CVIndependent

Sun08252019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Gannett—the nation’s largest newspaper company, and the owner of The Desert Sun—today laid off dozens, if not hundreds, of employees across the country.

The Independent has heard from a source that up to a half-dozen Desert Sun staffers, including one person from the news side—an editor—were let go today.

Emails sent earlier today to publisher Mark Winkler and executive editor Greg Burton have not received a response as of this writing.

A Facebook message sent to the veteran editor who was reportedly laid off has also gone unreturned.

As of 5 p.m. Pacific time, Gannett Blog’s Jim Hopkins had received reports about a total of 202 layoffs and position-eliminations at 36 Gannett operations across the country.

(Update 6:20 p.m.: Commenters at Gannett Blog are pointing out that a fair number of the people who were laid off are longtime Gannett employees—and therefore on the higher end of the pay scale. The same goes for the Desert Sun case, presuming our source is correct: The editor who we're told was laid off has been with the company for not quite two decades.)

Gannett corporate spokesman Jeremy Gaines confirmed that layoffs were going on to media watchdog Jim Romenesko via this bit of corporate-speak “Some USCP (U.S. Community Publishing) sites are making cuts to align their business plans with local market conditions.”

While local market conditions may vary, Gannett has been slashing newspaper staffers at its operations across the country for about a decade now. And the results, as daily-newspaper readers can see, have not been pretty.

Witness The Desert Sun: While the newspaper still has a lot of hard-working and talented employees, some coverage areas are undeniably weak. Just one example: In some recent weeks, the paper’s “Weekend” entertainment section, published on Fridays, has been completely devoid of locally written copy: Other than locally produced listings, the content has come entirely from wire services. The same lack of locally produced stories has afflicted the Desert Sun-owned Desert Post Weekly at times.

Of course, Gannett is not the only newspaper company making cuts these days. Just yesterday, Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, owned by Advance Publications Inc., cut around 50 newsroom employees, and later this month, the venerable daily will trim home delivery to just four days per week.

In a somewhat cruel twist, employees were warned layoffs were coming, and told to wait at home for a call during a two-hour window. If a call came, they’d receive severance information; if a call didn’t come, they presumably were still employed, and should report to work like normal.

At least the poor folks at The Desert Sun who lost their jobs today presumably didn’t have to suffer through such a stressful indignity.

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Published in Media

To readers of the Coachella Valley Independent, the big “iSun Investigation” that ran in the March 3 Desert Sun was not really news at all. 

On Feb. 15, the Independent, in a piece by Saxon Burns, reported that Coachella Valley taxpayers will be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars due to questionable bond-issuance decisions by leaders at two area school districts. 

Here’s a selection from that piece, headlined “Generations of Valley Taxpayers on the Hook for Hundreds of Millions After School Districts Issue 'Irresponsible' Bonds”:

When it comes to government these days, maybe, to quote an old Cole Porter song, "anything goes."

Two area school districts, Coachella Valley Unified (the east valley district that runs public schools in Indio, Coachella and points east) and Desert Community College (aka College of the Desert), are among the hundreds in California that have used financing known as capital appreciation bonds, or CABs, to fund construction projects.

These bonds differ from more-traditional cousins in that payments can be put off for years—sometimes decades—allowing districts to save face by not raising property taxes, at least in the short term.

However, interest compounds during those years, and when the bill comes due, many districts—and, therefore, taxpayers within those districts—will be socked with explosive costs. …

Warning bells were raised last year when the Voice of San Diego website, assisted by retired journalist Joel Thurtell, reported that Poway Unified School District would be shelling out a cool billion over 40 years for $105 million in borrowing to renovate buildings. This set off a flurry of coverage from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times (which published a database of the state treasurer's figures on CABs) and other news outlets.

The fact that things aren't quite Poway bad for our local cases might come as cold comfort. In 2010 and 2012, Coachella Valley Unified School District issued CABs worth slightly more than $35 million. Repayment will set the district back $186.3 million over more than 30 years. …

The Desert Community College District, which serves the College of the Desert, issued nearly $96 million in CABs in 2007, with repayment totaling just north of $430 million over 38.6 years.

Some 16 days later, here are the first two graphs from the piece in The Desert Sun:

A Coachella Valley community college and public school district have engaged in a bond strategy that will cost them hundreds of millions of dollars more than they borrowed by the time the debt is paid off in more than 30 years.

In recent years, both the College of the Desert and the Coachella Valley Unified School District have issued capital appreciation bonds as portions of larger voter-approved borrowing plans. The college and school district used the borrowed money to build new facilities, but the resulting debt — and its escalating interest rates — will linger long after the buildings lose their shine.

The Desert Sun piece, by Brett Kelman, goes on to basically report what the Independent reported, although he did add some nice bits of detail (for example, Kelman broke down what the College of the Desert’s interest payments are slated to be, whereas we didn’t).

He also made one fairly significant mistake: He incorrectly credited nonprofit news orgs The Bay Citizen and California Watch for “uncover(ing)” the story.

While California Watch and The Bay Citizen have indeed done a bang-up job of covering the capital appreciation bond issue, giving them credit for having “uncovered” the story is just plain wrong.

Here’s the anatomy of how this story came to be—first in the Independent, and then in The Desert Sun:

• As we mention above, retired journalist/current blogger Joel Thurtell (translation: unpaid journalist) started covering the financial debacle that is capital appreciation bonds way back in May 2012. While his context was a specific school district, as also mentioned above, he did ring a warning bell about these bonds throughout the state. On May 1, 2012, he wrote: “Let’s hope the California Legislature scraps this abomination. In Michigan 19 years ago, we found that CABs are good only for the handful of bond underwriters, bond attorneys and financial advisers who promote them to enrich themselves at public expense.” 

