End Times

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Well, it is here. The cataclysmic events presaged in countless movies, books, and television shows have arrived. Driven by a mutant virus, rapidly spreading through a combination of bad luck and bad behaviors, fueled by a resistance to reality and a sense of invincibility, and enabled by babbling baboons that somehow have taken over the circus.

The world waits for the latest bug to just disappear, like a miracle. Do miracles disappear? Or is the disappearing the miracle? Either way, miracles are getting a bad name. I expect a malevolent rebel to sneak up under cover of an N95 mask and rewrite the whole MIRACLE Wikipedia page.

Here, in beautiful Cambria, our community’s governmental gatherings have migrated online; reduced to small clusters of like-minded folks who connect from a safe distance under the control of one known as “the Host.” In my mind’s eye, “The Host” sits surrounded by computer screens, telephones, sheaves of official-looking documents, a cup of tepid herbal tea, and two cats who invariably step on the right key when an outraged citizen raises a virtual hand to speak.

Like most evolution, it initially went unnoticed. At first, it was just a board meeting or two. Soon, that wasn’t enough. The lure of the standing committees drew me in. Hunger grew. I soon found myself scouring the CCSD website event calendar, searching for the next meeting. Finance, Infrastructure, it didn’t matter. I knew I had a problem when I clicked the link for the third leg of the trinity. Yes, I am talking about the Policy Committee. Then came Parks, Recreation, and Open Space. I could not stop. I attempted to access the legendary FireSafe Focus meeting, but, like a lapsed Catholic, sat in the purgatory of the waiting room, waiting for “the Host” to grant me entry. That entry never came. I suppose I will have to make do with the minutes.

Not to be too indelicate, but my office chair is telling me we are reaching the end. The squeaks and groans grow louder as the cushion grows flatter. The tilt is more forward, and the distance from seat to screen shortens. The dents in my forearms from the laptop frame have inched towards my elbows, and my sedentary body’s stiffness now covers a whole lot more real estate.  Eyedrop consumption rises as visual acuity falls. I cling desperately to my razor, for surely growing a white beard would be the final sign of surrender.

Yes, the end is near. I am squinting straight into the new reality.

The Zoombie Apocalypse has arrived.

Not So Great?

A man has three daughters-in-law.
One, British born and raised. One Portuguese born and raised. One, American born and raised.
There is no way to know their lineage until they speak. Then you hear it.
English, Portuguese, American.

If seen, but not heard, which one would likely cause a narrowed eye or a tightened jaw?
The one born under the Stars and Stripes, in a state rich in names that reflect her heritage and the history of those here first. The one with brown American skin.
It is the difference between being uncomfortable with today’s America and being uncomfortable in today’s America.

Cow Boy

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A few ‘Stay at Home Sundays” back, Jan and I headed out to enjoy a beautiful, socially responsible afternoon. Our plan, we agreed, would be a visit to the Elephant Seal rookery. 

We headed out and immediately noticed the heavy traffic flowing in both directions. Moonstone Beach Drive was packed with cars, vans, campers, and bodies. We continued up the road to San Simeon, where the narrow road leading to the pier sat clotted with vehicles parked on every inch of the roadside. 

Okay, new plan. We turned around and headed back towards town, deciding to mosey up Santa Rosa Creek Road.

To those readers not familiar with beautiful Cambria, Santa Rosa Creek Road is about nine hundred and seventy-two miles long, goes pretty much straight up, and at its widest is maybe thirty-seven inches. Cars pass so tightly that they are required to wear masks. My math might be a bit off; perhaps Mike Broadhurst can sharpen up the numbers for me.

The road takes you past Coast Union High School – go Broncos! – and ascends past farms, ranches, vineyards, and homesteads. Farm machinery and farm animals share the soundscape with the call of birds, the rustle of swaying trees, and the gurgle of water from the namesake Santa Rosa Creek that winds alongside the roadway, feeding the farms and fields and nourishing the wildlife as it makes its way to the ocean. It is stunning, beautiful, and for those of us who seldom make the drive, it can be white-knuckle inducing. (Full disclosure – I am a terrible driver, even under the best of conditions. I am the chagrined recipient of numerous “STOP TALKING AND FOCUS ON THE ROAD” awards.)

As we motored along, we encountered a few cars, a motorcycle or two, and several bicyclists laboring up and gliding down the road. I maintained a forward speed of at least thirteen miles per hour as a courtesy to those who had the misfortune of following behind. I assume the confident and occasionally impatient drivers were residents who know every twist, bump, and divot along the route.

The sound of a vocalizing cow cut through the air. As a city boy, this sound was not something I’d often heard in person. Rather than the gentle mooing of a TV cow, or the more enthusiastic proclamations from the animatronic cow at Stew Leonard’s, this sound had both a volume and sharpness that got my attention. The surrounding rocks, trees, and hills amplified the tone as it bounced around, making it hard to locate where it originated. A nearby herd soon joined in, creating a bovine dialog that filled the early summer air.

As we reached the upper section of the road, a beautiful scene unfolded in front of us. Headed downhill came three massive black cows being gently managed by a young man of perhaps thirty, who guided the herd with a quiet voice and a small stick. The trio headed toward a pasture where a cluster of fellow cud chewers grazed, lolled, and lowed. And that is the extent of my cow terminology. Standing beside the open gate that led to the pasture was a young boy of about six or seven. His job, which he was taking very seriously, was to control traffic, and then steer the cattle through the open gate. He waved us to a stop, then turned to his next task.

Now, this may seem like a “so what?” moment to those familiar with cows and such. For me, it was inspiring. 

Here is this young boy, facing several thousand pounds of animals headed right towards him. He didn’t even have a stick! Yet he stood his post, ready to turn the herd when they reached him. He held a little too close to the gate, so the man (his father? his brother?) quietly directed him to take a few steps back to give the cows all the room they required. The boy never took his eyes off the animals as he repositioned himself. The cows made the turn through the open gate and into the pasture. Their arrival set off another round of mooing, like a bovine version of Norm entering Cheers. The boy closed the gate and received a measured “good job” from his mentor.

So, a young boy facing and controlling three beasts hundreds of sizes bigger than him. A calm, focused adult giving quiet, confident directions to both the animals and the youngster waiting for the hand-off. No fear, no yelling, no big deal. Just two generations who were working together to accomplish what looked to be an intimidating and challenging task to the uneducated. As we resumed our drive, we offered our own “good job” to the two cowboys, who nodded their acceptance and went on with their work.

For those of us struggling through these unsettling times, perhaps there is a lesson to be found up on Santa Rosa Creek Road.

Surface scratched

There is good and bad everywhere, it is said.

So where then should we live?

Here, we thought. This place is full of good.

Then we became home bound

physical bodies sitting around virtual tables

reading words without the cover of a smile or the nuance of inflection.

Just the words.

Ugly words.

Those people

Animals

Stay away from here.

Don’t kill us with your breathing

Don’t kill us with your rage.

We have enough of our own.

Label them.

Racist, anarchist, terrorist.

Only twelve percent

Whoop their ass.

Sick of them not knowing history

the way we wrote it.

We took care of slavery

quickly.

Just a few hundred years.

If you believe it is over.

All Words Matter.

Thoughts From The Back of the Zoom

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As we enter year twenty-seven of the Corona Quarantine, Cambrians are doing a pretty good job of adapting to our new reality. Happiness begins at home!

Upstairs Downstairs

My wife and I have separate workspaces where we can write, play our instruments, and goof off. We have a few regular check-ins each day – morning coffee, lunch, afternoon coffee, and Jeopardy.

Her office is set up with an integrated desk for her computer and a cabinet that holds everything; pens, pencils, notepaper, stamps, paper clips, 3×5 index cards, and what I think is either one of the Dead Sea Scrolls or a yellowed press clipping from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Across the room, her digital piano is set up in the closet, so she can move from the PC keyboard to piano keyboard in a few short steps. Her biggest weapon is her grand piano, which lives upstairs and gets daily vigorous workouts that range from Chopin and Mendelssohn to Lennon and McCartney.

My office is set up in what was a walk-in closet attached to the guest room. It contains a work desk I built to take advantage of a recess in the wall. In addition to my PC and associated devices, I am surrounded by my own musical tools. Most are kept in cases, but one or two are left out within easy reach should the muse strike. Behind me, a curtain conceals a couple of amps that allow me my own vigorous musical-ish workout. It’s mainly about the loud!

Going Digital

Our use of digital technology to keep in contact with the world has expanded. We have mastered Facetime through frequent sessions with the grandkids. It fills part of the void, but nothing replaces reading a book or playing the piano and guitar together. Sitting at the dinner table helps us all learn new scientific facts, like how far pasta can fly before sticking to a sibling’s ear. I miss those zany kids!

We have extended our virtual world to include work, worship, and writing.

