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Information gap in Berkeley? Some feel four metro dailies, several weeklies and a college paper are not filling the local news void left when the Gazette folded in 1985.

Information gap in Berkeley?

Some feel four metro dailies, several weeklies and a college paper are not filling the local news void left when the Gazette folded in 1985

Berkeley, Calif., a complex city of over 100,000 people and the home of one of the most prestigious universities in the world, does not have a local daily newspaper.

This fact led to a recent forum on whether it suffers from a critical information gap.

The answer appeared to be yes --at least in routine coverage --despite its being served by four metropolitan dailies, several weeklies, a better-than-average college newspaper, and area broadcasters.

The recent all-day conference at the University of California was sponsored by UC's Graduate School of Journalism and the Alumni Association of the Daily Californian, a 120-year-old paper that circulates in part of the city as well as on campus.

One panelist, Cedrick Puleston, was its editor, who said the Californian took on the added job of trying to cover the city when the daily Berkeley Gazette folded in 1985.

"It's really not our role and it's not what we do best," he added. "Our strength is in covering the campus."

However, the tabloid's limited local reporting does provide good experience for its reporters, Puleston said. It also helps bring in $1.5 million a year in advertising for the Californian, which is independent of the journalism school and the university, he noted.

The day before the March 16 conference, the 12-page "Daily Cal" carried a Page 1 City Council report, two inside local stories, and an editorial on the Berkeley rent board.

Matthew Wilson, managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, which is distributed in some 20,000 Berkeley households -- the highest circulation of any daily there -- conceded that Berkeley would be better informed about itself with its own daily but argued that the economic odds are against starting one because of the city's relatively small advertising base.

Chronicle research, he explained, revealed local business spends about $18 million a year for advertising, $5 million of which is siphoned to newspapers. Of that amount, the Californian already takes a hefty chunk, Wilson pointed out.

Both Wilson and co-panelist, Belinda Taylor, deputy managing editor of the Oakland Tribune, said their papers attempt to meet the needs of Berkeley readers with local, national and international news, although Taylor noted that the Tribune has a small newshole for the latter.

"But our primary [local] focus is on Oakland and Berkeley," she stated, reporting that the Tribune circulates about 8,000 copies in Berkeley.

The Chronicle maintains a five-person East Bay bureau whose beat includes Berkeley, and two campus stringers. In addition, according to executive editor Bill German, chief education writer Dianne Curtis is almost constantly covering UC and its board of regents.

The San Francisco Examiner also operates an East Bay bureau in Oakland, but executive editor Larry Kramer told E&P, "We more often cover Berkeley from San Francisco. I don't think we cover the town enough because we think the university community is more interesting. It is what Harvard is to Boston."

On the panel, John Raeside, publisher of the free weekly East Bay Express, which claims an audited circulation of 65,000, mostly in Berkeley and Oakland, asserted Berkeleyites are less interested in local news than in ideas.

The Express, which relies heavily on features, essays and entertainment news, seeks to "grab readers' attention" with this kind of mix, Raeside said.

"I see no need for a newspaper of record here," he commented.

Larry Bensky, a Berkeley freelance writer and former Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter, disagreed, saying, "Berkeley is extraordinarily uninformed about civic matters. The media has only a slight toehold here -- a city of very diverse concerns. A lot of people care about Berkeley schools and are not getting enough information about them."

The panelist said he and others tried unsuccessfully to raise $25,000 to study the possibility of another daily after the death of the Gazette. He theorized that Berkeley has the highest penetration of readership in the world.

"There is an extraordinary attachment to the print media," he said.

Wilson said he had been informed that the New York Times sells 5,000 copies in Berkeley, giving it a penetration of one in nine of the city's 45,000 households.

Bensky said that Berkeley's three radio stations are more regional than localized in their programming, adding, "You're more likely to hear about the situation in Iraq than what is happening in Berkeley."

Panelist Rob Roth, a reporter for KTVU-TV, Channel 2, in Oakland, declared flatly, "You can't keep up with Berkeley news by watching Channel 2. There is not enough news about the city on tv."

Several members of the audience agreed that Berkeley is generally shortchanged by the media in news about itself.

"There are a million features in Berkeley that nobody is covering," commented resident Marda Woodbury. "There is no real coverage of anything here."

Rebecca Rhine, director of a downtown merchants' association, complained of what she termed a "dumbing down" of Berkeley coverage by reducing the city to "cultural stereotypes."

Charging "simple, mindless" reporting of the city, she asked rhetorically of the media: "Why should the business community give you our money?"

Shannon Hickey, a former newspaper reporter who is now a public relations writer for a bank, said she would like to see and read more local news, adding that she relies mostly on the Oakland Tribune for information about Berkeley.

Although she is an alumna of the Daily Californian, Hickey said she depends very little on the student newspaper for city news.

"I don't see a high professional standard. There's a lot of turnover," she said.

Editor Puleston retorted that he believes the Californian does a good job despite the act that "we do not claim to be a professional newspaper."

However, Hickey remarked that, overall, Berkeley is lucky to have "so many diverse media outlets."

"We probably get more column inches than any place in the nation," she said.

Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock, who did not attend the symposium, told E&P that whether the community had its own newspaper or not, "it's difficult for any kind of political or social issue to be treated in depth in the media."

In terms of straight news, she continued, her city is best served by the Oakland Tribune, which presents "two or three good stories a week about Berkeley."

Hancock scored the media for "playing too much to the town's fiesty, liberal image," observing that serious treatment of the city is often more likely to be found in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times than in Bay area publications.

She said the city has embarked on a broad program to house, feed and find jobs for the homeless, "which has never been covered in any depth by anyone. There's too much easy journalism about this community that is more entertainment than news."

Ben Bagdikian, media critic and dean emeritus of the UC journalism school, said in an interview that both the Chronicle and New York Times "occasionally have very good stories about Berkeley" but cannot do routine coverage of the community.

Noting the number of dailies and weeklies that serve the city, Bagdikian added, "If someone got all these together, people would have a pretty good idea of what is happening in Berkeley."

He agreed with Wilson, however, that launching a local daily is only a remote possibility.

"It would take someone with very deep pockets," Bagdikian commented.
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Title Annotation:Berkeley, California
Author:Stein, M.L.
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Apr 6, 1991
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