True Life at the Register
Photo by Jeanne RiceFor just shy of four years, I was a staff reporter at The Orange County Register. On Nov. 6, I got laid off.
It was sort of "Donner, party of one," since nobody else in the newsroom got the ax. According to editor and senior vice president Tonnie Katz, a downshift in ad revenues had caused publisher Chris Anderson to issue an edict that the news department needed to take in a tuck. Happily for the bottom line, the elimination of my salary would put the newsroom budget back on an even keel. If so, I'm glad to trudge up Golgotha.
But I don't think that was it. I think I got canned, not exactly for whistle-blowing, but for a plaintive bleat I made on an in-house electronic forum about one of the Register's deceptive practices.
The Register, understandably, is touchy about credibility. National polls continue to underscore that the public doesn't much trust the media. Most of the gripes that trickle in to Reg ombudsman Dennis Foley carp about the Register's frequent, irritating inaccuracies. This is mostly niggling stuff and more amusing than worrisome. For example, some Register caption writer put "soldiers" on the doomed Russian submarine Kursk. Even a senile old fud in his Barcalounger in Mission Viejo knows that sailors man naval vessels. Wrong dates, misspellings, garbled nomenclature and other two-bit errors are the inevitable effluvia of the Register's young copy desk. At your typical newspaper, the copy editors are ancient, bitter, alcoholic failures whose last scrap of dignity involves holding the line against factual error. They have a withering contempt for blas reporters who bobble World Series dates or don't know that the CDC is the Centers for Disease Control.
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But the rookie copy desk at the Register is not my peeve. My bitch, which I aired a few months ago on the newsroom-wide ombudsman's forum, criticized the Register's reliance on phony "reaction" stories masquerading as news. I had developed a distaste for a certain kind of bogus story the Register often prints, designed to fool the reader into thinking the paper is on top of the community.
I wasn't on my high horse. In 37 years of newspapering, I've cranked out a ton of this crap, although for the past year, I'd sworn off. Nor is this sin peculiar to the Register; most newspapers are guilty to some degree. But as a second-tier, provincial paper, the Register struggles desperately to localize everything. Executive editor Ken Brusic says he likes to think of the Register as a country weekly published every day. Billboards proclaim that the Register is Orange County's newspaper, although until recent cutbacks the Los Angeles Times ran more column inches of Orange County news.
Anyway, the Register markets the perception that it's local. Thus, it's policy that editors must always try to tie local reaction to any extramural doings. What does Orange County think about Oval Office sex? How has Orange County reacted to pilot error off Martha's Vineyard or to a celebrity auto fatality in Paris? In my posting to the ombudsman, I said what most of the staff already know: that a lot of these stories are pretty much bullshit, pretending to know what they don't and making sweeping statements unsupported by meaningful evidence, and they are assigned solely for appearances. Most are based on a handful of random man-on-the-street interviews.
Lots of reporters and editors are responsible for these things, but since I don't want to break anybody's rice bowl, I'll use examples from my own checkered—and now historical—career at the Register.
In my posting to the ombudsman, I mentioned that my personal worst for reaction stories was one that ran on Sept. 18, 1999. The headline: "Korean Community Cautiously Optimistic on Trade Move." Subhead: "REACTION: But some condemn the easing of restrictions as a form of capitulation." In the lede, I wrote, "Orange County Korean-Americans responded cautiously to the Clinton administration's decision to ease trade restrictions with North Korea." It went on for 703 boring words, sounded authoritative and conveyed the impression that the Register might know something about Orange County Koreans. Nope. My story was based entirely on quick phone interviews with two businessmen. For one of them, the English language was a very distant second cousin. I'd been assigned this turkey by one of the little chiefs late in the afternoon, and after a few hours of calling around with deadline coming up, that's all I had. The subeditor and I both knew the story was bullshit. The thing is I could write it so there was no overt lie. And we had our orders. So the next day, the Register put another one over on the minuscule number of readers who care about the Korean community's reaction.
It's no big deal. Nobody reads this stuff. But it's bogus. That was my point to the ombudsman—that any time a reader sees "REACTION" in a headline, he oughta be wary. Here's one I helped on during the Monica Lewinsky scandal: "On Main Street in Orange County, people paused to consider the possibility that President [Bill] Clinton might face impeachment now that Congress has received the report of independent counsel Kenneth Starr. For the most part, they didn't like the idea." A careless reader might assume from the lede that the Register had done some scientific polling of the county's 2.7 million residents. In fact, the story was based on a handful of random interviews. We had no clue what the people of Orange County thought about the Starr report.
