Railroad boxcars push onto a siding. Doors slide open. Rolls of newsprint—each the size of a small car—are lifted into a newspaper factory. Behold the ritual unchanged for 50 years at the corner of 21st and R streets in Sacramento.
Rail cars are the first step in a product at once common, quaint, indispensable, beloved, mistrusted, perishable, profitable and, from most accounts, dying. The Sacramento Bee would be wonderful to own and operate, yet no one in their right mind would start a business that requires train service for raw materials, around-the-clock production schedules and printing presses that stand three stories high and stretch a full city block. Oh, and did I mention the challenges of creating content and physically getting the thing to the customer’s door before dawn, seven days a week?
The Bee was my workplace for 35 years, most of which were wonderful. For decades, reporting jobs at the Bee were not unlike positions in civil service—jobs for life. Bee newsroom salaries were pegged at something called “San Francisco Parity,” meaning we got the same pay as reporters at San Francisco papers, though our cost of living was meager by comparison. Such generosity didn’t distract the Bee’s owners. They annually banked profits of 30 percent or more.
There was nobility in the work, an abiding sense of public service. Bee customers have tried to convince me that political or commercial considerations wormed their way into the paper’s stories. Could be, but I never saw it.
We were given plenty of time to report and write. Time is considered an essential tool in quality journalism, but too much time sometimes had negative effects. It made us lazy. We had far more time than radio and TV reporters, who were always racing around on deadline. We wallowed in resources and grew fat and slow, like the grandchildren of wealth. When I left two years ago, the Bee was more obsessed with winning awards than with scoops and selling papers.
The cloistered existence explains the look of shock on many Bee employees these days. The past two winters have seen retrenchment unprecedented in the paper’s history. Dozens of reporters have left, pushed out as the industry slides toward history’s musty attic, a place filled with buggy whips, bowler hats and steam engines. A blog maintained by former Bee reporter David Watts Barton names 73 reporters, editors and photographers who have exited in the past couple of years.
The Bee is trying to make the transition to 24-hour website, but the road is bumpy. So far, there’s minimal profit in the web for newspapers, not enough advertising to support a newsroom where 270 people worked not long ago.
So the newspaper dwindles 151 years after its start. Bee reporters still glance at city council agendas. They build databases of public salaries, hoping to drive web hits. But the paper’s essential jobs—serving as the community’s information filter, telling you what’s important, rattling cages to keep powerful people more or less honest—have fallen to others.
Amateur websites have bubbled up to break the news and raise hell. Created by passionate citizens, some sites have axes to grind, some are gibberish, some excellent. But I haven’t seen one that can match the daily quality and credibility the McClatchy family publishers bought by offering San Francisco Parity. And for that our town is worse.
R.E. Graswich co-hosts the afternoon news with Kitty O’Neal weekdays on NewsTalk 1530 KFBK AM radio and reports nightly for CBS 13.