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The future of journalism and the pitfall of 'watchdogs'

Byline1

What follows is an adaptation of my remarks to The Lindsay Forum on Wednesday evening at the Lindsay Museum.

About 30 people attended.

The Lindsay Forum meets every two months or so. It’s the perfect example of those voluntary associations that, as Tocqueville wrote, are central to America’s greatness.

My topic: The state of journalism.

Full disclosure: I was born and raised in Lindsay. Many in the audience are my friends.

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Thank you.

My name is George Hostetter – Kip to some of you. I am a reporter.

You know what such an introduction means: Everything is on the record.

I am honored to be here. Chuck Sheldon called with the invitation to speak to old friends about my views on journalism. Chuck and I back in the day played one-on-one basketball at the old Junior High. I told Chuck I’d be delighted to come, but warned that if I stumbled during the speech it’s because I’m still suffering from the concussions he gave me.

I want to tell those in the audience who don’t know me, and remind those who do, what I am not. I’m not an academic. I’m not one to ponder the theory of journalism.

I’ve already made the mistake of pretending to be smarter than I am. It happened in 2003. I had written a special section for The Bee called “Broke and Broken.” The section looked at the state of the Valley’s economy.

A group in Visalia asked me to talk about the piece. Long story short, I tanked because I was out of my element, knew I was out of my element, and had been too insecure to tell to the event organizers.

As I told Chuck, I’ve been too busy over the decades grinding out the news to think much about the Big Picture of journalism. But I very much wanted to come here and share some of my experiences because I realize the foundation of my career was built in Lindsay.

Good journalism depends on good values. The late James Q. Wilson would say the correct word is virtue. I would agree. I was stubborn student, but you, the Lindsay friends of my youth, eventually hammered into me the fundamentals of civic virtue that enabled me to actually hold onto a job. Sometimes that virtue includes being a cranky SOB.

I’m here to say thank you.

I promised Chuck I wouldn’t bury my lede. That’s newspaper lingo for hiding your essential point deep in the story.

My lede: The Internet has changed journalism, and the old days, especially for traditional newspapers, are gone.

But you already know that. And as to where journalism is headed, well, no one knows for sure.

So, I give you a second lede. It’s an anecdotal lede, a vignette that sets up my tale.

A few years ago, my editors at The Fresno Bee sent some of us to a two-day workshop at The McClatchy Company’s headquarters in Sacramento.

Three from Fresno went: An assistant city editor, our education reporter and myself. I was covering Fresno City Hall.

Reporters and editors from McClatchy newspapers throughout the state were there. All were wearing name tags.

The workshop was conducted by officials from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla. The agenda was simple: How do we deliver a better product in the Internet Age?

The one-hour session on Day 1 before lunch was a juicy topic: Watchdog Journalism.

The Poynter official in charge of this session reminded us of the importance of reporting on power, especially power wielded by public institutions.

This is also called public service journalism.

The Poynter official said, “What can we do to improve our Watchdog Journalism?”

I got the nod to speak.

“The first thing we do is change the name,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“A watch dog,” I said, “is a kept dog.”

The moderator gave me an odd look. Perhaps I’d thrown him off balance. If so, he quickly regained the initiative.

He walked away from me.

“What I think George meant to say is….”

My conceit tonight is that this small incident is a workable entre to observations about journalism in general and newspapers in particular.

Everything is a list these days. I give you Hostetter’s Top 10 takeaways from my battle with the Poynter Institute:

1.) Yes, I’m still trying to be a smart aleck.

I got my start in newspapers in the summer of 1961 when Duane McCurry convinced me to be his sub on his Bee paper route.

Duane paid me 10 cents a day if I rode with him. If he took the day off, he paid me a dollar to fill in. By the end of summer, as I entered sixth grade, Duane had moved on and I had the route.

I can’t say I fell in love with delivering newspapers, especially those huge Sunday editions. But even at age 11 or 12, I think I sensed the romance of newspapers. Somebody went places and wrote stories about what they saw. Somebody else thought enough of those words to print them. And here I was, riding a bicycle along Oxford and Samoa and Harvard and Orange, delivering the final product to people who paid money to read those words. Pretty nifty.

But it wasn’t until September 1964 that I thought I might like to be a reporter. Judy Foster stole my heart. The school year had just started, and I was a freshman at Lindsay High. Judy was a senior on the staff of the school newspaper, The Cardinal.

I was sitting in Mr. Pizzica’s state requirements class when Judy popped in with an arm-load of newspapers. As I recall, you got the paper for free if you bought a student body card. I remember Judy’s good cheer and air of confidence. I remember The Cardinal’s impressive look. I remember my classmates paying special attention to Judy’s sales pitch.

I wanted to be a part of that drama.

