For the last seven months, I’ve been working in various capacities as a journalist for the Winters Express, a relatively small family-owned newspaper that has big aspirations in its mission to grow in its coverage of the local community it serves. The area it serves is primarily the city of Winters, California — home to about 7,000 people — and the immediate rural area surrounding it.
Winters is a city that’s different from other places I’ve worked: Like the newspaper, most of the businesses are family-operated where the locals know the owners on a first-name basis. Some city officials that may key decisions on the operation of the town do so as a second job, while others are retired. The culture of the town is one where everyone knows everyone and most people have more than a cursory knowledge of the generations of Winters families that came before theirs.
But Winters is also a town that is growing up: The city has a Starbucks, a Chevron, a Burger King and several other businesses backed by corporate franchise agreements. As the town grows, its newspaper of record has had to find ways to fine tune its mission so readers are not only engaged with what’s going on in their community but are also armed with information that can help them make whatever decision they feel is best with respect to their local government, schools and businesses.
Starting around June, the Express began making a few changes about its editorial direction. People noticed things were changing, though it wasn’t always apparent why we were doing certain things and we likely could have and should have done a better job explaining to readers what exactly was going on behind the scenes (it wasn’t for lack of trying — our publisher did hop on Facebook Live from time to time to discuss how specific editions of the paper came together). But everyone on staff at the time felt the changes that were being made were in line with our ability to better serve our readers in line with our mission of keeping then informed and engaged. In short, the idea was that as the city grows up, the newspaper does too.
I can’t speak for everyone else on staff, but I can say that the feedback that the Express received was a mixture of positive and negative about the changes that were made. Residents and businesses liked the direction the Express was going in, particularly with respect to keeping them informed about public safety issues and the goings-on of their local government. City officials and the police department, on the other hand, suffered from a bit of acid reflux when the articles I started writing held them accountable for some of the things that they said and the decisions they made. But that’s what separates journalism from public relations — when you work in PR, your goal is to be nice and friendly to everyone. When you work in journalism, those things are nice, but they can’t come at the expense of keeping your readers informed.
I have always advocated first for our readers and second for everything else — including our business and, at times, my own paycheck. Trust is our commodity. If we don’t have the trust of our readers, we may as well not exist.
And that leads me to an issue with a story I wrote recently on a local pizza business — a story that many felt unfairly maligned the former owner of the business, but a story I stand behind nonetheless.
For years, Winters residents could depend on the Pizza Factory to serve up a slice and a few hours of entertainment. In a town with not a lot of hang-out options, it was relied upon as a place where teens could kick back and relax in a safe environment. Records showed that the franchise changed hands several times, but by and large people in Winters could rely upon it always being there for them.
Then, suddenly, this past summer, it wasn’t. We first caught wind that something was wrong with the Pizza Factory when three of our staffers — myself included — were on assignment for a completely different story: We were covering an event where the organizer wanted to buy pizza for those in attendance. Naturally, the first call he made was to the Pizza Factory. But the phone lines were dead, and when someone drove by the business, it appeared to be closed for the day.
It was like this for several weeks — the restaurant would be open one day, and suddenly not open the next — and nobody could really figure out why. In this day and age, people expect instantaneous information, and when they don’t have it, they start to fill in the blanks themselves: There were rumors suggesting the business was having financial problems, and other rumors claiming the owner of the business — who owns another restaurant in town — was simply not interested in keeping the Pizza Factory going.
After a few weeks, the sudden closures at the restaurant started happening more often until eventually it was closed seven days a week. Perhaps to quell rumors about what was going on, someone from the inside posted a notice on the window of the Pizza Factory saying it had been closed as part of a construction project.
That was around the time that the Express started poking around to figure out what was really going on, in part because people were coming to us for answers. When a business wants to take on a construction project, they have to apply for certain permits. Those permits are public records. We scanned the public records to look for any such permits. We found none.
As we began speaking with people about the Pizza Factory, we heard more and more that the likely reason for its sudden closure had more to do with the business’ finances and management. We were able to interview someone with key knowledge of the business’ operations who told us on the record that the business owner “just locked up and left.” We reached out to the owner of the business to ask for his side of the story. Through a spokesperson, he declined to speak with us. We reached out to the Pizza Factory’s corporate owners. They initially didn’t return our request for comment.
