Of the things I miss about being the Weekly’s editor, I miss being in the newsroom, hearing reporters working their sources.
A newsroom is a place of creativity and debate. It’s living synergy. And as much as I know anything, I know it’s a necessary thing for a newspaper to have.
Gannett, though, sees things differently.
Gannett, the owner of thrice-weekly Salinas Californian, sold its long-on-the-market building on West Alisal and will move to an approximately 1,000-square-foot rented space behind the MYO Yogurt on South Main. (Californian President Paula Goudreau, in a message to readers, noted how important it was for the paper to remain downtown; it is my sad duty to inform her the 1000 block of Main Street is not downtown.) More importantly, as some staffers who want to remain anonymous tell me, the new space will beta test something Gannett may roll out nationwide: no newsroom. There will be a few docking stations for editorial, administrative and advertising staffers to plug in laptops and cellphones, but reporters are expected to work at coffee shops or from their homes. (Irony: I know of one Californian reporter who for a brief time lived in an empty office in the Alisal Street building. Nobody noticed.)
Gone, too, are editors with a connection to the community. Editor Pete Wevurski, who split his time editing the Californian and two other Gannett papers in Visalia and Tulare, was canned on May 3 and replaced by Redding-based Silas Lyons, a one-time Monterey Herald intern who will edit the Californian and three other papers. He meets with reporters daily at about 1:45pm – via Skype. The closest thing the Californian has to an on-site editor, “content coach” Joe Truskot, is by most accounts a nice guy, but he’s not a trained journalist. He previously led the Monterey Symphony and writes gentle restaurant reviews and columns about his cats.
Also gone: Columnist Jeff Mitchell, whose downfall was swift. He pissed a lot of people off in his time covering Salinas politics via his “Under the Dome” and “Civic Chronicles” columns. He had seemingly toned down his bombastic approach in the past year as a California Endowment-funded reporter covering health care in East Salinas. Until last week, when he took on county supervisors Mary Adams, John Phillips and Salinas City Councilwoman Kimbley Craig over their no votes on extending the life of a homeless warming shelter as members of the board of the Transportation Agency for Monterey County (see p. 10).
In his May 6 column, Mitchell quoted an unidentified city councilwoman as saying the following: “But why should I have to deal with the homeless? Why? Why? Why? All they do is cost money and, well, they’re stinky.”
The quote was clearly intended as a swipe against Craig, the only councilwoman involved in that vote. Trouble is, though, she never said any such thing.
Two days after Craig sent Lyons and Goudreau a letter requesting an apology and retraction, Mitchell was fired. Despite multiple attempts, Mitchell says, he could not get Lyons to return calls to discuss the column.
Lyons walked Mitchell out of the building on May 9 as Truskot, who edited the column and let that quote slide, fetched Mitchell’s wallet, keys and laptop.
Craig received no apology, but a half-assed, nonsensical explanation was appended to the column. Lyons did not respond to requests for comment.
Over a beer five days later, a less bombastic Mitchell tells me he intended the quote as a literary device – a means of conveying the feelings (if not the words) of Adams, Phillips and Craig. But those quote marks did him in. He says he asked for a suspension. Lyons, he says, told him that wasn’t an option.
“I’m gonna own that for the rest of my life. It was stupidity,” he says. “I owe my readers a lot and I’ve enjoyed serving them and I’m sad I won’t be anymore. My reinvention is to come.”
Craig tells me that as an elected official, she has no problem with negative news coverage. “But I do have a problem with things that did not occur being printed in the paper as truth and being supported by the reputation of The Californian,” she says. “Journalistic integrity should be the true north of any reporter.”