My journey to paid journalism wasn’t a straight line. We’ll ignore all those missteps tonight. But I discovered over the decades that many reporters – perhaps most reporters – have a streak of the smart aleck in them. Writing can be hard work, and you change if you do it long enough. We’re gamblers. You get used to the risk of publicly interpreting events of considerable interest to other people and the criticism that often follows. Those who don’t get used to the risk soon find other careers.

That guy from Poynter was in a room full of journalists. He knew he’d get pushback from at least one of us.

2.) The Poynter moderator didn’t argue with me. He simply took back control of the narrative.

That’s journalism. We all know the quip alleged to come from the champion of my trade: “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton,” said Mark Twain.

A.J. Liebling put the same thought in slightly different form. “Freedom of the press,” Liebling said, “belongs to those who own one.”

A danger of this mindset is arrogance.

Readers and viewers to a record degree have had enough of people like me. A Gallup poll last week revealed that only 32% of Americans have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in the mass media to “report the news fully, accurately and fairly.” That’s the lowest level since Gallup began asking the question in 1972.

Gallup noted that America’s confidence in the mass media was highest in 1976 at 72%. The poll found that the trust of Democrats (51%) and Independents (30%) declined only slightly from 2015. But the trust of Republicans in reporters like me fell from 32% in 2015 to 14% in 2016.

I’ve had my share of arrogant moments. One that shames me to this day occurred some 35 years ago when I was sports editor at The Porterville Recorder.

My co-workers started slow-pitch softball team. We played pickup teams from other parts of town. It was supposed to be low-key.

One Friday we played Sierra View Hospital. The game got pretty intense. My team won. In a corner of Saturday’s sports section, I published a small blurb on the game. I put the final score, then added: “Ha-ha-ha; ho-ho-ho; he-he-he.”

I got a letter the next week from a man on the Sierra View team. “Mr. Hostetter: You abused your position. You didn’t need to do that. Sincerely…” and signed his name.

I called him and apologized.

3.) I wasn’t surprised the man from Poynter did a turn on my comment. He had the floor, so he used his power and let the chips fall where they may.

A good lesson for any journalist with strong survival instincts.

For example, a former Fresno State administrator wrote The Bee some years ago about an accounting mess involving the athletic department and the Bulldog Foundation.

In a nutshell, some boosters had misdirected corporate donations intended for academic scholarships. The companies found out. Fresno State was trying to quietly fix things.

Yes, a university official told me, the misdirection had occurred. The university had reviewed records for the past five years to determine how much money was involved.

“What about year six?” I asked.

“Standard accounting practice is to go back only five years,” the official said.

“Is that law?” I asked.

“No,” the official said.

My editors and I decided to do a state Public Records Act request. We would get the records and do Year Six ourselves.

The university saw the handwriting on the wall, and did a full accounting of some 20 years.

There was no chance I could have accurately computed how much money had been misdirected. But that didn’t matter in the court of public opinion. The readers wouldn’t say: What a numbskull that Hostetter is! The readers would say: Why is Hostetter doing the university’s work?

Reporters use leverage, too. I like to think my nemesis from Poynter would have approved.

4.) Something odd happened at the workshop when we came back from lunch.

The Poynter guy saw me take my seat.

“I didn’t think we’d see you again,” he said. He said it with a smile. We talked for 30 seconds. We ended up getting along.

The news business is full of emotion. That’s a big reason why reporters get hooked on the business.

Before joining The Bee, I worked for three-and-a-half years at The Kingsburg Recorder, a weekly. We had a two-person staff. I covered just about everything, but my main duty was as Society Editor. I was in charge of women’s news.

Weddings were the big stories. I knew nothing about weddings. More telling, I was replacing a woman who was a local legend when it came to wedding journalism.

The Recorder had a standard form for wedding stories. It was a big form, perhaps 18 inches long, two-sided.

The mother of the bride usually filled out the form and hand-carried it to the newsroom.

I soon had my first interview with a mother of the bride. We were going over the form, line by line. We came to a description of some of the dresses in the wedding party.

“Ah,” I said, “I see the dresses were made with ta-feeeee-ta.”

“That’s taffeta,” she said without looking up.

You know what? Hostetter learned to write a pretty mean wedding story. The hallmark of a Hostetter wedding story was detail. I didn’t care if we were talking about the color of socks worn by the 4-year-old ring boy. If it was on the form, it went into the story.

Shortly before I left The Recorder, I bumped into my first mother of the bride. We joked about my “ta-feeeee-ta” disaster.

“George, that’s when all the mothers knew we had you,” she said. “We’ll miss you.”

Mothers of the bride don’t want a know-it-all reporter. They want a reporter who tells the story. Another good lesson for me.

5.) There was a whiff of panic in that conference room during the workshop. Our business was changing. We in print journalism were the Old Guard.

It’s impossible these days to read a story about the best and worst career options and not find “newspaper reporter” listed high in the latter category.

