Commentary: The Local Newspaper Needs to Re-Think Its Core Competency

Yesterday, the Vanguard turned 12 years old.  I find that tenure rather stunning because, more and more, I’m working around people who were not here 12 years ago.  On a regular basis I get asked: why I started the Vanguard, what I think of the Davis Enterprise and whether I think it will survive.

What I find interesting is that, even among people who don’t particularly like the coverage of the Enterprise, most want it to survive.

I have been a big critic over the years because, at the core, one reason why I started the Vanguard is that I felt that the Enterprise did not represent my views on a range of issues and did not sufficiently cover the other side of the story.

Since the June election, there has been a lot of push back against the Enterprise among those who supported Dean Johansson, believing that the paper was biased against him.  Some of that was driven by an editorial in which they not only endorsed the incumbent Jeff Reisig, but described Mr. Reisig as one of the most progressive DAs in the state (questionable at best) and depicted the supporters of Mr. Johansson as “driven by ideology.”

This has been my chief criticism of the Enterprise: Davis is a very progressive community, and yet the Enterprise is quite conservative in a lot of different respects.  They endorsed Jeff Reisig in a community that voted for Dean Johansson with 56 percent of the vote.  Not only did they endorse Mr. Reisig, but they dismissed the majority of the residents of this community.

There was a letter recently that appeared where the writer laid this out, and she also laid out evidence that the Enterprise was not even-handed in terms of publishing letters to the editor.  She writes, “I have seriously considered dropping my subscription to the Enterprise over this mischaracterization of both candidates and your dismissive attitude toward voters with serious concerns about justice in Yolo County.”

But she added, “Instead I’m renewing for six months…  I hope that you will use this time to do some actual journalism…”

This column, however, is not about the DA’s race and so I hope readers will read what I think is the most important part coming up.  The Enterprise has always been a bit out of touch with the politics of Davis, but they can survive that if they re-think their mission.  The problem is, I don’t think the Enterprise really gets that times have changed for journalism.

I read Tanya Perez’s column from Sunday.  I like Tanya.  And I hope if she reads this column, that she will take this as constructive criticism, but her response to this issue frankly demonstrates to me why I think the Enterprise is in trouble.

This is the latest in a serious of columns that you might call “Save the Enterprise” columns.  And, to be fair, we have seen some “Save the Sacramento Bee” columns too, as they continue to struggle across the river.

Here is the problem: “The Enterprise aims to give you the information you cannot get elsewhere.”

She then writes: “We are trying to give you context for local issues. And we are working to tell you what people in our immediate area want to know. That is our core mission.”

She continues: “The Enterprise is how you know who is running for the local school board, and what is being done to increase salaries for underpaid Davis teachers.

“It’s how you find out about housing developments being considered for Davis. And what happened to two missing teens from Woodland. Or how the city and UC Davis are working together on the campus’ Long Range Development Plan.”

This is the problem – she is wrong here.  I am sorry, but you can find out about those stories in a number of places.  We cover them.  You can read about them on Facebook.

Let me give you a way-out-of-left-field analogy to illustrate this point.  I follow football recruiting for a certain college football team I root for.  I started in 1999 when the internet was fairly new.  The guy who runs the site, who has a journalism degree from one of the top journalism programs in the country, talks about how their mission has changed in the 15 years he has been doing this gig.

Back in 2003, they were the ones who broke what players committed to what program.  That was their job – be the first to report.  The problem is that in the last 15 years, we have the rise of Twitter and so prospective college football players now use Twitter to announce their decisions, or they call press conferences.

A recruiting service is not going to be breaking the news on who is going where, because, by the time they find out, their audience already knows.

Their job has changed.  The Enterprise’s job has changed as well.  The Enterprise needs to ask itself, what is our core competency?  Because I can tell you that, if it is to bring those stories, people can find out about most of them elsewhere.

Put it this way – when it comes to reporting political news, I think the Vanguard holds up well against the Enterprise.  We might even exceed them in breadth of coverage on political issues.  And we provide that coverage in real time, with vigorous community-based discussions and in detail that a newspaper cannot bring.

