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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Commentary: Where is the Coverage of the City Council Elections

By Monday, the Vanguard will have covered four City Council forums, the most recently a bit delayed from Wednesday night's Sierra Club and Davis Neighborhood Association Forum.

What is appalling however is a conversation I recently had with a reporter from the Davis Enterprise who informed me that the Enterprise will not be covering the candidates forums. In fact, the Davis Enterprise has not covered much of anything regarding the City Council races. Last week they ran a supposed fluff people on all of the candidates. Of course some were more fluffy than others.

This strikingly pales in comparison to past coverage. As one candidate told me, this puts the candidates that lack the vast resources of developer money at a strict disadvantage. For the grassroots candidate, there is no long the direct means to communicate the voters without the expenditure of a large amount of funds. The fact that these reporting policies have to benefit the paper's endorsed candidates cannot be accidental.

The lack of apparent interest by the Davis Enterprise in the council races of course will not prevent them from endorsing their candidates in tomorrow's paper.

The same is largely true for the other paper with major penetration into the Davis market, the Sacramento Bee. I had a long conversation with a reporter from that paper as well. The Sacramento Bee likely in the next few days will have really its only article on the Davis City Council race.

If you read the Sacramento Bee's past editorials on Davis, Davis is largely treated with disdain and lack of empathy. The idea that a city should determine its own future, should control its growth and therefore its character seems to bring the Bee's editorial staff to a slow boil. Davis is largely dismissed as strange, parochial, and elitist. And while that depiction may not be wholly wrong, it misses the rich contextual nature of Davis' internal political debates over growth and its borders. It misses the divide between the moderate, more pro-growth elements, who pay lipservice to its core liberal and progressive values and the more progressive and liberal elements for which these values fully embody their world view.

To put another way, people like Stephen Souza and Don Saylor tend to get the Bee's endorsement over people like Sue Greenwald because the Bee understands the views of the former more than those of the latter and fails to appreciate the true divide in Davis politics between the liberals and the moderates.

At the end of the day, the reasonable person has to wonder what business the Sacramento Bee has in trying to recommend the candidates for an office it hardly sees fit to even cover. To try to pick sides in a battle is barely understands.

To me it makes little sense. I fully understand why the Bee does not commit more resources to Davis. Davis and Yolo County are a small percentage of their readership. What I do not understand is the Davis Enterprise's lack of coverage of the race that traditionally Davisites care most about. Davisites take their City Council elections quite seriously. It would seem that the Enterprise would profit by generating more interest in their paper.

In this day of internet connections and national instant news, it would not seem to the average observer that a local paper covering national stories was the way to go.

Old news reporting in general is fading with the fall of newspaper coverage in general. It would seem all the more important to cover the issues that no one else has an interest in covering. And yet, the Davis Enterprise if anything pulls back on local coverage rather than the other way around. I guess I just do not get it.

We can talk about blogs all day, but on my best day on this blog, it's still a niche market at best, hitting maybe one-fourth of the readership of the Enterprise. While that is certainly not bad, and it on some issues the blog has had a profound impact. Overall it still aims at the 10% population--the population that pays close attention to politics rather than the 90% mass population that will end up deciding a local election.

It is difficult to replace a local paper in terms of their market penetration into the homes of people who are more concerned with what movies are playing than which candidate is most in favor of growth.

In fact, in political parlance, the only replacement for such "free" coverage is paid political advertising. In local races that means direct mail. But direct mail is profoundingly expensive costing in general $10,000 per mailer when all is said and done. At $100 per person, that's a lot of people. When you are not getting development money, people who are literally bundling together $100 donations to make it a more sizable contribution, it is difficult.

The Davis firefighters for instance each contributed $100 to their endorsed candidates campaign, 38 $100 contributions. Suddenly that's real money. When a Don Saylor talks about not being bought by a $100 John Whitcombe contribution, he's probably correct. When John Whitcombe or others like him can bundle together 25 $100 contributions, then we are starting to get in the realm of real money. The other side just cannot compete with that kind of bank without severely dipping into their own personal savings.

There was a time when you could win an election in Davis spending a small amount of money and relying on the free press and a broad grassroots movements to get the word out. Now the grassroots networks are fading and the newspaper is not covering the race.

I never thought I would support district elections in a town the size of Davis and a town as contentious as Davis. In some ways, I still think it is not a good idea. I think we have enough divisions as it is. I think the prospect of drawing lines in Davis would lead to political fighting like we have never seen. But given the lack of coverage by the local paper and the cost of running for elective office, district elections may be the only way to go.

Things to ponder on the first weekend in May.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting