St. George • I start with coffee, Cheerios and “the news.”
I transact with nine paid news sources daily. Most subscriptions are as satisfying as a stack of dirty dishes. I’m so hungry for a news relationship that I stop everything and beam when NBC newscaster José Díaz-Balart signs off with, “Thank you for the privilege of your time.”
So, I just donated the equivalent of three Denny’s Grand Slam breakfasts to the now-nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune, atop my annual subscription. It’s a starter gift that I hope gives neither of us indigestion.
The Trib is, dare I say, the closest thing I have to a news relationship — factual content, historical context and reader empowerment often wrapped in engaging writing. It’s an endearing, endangered marriage.
Columnist Robert Kirby pokes fun at his Mormon brethren the way Catholic altar boys in Brooklyn smiled after stealing a quick sip of sacramental wine when the sacristan was busy. (Yes, guilty.) Editorial page editor George Pyle regularly rams his compendium of elbows into clubby Statehouse conservatives hoping to rattle loose a filament of candor or conscience.
The sports staff loves the locals but recognizes stinky coaches and rank performances. The news side, bolstered by teams of outsiders including Report for America, uncovers grand-scale, and small-town, public hoodwinking and rule-twisting from COVID-19 testing and zoning variances to voter registration.
But I know about fleeting news relationships and columnists, those creatures who give freshness to institutions. I’ve mourned the passings of Mike Royko in Chicago, Herb Caen on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Green Sheet, The Fresno Bee’s Eli Setencich, writing-as-sight-failed sports columnist Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times and New York’s earthy Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill.
I’m a hard-to-please news junkie. I’m ticked that the federal government has to fulfill my pension because McClatchy newspapers, one of the nation’s largest newspaper chains where I invested 20 years as reporter and editor, sank into bankruptcy.
I’m not sure where The Salt Lake Tribune’s evolution will go. I’ve adapted to all-digital news the same way I learned to read backward and upside down while copy editing in the Hartford (Connecticut) Times hot-type composing room of the 1970s.
Propaganda and fake news are poisoning the well, deluding and enraging citizens. Truth is now a niche alongside fabrication, prevarication and other news distortions. It’s like burying a Jersey Mike’s sandwich amid smelly, mismatched socks.
So, I’m investing The Trib with my authentic attention as a donor and subscriber. Maybe I can help sustain meat around its ribs.
Accurate news is an essential part of democracy’s connective tissue. But the news biz is now in its “Money Ball” era. Data drives dollars. Drivel — “Madonna’s daughter shows off underarm hair at Mom’s birthday” — competes with public service journalism. My old boss McClatchy recently considered basing employee performance reviews on the popularity of their stories as measured by story clicks.
Making a career out of screening out treacle, and discerning and conveying news, should be regarded as a profession on par with attorney and physician, requiring formal continuing education and a paycheck going further than a shot and a beer.
I still wear a stenciled 1990s T-shirt I bought while working in D.C.: “Trust Me. I’m a Reporter.” I might append the following: “I’m Now a Reader-Investor. Truth Still Matters.”
John G. Taylor, a former journalist and retired California hospital system executive, provides “Dateline: St. George” commentaries on Utah Public Radio.