sacramento bureau and page three of the paper’s A section was dedicated every day to news about California only. The State of the State speech was always on page one.

As recently as 2007, the year the iPhone was introduced, there were 34 newspaper stories about the State of the State speech by our previous governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. But last year, there were only six about Brown’s speech. Nine of the publications that covered the Schwarzenegger speech no longer have reporters in Sacramento.

Brown is also the first governor in decades who has not followed his State of the State speech with a traditional appearance at the Sacramento Press Club. It wasn’t long ago that the tradition ended, but most reporters covering the Capitol today have never seen a governor at the Press Club.

There are many consequences to the public interest and the quality of state decision making when reporters aren’t asking questions and the public has little awareness about the issues or the debate.  

Special interests, of course, have as much at stake as ever and their influence is only increased when there is less scrutiny.

Like climate change, it’s also hard to attribute individual events to the greater trend. But if news about the state is diminished, it’s obviously harder for citizens to participate in a process that can’t function without them. So it should not be surprising that fewer than half of registered voters cast a ballot for governor in 2014, a record low.

The governor should also know there is risk to his own policies when major decisions are made without engaging the public.

When I covered Gov. Pete Wilson, there was a common playbook when the governor wanted to use the bully pulpit to pressure lawmakers by getting the public behind his major initiatives. The story was often leaked to me at the LA Times in hopes it would run in the Sunday paper. Then the governor would do a press conference in Los Angeles on Monday because that’s where he could get the best television coverage.

The media is no longer part of the policy process like it was then. And neither is the public.

One of the best examples is the recent response to the state’s crumbling roads and highways. It’s an enormous problem with a backlog of repairs estimated at more than $135 billion. It’s so bad that the governor called a special session to try to fix it and traditionally Republican business groups got behind a tax increase.

But there is no more bully pulpit in California. The governor made little use of the media to help the public understand the need for a major expense and to help legislators cast a risky vote. Instead, the plan that includes a 12-cent increase in gas taxes passed largely out of sight—narrowly—with $1 billion worth of backroom deals to key legislators.

Now, one legislator is facing a recall for his vote and an initiative to repeal the gas tax increase is likely headed to the ballot, with opinion polls indicating there may be a public backlash from an uninformed electorate. If the repeal passes, it’s back to square one for the next governor.

California is facing many other big issues today. It has the nation’s highest poverty rate. Half of California households are struggling to afford the roof over their heads. Schools suffer a yawning academic achievement gap. And public pension debt is threatening bankruptcy for municipalities.

It’s also an amazing state that is leading the world on climate change and its futuristic tech- and trade-driven economy is doing so well that it just set a record for unemployment and tax revenues have increased the state budget under Brown from $130 billion in 2011 to $190 billion this year.

So what is the State of the State? Most Californians will never hear what Brown says it is in his speech on Thursday. And if it’s a question you want answered, it’s time to sound the alarm about the state’s rapidly deteriorating media. Your support of CALmatters will also help our work to provide all of the state’s media with news about California that matters.

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Thanks for an interesting and indeed important issue in California.
This should concern all citizens