That is our core competency.  But we are not a newspaper.  We are not going to bring the next layer of stories to the public: “Are we getting a new animal shelter in Yolo County? Who hit a home run in the last high school baseball game? Which businesses are opening soon? What houses are for sale?”

Like Tanya Perez, “I don’t want to live somewhere there is no local paper” but, at the same time, the local paper needs to adapt to the new times, and, frankly, they are for the most part running their paper the same way they did in 2006 when I started, and probably the same way they did 30 years ago – and neither they nor the industry will survive unless they can change.

Following the Trump election, papers across the country recognized that one core value they could provide the public is to be the non-biased disseminator of information to the public.  That was particularly important in the face of not only “Fake News” but the rise of disinformation and an elected president who treats “truth” as an inconvenience.

The problem is that the media both locally and nationally has failed on that account.  The local paper is biased.  The national media is biased.  The result is that the area the mainstream media could most occupy has been ceded.

But here again, I wonder if the industry gets it.  Ms. Perez writes: “When people write to us saying how they will stop their subscriptions if we don’t/do something — I’m thinking of a recent letter to the editor about our coverage of the district attorney’s race — I don’t understand the sentiment. It seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face to try to … to what? Make the newspaper go out of business? Does that help you?”

Ultimately it doesn’t help anyone to make the newspaper go out of business.  But, at the same time, why is the newspaper not taking this concern more seriously?  You can’t argue with people, who are disappointed with your coverage, that your coverage is really great.

You can get people who tell you all the accolades you want, but the bottom line is that the market share of the people actually reading the local newspaper is declining.

It is not my job to fix the local newspaper.  But my suggestion would be to stop with the rah-rah columns, stop getting defensive and figure out what you can do better within the resources you have.

Continue on this trajectory and I think it does a real disservice to the community.  But at some point it is adapt or perish.  Right now the paper is failing to adapt.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Sharla C.

    When I was growing up in Davis, the paper came once a week on Thursdays.  It slowly expanded to a daily paper.  I could count of appearing in the paper at least once a year.   I was on the Davis Diving team and a photographer would line us up a snap a picture at the beginning of every season.  The paper was full of stories about local events and issues.  Now, other than sports, it seems full of stories about crime and controversial op-eds.  The community can help. We can stop using the paper as a blog and asking it to publish endless op-eds that have already been published online elsewhere.  We can submit well-written news items with pictures that are interesting and likely won’t appear elsewhere.  Serial stories about important issues to create anticipation.  These can even be fiction (like Tales of the City).

  2. Don Strong

    We subscribed to the Enterprise for many years. When our kid was in school here, we read about school sports in the Enterprise. We enjoyed the Wine column. Some of the local news was interesting to us. However, throughout our subscription years there were the annoying Bob Dunning columns. Bob has a way about him. He is a bit of a hippy basher. I am thankful to Bob for introducing us to Zip Car, but I cannot think of another of his subjects that I found edifying. During the years of Davis trying to find a new water supply, I found Bob to border on the disingenuous by cherry picking on the negative side the the water issue.  His girls needed long showers, and he did not want to be charged more for his water. Objectivity was out the window for Bob on the water issue. The Enterprise did not have another columnist to provide more objective information about the water issue. It was during this period that I discovered the Vanguard and its informative reporting on the Woodland-Davis water project. We cancelled our Enterprise subscription a few years ago when we found the papers piling up unread.

    1. Sharla C.

      Dunning’s columns are not the problem.  They are not published elsewhere. and in cancelling your subscription, you have cut yourself off from news and information that is not political in nature about davis.  It is the practice of relying on op-eds and letters that have already been published elsewhere, days before that is a problem.   The stories in the paper should be unique.

  3. Ron

    The Enterprise (and publications like it) are a place to go for news. It’s political views are secondary.

    The Vanguard (and publications like it) are a place to go to argue. It’s political views are primary, to the extent that some news isn’t even covered.

    There’s plenty of stories that the Vanguard doesn’t cover (e.g., the guy jumping on the car with a female driver inside), on Picnic Day.  Pretty sure that the Enterprise covered it, including the outcome.

    Certainly, the Vanguard “covered” the other Picnic Day story (an untold number of times), dripping with commentary. Same with the DA race, but highly biased.

    1. Craig Ross

      It’s certainly the place you go to argue.

