From the Editor: Here’s why you need us and why we need you

Modesto Bee staff photo Friday April 26, 2019.
Modesto Bee staff photo Friday April 26, 2019. jlee@modbee.com

Journalists are great at telling stories. We’re just not great at telling our own.

We’re far more comfortable writing about what others do as opposed to the work we produce each day.

On the rare occasions we do tout our work, it’s often met with derision. As I predicted, we were slammed by Facebook commenters when we posted a story Monday morning about our success at the recent California Journalism Awards.

“LMAO oh come on … who were your competitors? 6th graders?” Another read: “Is this a joke?” And … “You basically just repeat what CNN says. This is silly.”

And when was the last time CNN was in Modesto? Anyway, I could go on, but you get it. It was predictable stuff.

When you tell your story, when you put yourself and your work before the public each day, that’s the risk you take.

But to me, it’s a risk worth taking, especially these days when local journalists are being drowned out by cries that newspapers are too liberal or dying – or both.

Fact is, we aren’t liberal – or conservative – or dying.

Our reporters, who all live and work in and around Stanislaus County, don’t write about Washington or the current holder of the Oval Office. They write about things happening that affect you – our readers.

You can’t write a feature on a veteran suffering from traumatic brain injury and spin it in one political direction. Same, too, for a story of a young woman who heard her late dad’s heart beat inside another man. Nor can you write a liberal story on a homicide or fire, a football game, missteps by city staff or the hundreds of community events we promote and cover.

I’ll let the judges at the California Journalism Awards help tell our story, and illustrate why what we do – and why what the other award-winning news organizations around us do – is so important to a community:

  • “The Bee’s series of excellent reports kept the pulse of the farmers, community leaders, and residents, while simultaneously breaking down the state’s water plan and informing readers of potential effects on the region.”
  • “Important coverage of some questionable tactics by city officials. It’s important to help readers realize the red flags in local government decisions ... “
  • “Powerful reporting. Well told. I liked the two women’s perspectives and the balance.”
  • “Ken Carlson’s story about 2 Afghanistan high school immigrants is a well researched and poignant account about the difficulties many have in transitioning to a new country … These two sisters deserve better and Carlson’s report may make that happen.”
  • “Extensive, deep reporting on a crime against children. These events are thoroughly well-documented and written well. The videos are shocking …”
  • “Great use of human interest to convey a larger story about mental health crisis.”

And finally, of The Bee itself: “The Modesto Bee offers a great sense of place. The reporting goes deep when necessary, and the writing is excellent.”

Simply put, our reporters care about and document what goes on here. If we don’t write and report about “our place” – seven days a week – who will?

There is nothing left or right being produced by our fine journalists here on the third floor at 11th and J streets. We do what we’ve and those before us at The Bee have been doing for nearly a hundred years – telling stories, holding leaders accountable and keeping you informed of the latest happenings around the area.

And the notion that we’re dying? For over a decade, there certainly has been a digital disruption to our industry and business model. But please, don’t judge us by our print product alone. We’re definitely transitioning along with reader habits – a transition I freely explain and, to some extent, apologize for – when I speak to community groups.

If, as some say, we’re fading into the sunset, how do you explain last year’s record 82 million page views, 2.5 million video views, 121,000 likes on Facebook, 64,000 followers on Twitter, 15,000 followers on Instagram or the millions of hits we get on our expanded e-Edition?

We’re creating great content – and no doubt some days are better than others. In addition, we’re continuing to experiment and trying new things. The mantra? Experiment, and if you fail, fail fast. Here are just a few exciting things coming your way, and worth skipping a monthly lunch out for an annual digital-only subscription.

  • A new reporter focused on children’s health funded, in part, by two local agencies who take great care to advance the health and well-being of our kids, their parents, educators and healthcare professionals. It’s a topic I felt important, one that could strengthen our role of serving our community.
  • Our new Opinions Editor, Garth Stapley, is working hard to invite new and varied community voices to offer broader perspectives on a range of topics – some coming from a bright Modesto High School freshman, others coming from a community blogger who hasn’t always agreed with our approach.
  • We’ve formed an Accountability beat with Kevin Valine and Ken Carlson to further our watchdog mission and making sure those in charge of our tax dollars are working in the best interest of you, our residents.
  • Two weeks ago, we had a great roundtable discussion with local influencers across all professions to figure out a way for us to better engage with residents in Stanislaus County and its surrounding areas. You will see us soon in the community.
  • We’ve debuted our transparency cards. Our more deeply reported stories will come with a synopsis of how we reported the story, where the idea came from and who returned our calls – and who didn’t. It’s an effort to give readers total transparency into how we go about our work.
  • Google, which put up $300 million, chose McClatchy to partner on The Compass Experiment, which will provide local news coverage in three markets of less than 200,000 in population areas that don’t have current news access. It’ll be used to test what people want in local journalism. Should we publish local school lunch menus? If something works, it might be something we adopt here.
  • On the morning of June 13, we’ll host a free event on healthcare at the Gallo Center for the Arts. It will focus on family – on everything from children and cellphone use to seniors and healthcare. It’s part of our mission to serve you, our readers.

We offer a lot to residents. I’ll be the first to admit, we’re not perfect. But everyone here is working incredibly hard to serve you, and provide quality journalism.

And as much as people seemingly love to deride us and write our obit, we’re not going anywhere. I saw Warren Buffet’s recent comment that newspapers are “toast.” A story last week in the Wall Street Journal all but mirrored his comments.

Despite what some believe, there’s too much great local journalism going on here to simply go away. And elsewhere, too. Other local news organizations receiving awards last week in Long Beach included those in Turlock, Merced, Stockton, Patterson, Mariposa, Los Banos, Calaveras and Amador County.

Like us or not, I would encourage everyone to try us – or try a local newspaper in your area. We do so much more in our communities than people know – and do it well, despite what social commenters say. Our community is better for us. And, we’re better having you onboard and engaged.

There is a corner to be turned in local journalism, and we will get there. Along the way, we’ll also do a better job of telling readers how we’re doing it. Consider this the first of many chapters.

Brian Clark is Editor of The Bee. Have thoughts or a story idea, call Brian at 209-578-2362 or email bclark@modbee.com.