Small Adjustments

As a home-based content creator, I have gotten comfortable with social distancing. My weekly sessions with my publisher, as well as client interviews, have been done over Zoom for quite some time. Seeing and hearing the people I’m writing about adds another dimension to the process of building compelling stories.

During a recent interview with the owner of a long-established printing and data management firm, I was struck by the impact the ongoing pandemic was having. On the day we spoke, he sounded exhausted, worried, and determined to keep his business open and delivering for his clients as COVID-19 cut his staff by almost half.

Even in a business with automated workflows, intelligent, data-driven systems, and process-bound operations, the reduction in well-trained, experienced employees was determining whether this family-owned, multi-generational concern could continue to operate.

It is all about people.

Big Adjustments

Jan’s routine has adjusted to the new realities. She has suspended her teaching practice, believing vocal and piano lessons wouldn’t be as useful over the web. Lyra, a woman’s vocal group featuring talented singers from Cambria, has not been able to maintain weekly sessions, leaving a musical and emotional gap in her Wednesday afternoons. The weekly writer’s group she participates in has adopted an virtual meeting format, using Google Hangouts. They gather online to share their works in progress, offer critiques and suggestions, and, most importantly, support each other as writers, artists, and connected creators.

Spiritual Connections

Sunday services are another part of Jan’s evolving routine. The process of moving what had been an in-person communal gathering, with a set flow, into an environment of multiple remote participants, was not trivial.  The switch required both simple and complex changes to use online tools to deliver the service and enable congregant participation.

As a contributing musician, figuring out everything from audio levels to synchronization of sound was quite a hill to climb.  Fortunately, this community is rich in talented, experienced members with backgrounds in the creative and technical arts. After multiple rehearsals and tech run-throughs, the service is again open to the congregation. People are able to come together as a community. The spirit is willing, and the flesh can wear sweatpants.

Local Government

California’s Brown Act sets the rules for government meetings to ensure transparency and accountability. As the pandemic widened, in-person public gatherings became at first impractical, and then impossible as shelter in place orders were enacted. The Brown Act rules were adjusted to allow for agencies to conduct the people’s business through virtual meetings.

The Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) and the Cambria Community Healthcare District (CCHD) quickly adjusted, conducting web-based meetings to ensure the public’s ability to participate in the process of government. These sessions are accessible through the internet, over the telephone, and, in the case of CCSD, the existing livestream and public access television.

Is This Thing On?

As the CCSD Board and staff work through different processes to hold online meetings, we get to experience every variant of the memes poking fun at web-based sessions.

You’re muted…YOUR MUTED!!!!…UNMUTE YOURSELF!!!!!!!!  Sorry, can you hear me? (CROSSTALK) Can you hear me now??? WHY ARE YOU WAVING AT ME????? WHO IS PLAYING THE BACKSTREET BOYS ???? I CAN”T HEAR ANYONE!!! DEAR GOD, IS THAT MY HAIR????? Oh, That’s better. Haley, any public comment? (I learned that you can actually hear and see eye rolls in high definition.)

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Familiar

Remote meetings offer Board members and staff the chance to mispronounce regular participants’ names in a whole new forum. Perhaps the abundant stay-at-home time presents the perfect opportunity to learn how to pronounce them correctly. It’s not like they aren’t called two or eight times a meeting! And for goodness sake, if “Elizabeth Bettenhausen” just rolls off the tongue, surely we can manage to put the “T” in the vice-president’s name! Say it with me now – Cindy Siedel…uh, Cindy Seitel, uh, Cindy Steidel – yeah, that’s it!

Hopefully, more Cambrians will find their way to the Zoom Room. Perhaps an inviting graphic might draw some regulars back. How about a pre-roll package featuring a perky, upbeat theme song and an announcer introducing the cast, super-imposed against the backdrop of various Cambria landmarks?  “From the beautiful central coast of California, it’s time for CCSD LIVE!!! (canned muttering and grumbling, chairs scraping and agendas rustling.) “And here’s your host, President Harry Farmer!!!!!” (Shot of the blue beetle pulling up and Harry entering the frame from his home.)

CCSDCS

Hear Me Roar!

On a more serious note, the current webinar format used by the CCSD has a lot of positives and a few negatives. The ability to participate in the meeting is there, though not in a way that allows citizens to “speak” in their own voice. Instead, public comments are submitted to the Deputy Clerk via email. She then reads them into the public record. A serious objection was raised by a citizen who felt this process was an impediment to full public participation. I understand this objection, though I don’t agree that it blocks engagement. It might feel like voices are being muzzled; however, the words are communicated as they are written.  As the need for these virtual meetings continues, the opportunity exists to try different ways of including public comment in its native tongue.

Words Matter

As both a comment-er and a silent observer, I found myself intrigued by hearing public comment read aloud by a neutral party. People generally have a speaking style that is unique to them, and over time it can lull this listener into less than a fully attentive state. At the last meeting, I found myself paying closer attention to the words rather than the delivery. It was a bit disconcerting to hear how harsh many of the comments were. I found myself reacting viscerally and felt less open to understanding the stated points of view.

I had a similar moment of disquiet on last month’s CCHD web meeting when the new Director was sworn in using an extended version of the Oath of Office. The first part was familiar – it is the oath sworn by officials ranging from our CCSD board, our School District board, and even the Governor of California. The second part, however, made me sit up and say, “huh?”

“And I do further swear (or affirm) that I do not advocate, nor am I a member of any party or organization, political or otherwise, that now advocates the overthrow of the Government of the United States or of the State of California by force or violence or other unlawful means; that within the five years immediately preceding the taking of this oath (or affirmation) I have not been a member of any party or organization, political or otherwise, that advocated the overthrow of the Government of the United States or of the State of California by force or violence or other unlawful means except as follows:
_____ (If no affiliations, write in the words “No Exceptions”) _____
and that during such time as I hold the office of _____ (name of office) _____
I will not advocate nor become a member of any party or organization, political or otherwise, that advocates the overthrow of the Government of the United States or of the State of California by force or violence or other unlawful means.”

I checked with the District Administrator to make sure I heard the words correctly. He pointed me to the State of California Constitution. Further examination showed this section was added in the early 1950’s – during the time of the second “Red Scare.” Sound judgment has eliminated the paragraph from current oaths, and hopefully, it won’t make a reappearance in future swearing-in ceremonies.

Beautiful Cambria

Throughout this uncertain time, Cambria’s essential services continue to be delivered by the men and women who keep the water flowing, the ambulances running, and the open spaces available to us to clear our minds and stretch our legs (six feet apart.)

Our grocery stores are doing vital work, keeping shelves stocked with the food, medicines, and consumables we need to keep body and soul together. Thanks!

Our restaurants are adapting to the new reality, transitioning from sit-down establishments to pickup and delivery models. This fills some of the gaps for both the businesses and the residents who support them. Thanks, and hang in there!

Most impressively, the true spirit of Cambria is on display everywhere. Individual citizens and community organizations are shining brightly. Raising money, operating food banks, looking after the kids who depend on school lunches to survive. Making masks and keeping regular communication going out to the community on the many Cambria and San Simeon social media sites. The scope of this beautiful generosity is too great to capture in one paragraph, but the efforts are humbling and heroic.

Beautiful Cambria. Beautiful Cambrians.

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Everybody Knows That!!!

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Johnny Carson used to say “I did not know that!” Was he the last honest man?

A major insurance company has revived a series of television ads featuring a “fractured fairy tales” approach to classic characters. The setup of “everybody knows that” is followed by a “well, did you know…” leading to an absurd premise. My favorite spot features Pinocchio as a failed motivational speaker. Everything from the concept to the actors is note-perfect. I particularly love the facial expressions – first, the kid’s reaction to his father’s assertion that the fictional boy lacked sales skills, to the crestfallen response from the seminar attendee who sees the wooden wonder’s nose betraying his words that “you have potential…”
geico-pinocchio-was-a-bad-motivational-speaker-large-9

If you pay attention, you might see similar looks on the faces of fellow Cambrians as they ingest information from different sources in and around town.

ZAP!

A short while back, an incident occurred where power lines fell across the only legal access road into and out of one of our neighborhoods. Cambria Fire and CalFire responded to the event and followed emergency protocols. Safety first. They took up positions to keep people from coming in contact with the still-charged lines.

According to the Cambria Fire crew that responded, there was a real danger. Active fire impacted the poles on either end of the cable run. The lines that fell into the street were charged and arcing. Yet, even with this crazy and highly visible danger, people were driving and walking around the firetrucks, ignoring the orders to stop. Dumb and dangerous to the citizens and the first responders.

Why?

With the road blocked, residents were not able to get out of the neighborhood. This blockage presented some real headaches, as folks needed to get to work, or school, or to a big pro-or- anti -swimming pool meeting. An inconvenience, to be sure.

A citizen approached the firefighters and asked if they could open the gates at the emergency fire road that traverses the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. The crew declined, saying they didn’t have the resources to spare.

