‘Whipping’ Caltrans when we share the blame

Kept in the dark?
Kept in the dark?
In our small town, we often like to blame the faceless bureaucrats across the county line for our woes. We’re not so good at holding up a mirror and asking, “What could we have done differently”?

A prime example is the detour of big rigs through our county because of Caltrans roadwork on I-80. People are understandably upset — though not all of “Nevada City is fuming,” as the local paper tried to infer Wednesday — just the most vocal ones.

First of all, The Union was well behind in bringing the detour to the public’s attention.

This blog wrote about the issue twice — here and here — before The Union weighed in with its first story.

In addition, the article ran inside the paper — not on the front page where it belonged. The paper also was late in reporting that a Web site getacross80.com was launched to explain the project. Here’s my version that ran two days earlier.

My “newsgathering” came from watching a county supervisors meeting on TV, reading the county’s “Friday memo” and a Caltrans press release — not exactly investigative legwork. I was on the road when I posted the blogs — a benefit of “self publishing.”

In addition, our public officials should have worked more closely with the paper, each other and Caltrans officials to get the word out.

Supervisor Hank Weston and Nevada City Vice Mayor Reinette Senum have both blasted Caltrans. But did they get together to discuss a community-wide communications plan?

Doubtful: The two are polar opposites politically — though we’re supposed to work together on nonpartisan issues such as roadwork. The paper should have asked both of them the same question.

Meanwhile, the bureaucrats of Caltrans — also a favorite “whipping boy” of the editor/publisher in his columns — were more “proactive” than either the paper or the county bureaucrats.

They mailed out brochures to homeowners including our family, as well as launched the Web site. Our family knew what was planned — and we accepted it as the “best of evils.”

For background, here’s how I got the “scoop” on this major story as a “citizen journalist” — not exactly a “Woodward and Bernstein” effort: I watched a county supervisors meeting on television and blogged about it on Friday, March 13.

“I hope the local officials get together with the media to publicize this,” I warned in my blog post. “People will need to be prepared — or wear earplugs when they go on vacation.”

Then I wrote about it the next day after the Rood Center’s Friday memo provided more details: “OMG: 112 nights of detoured truck traffic coming.” I also linked to the Caltrans brochure and map: It generated a lot of traffic.

The Union also gets the “Friday memo” and is free to attend public meetings, but their story didn’t appear until the next week — first as a map online. Readers begged for more.

“Who, what, when, where, how and why,” a reader asked the paper in a comment. “This covers the what and the where, but without knowing who, when, how and why, we might as well be reading about the Lost City of Atlantis.”

In short, the blame for the fallout on this road project needs to be shared by all of us, not just Caltrans. Our reaction shows our provincial mindset.

Arlen Specter: GOP moving too far to the right

Senator Arlen Specter (Pa.) made history Tuesday, becoming the first senator ever to switch directly from the Republican to Democratic party.

The switch is expected to cause more soul-searching in the minority party.

“Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right,” Specter said. “I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.”

The National Review did not take the news lightly. It already is discussing the possibility of the 79-year-old’s demise.

“I regret having morbid thoughts, but this seems rather relevant,” the National Review blogger said.

He noted that “there is a reasonable possibility Specter will depart this earth before 2016,” before the senator’s next six-year term would end, and his replacement would be appointed.

Track the swine flu outbreak online

A Google map showing markers for swine flu outbreaks is here. The map includes details of the case that was reported on Monday near Sacramento.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has good information here.

Twitter is being criticized by some for its role in informing, or misinforming, people about the swine flu outbreak. In some cases, people are unnecessarily panicking. Tweets about “swine flu” are at about as much as 10,000 per hour, according to Mashable.

“Despite all the recent Twitter-enthusiasm about this platform’s unique power to alert millions of people in decentralized and previously unavailable ways, there are quite a few reasons to be concerned about Twitter’s role in facilitating an unnecessary global panic about swine flu,” according to a blog post in Foreign Policy, a well-respected publication.

Still, the Google map and updates from CDC are good examples of how real-time, Web-based data is helping communicate news and information — going well beyond the constraints of the printed medium.

Fox won’t show Obama 100-day press conference

Unlike the rest of the major networks, Fox will stick to its regular schedule rather than show President Obama’s press conference that marks his 100th day in office.

Many people have long criticized the network for its right-wing bias.

“The networks are not required to show presidential press conferences, but they generally take White House requests for airtime very seriously,” as a New York Times blog reports. “Millions of viewers who rely on over-the-air TV signals do not have access to cable news networks or C-SPAN.

“Then again, they also take their bottom lines very seriously.”

It marks the first time in Obama’s presidency that a broadcast network won’t televise one of his prime-time press conferences.

‘Glad you’re keeping an eye on community for us’

images5I posted two signed reader comments in The Union on Monday questioning its news judgment, but they have since been deleted. Others even commented on my remarks, but the original posts are no longer there.

•One questioned whether the *lead story* on page one of the newspaper, about people going to the paper’s own Home & Garden show at the fairgrounds, was over-played and too self serving. It seems like a photo and a caption would have been more appropriate.

There’s lots of events at the fairgrounds and elsewhere that don’t get that kind of play. (The show ended this weekend — or did it? It *still* is being promoted on the front door of theunion.com on Tuesday).

•The other questioned whether the “meet your merchant” story on B&C Hardware, a major advertiser, was probing enough. It did not mention any of B&C’s competitors or big challenges such as the newly opened Home Depot in North Auburn. Any business profile typically answers those questions.

