Without newspapers, we get Bell
8/4/2010 5:49:00 PM
By Silas Lyons
Redding Record Searchlight (CA)
For some time now, people have been asking with increasing urgency what would happen to communities if they didn’t have newspapers.
Thanks to the leaders of Bell, which didn’t have one, we no longer have to wonder.
Three top officials of the small and depressed city in the midst of greater Los Angeles were paid enormous salaries by their wildly overcompensated City Council — all while residents endured nearly the highest rate of property taxes in Southern California.
Whatever you think of Kurt Starman’s salary for managing a city government that serves almost 100,000 people, Redding could buy four of him for the $800,000 that Robert Rizzo was earning to run the 40,000-population city of Bell. And have money left over.
To be clear, we know all of this now because of a newspaper — the Los Angeles Times.
But the Times fields a large metropolitan news force that serves a big regional audience. It isn’t going to put a reporter in every small-town city council chamber, and most of its readers probably wouldn’t be interested if it did. The Times got involved, and did a laudable job with the story — once something had already gone terribly wrong.
But Bell should never have reached that point. And a great deal of taxpayer money was consumed by its vulturous leaders before anyone noticed.
Bell is an industrial town that industry has long-since abandoned. Its population now is dominated by recent immigrants, many of them illegal. It’s no longer the kind of place where a local newspaper can survive, especially with all the other challenges the industry has faced.
In fact, the family that owned the Bell, Maywood, Cudahy Community News sold it in 1998 — “right around the time Bell hired its highly overpaid city administrator,” family member Brian Hews wrote in a column. Today, Hews is publisher of the Los Cerritos Community Newspaper Group.
“Art Aguilar was the editor at the time and, suffice to say, you did not mess with Art,” he wrote.
With the pesky local journalists out of the picture, Bell became a juicy morsel for the opportunistic and ethically challenged.
Of course, it didn’t help that the residents seem to have been uninterested for a long time.
But the fact is that the local exercise of democracy depends on the Fourth Estate. And watch-dogging local government is a job for which television, radio and even most bloggers have proven ill-equipped. Newspapers do it best — usually just by showing up, or by reviewing agendas.
“In short, the Bell spectacle is what happens to communities without their own old-fashioned diligent news coverage by veteran newspaper reporters, or at least smart reporters led by veteran newspaper editors,” wrote Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, in a column last week. “The result need not be on paper, but it must be done with the community memory and professional savvy almost unique to newspaper-trained journalists with experience watching small-town politics.”
It’s not just cities, either. We and other daily and weekly newspapers throughout the north state keep a watchful eye on school districts, community service districts and counties. The fact that journalists are watching tends to have a purifying effect.
I vividly remember showing up as a cub reporter at a school board meeting and having one of the board members publicly chastise me in the midst of the proceedings. “This is a family affair,” she said, “and the newspaper has no business here. We shouldn’t have to discuss this in front of you.”
The Mountain Gate Community Services District has given off the same vibe over the past year.
The reason I believe so passionately in the work we’re doing now to transform our newspaper and our industry is that we must thrive so that the discomfort of such public officials will never diminish.
If it does, bad things happen. Just ask Bell.