The Partisan: Local crime reportage is on life support

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OPINION |

By Royal Calkins

When I was a cub reporter all those years ago, I was assigned to the police beat, which meant I had to actually go on over to the police station at least once a day. Later, when I was an experienced reporter assigned to the police beat in a high-crime town, I needed to fit the police station visits between interviews with folks who had lost someone to gun violence or some other nonsense.

On the beat run, my first stop was the watch commander’s desk. He, always a he, would buzz me into a little room where the police reports from the night before were stacked in wire baskets.

Sorting through them for something important could be tiresome but there usually was something interesting. Fights and traffic accidents, arrests and burglaries. We’d pretty much report every arrest except for the most minor.

The first job was in Chico, a college town, with more than its fair share of rapes. It seemed odd how often the watch commander would stop by to mention that he felt the most recent rape complaint was bogus.  This was in the 1970s and for quite a few cops, the lights were still turned off.

In a way, this is sort of like one of those stories about olden times and how when I was a kid I had to walk 10 miles in the snow, barefoot, to get to school. But the whining contained herein is about a more important change — the death of police reporting. Not important like climate change or the latest absurdity from Trump. And probably not as important as the near death of City Hall reporting. But important enough that it should concern you. What you don’t know can hurt you.

Sorting through the police reports each day during my second term on the beat, in Fresno, I soon figured out that they were about more than arrests for drunk and disorderly or misdemeanor batteries. I found out about embezzlements and frauds, gambling arrests and allegations of drug smuggling and organized prostitution. Only a couple of decades earlier, the old sheriff was actively involved in gambling and the police chief was actively involved in prostitution. I don’t mean they were allowing it. They were involved in managing it. Tough town, Fresno.

So how do newspapers and TV stations handle crime reporting these days?

For the most part, it’s about receiving and processing news releases or scanning an electronic log providing scant details about arrests and incidents. For the most part, the leadership of our local law enforcement agencies is deciding what is and isn’t news. And when something is news, they’re likely willing to share only the barest part of it.

The reporters at the local papers and electronic operations are, of course, free to head on out to the scene of the crime and see what they can find out for themselves.  They would be free, that is, if they didn’t already have four assignments for today and two for the weekend and if they weren’t filling in for another reporter who got laid off and will never be replaced.

They are also free, or course, to call up the agency involved and try to get some elaboration over the phone. Very seldom is that as effective as being right there at police headquarters.

The not-so-slow death of local journalism has been on my mind for a couple of decades now but my worrying is getting worse these days because the patient seems close to slipping into a coma.

Forgive me, the many of you who have heard my sad tale before. But when I started working at the Monterey Herald in 2000, there were more than 40 people in the newsroom. Reporters, editors, photographers, etc. Now I believe there are eight. Maybe nine.

Trying to cover the region adequately was a hell of a challenge back then. Now it is an impossibility. The folks try hard, they really do. But they are outgunned by reality, outmaneuvered by shareholders who don’t even remember what good journalism is.

The TV stations have also been beaten down by the economy but have managed to maintain their staffing levels far better than their ink-stained cousins. Still, when you see the TV reporters working solo, no camera operators, even using their phones to record events, you know that enterprising reportage about crime or anything else is not at the top of their to-do lists.

Court coverage? Don’t get me started. I had the luxury of working for several years at The Herald with Virginia Hennessey, the best court reporter I have ever known. She was able to concentrate on the courts and concentrate she did. As a result, we were able to report on the various proceedings and, sometimes even more importantly, on the cases that should have been filed but weren’t. Now much of the coverage of trials and verdicts is the result of press releases.

(In search of a living wage, Virginia’s off being a private investigator these days, and her replacements at the Herald have never been given enough time to match her work. Fortunately for the rest of us, Felix Cortez at KSBW knows how to sniff out important courthouse stories. That’s about as far as this bit of good news stretches, however.)

The genesis of this mournful outpouring was the news a month or so ago about opium poppy fields being discovered along Dolan Road in Moss Landing. Two large plantings that required sheriff’s deputies to make like fieldworkers and chop and bag the product. Plantings large enough to require sheriff’s deputies to make like journalists and write it up for public dissemination, not much but some.

I watched the news with interest and looked forward to the follow-ups the next day when we would learn who had planted the illegal crop and what made them think they could get away with it.

No follow-up the next day or the next. Or the next, etc., etc. Apparently not a single reporter in the region — including, I must admit, this tired old blogger — had enough energy to go knock on doors or trudge down to the Hall of Records to figure out who owns the poppy fields.

There have been no follow-ups because the agency in charge, the sheriff’s office, hasn’t put out another news release. When they do send out news releases, they’re on Facebook, by the way.

A sheriff’s spokesman says the investigation has been completed and reports have been turned over to the District Attorney’s Office for a decision on possible criminal charges. Rumor has it that the property owner, or the growers using the property, told detectives that the poppies were being grown not to become opium or heroin but for the cut-flower market. That might be so, of course. I, for one, would like to know.

Then along came another dope-related story. Law enforcement had come across a marijuana-farming operation on Alisal Road outside Salinas and discovered that the crop was being tended by 10 or so Southeast Asians, Hmong specifically, who appeared to be working as slave labor.

I made a couple of calls and found the property was being leased to a sizable marijuana processor called Medterra, but I couldn’t quickly figure out who was responsible for the apparent human trafficking.

