The article written by Dan Carson, “More Reporting and Less Punditry Would Strengthen The Vanguard,” comes at a good time. I want to tell the readers here that I have read the full article and all of the comments, and I take the criticism to heart. You see – while I am proud of the work I have done with the Vanguard over the last eight years, I want to make it better.
The key to improvement is not to take criticism personally but rather view it as a way to improve and in fact turn it into a call to action. In a moment, I’m going to tell you what that is going to look like.
Let me first start with this – Dan Carson and I met some time last year. I recognized that Mr. Carson had a very unique background – he worked for the Legislative Analyst Office, he had worked before that as a journalist for 20 years down in San Diego, and he was serving on the city’s Finance Budget Commission.
Whenever the council appoints new commissioners I’m always amazed and awed by some of the resumes of people living in this community. Dan Carson is one of these people and I wanted to find ways for him to help improve the Vanguard.
He pitched the idea of a quasi-public editor and one thing I told him was that I didn’t fear criticism. I think his comment was something along the lines: well, let us put that to a test. People can criticize lots of things I do, but I have always held pretty fast to the principle of allowing people to criticize my work in public and I often take those criticisms and try to improve what I’m doing.
Earlier this week, Dan Carson sent me the article and asked if we could meet next week and talk about it, give me a chance to respond before publishing it. But I read the column and didn’t really see the need to meet – I agree with much of what he writes and so we agreed to simply publish it as is.
As the Vanguard has evolved over time, I actually believe the recommendations that Dan Carson makes are closer to what we do as it is. The news stories used to be much more hybrid opinion-news pieces than they are now. I think there are probably still vestiges of that, but for the most part we run a straight news story the first day and then we will follow up big stories with commentary than can add analysis and context to the coverage.
For example, on Wednesday we ran Dan Wolk’s State of the City Address and only reported on what he said. On Thursday, we ran a commentary on it – I highlighted what I thought were the strengths and then made some critical remarks at the end where I disagree with him.
There is usually an element of repetition, as you have to assume that people did not read your original article, to provide context. I think the criticism of repetition is valid, but stories evolve over time with new insight and new information, I’ve generally put the background into the stories rather than backlink it. I’ve found over time that few people hit the backlinks and the comments reflect it. That means that, for regular readers, there is repetition.
I also agree with Mr. Carson that our election coverage in 2014 was good and relatively fair to all involved. And perhaps that should be the template for all coverage.
I also want to address some reader criticism. Investigative reporting is something the Vanguard aspires to do. However, there is a big constraint on that – it is very time consuming. I have been working on one investigative report since September and we might be ready to roll out with it in the next week or two, but it takes a long time and the Vanguard is a big undertaking on a day to day basis.
There were some criticisms of the court watch program and the writing by the interns. I have already been thinking about how to implement changes there. We had two problems last year – first, we have been operating short-handed with regard to the number of interns. When the economy was bad, students didn’t have a lot of job opportunities and internships were a way to get experience.
The other problem is that, with tuition hikes, students are forced to work more in order to pay tuition and rent and living expenses.
The other interesting phenomena is that, for whatever reason, last year had a lot of high profile cases. In a normal year, 90 percent of the cases we cover are covered by no one else but us. Last year, we had a string of high profile cases. The problem with high profile cases is that, if we delay publication for a day, we end up behind the news curve.
So what happens is that we end up posting the article as is, then Highbeam spends much of the day editing the piece and fact-checking; she even told me that she has gone to the court and looked up information to make sure we have names and facts correct, and that’s a lot of work. If the cases are not getting reported in the news, it is work that can happen behind the scenes prior to publication.
The bottom line that I want to emphasize here is that I hear the reader criticisms and concerns, we want to improve our product and we need your help to do so.
One way you can help is by writing one piece a month. As I published yesterday, in December I set the goal of finding 22 individuals or groups to commit to writing at least one piece per month or writing a series of articles on topics of interest to both themselves and the Vanguard.
Why 22? Well in a typical month, that’s how many week days we have. I am eventually envisioning a structure where we publish four or five articles, three or four of which are written by someone either than myself. The first step to both diversifying what we cover and spreading out the workload is to get 22 people or more to commit to write just one piece a month.
The other thing is, of course, financial. Last year, we broke previous fundraising records by 50 percent. That has enabled me to hire a part-time assistant and pay myself a very small salary. For most of my time with the Vanguard, I have not drawn any kind of salary.
But if I could not draw a salary for myself, but the Vanguard had the resources to hire additional reporters, imagine what our work product would be then.
I am humbled and very grateful for the community members who have extremely generously donated their money to the Vanguard last month, last year and over the last eight years. Between fundraisers and trying to get monthly subscribers, or, last month, matching donors, I probably spend 30 to 50 percent of my time now trying to raise money.
So the Vanguard aims to improve our coverage, we embrace the criticism and are doubling down. What we need from you is a little bit of time and a little bit of money to make this site even better.
And please continue the feedback – it is received and we will take it to heart.
—David M. Greenwald reporting