So, here’s where the false premise of “everybody knows that” comes in. Grumblings began that the firefighters “didn’t have the resources” – which translated into “they didn’t have a key to the gates.” Which turned into “nobody knows who has the key to the gates.” which became “if this were an evacuation scenario, nobody would know how to open the gates.” And on and on it grew.

Eventually, a community member in possession of a key unlocked the gates at either end of the emergency road, and people were able to use it to exit the neighborhood.

Begats

A legitimate emergency – downed power lines -begat an inconvenient situation – no exit from the neighborhood – which begat irresponsible actions – driving and walking around the emergency vehicles and through the danger – which begat a questionable use of an emergency road across a protected preserve – which begat a series of assertions about emergency response preparedness.

Not Everybody Knows That!

The reality is that there are plans to handle emergencies and facilitate evacuations if needed. There are protocols in place, including communications plans, multiple agencies and civilian responders with assigned duties, and plenty of keys to go around.
All of this information has been published, shared, mailed, reported out on, posted, and promoted for citizens to read and absorb. There was a major town hall meeting this past June 29, 2019, focused on fire safety and emergency response plans. Hundreds attended. It was even on the TV.
In January of this year, there was a second town hall meeting hosted by the Cambria FireSafe Focus Group. The Vet’s Hall was packed. Representatives from Highway Patrol, SLO Sheriff’s office, CalFire, Cambria Fire, Caltrans, and SLO County’s office of Emergency Response shared their emergency response plans. Each presenter engaged in Q&A with the attendees. Printed material, websites, and contact information were given out.
But still, in this contained, limited event, things spun out, with people demanding answers and making statements that were more from annoyance and ignorance of the facts than anything else.
So what would happen in a real emergency? Who will respond, and how?

For a quick and helpful primer, go to the FireSafe Focus Group/Cambria Fire website.

Says Who?

Cambria’s agencies work hard to make as much factual information and data available. Public meetings provide the opportunity to see and hear what is going on. Yet, these meetings are often sparsely attended. Citizen engagement often means the same small handful of folks trooping to the podium to express the same small handful of opinions and grievances, with an occasional “atta boy” for a well-done job or a significant individual accomplishment. Of course, there are also a fair amount of thoughtful, probing, and important questions raised that drive action and greater community awareness.

What is more remembered, the protestation, or the response?

Who Has That Kind Of Time?

Public meetings are often long, sometimes confusing, and regardless of the time of day, difficult for many to attend. There have been honest efforts to try different schedules to drive more attendance, but the result has been the same. So how else do citizens and interested parties get their information?

LIVE!

Community Services meetings are live-streamed as they occur, and broadcast on local public access television. The recorded sessions are archived and accessible within a few days so that interested people can watch the sessions at their convenience. These services come with a price – a rough estimate of the fees charged to facilitate these channels come in around $1K per session – costs increase when the meetings go over the scheduled time. With two meetings per month, plus additional special meetings that might be broadcast, the amount spent adds up.

AGP

Excerpt from Feb 20, 2020 Board Packet

Anybody Home?

I was curious as to how effective this process is – how many people watch or listen remotely? I reached out to AGP to gather some data. After some back and forth, they told me they only provide that information to the agencies they serve. I followed up with CCSD staff who returned the following stats. It appears these hits were not previously tracked, so I was only able to get one month’s numbers. They provide limited information, but something worth monitoring over time.

Here’s AGP’s statistics for January 2020 CCSD meetings, provided through a public records request.

CCSD 1.16.20:  LIVE: 16

CCSD 1.22.20:  LIVE: 22

CCSD Archive views for the month of January to date: 82

It seems like a lot of money for a little return.

Hosted Websites

The Services District and the Healthcare District host websites that contain information about what goes on in each organization, as well as legal, regulatory, and organizational details that support many of the district policies and practices.

The CCSD site has been recently overhauled and has become more user-friendly. According to the data collected by Google Analytics and provided through the Public Records Request process (accessible through the website,) a good number of people use this tool to gather information and seek answers to ongoing puzzlements.

From January 20, 2019, through January 26, 2020, the Cambria Community Services District website was accessed 87,690 times, with 68,394 unique page views. That is a pretty good amount of traffic, though the top pages were a bit of a surprise.CSDWEBTRAFFIC

The complete list of results can be found in the following link:

CCSD_CombinedWeb

The Healthcare District website is currently undergoing a redesign, with the goal of making it both user and administration friendly. The work is being done by an active District employee, often in his free time, so it might take a while before it is ready for publication.

Widen The Lens

There has been a sporadic outcry around CCSD directors and staff using electronic devices during meetings, with the subtle and occasional direct accusation that all manner of nefarious communication was happening between board members and mysterious influencers and special interests.

Rather than rail against the perceived downside of electronic communication, why not embrace the potential and expand its use? Open a web channel to the meeting that would allow viewers to submit questions or comments to the presiding clerk, have the item read out loud, and have the written/electronic dialog entered into the minutes. Viewers who wish can ask their questions or make comments through the microphones on their computer, tablet, or smartphone. Brave citizens having a good hair day can turn on their camera for their allotted three minutes. More people will have the opportunity to “speak” to the board, staff, and community without the challenges of having to physically be “in the room where it sometimes happens.” Caller number five could win a toaster!

Businesses engage with clients all around the world in this fashion, using video and audio to make personal connections that increase understanding and decrease uncertainty. Participants can make “eye contact” through video, exchange written comments and conduct Q&A through chat/messaging features, upload documents for review and comment in real-time. Tone, tenor, facial expression, body language – all contribute to a complete dialog.

But..but…Cambria has old people who don’t use computers!

Really? Take a look at local social media sites and get back to me!

Let’s try it!

Shot Clock

Public commenters are limited to three minutes per item, with the board President controlling the clock and having some discretion with the time.

I suggest the same (or even shorter) time limits should apply to each board member who wishes to speak on a topic. Yes, the dialog between the members is essential and should happen freely. It is sometimes the case, however, where a director will go on a ramble. That suggests a lack of preparation.

Put together a compelling thought and present it in a manner not requiring a map, a compass, a dictionary, and some of that free coffee from the back counter. Each director should prepare their thoughts in advance and know what points/questions/positions they wish to share. Write it down. Read it back. Time it. Edit. Repeat. Speed up the meetings and reduce much of the frustration of fellow directors, staff, and the public who are trying to follow along. It may seem like this would limit dialog, but in my view is it would make dialog more effective and drive better results.

Takeaways

Even with all the efforts to communicate critical information throughout the community, there are, and will always be, gaps in our collective knowledge. Information is everywhere, we just need to look, ask and at times suggest better ways to share what we know, and what we would like to know. This community is blessed to have a good number of people who help all of us stay smart and safe. But as we are often reminded, we are each responsible for our own well-being.

Just because we may not know something, that doesn’t mean it’s unknowable. As Pinocchio tells us – we all have potential!

Lunchtime

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Bring the Trader Joe’s bags, we’re going to Albertson’s!

Thursdays with Morro Bay

My well-organized wife is the Keeper Of The Grocery Lists – actually, a half-folded sheet of paper filled on one side with previous writings or misprinted sheet music. The clean side keeps track of wants and needs. There are three headings – Costco, Albertson’s, and TJ’s. Sometimes an item will migrate from one column to another, or get crossed out and replaced with something else.

Non-grocery tasks are tracked on index cards. It’s a process.

Basics

The weekly trip to Albertson’s is never dull. For a guy with a minimal range of lunch likeables, this has not been a good couple of weeks. I’m a three-item menu man. A simple tuna sandwich on a whole wheat pita will appear twice a week. On Albertson’s day, a basic American cheese on a plain bagel will land on the fiestaware. A beautiful bowl of hot chicken noodle soup, courtesy of Lipton, will round out the lunch week. Of course, no soup is complete without a short sleeve of Premium Saltines, half in the bowl, 45% as stand-alone crackers, and the rest, crumbs that bounce off the table and land under the chairs. It’s a process.

Groans Ahead

Just a simple man with a simple soup and sandwich lifestyle, living the dream until an item in one of the inescapable news feeds caught my eye. An iconic brand was ensnared in a scandal that cut to the core — actually, the albacore. Bumble Bee, busted. This one stung.

It turns out my long-held wariness of that Charlie Tuna character was well-founded. According to the news report, Mr. Tuna and his henchmen conspired with that little mermaid from Chicken of The Sea and the Bumbling Bee to market canned tuna with all the price fixin’s.

“The troubled brand was embroiled in a price-fixing scheme that drained its resources. Major grocery chains, including Walmart, Kroger, and Albertsons, sued Bumble Bee, Starkist, and the maker of Chicken-of-the-Sea in 2016 for fixing prices. In 2017, Bumble Bee agreed to plead guilty for its role in the conspiracy and to pay a $25 million criminal fine.” 

$25 million – that’s a lot of clams! The weight of the penalty has proven to be too much, causing the bumble to tumble into bankruptcy. Thankfully, there were still plenty of cans on the shelves, flashy gold-colored tins promising a premium experience. “Hah!” I thought, “More marketing gimmickry designed to entice the unwary.”

