Letters From The Editor: The Sun rises in Seal Beach

The Seal Beach Sun is the first newspaper that paid me to write.

The exact date escapes me. It was about 1990, maybe 1991. The article, a feature, was about a lifeguard, but I recall little else.

What I remember clearly is the freelance pay: $25. What amounted to gas money also gave me some badly needed confidence that the journalism degree I was pursuing nearby at Cal State Long Beach would lead to a paying job.

I've spent the days following the Seal Beach shootings thinking back on my times covering the community as a Sun freelancer while in college and, much later, as a staff reporter and editor at the nearby Long Beach Press-Telegram. I've had a long journalistic and personal relationship with the community, and it breaks my heart that people in one of the last friendly beach towns in Southern California remain stunned and grieving in the wake of the worst mass murder in Orange County history.

Most of my earlier memories of Seal Beach are positive, and I want to keep them that way. I learned to surf (not very well) in the unusually warm waters off the jetty. I celebrated my daughter's third birthday at the playground next to the pier. My father-in-law had his retirement party at a Main Street restaurant.

These memories and others can't black out the recent shooting, but I hope they do some day. I want to always think of Seal Beach for what it is — charming mom-and-pop stores run by actual moms and pops, great seafood restaurants, mild waves, earnest people, amazing schools and walkable neighborhoods.

After that piece on the lifeguard, the Sun editor at the time, who is still there, seemed to take a shine to me and gave me work. He assigned me to Los Alamitos school board meetings, Seal Beach City Council meetings, Sunset Beach and Rossmoor special district meetings, and crimes and features.

There was also the dreaded Sidewalk Talk feature, where I had to ask people on the street what they thought of a given issue, write down their comments and then take their pictures. That assignment paid $10.

I loathed it not because of the money but because I was embarrassed to walk up to strangers on the street and ask them questions. But it was one of the best-read things in the paper. And it taught me a valuable journalistic skill: how to approach people.

My days freelancing for the Sun taught me the importance of community journalism. My stories received reactions — phone calls and letters to the editor (few people outside of MIT professors used email in those days). I remember sinking in my chair at a school board meeting when a rather combative school board member challenged my reporting — I felt unfairly — from the dais.

Seal Beach then, like Newport Beach and Costa Mesa today, was an engaged community that paid attention to schools, City Hall, liquor license applications, the comings and goings of local businesses and so on. The paper was able to be both a community booster and watchdog — a seemingly contradictory approach that appears to be coming back in style as surviving media stakes more of its future on local news.

The Sun folks gave me good training. They showed me how to read agendas, told me which kinds of questions to ask and how to develop sources. I remember going with the staff to happy hour after we put the paper to bed (I was still too young to drink) and how I felt like a big-time reporter at 19 or 20.

Those early assignments led to clippings that led to internships at bigger places and finally to paying jobs. The Sun was the foundation for what eventually became a career.

I've read some of the coverage in the Seal Beach Sun on the shootings. The tiny staff is keeping the community informed, but also is helping it heal in a way that only a local paper can with updates on vigils and ways to help victims who people in town actually know. And the Sun will stay on the story long after the national or regional media have moved on.

The news business may be turned on its ear these days, but there is still a place for papers like the Seal Beach Sun. Especially in times like these.

JOHN CANALIS is editor of the Daily Pilot, Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot and Huntington Beach Independent. He can be reached at (714) 966-4607 and john.canalis@latimes.com.

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