COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DICK DANIELS

North County news coverage suffering

The big news in North San Diego County this past month is there is now little North County news to read. What once was U-T San Diego’s daily North County section, meager as it was, is now a couple of pages in the back of the Metro section and a small separate section on Sundays. All of which are filled by just a handful of reporters who are trying to cover eight cities and several hundred square miles.

This is but the latest in a string of cutbacks in recent months that has reduced what had been two daily newspapers serving the region — the North County Times and a vibrant U-T news bureau — to only a trickle of news competing for space on fewer pages.

Going back as recently as the late 1980s and early ’90s, there were at one time three local dailies in Oceanside-Carlsbad, Vista and Escondido. This, in addition to two news bureaus each for The San Diego Union and Evening Tribune, which merged 21 years ago to become the Union-Tribune, later morphing into U-T San Diego.

While the few remaining North County reporters have survived the publisher’s ax — at least for the time being — the question becomes how much of what all should be covered will ever see the light of day in what has become the incredible shrinking newspaper.

News coverage that is either skimpy or tardy has powerful implications for North County’s 750,000 residents. It’s the news they either don’t have or don’t have timely access to that could well affect them the most.

Local and metropolitan newspapers have long been watchdogs over government and other institutions that affect people’s day-to-day lives. For all their perceived biases and occasional inaccuracies, newspapers have played a powerful role in exposing corruption. Watergate, Duke Cunningham, Benghazi and the IRS immediately come to mind.

Less dramatic at the local level, there are myriad occasions when newspapers provide advance notices and coverage of upcoming and past actions on the part of local legislative bodies and others in the public trust.

A city council taking up a controversial land use project, a community college district wanting to cut a popular program, and a school district planning to change boundaries are minor but important examples of topics citizens need in order to be engaged. Such stories have little or no interest beyond their communities and so, without local news gatherers, they fall to the wayside.

Less news coverage means less scrutiny over the actions of agencies, institutions and individuals — especially local elected leaders — affecting people’s lives. Sadly, North County readers now read more about a big-city mayor 35 miles away than about their own city councils, school boards, water districts and other public agencies.

So, who’s to blame? It’s not a question with a single answer. Since Colonial times, publishers in this country own and operate newspapers to make a profitable living. Profitability presupposes the ability to sell a product that has market demand. That’s become the rub in today’s media economics.

Earlier publishers such as Benjamin Franklin and later, William Allen White, William Randolph Hearst and San Diego’s Copley family didn’t have to contend with the impact of technology on our society. Growing numbers of newspaper readers are cancelling subscriptions and not buying papers off news racks.

Instead, they’ve turned to online news sites and platforms, TV news and, in some cases, commentators who suit their political inclinations. And, they’re buying products online — not from newspaper advertisers. Fewer subscribers and less advertising impact created a deadly nexus that explains the incredible shrinking newspaper crisis that has struck North County and other locales.

There are reliable news outlets that partially fill the gap. The Daily Transcript includes daily news about North County businesses as well as commercial-industrial real estate in the region. San Diego’s NPR affiliate, KPBS, has a part-time North County bureau on the Cal State San Marcos campus, staffed with a couple of reporters who try to cover the region’s massive landscape. Any expansion on the part of KPBS would be tied to additional revenues. And weekly newspapers continue in the area but are constrained by lack of frequency and staffing to cover news on a timely basis.

Keeping the news crisis in perspective, there continue to be adequate news sources serving North County with the major stories — those that either have an impact beyond the region or extraordinary high news value.

U-T San Diego’s small cadre of regional reporters are experienced observers of the area, but they can’t be everywhere they’re needed. Besides, there’s precious little space for what they do cover. All this is to say the more routine, but nevertheless important, stories that affect North County are at a growing risk of never being told.

What’s needed and as soon as possible is an additional news source or two to augment the U-T San Diego’s high-altitude flyovers of the region’s news fields and the part-time news gatherers now in the area.

Anybody know where to put a “Help Wanted” sign?

Daniels is a North County Realtor as well as a public relations practitioner consultant and a former Escondido city councilman.

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