So about a year ago, I swore off these reaction stories, partly because of a memo put out, ironically enough, by Brusic on "math literacy." The memo recommended two books: How to Lie With Statistics and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, which underscored what I already knew about this kind of thing. As I said in the forum, there are two ways to make these one-day wonders okay. They can be done as straight entertainment, as man-on-the-street interviews, with the reporter drawing no conclusions. Or the writer can simply tally in the story how many were interviewed. In the Starr report reaction story, one could say, "This is based on interviews with 13 people picked at random." Then the reader would have something to gauge the story by. So my line became "No more reaction stories from Phil without saying how many were interviewed." At least readers would know the story was based on a tiny, meaningless sample.
Of course, there was one flaw. On Oct. 8, 2000, for instance, another reporter and I did a reaction story headlined, "Rape-area Residents Relax . . . Sort Of." The assistant editor's idea was that maybe Santa Ana residents had been permanently scarred by a serial rapist who had just been captured. It was another cheap and easy Register reaction story, trying to draw conclusions from scanty evidence, but we dutifully went out and did it. I included in the story how many people we'd interviewed, which was about a dozen. That paragraph never appeared in the paper.
My complaint to the ombudsman drew no response until Nov. 6. The editors all read the ombudsman's forum, but no editor defended the practice, nor can they. The ombudsman was silent. One reporter, Jeff Collins, took the pledge and started putting numbers in his reaction stories. But it would be difficult to continue doing these stories—a staple at the Register—if the paper admits how they're done. I didn't say this to the ombudsman, but the solution here is for Brusic, the guy who actually runs the newsroom, to heed his own memo and tell the little editors to find some honest way to localize the news.
Anyway, I figure that was the beef that put me out on the park bench feeding the pigeons, not budget anxieties.
Now that I'm warmed up—and while I'm still carving the air on the pulpit—I may as well mention another example of Register baloney. I used to call them "cute ideas," usually emanating from the editors' morning meeting. The little editors who dream up this stuff aren't evil or sinister. They're average mopes with kids and mortgages in Irvine. They're competent enough at what they do—correcting stories and punching buttons—but they don't get out much. They live in a rarefied, oxygen-depleted atmosphere of meetings with one another all day. A lot of the story ideas they come up with aren't incandescent. One time, for instance, after winter rains caused some landslides in the county's eastern canyons, the editors got the cute idea that canyon residents must have risk-prone personalities. I got assigned.
First, I told them, it's prima facie nonsense (I don't really talk like that, but that was the drift); second, even if we wanted to test the hypothesis, it'll take more than a couple of hours, and you guys want this overnight.
Do it anyway, said a little chief.
I worked for a year as a staff reporter for The National Enquirer, so I can do this stuff. "Choosing to live in one of the tempest-racked canyons of eastern Orange County might seem a little like voyaging on the Titanic." For the psychological element, I used one family therapist who really didn't know what I was up to.
The completed story was bullshit—not factually wrong, but misleading in its conclusions. I said as much to the chieftains when I turned it in. After the story ran, the ombudsman had to go out to the canyons and smooth the feathers of miffed readers who knew this wasn't shoe polish.
How much is anybody interested in the innards of the Register? As a private in the rear rank, I was never privy to any inside dope, and at age 57, I was not on the party line for personal gossip. My observations are probably jaundiced, since I was just frog-walked (metaphorically speaking) out of the building. But I am a spigot; I can drizzle. I'm a disgruntled ex-associate with time on my hands. The problem with a tell-all is that "Inside the Register" is kind of boring. The newsroom looks like any insurance office, with the hirelings potted in their pods, foreheads spot-welded to the tube. The good side is that it's a young, diverse staff, and everybody is nice. I have worked in other newsrooms (the old San Diego Evening Tribune is an example) that were writhing with pit vipers. At the Register, I can't think of anybody whom I'd qualify as an overt asshole. Many of the reporters and artists and all of the photographers are talented. Yet overall, the product is flabby. The stories tend to be bland and trivial. I know this is subjective, especially since much of what the Register chooses to cover doesn't interest me: reams of copy about schools, lots of fairs and festivals. And the Register loves sentimentality—weepers about bereft moms and sundered families, or upbeat Pollyanna-ism about saints and do-gooders.