• On Aug. 6, 2012, news website Voice of San Diego did a piece focusing on Poway. This led to some national attention, from CNBC and other outlets. (It should be noted that Thurtell was apparently upset with Voice of San Diego for not crediting him; VOSD did a piece on that matter, as well as the national attention, here.)

You’ll note that VOSD editor Andrew Donohue writes: “There’s been no concerted effort to act like we were the pioneers. Nor do I believe we have claimed that the information contained within it came to light only as a result of our investigation.”

In other words, VOSD presumably didn’t run the piece under a silly tag like “iSun Investigation.”

• On Aug. 22, California Watch’s Erica Perez did a story noting the coverage of both Thurtell and VOSD. In it, she started expanding the scope of the matter beyond Poway, pointing out the obscene payback amounts some other community college districts were facing in California. 

• On Nov. 29, the Los Angeles Times did a piece on the bonds, presenting them as a true statewide problem. Most valuably, the Times—using data from the state Treasurer’s Office—also published an online database of districts in the state that had issued capital appreciation bonds. 

(Interestingly enough, the Times wound up running a correction on the piece: They initially credited VOSD, without crediting Thurtell, for breaking the news on Poway. Props to them for later amending the piece to credit Thurtell.)

• The Times piece—and the database, especially—led to all sorts of coverage, including localized coverage. In Northern California’s Humboldt County, for example, my friend Hank Sims, of online news source the Lost Coast Outpost, did a story discussing that county’s school districts which had issued capital appreciation bonds. A heads-up from Hank is how I first learned about the Times database, and therefore the Coachella Valley angle.

(Side note: The daily in Eureka, Calif., credited the Lost Coast Outpost for first publishing the information locally—something the folks at The Desert Sun felt no need to do.) 

California Watch did more, expanded coverage (some of which was used in The Desert Sun piece); The New York Times did a piece on the bonds in California.

With the Coachella Valley Independent fully up and running after the first of the year, I asked Saxon to look into the Coachella Valley angle after Hank’s tip. That’s how, to my knowledge, we became the first valley publication to report on the matter.

I am very happy The Desert Sun did their piece; this is an important story that Coachella Valley taxpayers need to know about. But to call this as an “investigation” without properly crediting the journalists who really exposed this matter—especially Joel Thurtell—is wrong, plain and simple.

Published in Editor's Note

What's 32 pages, has a total of zero locally produced stories, and is most decidedly not read all over—because there's nothing in it to read?

The Desert Post Weekly, that's what.

This week's edition (Jan. 10-16) is notable in that there are a grand total of zero locally written articles. Zero. None.

The content in the issue, owned by The Desert Sun and its parent company, Gannett, consists of:

  • "The Burning Question," in which four people affiliated with the paper—people for whom I have a great deal of sympathy, as they're forced by Gannett to put their name on this embarrassment of a publication—disclosed their personal highlights of the Palm Springs International Film Festival. (However, the festival was only about halfway over by the time the DPW went to press. To which I reply: WTF?) After that 46 words (yes, I counted) were:
  • A quarter-page or so of events listings. Apparently, only five worthy things are happening this week in the Coachella Valley, because that's all that's there.
  • A page of music crap from USA Today that has no local ties whatsoever. (There must be no local bands in the Coachella Valley to cover. Oh, wait ...)
  • Two pages dedicated to mountains in Southern California from McClatchy-Tribune Media Services. Yes, mountains. Did you know that Southern California has mountains? In the winter? OMG!
  • Two Associated Press film reviews.
  • Three pages of movie listings. (At least someone presumably local took the time to type in the local theaters at which the films in question are playing.)
  • A page of classified ads, followed by 19 pages of legal notices. Those legal notices are presumably the reason why the DPW still exists: Gannett can pass notices that don't require publication in a daily from The Desert Sun to the much-lower-circulation DPW—saving a lot of money on newsprint in the process.
  • A crossword and a sudoku puzzle from King Features.

That's it. 32 pages, and the only local editorial content consists of five events listings, someone typing in theaters, and four answers to a premature question.

This bothers me, because I love alternative publications—I have edited two of them, worked at a third, and served on the alternative newspaper trade group's board of directors. Heck, I moved here to launch the one you're reading right now.

And the crud that the DPW has become chaps my figurative hide, because once upon a time, the Desert Post Weekly was an honest-to-goodness real alternative newspaper. 

It's hard to find, in public at least, a copy of the DPW from the first half of the Aughts, back when it was a real newspaper. (I tried; I contacted the Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Rancho Mirage public libraries, and was told they didn't have copies of the DPW, old or new.) DPW does not have a website (Let me repeat that so it can sink in: In 2013, there's a newspaper that does not have a website!), so there are no online archives to peruse.

However, the Internet does offer some documentation of the Desert Post Weekly before Gannett bought it and slowly started squeezing its life away. You can find a fair number of links and references to old stories, and the Wayback Machine has some snapshots of www.desertpostweekly.com back when it was an actual thing. A capture from Jan. 20, 2002, shows a preview webpage promising that the paper is about to go online, and includes a graphic with a rotation of old DPW covers touting stories about imprisoned women caught in the drug war; dowsing; the McVeigh execution; "America's obsession with reality TV" (a prophesy, perhaps?); "Will e-books replace the real thing?" (more prophesy); and gambling addiction.

In other words, real stories. In a real newspaper.

The paper carrying that once-proud name today is a sad joke, a paper in which there's no there there. If Gannett had any decency—and it does not, as the company has proven time and time again—it would retire the Desert Post Weekly with some dignity.

Published in Media