We felt we had enough to publish, and in mid-August, an article describing the results of our weeks-long investigation was in the paper and on the web. The article made clear what we knew and what we had been told, but it also noted that there were still more questions than answers. The latter was noted in the headline of the article, which said the Pizza Factory’s fate was still a “toss-up.”
Hours after our article was published, the corporate owners of the Pizza Factory announced they were looking for a new owner to take charge of the business. It’s not unusual for this to happen — businesses and government officials often try to keep things under wraps, only to make an announcement about something once they learn a reporter is writing a story. The corporation’s acknowledgement that it was looking for new ownership confirmed what we already knew to be true: There was no construction project. For the time being, the business was permanently closed.
The “why” became clearer last week when I did an interview with the new franchise owner of the Pizza Factory: Bills amounting to several hundred dollars for different utility services had been left unpaid, strongly indicating that the business was suffering from financial woes. We now had two independent sources casting a light on the dismal finances of the Pizza Factory, with the new owner adding that the City of Winters had agreed to waive around $700 in water and sewer fees to help get the business going again (as of our interview, PG&E was still demanding the Pizza Factory pay its overdue electrical bills, according to the new owner). The new operator of the franchise said he hopes to have the business reopened early next year.
I wrote the story last week and a lightly-edited version of the piece appeared in print and online this week. When the story hit the web on Thursday, many people reacted positively to the news that the Pizza Factory would soon re-open under new ownership. But on Friday, public sentiment started turning against the Express for including information about the previous franchise operator’s financial struggles.
A few readers reacted with voracious opposition to the notion that the Express would insert itself into the financial affairs of a private business. Others criticized the Express for conducting what they considered to be a smear campaign against the man who previously operated the business. Some accused the Express of fueling the rumor mill with respect to what happened then and what happens next. More than one person threatened to cancel their Express subscription.
I understand how those people feel. It is not a nice feeling to see someone you know appear in the news under circumstances that are largely not positive. It is an even worse feeling to be the person being written about. I have been on both sides of that equation.
But readers are wrong to criticize the Express for publishing information that was both fair game and valuable to public discourse. When a business, like the Pizza Factory, operates in the public arena, it is subjected to certain amounts of scrutiny from the government, the public and the media. If you want to find out who owns or operates a business, you can approach the city or the county to review certain business-related documents, including their licenses to operate (in fact, the new owner of the Pizza Factory had been running legally-required notices in the Express for several weeks before our most-recent story was published). When the previous owner of the Pizza Factory said the business was closed for a construction project, we looked for records that could prove that claim. We found none in the places where those records should have been.
We asked the previous owner for his side of the story. Through a spokesperson, he declined our offer. In larger cities involving bigger businesses, a reporter might have tenaciously followed up for a comment, and in most cases that approach would have been fair and ethical. We chose not to do that — when the previous owner made it clear the first time that he did not want to speak with us, we left him alone.
But others did, and across all three of our stories, we always made it clear where our information was coming from, with one exception: In the article that ran this week in print and online, I failed to attribute a key piece of information that was obtained through an interview with someone who had knowledge of the business. I wrote that the previous owner had “simply walked away and left.” I failed to mention that the information came from an interview with someone who had knowledge of how the business operated. Normally, this would be caught in a fact-checking or editing part of the process, but it slipped through that until today. Although this was not a specific part of the controversy, it was an error, and in the interest of transparency, I felt it should be addressed.
That mistake was not fatal to the rest of the story. And I stand behind the portions of the story that have generated the most amount of public controversy. That the previous owner is said to have left hundreds of dollars in unpaid bills is a topic for scrutiny because some of those bills have been forgiven by the city. Someone still has to pay for the service, and it’s plausible that will fall on the people who do pay their bills.
Both interviews also disproved the previous owner’s claim that the Pizza Factory had closed for a construction project. Instead, we have two independent sources stating that financial woes were the likely cause of the business’ closure. A certain amount of trust is engrained in every business that operates in the public space, and when someone makes a claim that later turns out to be false, it can damage the trust they’ve built within a community.
People in Winters can decide for themselves whether or not the things that happened are acceptable, and we make no judgment either way. But they cannot even begin to have a conversation about it if someone doesn’t step up and make the information known. That’s the role of a journalistic outlet like the Express. We would have been remiss in our duties if we did not bring all the facts and information that we knew to our audience.