Occupational Outlook Handbook has projected that the number of jobs for reporters will fall 9% by 2024. And that prediction comes after we’ve gone through years of bloodletting in the industry.

The Bee during the home-mortgage boom of 2004-2006 had a newsroom half the size of a football field full of reporters, artists, photographers, news aides, part-timers, librarians and editors. We had an eight-reporter staff in the South Valley bureau in Visalia, two reporters in the Madera bureau and a full-time reporter in Sacramento covering stories with a South Valley hook.

The Sacramento reporter is gone, the Madera bureau is gone and the South Valley bureau has just two reporters. You could set off a hand grenade in parts of the Fresno newsroom and not hurt anyone.

Executive Editor Jim Boren last fall called the newsroom staff to a meeting. Jim is the preeminent print journalist in the San Joaquin Valley. There’s nothing he’d like better than to have a newsroom twice the size of the old days, reporting all the news in our part of the region. But, like I said, times have changed. Jim said the company bottom line forced another downsizing. I took the buyout and retired on Oct. 23 after 28 years at the paper.

The old order passes.

6.) The presence of the Poynter officials sent a message: My employer was trying. McClatchy yet again was adapting to a new world.

Part of that change involves deadlines. The Fresno Bee these days is printed in Sacramento, not Fresno. That means deadlines for finishing stories are earlier in the evening.

When I started in The Bee sports department in 1987, the entire staff, along with a half-dozen prep writers, worked until midnight or later tracking down every Friday night high school football score from Bakersfield to Chowchilla. We even published B game scores.

Today, if you want your high school football scores in the print edition, you wait until Sunday. That’s because most of the games on Friday night end after the print deadline.

But you can get the scores and game details almost instantly on The Bee’s website. The Bee continues to serve the reader, but in a different way.

Print advertising revenue still outstrips digital advertising revenue. Digital, though, is the future.

7.) I don’t like the term “watchdog” journalism, but the product itself is vital to our democracy.

Our Valley-based media produces a ton of first-class public service journalism.

At The Bee, for example, Tim Sheehan has reported in detail on the discolored water troubles in Northeast Fresno.

Marc Benjamin has done impressive work on the power struggles in the Chukchansi tribe in Madera County.

Andrea Castillo and Barbara Anderson have been tireless in getting the story on the state of rental housing in the poorest parts of Fresno.

Good public service journalism is not cheap or easy. I hope it isn’t compromised by the economic turmoil that figures to plague print journalism for years to come.

I also hope the survival of public service journalism doesn’t become dependent on government subsidies. But I fear that is coming.

8.) I was serious: A good case can be made that some watchdog journalists are kept journalists.

We don’t have enough time to fully explore this possibility. It’s not a new idea. But let me pose a couple of thoughts.

We all know what a watchdog does. When trouble comes, the dog barks. The owner of the assets is alerted.

As to watchdog journalism you might ask: What assets?

We’re a democracy and a republic. Just about any activity in the private and public realms could come to be viewed as the people’s interest, and therefore subject to a vigilant press.

From my experience, watchdog journalism almost always means stories about public institutions and those who do business with them (often behind closed doors).

The good journalist keeps her eye on all of it.

But who decides whether the hubbub is trouble or merely the give-and-take of daily life? Well, no one has the total knowledge to correctly make that decision 100% of the time.

That’s why the Founders gave constitutional protection to a free press. There would be lots of watchdogs, offering competing warnings or assurances to the people. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” James Madison said in Federalist 51.

But too often journalists – myself included – end up being “kept” by the public institutions they cover. There are lots of reasons for this. Not the least of them is the journalist’s need for sources willing to talk on the record.

The bigger reason, I think, is that too many reporters come to believe that the powerful institutions they cover always know what’s best for the people. Reporters believe too much in the power of scientific management in the political arena.

Reporters are good at seeing problems with officials and process. They seldom ask if the institution or agency actually serves a worthy purpose. The result: Centralized power grows and grows, to the detriment of the community.

No. 9 – Perhaps there was a more compelling reason why that Poynter moderator was nice to me after lunch. The workshop was his last gig at Poynter. He was heading to a new job. He give didn’t a hoot what I said.

Self-interest always rules the roost in journalism.

I, too, landed on my feet. Four days after I retired from The Bee, I was sitting at Fresno’s Fig Garden Village talking to Alex Tavlian. Alex is a 24-year-old law school student who operates a news website called CVObserver. The “CV” stands for Central Valley. The site covers politics and public policy.

That’s right: Alex attends law school and is a full-time journalist/entrepreneur. He is a most impressive young man. I won’t remind you what I was like at 24.

I now produce as a free-lancer three to four stories a week for Alex. Most deal with Fresno City Hall. No one will support a family and pay off the mortgage on a free-lance job. I’m more the young Samuel Johnson on Grub Street than the revered Ford Chatters on Honolulu Street. But my wife, Mary, is pleased that I’m out of the house.