I picked up three cans.

Moving On

A few yards down the aisle, an open space appeared where my preferred brand of soup mix usually stood. I wasn’t too worried since the popular classic often stood stacked in rows that extended several boxes deep. Worst case, I’d have to grab a few of the “with real chicken” varieties and wait for a restock. However, that was not going to be an option. Hanging off the lip of the shelf was a printed piece of HELL NO!!!! I silently screamed as the words “recall” and “listeria” leaped off the page. “This simply can’t bee,” I thought, mixing my metaphors as I struggled for some sense of normalcy. All manner of craziness ran through my mind. “These are not my reading glasses,” I thought. “I must be misreading the words.”

I whipped my head around, looking for my wife. She wears progressive lenses; she will know what this all means. Unfortunately, she was still two aisles over, weighing the differences between generic and name – brand crushed tomatoes. I frantically spun around, looking for Angela, or Kyle, or Brenda. But no, Angela had moved over to produce, Kyle was ringing away on register 4, and Brenda was now working for the bank – so close yet so far!!!

Keep Moving

Panic was setting in, or maybe it was hunger. It was time to move on. I closed my eyes and silently recited my go-to mantra; “what would Shirley do?” The answer came to me in a flash. I wheeled my cart around and headed to where I knew I would be safe. The frozen food aisle. Thanks, Shirley!

Wait – what the frosted hell is this??? Another sign, blurry through the refrigerator glass. I slowed my roll – actually, a misbehaving front wheel had already done that for me – and wobbled up to familiar section only to find yet another nightmare. It seems listeria was not satisfied with just taking out the soup. No, those mischievous microbes set out to take down the king. Yes, that little bio-bastard went straight to the top, laying siege to the freezer aisle. White Castle has fallen.

Oh, those many Bronx nights, weaving down Fordham Road in Pete’s Firebird or Tommy’s father’s station wagon, towards the bright beacon of regrettable choices and reckless consumption. No matter how many quarts of beer sloshed around in our bellies, no matter how many Sambuca shots left lips licorice-y, there was always room for one or twelve murder burgers. There was no listeria hysteria then, no microbe that could stop us. Germs were expelled in a stream of “all the above.” It was a process.

Nothing Stays The Same

Those days are long past. I’ve come to an uneasy truce with alcohol and all that followed. Pete has gone on to whatever existence comes next. Tommy, too, along with a few others that took that late-night slalom down the broad street that both connected and divided neighborhoods, cultures, and realities. But many of us are still here, carrying the scars and badges of the histories we have written for ourselves.

It is nearly impossible to find a real live White Castle anymore. Pretty much all that is left are the frozen replicas that take well to the microwave, but fail to recreate the full foolish experience of over-consuming things that are bad and potentially fatal. I guess it’s good that they are not as great as I remember — less chance for reigniting old bad habits.

Receipts

I walk past the wine, beer and whiskey with no hesitation, thanks to thirty years of practice. The thousands of cigarettes I smoked could likely stack as high as a detached garage, but that number was frozen a quarter-century ago.  But White Castle, Bumble Bee, dehydrated pre-packaged soup? Yellow American – the lowliest and most misunderstood of all cheeses? They still find a place in the shopping cart, surrounded by yogurt, fruit, and (I hope I’m pronouncing this correctly) vegetables. The beer is alcohol-free, the wine is not mine. But these things that have shaped me, both literally and metaphorically, hang on for dear life.

I’m okay with that.

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Tales From The Bluff

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A Man and His Dog

Ted was worried.

It was the second time in a week where the solitary woman appeared in the jcvisorgrdistance, striding aggressively along the scenic ocean bluff. It was odd, he thought; where’s the lumbering man in the off-white windbreaker and faded cap?
But this day was different. The woman walked alone, singing softly into the ocean air.

At one end of the leash, Chloe strained ahead, looking impatiently back as Ted’s long strides shortened and stuttered. A quick look towards the oncoming figure explained it all. “She is alone,” thought the gracefully graying beasts. “Again. Why? Where is the other of the pair? And why this week, this day?” The thoughts quickly left the canine’s brain, swooshed away by the appearance of one of the 63,245 squirrels that call the trail side fields and hillocks home.

At the other end of the leash, Ted had similar thoughts. As a careful and precise man, Ted did not easily trust that there were 63,245 squirrels. As a practical and pragmatic man, he realized the folly of counting them all. Chloe, he decided, could have this point. He let slack into the lead, silently transmitting his concession through the woven strap that kept the two connected.

“Maybe he broke free of his leash,” they both thought.” No,” they quickly realized, there had been no signs of a harness, or collar, or any such restraint. The man was often slightly behind, appearing to struggle with the pace set by the alpha. He likely had not the strength nor the stealth to escape.

Chloe grew more worried. Her angular face turned instinctively towards the ocean, taking in the crags that lined the bluff trail, angling down in places, while a few yards away dropping acutely onto the rocks below. “It would have been quick,” Chloe thought. A hip check would have upset his balance just enough to send him skittering towards the edge. He did like to take cellphone photos, so it would not be unusual for him to stand on a sandy patch of trail, better to get a shot of a swooping seagull or a preening pelican. Timed right, the crash of surf upon deadly rocks could easily drown out the sound of a surprised “what the fu…..aaaaarrrrrrggggghhhhhhhh!!!!”

The Fog

The afternoon fog came on little cat feet, gauzing the hills and altering the sound of the sea. As the distance between the duo and the solitary strider lessened, minor details become both more explicit and less. The approaching white-billed visor served as a locator, marking distance and direction. The arms swung forward and back in a precise rhythm, palms facing rearward, slightly cupped, an artifact of years of competitive swimming and piano training. The finely ground gravel whispered as each Keen-covered foot landed and lifted. It sounded familiar and odd at the same time, as there was no accompanying “whoosh” of a nylon windbreaker.

The distance closed. The three met at the dragon-headed bench, where the woman sat benchwith one leg casually curled atop the faded redwood slab. Ted remembered how the man would often mumble “five more minutes” as he reached into the bulging pockets of his off-white windbreaker crowded with Kleenex. Each sheet emerged mysteriously wadded, so there was no telling which was new and which was not.

Ted and Chloe put on their most nonchalant faces and greeted her in the usual way. The trio exchanged small talk about local goings-on. Finally, Ted asked, as casually as he could, about the other half of the team.

“Oh,” she replied, “he is home, uh, working.” Chloe looked up slowly, flashing a look that said, “yeah, right!”

Realizing that no further information was forthcoming, Ted and Chloe waved and resumed their walk towards the parking area.

Gloom, or Doom

The fog continued to gather, enveloping the white water line and swirling around the protruding rocks. As the neared the section where the trail ran close along the cliff’s edge, a blast of wind opened a momentary window to the shore. They froze. On the rocks below, a glimpse of off white stood out against the inky black of the protruding rocks. Just as quickly, the thick mist rushed back and obscured the view. Ted peered into the near distance, studying the scene as intently as if it were a balance sheet for the Friends of The Fiscalini Ranch annual report.

Chloe sat still, lightly panting as she sniffed the sea air. The blended scent of seagull and seaweed overwhelmed any possible trace of other organic matter. It was a moment of uncertainty that grew more sinister with the faint sound that rose from below, A bleat? A cry? A desperate plea? They could not tell. Still, the flash of off-white on the rocks below kept them rooted to the spot.windbreaker

Ted turned to his companion and said, “We should call someone, Chloe! But who? And how? Neither of us has a cellphone, and only one of us has thumbs.” He absently reached for his belt, subconsciously feeling for the beeper he carried years ago, All he found was a small grip of poop gloves tucked neatly between belt and waistband. Chloe, remembering she was thumbless, scratched her right haunch and thought of the oatmeal cookies that were cooling on the kitchen counter.

Enter Sandman

Suddenly, a new set of sounds floated through the mist, seemingly coming from around the bend that led to the parking area. The thud of footfalls floated through the thick, damp air. The crackle of disembodied voices, speaking in acronyms and numbers, adding yet another element of mystery to an already edgy vibe. As Ted and Chloe stared into the fog, a figure began to emerge, headed straight towards them.

A sturdily built man rumbled up the slight incline, dark hair visible through the mist. As he neared, more details came into focus. The man was draped in a Bill Belichick-styled sweatshirt, raggedly cropped sleeves falling defiantly over a long-sleeved athletic shirt. Long shorts reached down towards black laced work boots. Grey goatee and sharp sideburns immediately identified the approaching figure. Ted immediately thought, “what’s the guy from Metallica doing here? Are those sounds a rough mix from an upcoming album?”

Chloe growled softly. She knew who the man was, as sure as she knew Ted would slip her one of those oatmeal raisin cookies from the kitchen counter. He was no rock star.

He was The Chief.

Clues

“Ted!”

“Chief!”

“Woof!”