Did you know there has not been a prosecution for human trafficking in Monterey County?

We heard about this in the first place because of a short and simple news release from the sheriff’s office. We haven’t learned any more because, you guessed it, there haven’t been any more news releases on the matter.

I asked the sheriff’s spokesman, Cmdr. John Thornburg, last week if he could share any more info. Nope, he said. Still under investigation? Yup. Local investigation or the feds? No answer but he did say the feds have taken the workers into custody.

I can come up with many other examples, but you get the picture. Just last week, an armed band of some sort invaded another marijuana operation south of Salinas and got away with a few hundred thousand dollars worth of pot and a bunch of guns. There was a press release. That’s how we know that much but little more than what is in second sentence above. And here I thought that organized armed robberies in the burgeoning new field of marijuana manufacture might be of some import.

Yes, you are right. I could get out there and do it myself. I’m a trained journalist with some experience at peeling back layers. But the news operation that is providing this information to you, Voices of Monterey Bay, has made it clear from the start that it is not in the breaking news business. By that, I mean we’re not going to cover fires or shootings and very seldom are we going to do what used to be considered the automatic second-day story, the piece about who owns the property or who started the fire, that sort of thing. The sort of thing we used to expect from the dailies and their broadcast counterparts.

Voices is staffed by a handful of veteran—quite veteran in some cases—print journalists aiming to supplement the faltering daily news report, but not to attempt to supplant it.  We look for the story behind the story, an effort that likely will take some time, but we’re not able to routinely visit crime scenes or knock on doors while the ashes are still smoldering. At this point, we simply don’t have the resources to attempt both types of journalism.

Yes, the Herald and KSBW and the others are sorely lacking in available bodies, but at least their owners truly do have the money to make things right and step things up whenever they chose to do so. They lack only the will. Voices lacks the way more than the will.

What can you do about it? Not a lot, but there is something. When you see or read a news story that barely covers the surface, make a note of it and call the paper or the TV station. Gary Omernick is publisher of the Herald. Joe Heston is general manager of KSBW. Ask them when they’re going to put out the rest of the story. (I won’t bother you with the name of any honcho at the Salinas Californian because I’m not sure there are any left.)

The same thing goes for news out of City Hall or elsewhere, of course. Hey, guys. When are you going to report on the Voices public records lawsuit against the city of Carmel? Or tell us more about the human trafficking in the marijuana fields? How about that developer in Marina who is trying to bully the city out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. (OK, we’re working on this one.)

I asked Cmdr. Thornburg at the sheriff’s office if they had any formal policy on when news releases are supposed to go out. He said they don’t. In response to the same question, the Monterey Police Department sent a lengthy section from its policy manual. It was helpful, but didn’t answer the question of specifically when news alerts should be issued. I didn’t get a response from Salinas but that department has always done a much better than average job of providing basic info on major crimes, sometimes going far beyond what the city’s political leadership would prefer.

Back in the good old days, when I had to walk through snow to get to the police stations, I would actually wander into the offices where detectives and others plied their trade. I would ask for details and, sometimes, they’d cough some up.

I took my fair share of abuse, of course. Cops and reporters are not natural allies. But decent reporters learn to focus on the cops smart enough to know that the community needs to have a reasonable understanding of what’s actually happening in the community.

Unfortunately, the local press corps has withered to the point that it can’t keep any real pressure on the law enforcement establishment to maintain a meaningful dialog with the public beyond the special few who contribute to sheriff’s or City Council campaigns.

We’ll never go back to the days of reporters roaming the police station halls. The people who run sheriff’s departments and police departments are politicians and they have learned that the current system is a lot easier than the old ways. The key to making things less awful, then, is for what is left of the press and what is left of the readership and viewership to put some pressure on them to stop hiding their work from public inspection. To let us in on issues that matter just as much to us as to them.

If you don’t like being kept in the dark, you might want to speak up however best you can.

By the way, there is some reason for hope on the local scene. Mary Duan, formerly editor of Monterey County Weekly and a founder of Voices, announced this week that she is returning to the weekly paper to cover Salinas and “criminal justice.” There’s a lot of old school in Mary and I’m betting that she’ll shake a few things loose.

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Royal Calkins

About Royal Calkins

Contributing writer Royal Calkins has worked for newspapers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Fresno. For the past couple of years, he has produced a local news and commentary blog, the Monterey Bay Partisan. He can be reached at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.

One thought on “The Partisan: Local crime reportage is on life support

  1. Royal – a truly and relevant piece. I agree with you totally, and I’m old enough to remember the Herald in the early 1970’a when it was truly a community paper, that covered in detail local issues, and interestingly, had several consecutive pages of advertisements The section called “new today” sometimes had 3 or 4 pages. consisting of 4 or 5 line ads.

    Of course, the online opportunities have dwindled income for most papers, with some exceptions of course. So I do understand that media investigations to seek the truth is rare, and maybe due to highly restricted budgets.

    But there is a twist that I wonder what causes that – is it income? is it based on a particular sort of income that would be absent if the paper published more praises for its particular donors, and limited criticisms of those same donors?

    I don’t know the answer. But I do see, in the water issue for example, articles that quote pro-CalAm without fact checking or hard analysis are prevalent while it’s difficult to get a commentary published if it is critical of Cal-Am. Cal-Am has both political and industry support. Without facts, I can’t conclude that the pressure put on the paper, in terms of advertisement income has a major reason for what I see. But I can guess.

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