      However, if I read this right, the point that Greenwald is making is actually that the Enterprise should be the place that people go for non-biased news that happens locally, but they end up harming that brand by not being unbiased.

      On the other hand, you argue that the Vanguard didn’t cover a particular story.  Let’s look at the front page:

      The Vanguard covered the Downtown Design Forum, no coverage in the Enterprise.

      Vanguard covered an immigrant couple and a tax case, never seen it in the Enterprise.

      Mobile Cannabis delivery in the Enterprise?

      Speaker’s Report on Housing Insecurity?

      Police Oversight Process?

      That’s five stories I see just on the front page of the Vanguard, not covered in the Enterprise that I recall.

    2. Ron

      I don’t think the Enterprise has been reported to the IRS, regarding coverage of the DA race. (In reference to the story posted on the “other” Davis blog a few weeks back.) (Of course, this also has to do with “profit”, vs. “non-profit” status.)

      1. Craig Ross

        No, the Enterprise just flat out endorsed Reisig under false pretenses and then belittled the opponents of Reisig, refused to print letters to the editor in support of Dean, and the editor made even worse comments in Facebook posts and tweets. But hey, let’s have a selective reading of the world.

        1. Ron

          Craig: My understanding is that the Enterprise can endorse someone (due to their “for-profit” status), while “non-profit” publications (such as the Vanguard) cannot.

          This has nothing to do with whether or not one’s personal views are in alignment with a particular publication.

        2. Craig Ross

          I don’t speak for David, but my point is that the Enterprise operates under the false pretense of objectivity.  The Vanguard operates under no pretense whatsoever.

        3. Ron

          All publications are biased, to some degree.  But, there’s stories in the Enterprise which don’t seem to have much of a political “slant”, one way or another. Same with the Sacramento Bee, and any of the other “traditional” publications.

          In contrast, almost all of the Vanguard’s articles seem to have an underlying slant/point of view.  And once David starts focusing on an issue, there’s multiple articles, commentary and one-sided reporting regarding that issue.  (Not so much, on the Enterprise.)

          If it wasn’t for the Vanguard’s “reporting”, I wouldn’t even know or pay attention to who the Enterprise endorsed.  That’s not what the Enterprise is known for.

          And again, this has nothing to do with whether or not your views are in alignment. The Vanguard is a political blog, while the Enterprise (for the most part) is not.

        4. David Greenwald

          Hard to know.  My main purpose in writing it had little to do with the DA’s race and more to do with Tanya’s column.  Would she have written the column absent the letter?  I don’t know. Did you read anything past paragraph five? The main part of the article was not about the DA’s race at all.

        5. Ron

          Keith:  I hope that the Vanguard is not an “emerging model”, for reporting the news.  Regardless of one’s views.

          But, I recall reading about one-sided reporting (masquerading as objectivity) in the distant past, as well. And, on a much larger scale.

          Nothing new under the sun, except technologies (which impacts distribution/operations).

        6. David Greenwald

          Ron: Funny, I just got a very interesting call along those lines.

          Keith: It was part of the backdrop of the story – the complain by the letter writer.  The bigger point I raise is one of the need for the Enterprise to identify their core competency.

        7. David Greenwald

          Keith: Do you actually disagree with this comment: “The Enterprise has always been a bit out of touch with the politics of Davis, but they can survive…”

          I’m not even referring to the issue of the DA here, but in general.  The Enterprise has always been more pro-growth than the community, more conservative than the community, more pro-business than the community, etc.  Is that a point of disagreement here?

        8. Keith O

          True to an extent, but the Vanguard today I think is also more pro-growth and pro-business than the community  as a whole and a lot more liberal when it comes to social issues.

          1. David Greenwald

            I don’t know that that is true, but my main point was that the Enterprise was considerably out of touch on a variety of political issues BUT that was not going to be fatal for them if they recognize it.

            Is the Vanguard more pro-growth than the community? The community after all elected the council that passed the projects. The Vanguard has supported student housing and economic development. But then again, the voters supported Nishi 60-40. Hard to know. The voters in Davis at least supported Johansson 56-44. And I can go down the line on all the propositions. I would argue that for the most part, the Vanguard is pretty close to where the community is on a lot of these issues.