With pleasantries complete, Ted began filling The Chief in on Chloe’s suspicions. “Just about every day those two make an appearance here on the ranch. But for the past few days, he has been absent. At first, we thought nothing of it, but something about the he’s-home-working line didn’t ring true. I mean, really…working? At what?”

Chief thought for a minute before replying. “I have to admit; this is a bit strange. I hadn’t seen him at any of the meetings lately, so I sent him an email to see if everything was ok. I got a reply, but something seemed…off. The typewriting just didn’t look authentic. And now you’re telling me that…”

Before he could finish his thought, a violent gust blew across the shoreline, revealing the scene Ted and Chloe had described. Chief saw it immediately. The off-white shape splayed atop the rocks was visible for just a few seconds. It was enough. He raised the radio he was carrying in his go-bag (actually, a black leather fanny pack) and began barking codes and numbers into the device, ending with the command to “launch the dinghy.” Chloe, who had also started barking, stopped, cocked her head, and thought, “launch the dinghy? I hope to heck that isn’t a euphemism.”

Within seconds voices came back through the handset, asking for clarification, directions, and a request to pick up some rice cakes on the way back to the station. Ted realized that there was no time to waste, and that he had given his last coupons to Dan during the great firehouse flood of 2019. A calm, clear voice broke through the escalating chatter, bringing everything to a sudden stop.

“Hi, guys! What’s going on? And what in the world is a dinghy?”

Ted gasped. Chief gasped. Chloe peed a little. “Whothewhattheheck!!!” they all thought, staring in disbelief at the man stuffing wads of Kleenex back into the pockets of his off-white windbreaker.

They looked at each other, then turned to peer over the cliff to the rocks below. One, then two outlines appeared, followed by a few more shapes emerging from the lifting marine layer. The largest, a good-sized, light-colored seal, turned to look up at the assembled group, which by this time had grown to include a passing group of visitors from Fresno and three women from the UU church. With a wave of a flipper, the seal wiggled and waddled to the edge of the rock, then slid gracefully into the water.

Ted, Chloe, and The Chief turned around to look at the man in the off-white windbreaker. They shrugged, looked back to the sea, and silently agreed that, well, there was a resemblance, anyone could have come to the same conclusion, he had been absent from his usual routine…

“Hey, what the heck is that?” shouted one of the Fresnonians, pointing into the swirling surf. “Is looks like some kind of visor.” Ted froze. The Chief froze. Chloe peed a little more. They turned slowly, afraid to see the reaction of the man in the off-white windbreaker. But he was gone, leaving nothing but two wads of Kleenex and a half-eaten oatmeal raisin cookie.

“So, do we still need the dinghy?” The Chief asked quietly. Ted took a long deep breath, ran a few mental calculations, and slowly shook his head. “No, I think it best we just go on about our day and see what, or who, tomorrow brings.”

Chloe picked up the discarded oatmeal raisin cookie and began the slow walk back to the car, the marine layer filling in the space behind her. In the distance, floating just above the ranch, a barely audible soprano voice could be heard, keening for a lost love. Or visor. It was hard to tell.grey

Delivering The News

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As an avid consumer of local news, I have preferences and opinions on how it is gathered and distributed across different media. At times I am quite impressed by the level of quality and professionalism on display, and at other times I find myself grumbling, “you know we can see you, right?” at the television. I find myself equally split as I peruse local and regional web-only publications, wondering if Strunk and White have gone the way of Perry White.

Television news has a particular impact on local communities. The reach and visibility extend beyond the screen, with many of the news teams supporting different communities and local organizations through public appearances, speaking engagements, and giving campaigns that benefit the locales they cover. These public service engagements leverage the “News Personality” appeal of broadcasters.

Print journalists are more often unrecognized as they move about the communities they serve. The work they do is valued by the words they share, without the benefit of the catchy jingles or exciting graphics. Their voice is not the one we hear; it is the one we read.

The Challenge

Consumers used to have to go to the media to get what they needed. Today, the media has to go to the consumer, finding them where they are. Business models morph as technology and culture change. Revenue streams once counted as subscription rates and advertising blocks, now include clicks and listens. The ability to watch or read content when the consumer wants it, rather than when the media outlet serves it up fresh, changes the weighted value of traditional metrics.

Advertisers now have a more extensive range of data points they can study to determine the effectiveness of their marketing spend. These metrics can drive those advertisers to different channels, which in turn forces the media companies to re-balance their portfolios to retain both consumers and clients.

The stories and rumors once exchanged over the clothesline are now bulk-loaded into the leaky washing machine of Facebook groups and Nextdoor pages. Technology has made anyone with a smart device and an appropriate vocabulary an instant expert. Jumbles of fact, opinion, and occasional malice get tossed, untreated, into the spin cycle, and often end up dirtier and nearly unrecognizable.

Yet, even with all of these challenges, local news continues to inform readers and viewers through their primary outlets. More often than not, it is done well. Still, I had some questions about the consistency of the products we get here in this beautiful region.

Inside/Outside

What motivates the broadcasters, print journalists, and the news organizations that serve the area? How do the local broadcasters and print journalists adjust to the non-stop changes?

I sent out a series of questions to journalists across the region, looking for insights that would help me better understand the world of local news through the experiences of those who do it for a living. I sought input from on-air talent, by-lined reporters and writers, and producers and editors responsible for the news consumers see, read, and hear. I also sought input from educators who teach the technical, communication, and presentation skills that apply across all channels.

The response was mixed, with some journalists sharing thoughtful responses and helpful information. Some organizations were less open. Requests for comment, as they say, went unanswered. Maybe I was asking the wrong questions or using the wrong approach. Perhaps I need to get a better reporter on the case.

The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.

As I progressed through the research portion of this endeavor, I realized that I was focusing solely on the outlets that I see and read. I was ignoring the obvious – the overall population in the region is quite diverse, and for many, English is not the primary or most comfortable language. So how do broadcasters reach these sections of the overall community? I don’t know…yet.

Broadcast News

Local broadcast news on the Central Coast is different from what I watched back east. In New York, NBC = channel 4, ABC = channel 7, and CBS = channel 2. This format held when I lived in Connecticut with network parents and local affiliate news organizations airing in regular time slots on their dedicated channels.

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NBC New York featured Sue Simmons, Chuck Scarborough, Len Berman and a young Al Roker. The prototype for a local news lineup – dual anchors, weatherman/personality, and sportscaster.

After moving west, it took some time to adjust to a very different television news landscape. The same newscasters appear on different channels, with multiple network affiliations. Some newscasts run simultaneously, and others in air consecutive time slots.

The Market

According to the 2019 Nielsen DMA Rankings, the San Luis Obispo-Santa Maria-Santa Barbara market ranks #124 of 210. Relatively close markets include Fresno – Visalia at #54, Bakersfield, at #122. Los Angeles ranks #2, and the San Francisco – Oakland – San Jose market comes in at #8.

The Teams

The Central Coast has two primary English-language news organizations that broadcast on multiple networks. Broadcasts are sculpted to target specific geographies, though both groups strive to be inclusive of content that is of interest and importance to nearby communities. Roughly speaking, the team from KSBY News focuses on San Luis Obispo County, and the KCOY/KEYT group covers Southern San Luis Obispo down through Santa Barbara county.

The two organizations rely on a core group of experienced anchors, reporters, and forecasters. Both serve as a training and development platform for journalists, producers, and directors who are new to the world of professional broadcasting.

The Veterans

Richard Gearhart is a long-tenured member of the San Luis Obispo based KSBY news team. He currently serves as an anchor on the evening broadcasts. He is also an associate professor at California Polytechnic State University. (Cal Poly)

At Santa Maria-based KCOY, anchor Scott Hennessee quarterbacks multiple evening broadcasts. Jim Lemon is the News Director for KCOY 12.

The Question

The primary question I posed to each journalist was the same – Do you see your job as a journalist, news personality, broadcaster, or other?

Scott Hennessee replied, “Everyone in our newsroom is a journalist first. When I’m on the air, I’m a broadcast journalist communicating information as clearly and accurately as possible. I don’t necessarily see myself as a TV personality. There are occasional opportunities within the newscast to show some of my personality, and I’m always happy to meet new people out in the community, whether they watch our news or not.”

Richard Gearhart has a similar view. “I think of myself as a journalist first. TV journalism right now is a bit personality-driven – the reason is more about credibility than personality. News consumers are looking for trustworthy sources. They “know” their local anchors and reporters and hopefully trust them.”

Jim Lemon added, “For what we do, journalist is first and foremost. There are occasions (hosting the Turkey Drive, the Rodeo Parade, etc.) where “personality” comes into play, but even then, at the foundation, we’re journalists. We’re also broadcasters in that one of our mediums (television) is that field. We also provide content on digital platforms, which brings it back to the overall “journalist” description.”