But even the little editors admit (in private) that the Registeris a dull read. Maybe it's dull because of the strangulating effect of "Proposition 140"—the company policy that all beat reporters, to keep their socks up, should produce 140 bylined stories annually. With vacations, holidays and the usual sick time, this would amount to about 0.7 stories per day. This is the river Platte, an inch deep, and it guarantees that most stories will be short, safe, superficial, ad-separating pap and filler, creating in effect a paper almost designed not to be read.
But Prop. 140 is just a symptom. To see more clearly, I suggest we look up. For most of the time I was at the Register, the newsroom was run by a triumvirate—Brusic, Katz and their attack gofer, deputy editor Larry Burrough, who recently went on to a better world at the Denver Post. Although Brusic usually makes the calls in the newsroom, the putative leader is Katz. She travels a lot, bearing the Register flag to seminars and universities. To glean that benefit, she handles discipline and the purse strings and holds up the stop sign when iffy or imaginative stories have to be killed.
Brusic is ruddy, spare, deaconish and a little stooped, as if he is perpetually bending over a lectern. He is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the newsroom, and he is responsible more than anyone else for what the Register is. If the Register is scintillating and aggressive, it's due to Brusic. If it's something else, ditto. There's a pretense of collegiality in the newsroom, as if everybody gets a say in decisions. But it all comes down to Brusic. Face-to-face, he's personable and coherent. In the morning meeting, though, discoursing on the previous day's paper, his speech frequently devolves into corporate patois: virtual teams, stakeholders, collaborative neighborhoods, idea ownership, vertical and horizontal this and that. And without fail, he hopes that the item under discussion "will allow readers to sort out the issues that affect their lives and link them to places where they can act." Stories he likes are "plussed," holdover cant from consultants, but hardly ever "minused." Instead, an editor will have an "I wish," as in "I had one 'I wish' on the placement of that . . ."
The Register has a penchant for hiring top-dollar New Age-y consultants of almost cult-like weirdness. A while back, it was Synergistics. Lately, under an enthralled Brusic, the newsroom got saddled with a consulting firm whose chief contribution was the introduction of their strange, cant-based take on "community journalism." This, in a nutshell, is the not-exactly-new idea that common mopes ought to work news into their stories as well as spokesmen and experts. At the Register, this has meant that stories are supposed to have "a diversity of voices"; in practice, it means that somewhere in the dialectic between antagonist and protagonist, the reporter brakes the story to squeeze in the uninformed rambling of some Average Joe. When new publisher Chris Anderson came in a year ago, he pretty much put a stake through this stuff; the numbingly boring training has ceased, and there's now no sotto voce snickering about the consultants' arcane formulations—"connective tissue" was the one most mocked. But the same consultant also gave us "fences" and "connectors," "catalysts" and "frames," which were just consultant terms to trick up old ideas. (As another hobby at the Register, I collected cant phrases. My favorite: "repurposing copy," which is when they use your story in another medium without paying you anything extra.) For a couple of years, everybody went along with such errant nonsense, the minor editors (Phylum Sanschordata) straight-faced, the reporters laughing behind their hands.
The other Brusic fascination is with overly complex technology. The Register has just purchased for $4 million news-production software from a Danish company. So far, Vikingware (as I call it) has proven to be as temperamental as HAL but not as competent. The system breaks down a lot and somehow ushers garbled type into the paper. Because of Vikingware glitches, deadlines are blown, the presses start late and the paper isn't properly assembled. The high-strung tech gnomes who fiddle over the glowing pile are always being lured away by dot-com start-ups. But Brusic likes the "layers."
Burrough's role was kind of like that of the Trotskyesque pig Snowball in Animal Farm, to explain the latest Brusic line to the barnyard. He was a Tasmanian fiend for calling meetings, flying from one to the next in a flurry of illusory purpose. He isn't being replaced because his main value to corporate is his masterful spin. I would always make an effort to attend meetings when Burrough was spinning. He could obfuscate brilliantly off the cuff, always with enough authority to flummox the spluttering minions. I saw his range when the Register decided to dump the social-issues beat, and he was sent in to quiet the incensed reporters. There were two actual reasons for dumping social issues: first, the beat reporter had become difficult about the pain she was suffering from job-incurred wrist injuries. (After they threatened to put her on night cops, she made a deal and resigned.) Second, as Burrough rightly said, polling showed that the "core readership" didn't give a shit about social issues and were a lot more interested in their own commuter woes. Of course (said Burrough), social issues would stay a top Register priority, but now the beat would be "mainstreamed," meaning that any Prop. 140 reporter could check to see if he had room on his plate for a social issue.
