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LUMBERYARD LOGS: Chatting with readers is heartening

Last week we invited folks to come and “chat with the editor,” and a few hearty souls showed up.

It happened that our publisher, Tom Johnson, had announced he was stepping down the day before in a very emotional meeting before a stunned and tearful staff, so I was almost hoping no one had heard about our open-door event.

I wasn’t feeling very chatty, to tell the truth. But as they say, the show — and of course, the news — must go on. And so it did.

As it happened, some people e-mailed other people, and pretty soon we had almost filled a four-set of tables in the cozy back room of Picayo.

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It was a small but “impactful” group of people, as someone remarked, including two City Council members, a planning commissioner, leaders of political organizations (right- and left-wing), and business leaders.

Everyone had something he or she wanted to put forth: a pet peeve, an idea for a column, a question about how news decisions are made and suggestions about how to make the paper more useful.

This group came prepared.

One woman who works with local clubs was interested to know if the paper could provide a master calendar of events. I was happy to be able to respond that we do provide this service through our online calendar, which accepts events far into the future. It’s a way to “save the date” for groups and organizations, as well as a way to publicize your event closer at hand. The address is www.coastlinepilot.com; look for the calendar sitting on the home page and you can click on “submit an event.”

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Most of the group seemed especially interested in updates and investigatory reports on big, slow-moving issues, like the state of the hospital or water quality. Even the bus depot issue is one that should get a thorough airing, they said.

Someone wanted to know why we had no business section, and I had to explain that we had one until recently when we had to downsize the paper.

Personality profiles of interesting local folks were another thing seen as missing from our pages. We actually had a plan to profile someone on a regular basis until a few months ago, when our staff was cut down to the nub.

One man wanted to promote traffic calming in Laguna Beach, which I confess I rolled my eyes at, having gone through “traffic calming school” as a journalist in Santa Monica, where traffic is now so calm you feel like you’re navigating an obstacle course half the time.

Other ideas: pro and con op-ed pieces, which would be great, but which require advance planning, so that might take a while to get going.

One thing I heard loud and clear: People who care about the community want local news and see the value of journalism. In a time of crisis for the newspaper industry, it was heartening to see the looks of concern and hear words of advice, as well as criticism.

I heard something that night I haven’t before: People are worried about the future of journalism. People were talking about how to keep newspapers alive.

We in the news business have a lot to explain these days. What is going on when so many journalists are losing their jobs, and even publishers are going out the door? And it’s not a revolving door, either. Those jobs tend to stay vacant.

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Who’s to blame? What’s happening to the news industry? Will there be a news industry in five years? Those are all questions whirling about our offices and being written about in print and online.

One thing I think people are beginning to realize: The “paper” news industry is the bedrock of journalism and there won’t be a lot of TV news, radio news, or online news commentary without it.

We’re all part of this vast web or network of news originators — broadcast journalists get their news tips from the papers and online news aggregators would have nothing to fill their home pages with or write their screeds about if not for the “print press.” They are not the news-gatherers, they swipe the news and run with it for their own purposes.

Google and Craigslist notwithstanding, newspapers are the real “Internet.” We are the real “web” that links people of all kinds on all levels.

When our last publisher at the Los Angeles Times, David Hiller, left a few weeks ago, I wrote him a note saying how much I enjoyed his singing at the 125th birthday party for the Times. It seems like a swan song now. Anyway, he wrote back very graciously and encouraged me to “keep holding the fort” in Laguna Beach.

Interesting that he would use a wartime metaphor for putting out a newspaper. The cover story in the Columbia Journalism Review this month is headlined, “Sulzberger at the barricades,” referring to the publisher of the New York Times.

So, we are still here holding the fort — not just in Laguna but in the news industry — as long as the barricades can stand.

Oh, and we’re planning on keeping these “chats with the editor” going, so watch for future dates.

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CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 494-2087 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.


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