Anchors

An anchor’s job requires a diverse set of talents. Jim Lemon describes the must-have skills for the position. “The anchor is a good leader in the newsroom. He or she communicates well while keeping track of other things happening during the broadcast.” He continues, “A successful anchor also takes a direct role in ‘how’ and ‘what’ is written in copy. In local markets, it also includes being interested in the community and ways to enrich/enhance it.”

Scott cites experience as the best teacher when it comes to anchoring – the more you do it, the more comfortable you get. He believes that knowing the history of the area can help bring some perspective to his reporting. “I’m always seeking out information about all kinds of things news and culture – related that help me have a greater understanding of the stories we tell.”

Mentors

Local news organizations are fertile ground for developing talent. Many producers and directors that staff the broadcasts tend to be in the early stages of their careers. Both these veteran anchors guide and mentor on-air talent and behind-the-camera personnel.

As a news director, Jim observes that in smaller markets, anchors often have much more experience than those around them, especially producers. Therefore, primary anchors have a de facto leadership responsibility. Both Scott and Richard echo Jim’s observations.

Scott expands, “I have had occasion to work very closely with producers who are new to us. Once they get the hang of things, it is wonderful to see them flourish. Most of our producers are here for 2-3 years, and almost all of them move on to the top 30 media markets.”

Richard agrees. “In our case, producers and directors tend to be at the “early career” level. So here, the anchor team, to a certain extent, oversees the producers.” One of Richard’s objectives is to coach newer multimedia journalists. He is currently mentoring two reporters.

Direction, Tone and Content

Scott’s description of how the broadcasts come together is similar to organizations across the country. An assignment editor gathers story ideas from outside sources, reporters, and anchors. The stories are discussed at two daily editorial meetings that focus on daytime and nighttime broadcasts. The selected segments are then brought up to a broadcast-ready level. Feedback happens in a nightly post-newscast session.

KSBY’s current owner (E.W. Scripps) has a long history and an excellent reputation in the field of journalism. Corporate has a content management division, and both local and home office management keep a close eye on what’s happening. The news team also gets a surprising amount of feedback from viewers.

Jim Lemon, KCOY News Director – In college, we learn the legal aspects of journalism: defamation, libel, the 5 Ws and the H. Once in the field, it’s about experience, learning from your colleagues, and keeping an eye on national or local trends.

Everywhere

Both organizations are embracing additional digital outlets, primarily social media. Facebook and Twitter feature feeds from the parent stations and the individual members of the broadcast teams. Live streams are used to break the news, share behind the scenes glimpses of productions, update in-progress sporting events, and tease upcoming broadcast stories.

Websites are regularly updated and tweaked to be easier to navigate. The presentation elements of promotional clips, talent features, and branded shows play out across every channel, complete with upbeat music, quick-cut video, and scenic backdrops that define the region. The recently updated KSBY studios sport a modern look supported by bold colors and attractive graphics.

With all of that, however, it comes down to the talent. They go after it all day, every day. Sometimes they make one mutter.

And there are the shining moments of excellence.

From the Front Lines

Live and Local

California’s 2017 – 2018 fire season was brutal. Explosive wildfires and the associated threats that came along with the flames tore through dense forests and threatened multiple communities.

Local and national news organizations sent in teams to show the public what was looming over the glowing hills.

At local NBC affiliate KSBY, it was all hands on deck. Anchors, multimedia reporters, and even the sportscasters picked up a microphone, put on a windbreaker, and went out into the field. These critical communicators worked endless shifts under incredibly dangerous conditions. Many a live update ended abruptly, with reporters being told to get out of the area quickly. They moved a short distance away, reestablished communications, and resumed doing the critical work of telling the evolving story.

Watching these reporters – many of them young women and men early on in their careers – was fascinating. They rose to the challenge, balancing their physical safety with the need to get close to the unfolding events. Absent the time and safe workspace to build and edit the story, they went live and delivered outstanding work. The core skills, talents, and personalities of the reporter were on display. They managed through briefings with emergency response managers and terrified residents, delicately asking difficult questions of people at their most vulnerable.

As the battle wore on, viewers could see the toll this was taking on the reporters. They saw it all, from devastated residents to exhausted first responders, and they told the stories while absorbing the collective weight of global suffering and danger.

And they did all of this for days on end.

“I Am A Journalist”

Among those determined reporters, Megan Abundis’ work stood out. She charged into the story with intense focus and genuine concern for those who were in the unpredictable path of the relentless fire. Megan delivered her updates with the skill of a veteran field reporter and the fearlessness of youth.

“I am a journalist,” Megan states with conviction. I take my job incredibly seriously. Reporting at those fires really meant a lot to me. It was a heavy responsibility, and each day was harder than the next. I think about that mudslide and fires more often than not.

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Megan Abundis

Megan continued developing her skills on the Central Coast, rotating through assignments that included field reporting, occasional weekend anchoring, and weather (everybody does the weather.) In a performance that left the rest of the news team slack-jawed, she delivered a sports report that was ESPN-worthy.

Earning It

Megan earned a Communication degree in Broadcast Journalism from Washington State University, Pullman. During her four years at WSU, she did multiple, cross-discipline radio and television internships. These stints gave her real-world experience in professional news writing and producing.

Upon graduating, Megan followed the path familiar to many in broadcast journalism, landing a job in a smaller media market. She shares, “KSBY was my first job. I was able to learn and grow immensely because of the staff and mentors there.”

Moving Forward, Reaching Back

Megan takes ownership of her career development. She attends industry conferences, follows the work of her role models, and, as she says, by “reading, reading, reading!”

She is a role model for the next generation of journalists. She advises students at her Alma Mater, preparing them for the transition from student to professional, setting expectations for what they can expect from their first job.

Megan’s career path has taken her to KOB-4 in Albuquerque, New Mexico ( #47), where she collaborates with a team that includes the news director, executive producers, assignment desk editors, web staff, and fellow reporters. She holds a place in her heart for her first professional job.

“I am very thankful to KSBY viewers for learning and growing with me. My first reporting job was nothing but great! ”

New Faces

The stream of new faces that roll across the local screens gives a glimpse of just how many aspiring broadcast journalists are competing for the opportunity to build a career. Many of these faces are fresh out of college, and some are transplants from other markets across the country.

For the rookies, landing a spot comes with some real struggles. Compensation is minimal, while the cost of living in the San Luis Obispo region is challenging for many established professionals in any career.

A scan of several job tracking sites confirms the compensation reality. Anonymous comments from current and former employees underscore the challenges of living in a high-cost region.

“The pay is the only thing that makes people look elsewhere. Unless you’re already in a more senior position (anchor/manager), it’s unlikely you’ll have the ability to stay here beyond paying your dues for a year or two.” Taken from an employee review on Glassdoor

In an informal conversation, an aspiring reporter from one of the area broadcast organizations shared the frustrations of building a resume, learning the region, dealing with unpredictable shifts, all while living over an hour away because that was the only reasonably affordable place to live. A second reporter made ends meet working in the foodservice industry while building a portfolio of increasing depth. These stories are familiar among many young professionals, though few other jobs place neophytes in the public eye, where they have to appear sharp, focused, and confident while on camera or in print.

Experienced Eyes

Judith Pratt is a retired professor emeritus of California State University, Bakersfield, where she taught Communications for 31 years, focusing primarily on journalism and gender studies. Prior to Cal State Bakersfield, Judith was a journalist in Bakersfield and before that, in Canada. I reached out to Judith to get her views on the state of local news in general, and her observations on how our area outlets are doing.

Judith echoed the economic challenges new reporters face, describing one Bakersfield news person’s early career as a week-day reporter and weekend waitress. Aspirants accept that the entry-level pay scale is low. They have few choices, needing the experience to build a resume that will lead them to the next level or a larger market.

For some, Judith observes, this challenge incites the competitive spirit and unlocks the characteristics that build solid journalists. The good ones maximize their experience and move on to the next opportunity — the less successful migrate into other areas of the profession, or different businesses altogether.

Shared Experience

Judith keeps an eye on the local media scene from her home in Cambria. Many of her observations aligned with my own, though her personal experience added great depth to my understanding. She pointed out a few areas that I had not considered, such as the importance of local sports coverage in small and medium-sized communities. Local sports are often a common rallying point. Good local coverage helps build community pride and involvement. A feature article or a highlight reel finds a way to family members who live in different towns or states. Grandparents still keep press clippings, and young athletes find inspiration and motivation through positive attention.

Less is Less

Providing in-depth coverage of school board meetings, local political goings-on, and projects that affect communities is a challenge. There are not enough reporters to cover everything, so alternative outlets often fill the gaps left by downsized media.

Judith uses her experience as a journalist to build an example of this diminution. In earlier times, local media would do an excellent job of taking a national issue, such as tariffs, and bring it down to the local level. Almond growers, in her example, are hit with tariffs that raise the cost of exporting the product to overseas markets. Those increases affect local growers, who see their output sit still, not generating any revenue. This loss of income then impacts local budgets, as the taxes paid are reduced. At the same time, the grower tightens the family belt, reducing the amount of money spent with local suppliers.