While spinning sugary concoctions, Burrough always liked to add just a drop of wormwood-like truth ("people don't care") and then finish with a glaze of intimidation ("It's not just the social-issues beat; all jobs are being re-evaluated"). The result of mainstreaming social issues is that you don't read much about the unwashed in the Register. Register policy, as one wag put it, is "Fuck the losers."
It appears that next in line for mainstreaming, by the way, is the investigations team. The "I-Team" just did an excellent expos about UC Irvine employees selling donor body parts for profit. Investigations like this, however, are expensive, labor-intensive and don't "grow the paper." The Register, like anybody else, will ballyhoo a prize if it gets one. People pour champagne on one another, and soaked shirts are hung on the wall like performance art. But the truth is, as Burrough once said, "We don't care about prizes." They don't persuade anybody to subscribe.
(I should add, in a stab at fairness, that when I critique Register editors, I am only talking about cartilage and candlepower, not about their essential human goodness, which is not much below average.)
Sometimes the publisher butts into newsroom matters at a paper, but not much at the Register. Anderson kind of looks like a lantern-jawed Ken Kesey. He appears forceful. When he arrived, some reporters were hoping he'd invigorate the newsroom like some William Randolph Hearst strutting in, shouting, "Find Ambrose Bierce!" He did spike the consultants, but his presence otherwise hasn't been felt much, even when Vikingware was hiccuping pretty severely.
I once worked at another sheet where the staff started to blow deadlines. The publisher, a bird-like, sunken-chested, little twerp, gathered everybody together and said, "Knock this shit off right now or there's gonna be empty saddles." There isn't that kind of seriousness at the Register, except when it came to emptying my saddle. The newsroom stumps along, clubfooted, the editors in meetings all day and everybody swept up in the late-afternoon scramble to move product. Nobody is much interested in taking risks or butting heads. And despite its libertarian roots, the Register is pretty much the usual Dilbertesque corporate culture with much amusing, Pecksniffian hypocrisy and blather about goals and core values, while the control panel is mere flickering wattage.
When I got the ax, I had just started looking at Orange County slumlords. I'd already done a piece on Sam Menlo, the slumlord sentenced to live in his own deteriorating complex ("The Temple of Doom") on Temple Street in Anaheim. That nudged me into seeing the obvious: in a place like OC, with high rents, high occupancy and a burgeoning low-paid immigrant cohort, slumlords are going to flourish. I started gathering the names and court records of slumlords already convicted and on probation. The lower invertebrates at the Registerwere not enthusiastic, although they may have already known that I was to receive the black spot.
In any case, I knew better than to think the Register would be interested in outing slumlords. I'd already had the experience of Waldo, as in "Where's Waldo?" This was my code name for my seven-part series on the 5,000 mentally ill homeless in OC. Every once in a while, one of them will get a wild hair and steal a baby or kill somebody, but usually they're invisible: the derelict on the bench, the old lady pushing the shopping cart full of plastic bags. I spent a couple of weeks on it, following nuts to their hideouts, riding with the county people who try to help, talking to cops, blah, blah. The series was pretty good, and I probably would have won a dinner and a plaque somewhere. But the thing sank without a bubble. No explanation. Nothing. Not even "This is dog shit—rewrite it." Nothing. I'd say to my editor, John Dunphy, "Where's Waldo?"
"Many people are reading it," he'd say. But I never heard anything more. Of course. I'd picked for my subject the cream of the losers.
Previously, it had been dirty restaurants. There's a cozy relationship between the county health department and the restaurant association. It's the county's policy to give health-code violators a lot of slack. A restaurant closed for raw sewage on the kitchen floor and heavy vermin infestation in the pantry can be open for business two days later. My first suggestion was that the Register run a weekly list of restaurants closed for health code violations. The response was a curt no. I wrote a few stories but soon learned that another reporter, Dave Parrish (now at the Arizona Republic), had already done a thorough investigation, which had been shot down by Katz. Was it fear of losing supermarket ads? Some of the grocery delis were on the list.
