Looking back: My year at the Santa Cruz Sentinel

For those of you unfamiliar with my personal and professional timeline, I worked at the Santa Cruz Sentinel from October 2006 through the end of September 2007, first in a position accurately titled Webmaster, and later as the Online Editor, working in a mostly bright, young newsroom in downtown Santa Cruz, blocks from the Pacific Ocean.  I walked to work.  I liked it.

Morale got pretty crappy there a couple corporate owners into my stay, and rather than stick around when the newsroom moved a couple miles up the highway out of town, I took a new job with a GateHouse Media in Fairport, NY, worked from home for a while, and then moved out here to the frozen (well, it’s been warm and melty for a couple days as I write this) tundra.

So the year in question isn’t 2008, it’s October 2006 through September 2007.

Tom Honig was the executive editor at the Sentinel during my time there, and along with Don Miller, the managing editor, presided over what were clearly pretty crappy times for a local newspaper.

If you’ve been reading my blog on any sort of regular basis, you know that I’m not one to pull punches when it comes to newspaper management, but I am going to disappoint you if you expect me to dish about the miniature dramas and deleted blog posts and questionable decisions that are the fodder of local e-mail newsletters and DeCinzo cartoons.

In other words, sure, these guys weren’t geniuses at operating a newspaper in a market that was completely, utterly, and politically disconnected from them, but hey, they certainly weren’t the only ones in that situation in 2006-2007.

That said, I was curious when Honig passed along a link to a recent story he wrote for the local alt-weekly about the state of the Sentinel since MediaNews bought the paper.

Here’s a clip:

“Community newspapers ought to forget about the frivolous stories. Sure, go ahead and put wire stories about Madonna and Heather Locklear somewhere in the paper. But when it comes to local, the core audience–the ones who will keep buying the paper–want real news. Is the water clean, and is there enough of it? If you oppose widening Highway 1, what real-world solution is there to mass transit? How much pollution is spewed into the air over Highway 1, and would it be less or more if a lane were added? Forget the tree-sitters at UCSC–what kind of research is being done on campus, and how about a story explaining in simple language what they’re working on at the Human Genome Project? Is illegal immigration affecting wages in Santa Cruz? What has happened to all those loan officers from the housing boom? Is District Attorney Bob Lee looking into any illegal predatory lending practices? If he isn’t, why not”

There’s nothing in there that’s news to me, and anyone who was in an A1 meeting that year with Tom and Don know what in that paragraph to take with a grain of salt, but it certainly did get me thinking about what I learned (a lot) from my year at the Sentinel.

Here are a few of the more specific things I learned at the Sentinel that should apply to any newsroom:

  • The copy chief is likely to be the smartest person in the room.
  • Make sure that crazy thing you heard on the scanner isn’t a drill.  Do not speed over to the wharf unless you’ve confirmed there’s a car in the water, or a beached whale.  (Alternate: If the sun is setting and you really feel like taking a walk on the wharf, don’t confirm anything. Just go.)
  • If anyone tells you it’s a good idea to do a daily video newscast that’s anything less than Ledger Live, tell them they’re wasting your time, then go outside with the video camera and shoot something new.
  • Make friends with the cops reporter, who will have a steady supply of breaking news.
  • Any camera will do the job when news breaks.  Many reporters e-mailed in photos taken with mobile phones from accident scenes and other situations where it would have been at least an hour before a photographer’s camera or a reporter’s SD card would have been back in the newsroom to be ravaged.
  • Let everyone take a turn with the audio and video equipment, but put everything in crash cases so when it falls off their desk, it bounces..  (You know who you are…)
  • Don’t lay off the education reporter AND the higher education reporter in a college town with serious school funding issues.
  • If you can’t figure out what photo would go with your story, you’ve written the wrong story.  Go back to your notes and find a human being.
  • When you’re shooting video for a newspaper and you find yourself standing next to three shooters from local TV, you’re standing in the wrong place.  Don’t bother duplicating their story — go find something better than a stand-up.
  • The reporter who writes the “society” column is the person to go to when you need a source, or a phone number, or a story idea.
  • If you want to get anything really great done, treat every conversation with management as though it were your exit interview. ;)

Bonus link: A letter to the editor in the alt-weekly the following week, which manages to both amuse and sadden while it repeats the common jab at newspapers that don’t write stories about their own layoffs. (It really is a personnel issue, people.)

Super-extra bonus link: The video I shot of the last press run in downtown Santa Cruz before the press was sold for scrap and the Mercury News started printing the Sentinel.

Only-in-Santa-Cruz bonus link: The truck carrying the press over Highway 17 wrecked, providing the Sentinel with a news story.  Eh, actually, no link to that.  Either it happened before the Sentinel switched content management systems and is gone from the Interwebs for now, or it’s behind an archive paywall anyway.  The jist of it: The truck carrying the Sentinel press to be scrapped rolled over on Highway 17.

One thought on “Looking back: My year at the Santa Cruz Sentinel

  1. Very good post, Ryan. Your bullet points are excellent. Especially the one pointing to Ledger Live, and the advice to chat up the “society” reporter.

    At Christmas I was listening to a bunch of folks from my hometown talking about this street, that store, and some old acquaintance from way back when, and it made me think about the newspaper they don’t have — a newspaper they would read if they had it.

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