Good local reporting would, in the past, follow the chain of events, explaining the cause and effect at each stop, personalizing and humanizing in ways that resonated with the reader. Some outlets still do these types of stories, but they are as likely to be delivered as a podcast as a by-lined newspaper story or a local broadcast news feature.

The journalists who contributed to this piece validated Judith’s observations.

Teach Them Well

The commitment to developing journalists Judith experienced at Cal State Bakersfield is also found closer to her current home.

San Luis Obispo, located between the major markets of Los Angeles and San Francisco, is home to California Polytechnic State University – better known a Cal Poly. As the name implies, the curriculum approach is multi-dimensional. This philosophy extends across the disciplines from Engineering, Agriculture, Performing Arts, Graphic Arts, and Journalism.

From the University’s website:

Cal Poly’s Journalism Department is one of California’s most innovative undergraduate journalism programs, among the first in the country to take an integrated approach to student media, mirroring developments in the industry. The department embodies a polytechnic university philosophy, offering a technology-rich, student-focused environment that fosters student curiosity and entrepreneurial spirit.

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Learn By Doing

Cal Poly has an impressive range of student-staffed and run media outlets under the banner of Mustang Media Group. Here, professors guide students as they move from the classroom to the newsroom. The forward-thinking department has created an integrated multimedia organization where students can do the actual work of journalism. The department recognizes that to be successful in a journalism career, students need to be skilled in a range of communication styles. Specific tools and required technical knowledge may vary from discipline to discipline, but the skills of collecting, constructing, producing, and communicating information are core to every channel.

Professors Brady Teufel and Patrick C. Howe collaborated on a terrific case study detailing the Cal Poly project to create an integrated media operation. They are published in College Media Review/ Journal of the College Media Association.

The Best Medium for the Story – A Case Study of Integrated Student Media

Though focused on transformation in the academic environment, the work described, and the results achieved seem to be entirely translatable to the world of commercial journalism. Most of the goals and desired outcomes would look right at home in any media business.

Outcomes:

  • More thorough news coverage
  • Increased revenue and reach
  • More experimentation
  • Positive culture shift
  • Increased recognition
  • Public Relations Integration
  • Curriculum improvement
  • Leadership structure changes

Classroom to Newsroom

The continuum of University student to a professional broadcaster is exemplified by current Daybreak anchor Christina Favuzzi, who joined the KSBY team in 2015 after earning her degree in broadcast journalism from Cal Poly. In her current role, Ms. Favuzzi delivers a mix of news, weather, local happenings, and human interest stories from the anchor table and the field. Christina and the Daybreak team utilize both the daily television broadcast, and regular social media live streams to deliver the news with a personal and at times, informal style. Much like the hosts of the national Big Three Morning programs, the Daybreak team is a blend of journalists, News Personality, and broadcaster.

Megan Healy is another Cal Poly graduate who is making quick strides at KSBY. After graduating with a degree in Journalism, Megan joined the station as a multimedia journalist, and within one year was promoted to a spot as weekend anchor.

Cal Poly is also well-represented at KCOY/KEYT. Managing Editor Ed Zuchelli is a third-generation Mustang, Lindsay Zuchelli serves as the Executive Producer for KEYT-KCOY-KKFX.

CalPoly’s contribution to the local media landscape extends into the world of print journalism. Tribune editor and columnist Joe Tarica shares, “The Cal Poly journalism department gave me all the tools I needed to start my career at the time. I learned reporting, editing, design, photography, etc., in class and the lab that was Mustang Daily. I was ready to work right out the door.” SLO New Times staff writer Karen Garcia also credits her Cal Poly experience for her development as a journalist.

Print Journalists

All The News That’s Fit

In the New York of my youth, Print Journalism stood equally tall alongside broadcast news. The NY Daily News and The NY Post battled it out for tabloid supremacy. The New York Times provided both intellectual and physical heft to mix. Regional papers like Long Island’s Newsday and Westchester’s Gannett papers covered the suburbs and the places where boroughs rubbed up against towns. El Diaro served the Spanish-speaking communities, while The Irish Echo catered to families who had emigrated from the Emerald Isle.

The legendary Village Voice filled the Weekly Alternative slot. Deep-thinking novelists shared pages with political pundits, music critics, neighborhood gadflies, and endless classifieds for everything from help-wanted to Times Square sex shows. Buried in these pages were greats and soon to be greats like Norman Mailer, Jack Newfield, and Michael Musto.

There are parallels with today’s newspaper landscape here on the Central Coast. Two, in particular, stand out, with a third being a hyper-local subset of one.

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Cambria Library has the news

The Tribune is similar to the Gannett Westchester papers, covering the region and the unique cities, towns, and populations that fall within the geography. New Times has echoes of The Village Voice in both content and attitude.

The Cambrian and parent Tribune both carry a newsstand price and various subscription options that span the printed paper and the digital offerings. New Times is free to readers, with a healthy mix of advertisers fueling the economic engine that keeps the weekly going.

Mighty Pens

I had the great pleasure of exchanging thoughts with three area print journalists, each at different points in their careers.

Joe Tarica is the editor of the Tribune. He is also an opinion columnist when the mood or the topic strikes him. Joe began his career at the then Telegram-Tribune as a copy editor in 1993.

Karen Garcia is a staff writer for alternative weekly SLO New Times. She is a relative newcomer, currently in her third year as a professional journalist.

Kathe Tanner is a reporter/columnist for The Cambrian, the local outlet for The Tribune. Kathe joined The Cambrian in 1981 as a columnist and has also worked as an advertising, radio, and television copywriter. Kathe has been honored with nearly three dozen first – or second-place individual awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association, including one for the best journalistic writing in the state in 2003.

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Journalists Joe Tarica, Karen Garcia, and Kathe Tanner

Even with differences in age, experience, and audiences, the similarities to each other were striking. Perhaps some traits are unique to print journalists. Here’s an example – I asked what drew them to careers as writers and journalists.

Joe Tirica – “I knew I wanted a job in communications because English was my favorite subject. I also had a strong belief in freedom of information and the First Amendment and their importance to our democracy. So journalism was a natural fit for a college major that would yield a sensible job.”

Kathe Tanner – “I’ve been a writer all my life, writing grammar-school English essays about “Grammar and her grandchildren, “Adjective and Adverb.” She also converted a middle-school history assignment into a statistically accurate Richard Armour-style essay. (The teacher failed it, saying, “There’s no place in history for humor.” I told him, “Then you’ve been reading different textbooks than I have.”)

Karen Garcia – “I loved English classes in high school. I was always asking questions, discussing what was going on in the news with my mother. I was drawn to journalism because it’s a platform to ask questions, find out how people think, and understand how events, policies, and decisions affect a community.”

Finding The Story

All three journalists describe the general process for determining what is covered and what is published. At The Tribune, reporters pitch stories from their beats, which are evaluated for substantial value and interest to the community. As an Editor, Joe ensures the team is covering the best local stories, while also building higher-level enterprise coverage strategies that determine what projects to tackle. Joe details the objectives and guidelines; “Here, we are looking for impact and change. What are the most important issues to our communities, and how can we inform the public and motivate action?”

For Karen and her New Times colleagues, the thought process is similar. The staff members have areas they cover and determine what stories they feel will be impactful and informative. She describes a highly collaborative environment, rich with mentors who share their knowledge and experience in the service of the story. The journalist writes the story, and the team provides support and guidance.

As the primary representative of her paper, Kathe has to evaluate the entire Cambria landscape and determine what of the many goings-on are most important, most interesting, and most entertaining. She has to balance a plethora of monthly Board meetings – Cambria Community Services District, Healthcare District, School Board, and North Coast Advisory Committee are the most visible. There are a host of other organizations that are active and newsworthy, so they are part of the coverage equation. On top of the steady-state goings-on, newsworthy events pop up all the time. Police activity, fires, car crashes, at-risk citizens, earthquakes, power outages – the pool of potential stories run deep.

Styles

Both Kathe and Joe write columns, Kathe, on a more regular basis. Joe has more latitude in choosing when he writes. His passion and sense of fairness is often a catalyst. As he says, “When I write, I’m mostly driven by outrage about a particular subject. Because I don’t write often, this is usually a pretty high bar.”

Kathe often bases her columns on life as a community member, a wife, and a matriarch. She uses humor and self-awareness to great effect. Within her columns, light-hearted as they are, readers will find multiple bits of useful information and a sense of historical perspective. Whether it is Cambria-specific or call-backs to earlier times in her life, Kathe ties it all up into a pleasant read.

Kathe shared the challenges of being a reporter in the community she has called home for decades.I had to stop serving on various nonprofit boards because, as our reporting staff kept getting smaller, my “beat” got larger, and I had to cover those activities. A responsible journalist doesn’t serve and report on the same things.” She also has to report on people she has known for many years, sometimes in unfavorable circumstances. “I’ll always bend over backward to be fair,” she shares. This fairness means asking the tough questions, listening to the answers, and reporting the subject’s side of the story.

