Monday, December 31, 2007

A look forward, and back, at our year of news coverage

As 2007 fades and 2008 rushes in, I’m taking a time out from readers’ specific questions to write more generally about The Tribune’s news coverage, both looking forward and to the recent past.
If you take nothing else from my commentary today, I hope you will remember this: In all of our reporting efforts in The Tribune and at , we strive to be as fair and balanced as is humanly possible.
Our first and foremost goal is to facilitate our democracy –to thoroughly cover the decisions and debates among our elected representatives, and to give voice to those who have none. We strive to offer diverse ideas and opinions, and to make sure there is robust debate.
We’re acutely aware that every day, when our presses turn and when we make another update on our Web site, we have an opportunity to make a positive difference in the life of San Luis Obispo County. We can shed light on complicated topics, reveal actions that some people would prefer never see the light of day, and call attention to the many men and women who work diligently to make this county a better place to live.
The coming year promises to be a turning point for the country – some key decisions must be made on the war on terror, and, of course, much of that will be affected by what will surely be a hard-fought presidential campaign. You can count on us to keep you informed on those developments.
Locally, the political scene promises to be intense as well. Three of the county’s five supervisors are up for re-election. Two of them – Harry Ovitt and Jerry Lenthall – face stiff competition from announced candidates, and the third, Jim Patterson, expects to face a credible challenger.
We promise to provide comprehensive coverage of the local campaigns as well as the national campaigns, plus other key issues that emerge. Already, you can access our local election reporting and Washington bureau coverage on our Web site, Just click on the Election box on the right hand side of our home page.
We know that San Luis Obispo County, while a cohesive region in many respects, is fundamentally a collection of distinctive communities that have carved out unique personalities through the years.
As in the past, the top issue that we will address in 2008 is growth and development. How the county and the various city governments handle economic development issues remains, in our minds, the most important topic we can cover as it affects everyone’s daily lives in ways big and small – from traffic congestion, to the ability of our schools to maintain their relatively high quality of education, to where we shop and how our cities will finance government services.
That means you can expect to read more from us on traffic choke points, the proposed Dalidio Ranch project in San Luis Obispo and Wal-Mart in Atascadero, the fishing industry in Morro Bay as well as wine and tourism.

Looking back
This year we set out to offer insight into many issues that affect local residents. I wish we could have reported more stories in each of our communities, from high school sports to deeper coverage of Cal Poly and Cuesta College. Unfortunately, there are always hundreds more great stories than we can possibly get to.
Still, in 2007 we significantly provided more news and information to you by expanding our online presence at, adding more breaking news, morning and afternoon e-newsletters, audio and video reports, staff blogs and crime maps for some cities.
We’ve also provided authoritative coverage on several top issues, most notably:
-- Growth and development: From the Wal-Mart controversy in Atascadero to the Dalidio project in San Luis Obispo, from the burgeoning wine industry in North County to Nipomo’s population expansion and search for new water, we have been at the forefront of reporting how our county is changing as a result of growth.
-- Methamphetamine’s impact: Our investigative series found that the highly addictive drug’s poisonous grip is destroying local families in increasing numbers every year, and the county’s ongoing war against it is costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Since the series ran in March, the county Board of Supervisors has moved forward with plans to open a much needed detoxification facility for men in 2008.
-- Los Osos sewer: This is the most important issue for the 14,000 residents who live in Los Osos, so we strived to offer informative, useful coverage. Separately, The Tribune Editorial Board offered insight and urged voters to approve a crucial sewer tax. They did.
-- Investigation into Sheriff Pat Hedges for secretly taping an employee: We provided probing coverage of this ongoing investigation and will continue to do so.
-- Organ transplant: We offered authoritative coverage of this case in which a San Francisco transplant surgeon has been charged with trying to hasten a local man’s death to harvest his organs. The trial, which is being watched closely nationally, is set for this year.
Readers often say that we don’t write enough positive, uplifting stories. I can’t say how much is the right amount, but I can tell you that on any given day, we have quite a bit of positive news, whether it’s notice of an upcoming community event, coverage of an individual’s recent accomplishments, or profiles of individuals who have overcome great tragedy, contributed time and energy to help those less fortunate or simply worked valiantly under difficult circumstances.
We’re especially proud of our annual Unsung Hero series, which we launched three years ago during Thanksgiving Week on our Opinion Page. It seemed an appropriate time to pause and thank those local residents who are passionate about their causes but seek no payment, only the satisfaction they derive from helping others. This year, inundated with nominations of so many worthy Unsung Heroes, we profiled four more individuals last week in this space.
We’ve also championed several worthwhile causes this past year, such as the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, which provides food to more than 25,000 people. A June editorial and related news stories helped the coalition raise more than $115,000 in a mid-year fund drive, which has enabled the food bank to expand programs, including outreach efforts for seniors and young children.
Sometimes too our reporters put themselves in others’ shoes to understand issues better. Sarah Arnquist spent time chopping and boxing vegetables, hoeing weeds and moving pipes on a local farm last summer to better comprehend the effort required to put produce on supermarket shelves. It was a timely effort, given the nation’s debate over immigration, and we paired it with another staff-written article on the challenges that local employers face in hiring farm laborers.
Together these two stories on immigration received a national journalism award for the light they shed locally on one of the nation’s most pressing issues. This was just one of nearly two dozen state and national awards The Tribune staff won for their reporting, photography and page design in 2007.

Our accuracy record
As I mentioned earlier in this column, I said that we strive diligently to be as fair and balanced as is humanly possible. We try to measure that, and we do so by conducting accuracy surveys of people quoted in our news stories.
Since May 2004, we’ve sent out 434 accuracy surveys. Of the nearly 200 people who responded, 72 percent have deemed The Tribune’s reporting as “very accurate.”
The rest offered constructive criticism on how we could have improved our efforts.
The survey results are shared with the individual reporters involved, so that we can correct any errors and in general better understand our sources' expectations.
My goal with this weekly column is to make sure there that we are as open and transparent with you, the people we serve, so that you can help us improve. We strive to be all that you would expect from a news organization that seeks your trust. Your opinion matters to us.
As always, I am interested in what you think we’ve done well, where you believe we’ve fallen short – and your wish list for coverage in 2008. I’ll share your ideas with our news staff.
Write to me c/o The Tribune, P.O. Box 112, San Luis Obispo, CA, 93406-0112, or e-mail me at
In the meantime, we wish you a wonderful news year.
_ Sandra Duerr

Friday, December 7, 2007

Reader likes coverage of cancer center closure

"Your reporters Sarah Arnquist and Stephan Curran have earned my respect in their investigative efforts concerning the Luxory house raffle by Mee Memorial. After reading the King City Rustler articles on the problems at Mee I am certain they are merely at the tip of the iceberg. I am anticipating new developments and am very proud to have this caliber of reporting available on a local level."
-- Craig Hayes

Thanks for the online feedback, Mr. Hayes. I too feel our teamwork on the Mee Memorial cancer center story this week has been terrific. Sarah and Stephen have clearly explained the complexities of the financial failures and captured the human reaction of Mee employees finding out, to their shock, that their jobs did not exist anymore.
_ Tad Weber