        9. Craig Ross

          Keith : You seem to be in denial just how far to the left the community is from where you are.  On Reisig in particular, not only did the community vote heavily against him, they voted in the 70 percent range on a whole host of reform issues that Reisig opposed: death penalty, Prop 47, Prop 57, Legalization of Marijuana, etc.

          Yes, I do have a problem with a community paper that doesn’t represent the basic values of this community.

        10. Alan Miller

          > the Vanguard today I think is also more pro-growth and pro-business than the community  as a whole

          Not really, when you consider that the impetus for the pro-growth stance is fuel (taxes) for social programs.

    3. Mark West

      Ron: “The Vanguard (and publications like it) are a place to go to argue”

      Yes, that is clearly your approach. Some of us though come here to discuss, educate, and learn from each other, especially from those who disagree. You, not so much, and mores the pity. The value of the site is diminished by those who fail to listen to the voices of others and instead simply repeat their firmly held positions as fact.

      On another note…I simply don’t understand why anyone would expect an opinion blog like this to be unbiased. Get a life. If you don’t like the slant here, instead of complaining, start your own site and see how many people follow you.


      1. Ron

        This coming from a guy who once said (on this site) that I needed to have my “teeth kicked in”, has repeatedly derided those who disagree with him as “nosy (noisy?) neighbors”, and has managed to insult just about everyone on here. Even those who occasionally support some of his ideas.

        The results of your candidacy illuminate how people view your interactions, with others. You’re not one to be admonishing anyone, regarding behavior (online, or otherwise).

        1. Howard P

          Ron… check your tea leaves (or any other kind of leaves you “use”)…

          Mark West did not come out of the election where he did, due to “how people view your (Mark’s) interactions, with others”… it was mostly due to a message that folk did not embrace his views on the local economy, growth, etc. Or that they more aligned with those of other candidates…

          I at least hope so… I’d like to believe that the voters are not as simplistic or sophomoric, as you appears to be…

        2. Ron

          Interesting that you focus on my response, instead of Mark’s comment regarding me.  If I recall correctly, I believe he once called you out (rightly) for being “kind of a jerk” (or words to that effect), at one point.  (Basing that on memory.)

          It’s tough to determine the reason(s) that Mark did so poorly, in the last election.  However, I suspect that his interactions with others didn’t help.  Nor did his position “supporting business”, but opposing a private parking lot for Davis ACE. Regardless, his comments regarding me are more than ironic, given what he’s stated/argued on here, over time.

          Moderator: I suspect that this thread will deteriorate further, if not closely monitored.

  4. Ken A

    I agree with David that “even among people who don’t particularly like the coverage of the Enterprise, most want it to survive.”  Most people don’t want to see people lose jobs and a business fail,  just like even the people “didn’t particularly like the coverage from the local Town Crier most wanted him to survive.”

    Just like after newspapers came out few took the time to to walk to the Town Square to hear the news from the “Town Crier” today when you can read the news for free on your phone less and less people every year will be paying the Enterprise to read the news on paper (until sadly it either closes or becomes even smaller and online only).

  5. Jim Hoch

    Most people want notices of events and small doings around a small town. Note that the previous editor endorsed Susan Lovenberg who was thoroughly rejected by the electorate.

  6. Jeff M

    This is a crackup.  The Enterprise is broken because it does not go far enough carrying the liberal social justice dogma water?  LOL.

    The key to recognizing if a new source is on target today is to measure the level of irritation from the average informed liberal and conservative.  If about equal, then the new source is doing a great job.

    The Enterprise has done a great job with balance… something that is not easy in this town.

    The Vanguard is way tilted toward the liberal view of things.  That is fine, but what is not fine is when it or any other politically-biased “news” source claims it is balanced.

    The only national news paper that is balanced today is the Wall Street Journal… except for the forum section when tends to lean establishment conservative.   But a local paper should always strive for this balance in the news reporting.

    1. David Greenwald

      Jeff: My view has always been that the Vanguard’s job is to tell the part of the story that often doesn’t get aired in the mainstream news.  Or as Paul Harvey once said – the rest of the story.  I also think you have to acknowledge – you probably agree with me at least half of the time on things.

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