Resurrection of Community News?

After two years of a radically downsized news format, it appears that the management of KZYX has heard the clarion community call for a news upgrade approaching what was once a gem of the station's local programming.

A brief history of events that led up to the present state of local evening news paints a necessary backdrop for assessing the recent effort to revitalize popular support for what has become a skeleton version of its former production.

In June of 2012, News Director, David Brooksher was approached by General Manager, John Coate with a plan to restructure the news away from the twenty five minute program it had retained since its inception by Leon Guerrera, the station's first News Director over twenty years ago. Coate's strategic plan in shearing the program down to ten minutes was to pay the bills, of which nearly half consisted of staff salaries and benefits package, including that of management.

After the former News Director, Paul Hansen found reasons to disassemble the vibrant network of volunteer community reporters left to him by his predecessor, Annie Esposito, (of which I was one) Brooksher struggled in 2011 to recreate a base of local news sources to report on county meetings and events. Known in journalism lingo as "stringers", the 2012 budget had appropriated $3k for freelance news stories. According to Brooksher, only $1800 was actually approved by Coate for release as was intended.

Citing a lack of professional experience in Brooksher, Coate eliminated the position of News Director entirely on his own authority, supplanting it with a favorite corporate money saving tactic of independent contractors or "consultants". That maneuver brought the number of paid full time staff to four. As is noted in the station's public file, in doing so, Coate was able to stave off a planned FCC audit of the station's records.

The ten minutes of local news was wedged into the music interludes of NPR programming which was increasingly relied upon as local, independently produced news and science programs such as Counterspin, Free Speech Radio News and Alternative Radio were dropped in rapid succession.

Out with the old and in with the new was an effective tool to make many devotees of the popular edgy programs turn the dial to the more informative news programs of the station's northern counterpart and swear off membership renewal. As all of the changes were made without regard to what little community input was allowed, an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and resistance began to mar what had previously been an extremely supportive listening audience.

So it came as a surprise to many to learn of a plan to hold a community meeting in which the current news staff would be available to the public and respond to community feedback regarding local news programming. Not having been mentioned at the November Board of Directors meeting, I learned from the GM, Coate, that the meeting was the brainchild of the most recent member of the news team, Lorraine Dechter.

When questioned as to the timing, Dechter replied that she had learned of an underwriting agreement with Space Theater in which the station had one more use of the facility before the agreement expired at the month's end.

About 30 people attended that Sunday meeting of December 6th, many of whom were the familiar faces of the station's public affairs programmers. Two of nine of the Board of Directors, Holly Madrigal and Paul Lambert were also present.

Satiated with an abundance of appetizers and holiday fare including non-alcoholic beverages, the mood was buoyant with expectation. No one seemed to notice or care that for the third year in a row, a community meeting had been held in the inauspicious month of December. The prospect of improving the quality of local news was embraced by all as a positive goal to pursue.

The meeting opened with an introduction by the GM, John Coate. He spoke of KZYX's mission statement which expresses the goal of reflecting the diversity of the listening base throughout several counties as well as promoting a sense of community through its programming. Also stated is that " the programming and operational philosophy is controlled by its membership, which is open to all."

Coate remarked that the intent of the mission statement is inclusion. He also said that he had been told by more than a few people in the community that the station did not reflect their viewpoint. He hoped that the station's programming would reflect more informed debate and factual integrity.

Coate's goal when he took the GM position in 2009 had been to double the membership to 5000. Falling far short of that number, the station has managed to increase its membership in the last five years by several hundred.

He went on to introduce two thirds of the news team, Sherri Quinn and Lorraine Dechter. For health reasons, Michael Kisslinger, is no longer involved in KZYX News. Also present was a guest speaker from KQED, Ingrid Becker. Sitting aloft on the theater stage, the three news women gave details of their background and experience.

Quinn related how a flat tire and a wild stallion conspired to keep her in Willits. The stallion was bred to Quinn's mare at the KOA campground where she was asked to stay on to start a horseback riding school. She has had previous experience in radio journalism while living in Utah. Her work includes notable stories about the marijuana and nuclear industries, the latter helping to stop nuclear projects in that state. She also taught Radio Documentary at a Utah high school.

Dechter worked in radio from an early age. She started her career in public broadcasting in Weaverville. She also worked as a reporter for the Sacramento Bee for eighteen months. Graduating from Chico State, she simultaneously served as Director for public radio stations in Chico and Redding, experiencing the power of radio to bring people together for civil discussion. She expressed her desire to work with youth in radio.

KZYX's guest speaker, Ingrid Becker, has been a senior reporter for KQED's California Report since 2002. She said her father had worked as a pressman for the San Francisco Chronicle so news had always been a part of her life. Becker also has experience in print media, working for regional papers like the San Bernadino Sun. She met Dechter while working at a S.F. radio station. To demonstrate how news is reaching a more diverse audience, she showed a video that accompanied a story written by an intern, Jeremy Raff, about young people getting early release from jail due to changing laws.

When asked by Quinn how stories are found, Becker responded that some are generated by natural events such as extreme weather while others can be anticipated as in laws that go into effect on January 1st. Many reports are the work of regional or 'beat' reporters who follow specific areas such as health care,the justice system and state budget and legislative developments. Human interest stories on local life are also part of the mix.

A microphone was circulated through the audience to take questions and comments.

Board member, Holly Madrigal was interested in investigative journalism, asking how to get reporting that digs deeper than press releases from administrative sources. Becker suggested partnering with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Jeff Wright would like the station to reopen its 800 line on the coast to make it easier to call in reports of breaking news and road hazards. He also favored extended stories that could be divided into sequels to get more in depth coverage.

Karen Ottoboni, who formerly did election coverage along with past news director, Annie Esposito, commented that the younger generation was going to the Internet for their news. She thought that local news stories needed to be woven into the new media outlets. She also felt it was important to keep up with product development to prevent the problem of crashing apps. Becker agreed with her observation but felt radio still had a place in the future.

Jill Hannum wanted to see the local evening news return to its original half hour time frame.

Programmer Valerie Kim asked, as women in the field of broadcast journalism, how have news departments been supportive of women with or without families?

Dechter responded that she home schooled her son to allow more flexibility in their lives. She felt that some aspects of her job became part of his education as he liked to interview the clowns at rodeo shows. Quinn said she thought being a woman was often an advantage as she found people were more willing to confide in her.

Becker noted that there was greater diversity in the newsroom today, remembering that there was a time when women reporters at the White House were separated from male reporters and made to sit in the balcony.

From my past experience as a volunteer reporter with KZYX, I felt the quickest way to rebuild the foundation for community news, was to budget money towards the recruitment and training of local people from various areas including and concentrating on the school system. I also felt a strategic plan needed to be developed to return to the more workable solution of recreating the position of News Director over the fragmented 'consultant' model currently in use. Stipends for news stories would also be productive in assuring a reliable and consistent base of news sources in recognition of original material and time consuming effort. The addition of 'beat' reporters who attend local meetings with regularity gives the public the advantage of having someone with enough understanding of the issues to be able to ask relevant questions.

Former Community Advisory Board (CAB) member, Wally Stahl expressed disappointment at the way the meeting was structured. He thought a community discussion on news gathering rather than a question and answer format would have been more productive.

Dechter stated that short news segments could be heard in the morning due to a change in NPR's production. She encouraged listeners to send in news tips at lorraine@kzxy.org.

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