The comments I made followed the policy and, in fact, were very circumspect, suggesting “maybe I’m wrong but . . .” Not everyone agreed but some did in postings that followed.

One example: “Responding to Jeff’s comment – you’re right, some of the articles in the paper these days are not very good. Many of the ‘true’ questions just don’t get asked.” He/she also praised B&C, as I did. I’m a regular customer: That’s not the point.

The publisher/editor (a dual role that raises inherent conflicts in newsgathering) called me an “armchair quarterback” once again. I’ll pass on the sentiment to my journalism professors at Northwestern, my journalism and business pals such as Will Hearst and CNET co-founder Halsey Minor. Oh, and my neighbors.

Here’s another email I received from a former colleague:

“Saw your comments today on TheUnion.com and then found your blog as well. Glad to see you still writing and keeping an eye on the community for us.”

On this blog, I hope you check out the robust political discussion going on recently between Aaron Klein and Doug Keachie, two regular participants in the local blogosphere. It’s a great example of how a blog can help generate community discussion.

Meanwhile, I keep wondering if I could write a book about my experiences in journalism here. Some of it seems like an episode of the “Twilight Zone.”

Amigos and Co. opens in Nevada City

Here’s a small-town economic bright spot: As I wrote earlier this month, Amigos and Co. is expanding to Nevada City, where Dos Banditos used to be located.

The Mexican restaurant, which also has a location on East Main in downtown Grass Valley, opened in NC this weekend. It’s good, reasonable food. We’re fans of the chile relleno. We also like Las Katarinas on Broad Street.

With The Stonehouse becoming a restaurant training center for some at-risk youths, at least one restaurant on “the other side” of the freeway will be open again for customers.

I’m sure the patio of Amigos and Co. will be a hit once the weather warms up more consistently.

Welcome to our hometown!

Showing my son how to play a record

Our happiest times in the Sierra — where we’ve been coming since childhood — are at our cabin at Lake Tahoe more than our home in Nevada City.

We hope that changes some day, but our memories here are clouded by the lingering death of our parents (and our 13-year-old dog), too many encounters with duplicitous people and just plain nasty people who shout too much. (Mud slinging is relatively new to us).

It’s also a hard place for any family to scratch out a living, no matter what your resume says. Too often, it seems, it’s not what you know but who you know.

It’s easy to see why families pull the plug and bail. One story — told to me by the county Economic Resource Council — sticks in my mind: A couple, where the husband’s father ran an accounting firm here, moved up to be close to their parents.

Trouble is, the couple found the lifestyle they were looking for — children who ran their Big Wheels around on a cul de sac — was noticeably absent. They also disliked the political nastiness. So they moved to Roseville instead and commuted “up the hill.” How sad is that?

As for us, being an independent minded journalist — what you’re trained to be — doesn’t always help either. We’re an awfully insular bunch. But my wife and I understand the fallout: You make your bed, so you have to rest in it.

A few months ago, I expressed interest in buying a local business publication. I could see how you could ramp it up to be a real community-wide B-to-B publication, offering a more analytical voice than “meet your merchant.” I also wanted to expand it to Truckee; as I’ve said, we’re too insular.

But the owner sold it to her friend, partly because her friends in the 49er Rotary Club spoke out against me for some pointed columns I wrote. She made a point of this.

(The 49er Club is where the courts and law enforcement types hang out, and I have written openly about “conflicts of interest” and the “revolving door” of our justice system. It’s ironic because the group meets for breakfast just a block from my home. Some nice people, but I’m sticking to my opinion. Aren’t I entitled to one?)

“It’s a small town,” she said. “And that’s why it will stay small,” I told her. Since then, other opportunities to launch a media business here have popped up, but it was a telling story about what I and others see as a lingering “good old boys/girls network.”

I’m working with an out-of-town startup now, but the response to this blog alone indicates the demand for an honest approach to journalism from a stakeholder in our community. (The traffic and comments are growing; it seems that more people than we think feel “disenfranchised” from the “powers that be.”)

Still, we love our neighbors and have forged some excellent friendships. Waking up in a forest (with no fog like S.F.) is a treat. We’re doing just fine, compared with most people.

It was with pleasure, though, that we holed up in our place on the West Shore of Tahoe — my wife, myself, our son and our new puppy — for a quiet weekend. The heating was out, so we stoked the fire instead.

In Tahoe, we’ve noticed, people get along better: We think the cold weather and relative remoteness of the place is a bond.

During the day, we swept some pine needles, walked the dog, and I showed my son — again — how to play a record.

We have a good record collection up here — ranging from Bing Crosby and Leroy Anderson to Puff the Magic Dragon — and an old player, with a soft cloth to clean the LPs. (My favorite remains Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water.”)

“Dad, sorry I scratched it,” my son said as he dragged the needle across “Puff the Magic Dragon & Other Friends from Fairyland.” No problem.

Playing records is an art, I reminded him, at least compared with an iPod or Mac. (He’s adept at both). I guess plunking down a needle in the right spot to play a song is a dying art.

Boy, it’s quiet up here. Reminds me of the last recession, in 1983. On the one hand, I hope things perk up. On the other, we’re enjoying the solitude, with all the simple pleasures, including our LPs.

We hope you enjoyed your weekend. It’s good to know summer is just around the corner. There’s so much to do outdoors.