THE HERE & NOW: All that mental real estate devoted to the recent outrages on the national stage is now ready for reclaiming. What better time to refocus on our neighborhoods, towns, regions, and communities with quality journalism?
On the south end of Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz, there stands one of those four-in-one coin-operated newspaper racks — a feature of city streets so common for decades that they are often functionally invisible.
This particular rack is battered and broken, subject to the indignities of everyday urban neglect and abuse. The metal post supporting the thing is bent forward and a bit to the right, giving the rack an ominous lean, like a dazed prizefighter seconds before he falls to the canvas out cold.
Those of us who have worked in the newspaper industry in the internet age are generally suckers for cheap symbolism about our chosen field’s intractable slide into obsolescence, and this example works as well as any of them. But — even as Craigslist, Facebook, Google, hedge-fund ownership, and myriad other agents have each taken their bite out of newspapers’ once-mighty cultural power — one thing has always remained true: It is only the “paper” part of newspapers that is fated for technological extinction.
The “news” part? That is still very much a bull market.
For almost 30 years, I’ve been a creature of the Santa Cruz journalism ecosystem, mostly with the daily Santa Cruz Sentinel, but more recently with the weekly Good Times. Today marks the first time that my writing will not be available in those battered old newspaper racks. And I couldn’t be more excited about that.
At Lookout Santa Cruz, I’m now part of an audacious experiment to reinvigorate local news in the post-newspaper era. As a reader, you are, too.
Santa Cruz County is the garden in which the first seeds of this new approach are to be planted. We are the prototype. In that way, the nation — to the degree that anyone is concerned about the future viability of local news — has its eyes on us. We have the power to figure out a model to make comprehensive coverage of local news work for the long term.
The impulse to do what we’re doing is nothing new. For more than two decades, print media have been in constant conversation on how to create a stable model that would provide readers dependable and accurate local news, and seasoned journalists decent jobs. Many of those ideas have failed. But Lookout has two factors in its favor that makes me like our chances to succeed.
The first is, of course, professional excellence, a stable of energetic, seasoned, resourceful journalists applying best practices and devotion to the highest standards of newsgathering to covering Santa Cruz County in every arena from government to the environment to food.
The second is timing.
Sure, at first glance, it seems crazy to start a business in these bizarrely abnormal times, in the middle of a global pandemic and its accompanying economic downturn, at a time when so many beloved local touchstones are stuck in a state of semi-hibernation. And then to start a news organization? After the most consequential election in our lifetime, that has left most of us feeling maxed out on news alerts and headlines?
In fact, for many of us, the last year has been one long slog of doom-scrolling and hate-watching, thanks to an election melodrama that commanded our attention like a Roomba sucks up Cheeto crumbs. With a new year and a new administration in Washington, many people are naturally going to feel a need to recalibrate their abused attention spans. All that mental real estate devoted to the outrages and embarrassments on the national stage is now ready for reclaiming. What better time to refocus on our neighborhoods, towns, regions, and communities?
The coming new year is going to feel especially refreshing after what we’ve all endured in 2020. Depending largely on how the COVID-19 crisis plays out, there will be a palpable impulse to get back to something resembling normal, to embrace the old pleasures of place and time — going out to a show, attending a festival, eating inside a restaurant — pleasures that we will never again take for granted. This is, in fact, the best time for a new way to experience our community, as it slowly regains its strength.
Like an untended vineyard, Santa Cruz County is laden with great stories ready for the picking: stories of creativity and artistry, entrepreneurial stories, inspirational stories.
I’ve been writing about this area for the better part of three decades, and I still see so much to explore in this vibrant, dynamic community. Santa Cruz is ideal for this experiment in community journalism not because it is a typical American locale, but exactly because it is atypical.
My job at Lookout is to reveal its unique personality, story by story, person by person. It’s one of those tasks that will never reach an end point. Good thing I’m not looking for one.