California leaders decry decline in news quality, particularly state coverage

Leaders are more pessimistic than public at large

By John McManus
Posted Oct. 3, 2007

California's news infrastructure and the amount of reporting on key issues confronting the state are in serious decline.

This was the conclusion of a two-month series of interviews with 62 leaders from across the state -- including top journalists, educators and heads of civic organizations and state government -- conducted by the California Media Project in association with the Commonwealth Club of California.

A draft of the report was circulated Friday at a day-long meeting of about 200 such leaders concerned about the decimation of journalists in the Golden State. Held at U.C. Berkeley, the discussion was called "Covering California: Media, Community and Democracy in the Golden State."

Louis Freedberg

"Nearly four out of five people we interviewed felt that the media in California are doing only a 'fair' or 'poor' job covering critical issues facing the state," the report stated. "Almost as many felt the quality of coverage has deteriorated in recent years."

The leaders' assessment is more pessimistic than the public's. A September poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed six in 10 Californians surveyed rated coverage of political news in the state "fair" or worse.

The report, which was highlighted by former San Francisco Chronicle editorial writer Louis Freedberg, quoted former Washington Post reporter and Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon saying, "the substructure of local coverage has been fundamentally eroded."

Mr. Freedberg, who now directs the California Media Project and helped organize the conference, pointed out that excellent journalism is still being produced by California newspapers, even as their complement of reporters shrinks.

State control growing while coverage shrinks

Although the state government in California has more say over local matters than in many other states, and Sacramento's influence is growing, those interviewed said state coverage was suffering the greatest loss of quality. Newspapers increasingly focus on hyper-local issues, according to the report, squeezing out space and staff for Sacramento and state-wide issues.

According to the report, Charles Reed, chancellor of the California State University System, listed "the state's overcrowded prison system, its outmoded tax system, and deteriorating infrastructure as largely unaddressed by the major media. He referred to recent reports that California will have a population of 50 million in 2050. 'Where will water come to support such population growth?' he asked. The media, he said, have been largely silent on the issue."

Michael Parks, former executive editor of the Los Angeles Times and now Director of the School of Journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, told interviewers, "We have a vicious circle in which the news media is [sic] the culprit and victim of civic disengagement." Newspapers, he said, are not asking the public's questions about state policies and not focusing on the effects of state actions on readers.

Audiences for local TV news vanishing

While newspaper staff cuts have received the most headlines, broadcast news is shrinking as well, respondents said. Bob Long, news director at KNBC-TV in Los Angles predicted "the traditional television newscast will die with the baby boom generation" due to falling audience ratings.

Other conclusions reached by those interviewed included these:

David Lesher, head of the Sacramento office of the Public Policy Institute of California struck a common chord: "Our society is going through a profound transition in how people receive information. This transition will take many years and no one knows where it will come out."

The survey was funded by the James Irvine Foundation.