That does not mean that I agree with everything that was written in the finalized version of the story. A few portions were edited that I only learned about after the story appeared online. Specifically, some sentences were re-worked on the basis that including certain information didn’t “feel” right. In one sentence, the word “appears” was inserted, which I strongly objected to on the basis that it gave the impression that we were assuming or guessing that something had happened when in fact we had reason to know it took place. The online version of the story contained an editing oversight in which a paragraph was repeated
Normally, I would be in the office at some point during the editing process, but an illness this week kept me from coming in. With me unavailable, the person editing the story made changes they felt were sound. I disagree with some of the changes and have raised formal objections to them, and we will all have to have a long-overdue conversation some point about our future writing and editing process.
But no one at the Express can be faulted for not trying to keep our audience informed. And it is disheartening when someone says they are going to cancel their subscription because they do not like what was printed. When a person says they are going to cancel their subscription, they are exercising their freedom to decide whether or not an enterprise is worthy of their money. That is a choice I support — but let me tell you why it’s a knee-jerk reaction that is more often than not the wrong move to make.
The newspaper depends on three things to stay in business: An audience, subscribers and advertisements. Without an audience, there’s no reason for us to be doing what we do, and without subscribers and advertisements, we can’t keep the lights on or our journalists paid. The intent of people who organize a subscription or advertising boycott is to hit the company where it hurts. But what few consider is the long-term ramifications of trying to drive a newspaper like the Express out of business.
Subscriptions and advertising pays for a lot of journalism that arms the community with knowledgable information that they can use to make decisions in a number of key areas, from their local government to the businesses they patron, from the people they vote for to the issues that affect their lives.
When the County Fire erupted around the beginning of July, it was the Express that tenaciously covered it and continued to report on what was happening and why. I was visiting my partner in Sacramento when the fire hit, and I drove 90 minutes through several back roads to report live from the scene on Facebook. Over the course of several days, our staff worked tirelessly to keep people informed — one staffer visited a roadblock near the Monticello Dam in the middle of the night so people would know where the fire was. We stayed in the office until very late at night, making phone calls, sending emails, keeping on top of social media, pushing out evacuation notices and information about residential and animal shelters. Long after the big city media left town, we continued to stay on top of things, publishing stories about how the city and county bungled some evacuation orders and why this frustrated firefighters. We, along with hundreds of other outlets, identified the person who was cited in connection with the fire. Earlier this month, we also broke the news that the person was not going to be criminally charged. Our staff tackled these stories while also maintaining our ongoing commitment to business, local government and features reporting.
Over the last several months, it has been the Express that explored why residents of the El Rio Villa complex were suddenly hit with a notice to boil their water. It was the Express that told people about changes to local ordinances regarding AirBNB services and food trucks (and, in one case, it was the Express that notified city officials about a state law that might have conflicted with some of their plans on the food truck measure). It was the Express that told people their water and sewer bills were going to get more expensive. It was the Express that told the story of a local woman who mysteriously disappeared more than 100 years ago. It was the Express that scrutinized the city’s decision to spend $6,000 on a smartphone app. It was the Express that put together a localized voter’s guide that aimed to help people make more informed decisions about the candidates and initiatives that were up for debate earlier this month. It was the Express that got to the bottom of what actually happened when a controversial list written by a local student triggered an outcry from parents and at least one dubious television news report. It was the Express that talked about a local soccer star’s ambitions of becoming an internationally-recognized professional player, coverage that helped net him some much-needed cash to make part of that dream come true. It is the Express that covers local education matters as well as high school sports. And it is the Express that informs people about local news and events and provides an open public forum where people can discuss and debate community-related issues through written columns and letters to the editor. In many ways, these are things that only the Express is doing, things that simply would not be covered if the Express did not exist.
Our staff is not big, and no one is going to get rich working at the newspaper. And we are not perfect — we do, sometimes, make mistakes. But we all show up to the office on a regular basis with a mission to arm our community with information that will impact their lives. When readers consider canceling their subscription because something they read in the paper made them feel icky, they should take a moment to consider who will step up to the plate to hold their public officials accountable and provide them information about what’s going on in the community should the newspaper cease to exist.
Disclosure: The opinions presented here are the author’s own and not necessarily those of any company, colleague, affiliate or advertiser — although one of my bosses says this disclaimer only goes so far, I still thought you should know that I speak for myself only and not anyone else, so please don’t assume anything.
BTCI (“Beyond the Column Inch”) is an occasional column that aims to provide insight into the inner workings of a journalist’s role at a local newspaper outlet. It is published first on Facebook.