More recently, I was fortunate to get a gig as editorial adviser to The Collegian, Fresno State’s student newspaper.

What an amazing staff The Collegian has. Jessica Johnson and Hayley Salazar, for example, hold down The Collegian’s social media section. They’re full-time students. They write stories, take video, post everything online and use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to constantly push The Collegian product. And, as they say in my business, it’s all good stuff.

Jessica is 22. Hayley is 19.

The entire Collegian staff is like that: Bright, hard-working, disciplined.

You ask: What is the future of journalism? It’s young people like Alex Tavlian and the women and men at The Collegian.

10.) The two-day workshop ended. It was time for reporters and editors to return to their newsrooms.

In was time for us to act.

It was about this time in my career that I realized my youth in Lindsay was a good source of stories. The Bee’s editors were always on us to write blogs for our website. They didn’t much care about content as long as the pieces had some connection to news. They wanted good stuff to attract eyeballs.

So, I began to write the occasional Lindsay story. I hoped the stories would reveal human themes that connected to readers with no ties to Lindsay.

My first rather long piece predated the workshop. The hook was the death of Larry Curtis in July 2009. Larry, as many of you know, was a 1963 graduate of Lindsay High. He was a standout halfback on the undefeated football team of 1962. He was a track star.

Larry had once lived in Fresno. His memorial service was held at a funeral home not far from my home. I didn’t know Larry personally, but I knew his younger brother David. And I certainly had enjoyed watching Larry play football.

So, I decided to attend the service. I was counting on some of Larry’s old friends being there. My plan was to talk with them after the service about the Class of 1963 and that amazing football team.

September 1962 to June 1963 was a compelling time in American history and in the life of Lindsay. The Cardinals football team in 1962 drew big crowds to the Olive Bowl. The likes of Tony Wollenman and Jim Byrd and Brad Stark and Dave Paul and Alan Newkirk and Larry Curtis were a unifying force – the whole “Friday night lights” idea.

Events didn’t turn out as I expected. I didn’t bump into a lot of people from the class of ’63. In fact, Judy Embree was the only ’63 grad I talked to. But, in the long run, that was enough. That’s because Judy and I exchanged phone numbers.

I did more interviews by phone for my Class of ’63 story. I remember a good talk with Tony Wollenman. I wrote the piece, tying it to the start of a new high school football season in the Valley. I saw Tony at a funeral sometime later and he said he liked it.

I had my operational model. I would explore Lindsay topics of interest to me and post them on my Fresno Bee blog. The editors were happy to get the content as long I did the work in my spare time. Length was no problem – we’re talking the digital world. The key was the Internet. My stuff would have potential worldwide distribution.

Next up was a long story about the Lindsay High School Comet. I inherited many of the Comets collected by my Aunt Allison Hostetter (a long-time teacher at Lindsay High School). My story in part took a look at what the photos and personal writings in the yearbooks tell about a small town high school. A key part of the story dealt with the amazing talent of the Comet editors and staff.

That’s where Judy Embree came in. I had interviewed Babs Smith by phone. She was editor of the 1962 Comet. I had met with Karen Kimball here in town. She was editor of the 1967 Comet. I wanted to interview Trish Barker, editor of the 1963 Comet, the one with the color cover photo of the old high school.

I called Judy. She was kind enough to set up a meeting at her home in Visalia with Trish and Byron Charlebois. I won’t bore you with details. Let me just say the interview memorable, as were those with Babs and Karen.

I’d done two big Lindsay stories. Both had worked. More were to come.

My point here is to end this speech where I began – the old days of journalism are gone.

None of my Lindsay stories could have been published in The Bee when it was strictly an old-fashioned newspaper. They were too long and for the most part served only a narrow niche of readers. But the new opportunities created by the Internet gave me my chance to gamble.

In other words, Old Lindsay is the key to understanding New Journalism.

So, there you have it, the state of modern journalism as seen through the eyes of George “Kip” Hostetter. Before we move onto questions, let me acknowledge that some of you may think much of what I said needs to be corrected.

In the old days reporters turned in stories on paper. Editors used a red pencil to change things before sending the stories to typesetters. There was a copyediting term called “stet.” It means ignore the previous editing command. Stet means “let it stand.”

I conclude with the same command to you that the late Florence King gave to her editors: “Stet, damnit!”

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

1 Comment

  1. Hi, Arthur (Ken) Copeland class of 74 , I grew up on 700 block n.bellah
    father , Buck worked at Ingoldsbys flower shop, mother at Lindsay Olive.
    remember flood of 1968 /69 . Lewis creek overflowed just north of the new high school. Our high school band went to Ono Japan on a trip paid by pancake breakfast and a car raffle ( 1973 Pinto) 125 people give or take.
    miss my old town.

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