It's not just the scab pickers that are hard to get in. I was planning a Thanksgiving feature on a Costa Mesa blacksmith who had built a giant catapult that tosses frozen turkeys. Could be funny. But this, too, is difficult for some of the little chiefs. Throwing frozen turkeys? Would somebody be offended? Is it the wrong message to youth? It's a lot safer to do another feature on a Brea grandmother completing a life of service.
The Register, like many newspapers, may be a brontosaurus gazing up into the expanding shadow of a meteor. Current newsprint prices? Ouch. Ad revenues? Sliding. Circulation? Flat-lined. Subscribers aren't being replaced because, as we say, "Kids don't read." Dude, why should I buy an unwieldy, unhip, retro, boring rehash when I can get news instantly online? The Registeralso has huge circulation churn, something like 30,000 a month. These are the customers who subscribe for the good-deal eight-week discount and then disloyally drop when asked to pay full price. And what are we to do about the Hispanics and the Vietnamese who will soon be half the population in OC? Generally speaking, they don't take the Register.
At the other end, the owners aren't budging on the profit margin. The libertarian odd ducks who founded the old Santa Ana Register have long since passed on to a stateless, tax-free Nirvana where they sit at the feet of Ms. Rand. The remaining Hoileses are not Hearsts and have no hands-on interest in newspapers. Some of the bean counters at Register "town meetings" darkly suggest the Hoileses might one day look at a more profitable return on investment. The implication is that for reasons of job security, the generous family cut off the top is the first consideration.
Right now, the Register is facing these problems through the process of a newsroom-wide "rethinking." This consists of focus groups, consultants, pollsters, questionnaires at the fair and brown-bag meetings for the staff. How can the Register attract new subscribers without chasing away the core readership? The "core readership" is Register code for the nub of loyal South County subscribers—elderly, white, conservative, morally square—that columnist Gordon Dillow speaks to as he goes about (as somebody said jokingly) comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.
Actually, the re-noodling so far only amounts to another makeover, the hope that there's some typographical formula that will hook loyal customers. All the focus groups on the iceberg situation have apparently asked the stewards to rearrange the deck chairs—by redesigning the front page. When the prototype went up on the corkboard in October, reporters reacted with almost universal revulsion. I did, too. It's an ugly pastiche, cluttered with confusing daubs of color and tiny graphics, cooked up by designers under the thrall of magazines like Gear and Stuff. However, I later came around 180 degrees and now think the concept, at least, might make sense. The new front page will look like a screen, la Slate or Salon. A wide swath of briefs (to be called a "Finder") will run down the right side, summarizing the main news nuggets for the hurried reader. At the top will be a redesigned flag, meaning a different typeface subbed in for the Old English-style "Registerred" logo. According to a recent memo, all this will be revealed to the public gradually, so as not to alarm the change-resistant core readership. The brain trust is also flirting with the idea of slamming ads along the bottom of the front page, something that will cause actual vomiting in the newsroom.
Now, enjoying the detachment that comes from leisure, I think I see the future of Register news: pared-down and pap-rich. It makes sense. For most reporters, the Register has never been a destination paper. In the four years I was aboard, most of the prize-winning reporters left for better jobs, including Dawn Chmielewski, Dan Weintraub, Debra Gordon, Susan Kelleher, David Parrish, Guillermo Garcia, Stuart Pfeifer, Mai Tran, Kim Christensen, Jean Pasco and on and on. It doesn't matter. Junior widgets just out of college can produce plenty of product to keep the ads from bumping, and they're inexpensive and docile. The brain trust will focus on what's easy: police blotter, court decisions, school board and city council. They'll assign a lot of maudlin Bermudas: "Breast Cancer Survivor Helps Other Victims." Management will cut the overhead by throttling back on investigations and travel and demanding more outsourcing. The Register has already outsourced the telemarketers who call at dinner time with a special offer. It may be Orange County's newspaper, but that sales call will emanate from a boiler room in Tallahassee or New Delhi if it's cheaper. Maybe it has to be that way for the Register to stay solvent in the much-referenced competitive market. Frankly, Ms. O'Hara, I can't worry about it. I feel like I've already done what I can.
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