Karen’s position with New Times allows her to work in her favored style, which is longer-form, multi-layered journalism that blends topical news with human interest. Her recent series on the students of The Grizzly Academy is a perfect example of her strength. This series follows her earlier, compelling look at the impacts of immigration policy on local residents touched by forced separation. On the traditional local news beat, Karen explored Fire Services across the area and reported on individual town and regional challenges while keeping sight of the big picture of just how connected the underlying issues are.

Karen is a big fan of NPR radio. It is the soundtrack to her daily drive to work. She has an appreciation for the depth and nuance of the interviews and investigative reporting that are the hallmarks of the genre. She described enjoying the atmospherics of crunching leaves and snapping twigs, faintly heard behind an interview conducted during a walk in the woods. This type of color is challenging to recreate in a written piece, but there are hints in some of Karen’s most insightful work.

Challenges

Traditional print journalism is under constant pressure to capture and keep readers and advertisers. Like any business, revenues drive resources. Declines shrink the number of reporters, editors, photographers and support staff that are the lifeblood of any newspaper. Still, the news must be covered.

Generational behavioral shifts, fueled by technology advances, are changing how print organizations are covering and reporting. The costs to print physical papers do not go down with the number of copies sold. Technology helps a bit on the production side, with digital tools accelerating how stories are compiled, edited, and sent to print. High-speed digital printers ingest a large amount of data efficiently, and automated workflows handle the process of printing and finishing the paper. Print runs are scaled down or up based on analytics and smart editors who gauge the potential readership by the content of a particular edition. Art and Science meet at the speed of today’s 24-hour news.

All of this automation and digital connectivity means newspapers are produced and distributed from locations around the state. Larger publishers now consolidate multiple publications into a single print facility. Smaller papers have access to the same production processes.

Production efficiency is just one part of the overall technology equation. The biggest threat and opportunity for traditional print media is the internet. Publishers large and small are continually adjusting to the reality of on-demand information. Journalism continues, but the journalists approach their work in different ways.

A New (Virtual) Reality

Journalists are facing the same opportunities that every marketer, retailer, credit card company, and utility face when building and maintaining a dialog with their customers. Technology moves quickly, demanding the attention of both the business and creative brains to create excellent, relevant content, and deliver it to consumers wherever they want it.

A simplistic view – it’s the internet, how hard can it be? The reality – the internet is the highway to webpages, integrated news feeds, stand-alone applications, tweets, Instagrams, and text alerts. Information lands on multiple device platforms, from cell phones to tablets, computers, even smartwatches. It isn’t one font fits all; its all fonts behaving differently on different screens.

Joe Tarica captures this new reality. “Print journalism is more important now than ever, but we must ensure we’re paying as much attention to where we can respond the quickest and reach new audiences. We need to be open to using new tools and adapting rapidly.” In Joe’s world, digital media, rather than a printed newspaper, is becoming the default platform. The aim is to meet readers where they are or will be: on the website, mobile platforms, social media, and through alerts and newsletters.

Social Media – Friend or Foe?

All the journalists understand that social media presents excellent opportunities to reach readers/followers quickly and accurately when needed. It also serves as a platform to connect with the communities they cover, build relationships and establish credibility, and develop new sources of information.

Karen will, on occasion, post to multiple Facebook groups and solicit thoughts and opinions relevant to the story she is building. These outreaches, done in an open forum, gives her a glimpse into the different views a community might hold, which adds depth and perspective to the story.

Kathe takes advantage of social media to get the time-sensitive information out quickly and follows up with in-depth reporting in the weekly Cambrian. Often, her stories will feed into the broader Tribune ecosystem, where they link to similar events in neighboring communities. This timely local reporting is critical in an area where the threat of wildfire and other potential natural disasters is ever-present.

Benefits and Dangers

Each of the journalists also addressed the risky side of social media. They expressed concern that posts that may appear reliable and respectable may not be either, but rather opinion or propaganda disguised as news. Each cited examples of posts that were neither fact-checked or scrubbed for bias but were absorbed by readers as legitimate news sources.

Kathe muses, “It’s another way for a traditional journalist to keep in touch with the community, feeding news to them and tapping into what else is happening on his/her beat. Danger? When people automatically believe what they read online, without crosschecking with known, responsible media outlets.”

Joe adds, “The benefit is you can get informed about your community in all sorts of new ways. The danger is that many sources don’t follow professional standards. So they may tell you something that is partially true, but is it handled in a fully responsible and ethical way?”

Committed

As writers and reporters, each of the journalists recognizes that whatever outlet they use, the high standards they embrace in print must apply to every digital mark they make.

“News is an important way to preserve history,” Karen Garcia believes. “It gives a voice to underprivileged and under-served communities. It is motivating to know that there are people who trust you to tell the truth and present the facts. It’s a weight you carry as a journalist.”

Joe Tarica continues to believe in the importance of the First Amendment and the role of journalists. “The democratization of news has only made the role of professional news organizations more important, because not many people or places can invest the time, energy, and proper training, to tackle the most difficult and significant stories.”

As a long-time member of the community, people look to Kathe when things happen. They also see her as “the keeper of the scrolls” with an institutional memory that brings perspective to recurring hot-button topics. For Kathe Tanner, being a journalist for the community she has called home is both a joy and an obligation.

Finally

To hijack an old expression, “all news is local.” The people who do the hard work of keeping us informed about what is happening in our communities deserve both recognition and support. Without them and the organizations they represent, we might as well make up our own versions of history. They also need to be held accountable and connected to the communities. When they say “we want to hear from our viewers/readers/subscribers,” – believe them. Let them know what you think and what you need from them.

The good ones will always listen.

Scarecrow, or Pedestrian?

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I almost ran over Tom Gray today. Well, I think it was Tom. It wasn’t intentional, of course, and he probably didn’t notice. We were both paying attention to our Main Street surroundings, as sensible Cambrians do. The crosswalk and Tom were where they were supposed to be. So was I, buckled in, hands appropriately spaced on the steering wheel. My eyes ran through the sequence – straight ahead, sweep side to side, check mirrors, react, and repeat. Tom, it seemed, was doing likewise, sans steering wheel. He made it across safely, and I continued on my way. So what happened? I’ll tell you what happened; it was those damn scarecrows, that’s what happened.

Boo Who?

They are everywhere. On the corners, in the alleyways, and fronting just about every store in town. They pop out from behind the pines. They drop like party streamers from lamp posts. They stand guard at the entrance to the church. I stood on Cambria Drive for twenty-seven minutes, waiting for a Dancers By The Sea Flash Mob. Nope. Scarecrows.

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Nuns and priests. Cats and Dogs. Goblins and ghouls. Pirates and Italian Chefs. I waved enthusiastically to a group of cyclists, thinking it might be Andy, Susan, and Charles. I assumed they were going slowly to accommodate a new hip. Wrong! Scarecrows.

After a spirited discussion on local water politics, I took off my glasses to give them a wipe. When I put them back on, I realized I had been arguing with a dummy, and not Cindy Steidel. Hoping nobody noticed, I patted a stuffed shoulder and thanked her for service to the community.

Say It Like You Mean It

I decided to make the most of my mistakes and began shouting greetings to all the figures. “Hi, Elizabeth! Great pictures from the beach this morning!” “Thanks for the road closure matrix, Susan!” “Love the new sport coat, Mr. Lyons!” “How goes the potato crop, Leslie?” “Great piece on your time in country music, Kathe!” Sorry about almost running you over, Tom!”

And thus I made my way through town, thinking of something positive to say to each scarecrow. Words I might not have the opportunity to share in person with every real, living, and breathing character in Cambria’s ever-changing story.

Different Spirits

Arriving at the far end of town, I popped into the Cutruzzola Tasting Room to say hello. I thought they might be busy, based on the crowd next to the building. DOH! Scarecrows with streamers. Thank goodness a real live Mari was there to talk me down. I did most of the talking, as I am wont to do. By the time I left, she was probably hoping for a mute scarecrow to stop by.

A Happy Place

I made it to my original destination – the Cambria Library. I go there to write, and by write, I mean people-watch in between sentences. It seems like the natural place when trying to turn thoughts into words–into sentences–into paragraphs. I like this library. It is not so quiet that you can’t think. It is not so stuffy that you are afraid to sneeze.

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It is, instead, a welcoming place with friendly librarians, local volunteers who staff the bookstore, and kids with grandmas who come every week to exchange last week’s adventures for a whole new set of imagination boosters. Astronauts on week one, traded in for Lego Dinosaur adventures the next trip. Today’s choice features a Princess, a Snowman, and enough excitement to keep a young boy and a young-at-heart grandmother joined in exploration, building a bond that will strengthen with every turn of a page.

There should be a scarecrow for that.

Learn about the Cambria Scarecrows here.