Sunday, July 12, 2009

News in the Time of Pain...

In a flashing neon sign of the times, last week Freedom Communications Inc. shut down its one-reporter Capitol bureau for its three South Texas newspapers, The Monitor (McAllen), the Valley Morning Star, and The Brownsville Herald. "It's a cost-cutting measure," said Olaf Frandsen, regional vice president for Freedom, reciting the mantra of modern newspaper executives. "We had to look for areas where we could cut costs without significantly damaging coverage." - Austin Chronicle, Nov. 16, 2007


McALLEN, Texas – It’s just 50 cents locally, yet the price of the daily newspaper is not – and never has been – the best barometer for gauging its value to society. We live in a free country, and it is true: the press theoretically and romantically serves as guardian of those freedoms, by exposing government corruption, excesses and discrimination. It isn’t written in stone anywhere; it’s just part and parcel of what we like to call a free republic – a place where civil rights are to be respected. When they are not, it is then the duty of the press to bring such things to light. Yes, there are sports to write about. And there is the Lifestyle Page, and the Business Page. But it is a newspaper’s work in righting wrongs that stands as the reason it is called the Fourth Estate in our form of government – there weighed equally alongside the Executive Branch (president), the Legislative (Congress), and the Judicial (courts). Together, they are supposed to make this the greatest country in the history of the world.

Yet, the premise is flawed these days. Gone are enough daily newspapers to wonder about their future. Up have come the Internet news outlets – some worthy and many not. The Internet – through legitimate news outlets such as and through some totally unreliable websites such as the Drudge Report - is in its infancy, however. This website is an example of what is known as a Blog. I see them as being nothing more than personal vehicles for personal assessments and opinions regarding issues of the day. Blogs have fans and they have critics. There is value in both.

Still, it is the local daily newspaper that the citizenry looks to for helpful and meaningful timely information. Here, The McAllen Monitor does its best to serve as newspaper-of-record. It is not The New York Times, and it is not The Dallas Morning News. It is a small town newspaper with ever-limited resources and a reporting staff that, to be fair, is aggressive yet largely inexperienced. Those of us in the business know newspapers such as The McAllen Monitor as providers of those needed first two-three years of journalism experience for rookie reporters, many just out of college. Is it a bad newspaper? No. It could do more on certain issues, such as crime in nearby Mexico or perhaps report a bit deeper on local banking and health care, but it, I assume, recognizes its limitations. What readers of The Monitor get, then, is equivalent for the local citizenry as the campus newspaper is to students of McAllen High School. There are in Monitor Editor Steve Fagan’s outlook no pretensions. He does his best with what he has, is what I’d say.

Hang around any public place in town, such as a coffee shop or a small cafĂ© or even a bar, and what you hear is serious criticism against The Monitor. It is not uncommon to hear local residents say something like, “I wish someone would start a second newspaper.” That would be something. My take on this also has come by way of chats with the local business and advertising community. To a one, they lament the rough economy environment playing from coast to coast and how that is affecting the Rio Grande Valley, but they side by the idea of seeing another daily walk into town. “Competition is what the Monitor needs,” said a good friend here who has long-wished for a competing publication.

There are a number of small weeklies and monthlies, such as RGVNation and a few magazines such as RGVMag and Social Life. The first two are meek attempts at news reporting if the story selection and writing are any indication. Social Life is a gushing of photos appealing to the vanity of McAllenites. So, no…there is no competition for The Monitor. Along with its sister newspapers in Harlingen and Brownsville downriver, they, well, have a monopoly on crippling mediocrity. What kills me is that all three of these dailies, owned by California-based Freedom Communications, are forever accused of siding by one segment of the area population, namely the Anglo community. And, about that, nowhere does it manifest itself clearer than when these newspapers publish stories about how certain illnesses, usually awful ones, afflict the Hispanic community more than other ethnics. The same road-tired angles to stories about welfare and housing woes are popular with these editors. Never have I seen a story in any of the three RGV newspapers that tells me, say, it is the Anglo community that suffers more than any other when it comes to Erectile Dysfunction, bad debt, or the receipt of welfare benefits. When The Monitor publishes a story about welfare, as it did this week, it is a handful of Hispanics interviewed at the local welfare office. Yes, the majority of residents here are Hispanics, but a little extra legwork, seemingly never a strength of Monitor reporters, might have yielded the name of an Anglo getting needed government aid. I say that is a disservice, and I continue to contend that the people of McAllen deserve better, more honest journalism.

The thing is that many staffers of its Editorial Department, including reclusive Publisher M. Olaf Frandsen, hail from elsewhere. Their outlook and allegiance is to a white-bread culture that does not take into account the unique culture of the Texas-Mexico border. It is for that reason, I believe, that many, many people here tolerate the newspaper, yet they would jump aboard another newspaper if they only had the choice.

Times are tough for everybody these days. The community needs an active newspaper out gathering serious, accurate information. The Old Way of holding fort in McAllen should have died with the end of former hard-edged Mayor Othal Brand, a man who many here say treated Hispanics with all the propriety of a coonhound. But The Monitor did not do that. Instead, the newspaper has turned its back on stories that either are published by other news outlets (The New Yorker on local health) or are simply ignored, like the lingering troubles at the McAllen Independent School District. Only the administration of The Monitor knows it, but many here believe it does not shake the health industry or school district tree because it garners a tremendous amount of advertising revenue from both. A Sunday edition of the newspaper is one gauge: invariably, that particular issue is fat with medical and school district advertisements. Lost, then, is the public’s ability to know what exactly is going on in town. Who knows? Maybe Editor Fagan thinks his young reporting staff is not up to tackling serious issues, or maybe Fagan would like to tell me that the order for "hands-off" comes from above.

In the end, what readers get is really nothing more than a daily exercise in “putting out” a newspaper. Most days, it is thinasthis, especially the Monday edition, which, if the newspaper would be honest, ought to go for a nickel. For me, The Monitor’s indifferent attitude to the goings-on in nearby Mexico is mysterious. These are fantastic stories, fraught with crime, corruption and blood – staples of most daily newspapers. The professional sentiment goes: if you get any of that, you go after it doggedly. The public deserves to know much more about the criminal activity on the southern side of the Rio Grande. Why? Well, because it is serious stuff when a country dispatches its army to man its border against its own misguided citizens – citizens even The Monitor knows are thugs and murderers. Yeah, maybe The Monitor thinks it’s too dangerous to send its reporters across the bridge to report on the disarray in neighboring Reynosa, a town that has a long, long history too close to this side of the river to be simply ignored. Still, one look at any of a dozen newspapers and news magazines published in Reynosa would show The Monitor that things have deteriorated beyond belief. For a newspaper that covets journalism prizes perhaps more than credibility, The McAllen Monitor would do well to improve its lot in town by bringing the stories home, as they teach in journalism school.

Perhaps there is still time…

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