||A Better Breeze
by Garrison Frost
Not that long ago, I got an email from a Daily Breeze reporter who said, among others things, that it was obvious that I didn't think highly of the newspaper. My reply to the reporter was that my feelings about the Breeze were a great deal more nuanced than that, however I didn't elaborate. I've thought about that exchange for a while, and realize that now might be a good time to expand a bit on my general ambivalence toward the South Bay daily. This is a particularly good time as with the recent purchase of The Beach Reporter and the Palos Verdes News a great deal more of our news is going to be filtered through the offices of the funky modern building on Torrance Boulevard.
Just to get it out of the way, I'll start with what I think are the Breeze's less positive attributes. Then I'll point out what the papers appears to be doing right. Last, I'll try to chart where I would like to see the Breeze go in the future, not that Publisher Art Wible gives a damn about the opinion of some lowly internet scribe.
The problems with today's Breeze have their origin in the newspaper's past, when it was possible for a single paper to provide both national and local news. In this sense, the paper's problems aren't the fault of the people working there now. I don't think there's anything wrong with the editorial staff. In fact, many of them are excellent. But back to my point. If you look at some old issues of the paper from the 1950s or 1960s, you'll see a paper that is equally comfortable running stories about things happening in Europe as down the street. Subscribers certainly appreciated only having to take one paper for all their needs. However, things have changed to the extent that I'm not sure it's possible for a paper to pull off that dual role any longer. Now it's just downright odd to see headlines about the War on Terrorism next to ones about a City Council vote on stop signs. Moreover, readers are more demanding on both counts. They want to know more about national and international news than that provided by watered down wire reports, and they don't just want the same mishmash of local crime and government stories either.
But this is exactly what the Breeze serves up these days on its news pages poor national news and poor local news. It is as if the editors are trying to preserve the idea that the Breeze can be a complete paper for South Bay readers by providing not nearly enough of everything. The paper's recent shrinkage of its news hole has only made the problem worse.
Another gaping hole in the Breeze is its complete lack of voice. Sure, the paper trots out the usual number of positive feature stories, but it is surprisingly absent when it comes to its own role in the community. Its editorial pages are timid, replete with soft op-eds on national and state issues. It's a rare day when the paper takes a position on a controversial local issue or challenges the leadership of a particular city. Syndicated columnists abound, perpetuating the impression that the paper just isn't paying attention to local issues or is too afraid of aliening potential advertisers. While John Bogert is a fine writer, his presence on Page 2 is overly benign. The role of a Page 2 columnist is to be the voice of the community, a voice for the readers and to actually break news on occasion. Bogert does none of these things. On the news pages, the reporters do what they can with the small news hole covering the City Council votes and spot news stories that must be covered but there is very little enterprise reporting, very little investigative journalism.
These omissions are the reason the Breeze has taken such a beating in the beach cities at the hands of The Beach Reporter and the Easy Reader. While those papers aren't exactly stirring things up in their cities, they do have recognizable voices in their communities and do a much better job of following local issues. But the weeklies' editorial resources are very limited, and as a result, between the Breeze and the weeklies, it is likely that more than half of the things worth knowing in the South Bay go unreported.
There are a few other negatives to report, but that's probably the meat of it. We'll just crank off a few with bullets:
- "Today" is a useless section. It's one thing to use wires for news, but to build an entire feature section with it is shameful.
- Regional biases. The Breeze claims to cover the entire South Bay, but some areas get a great deal more coverage than others. Perhaps this is prompted by subscriber demographics, but it's really goofy to see a story about the construction of a restaurant on the Redondo pier when there hasn't been a story about another city in a week or more.
- Nonexistent arts coverage. For some reason, the only local exhibitions that seem to get reviews are ones at the Malaga Cove library.
- Society news. Meredith Grenier is totally out of date and her coverage of Palos Verdes society totally alienates the paper's other readers.
- All of the so-called "reader-friendly" stuff like Lights & Sirens and the crime maps are just ridiculous. This dumbness just pretends to be news and replaces real stories.
- The Breeze gets poor marks as a watchdog newspaper. Most of the real dirt the paper has run over the last few years has clearly come from tips. We do recognize a few exceptions, but the paper could clearly do better.
- The use of AP nuggets as fill. In a paper that does such a poor job of covering world and local news, it's just strange to see little one-paragraph items about plane crashes in China and Senate votes on bicycle seats.
Now for the things that the Breeze is doing well. To start, the Breeze has a fine cadre of reporters, editors, designers and photographers. The paper looks great and the stories read well, which is no easy thing. This nod to the staff isn't a throw-way compliment. There are a lot of people gathering news for the Breeze, but the readers just don't see that in the paper. Not that we can blame these folks for going invisible. Why would you bust your ass to dig into a story when you know a car crash or a City Council meeting is going to eat up that space? It's just remarkable when you see what the weeklies can do with four- and five-person editorial teams and compare that to how little the Breeze is doing with dozens of staffers. OK, this is coming off less as a compliment than an attack, so I'll move on.
The Breeze has some great sections. The Friday RAVE is probably the best thing the paper does, and the only area of the paper with any personality or wit. The section has a good combination of entertainment news, opinion and listings for things both inside and outside the South Bay. The Breeze also does a fine job with Sports, although there are a few problems there. While it's incredible how the paper covers the prep scene so well, it could stand to invest a little more in its coverage of local professional teams. It's just sad for a paper the size of the Breeze to use wire stories about the Dodgers, Kings, Ducks, Lakers and Clippers. Still, the section is damn good.
While we've said some nasty things about its news reporting, it should be said that the Breeze does excel in some key areas. First of all, the Breeze has excellent resources through the Copley Wire to bring in regional stories that affect local residents. This has resulted in some interesting news from Sacramento and downtown Los Angeles that no one else would report. Furthermore, the Breeze is a solid spot news paper. Crime, elections, cops, courts, crashes, fires, accidents and other one-time stories are handled thoroughly and professionally in the Breeze.
Another great aspect of the Breeze has been its embrace of the Internet. Dailybreeze.com is just flat-out terrific.
The reason I've never written the Breeze off is that it shows signs of brilliance on occasion. Just when you're about to give up on it, there's a great cover photo, a particularly insightful news story or a damn tough editorial. The truth is that the paper just isn't horrible all the time, just a lot of the time. With some care, it could really be a great newspaper and a great asset to the South Bay community.
If the Breeze did just a few of the things listed below, it would be a greatly improved publication.
- Give up on national and international news. Breeze publishers should finally accept that The Los Angeles Times will always do this better. We would suggest a simple one-column wrap-up of the big stories, like the one on the cover of every Wall Street Journal.
- Use the remaining news hole for expanded local coverage and more interesting smaller features.
- Beef up the Opinion section of the paper by taking stronger positions, eliminating the syndicated columnists and employing a diverse set of columnists from varying parts of the political spectrum to write on local issues only.
- Give Bogert a kick in the ass or move him to another part of the paper. The South Bay needs its own Herb Caen, not another guy penning meandering tales about his daughter and his dog, or giving us his belated take on yesterday's news stories.
- Assign reporters to investigative and enterprise stories and make regular space for that work. The Los Angeles Times has Column One; the Breeze could do the same.
- End the regional bias in coverage. People in the beach cities and Palos Verdes already think they live in a bubble; their local newspaper shouldn't be encouraging them.
- Send beat writers for the local pro sports teams on the road.
- Either completely revamp Today with local stories or dump it altogether.
- Become a little less safe. The fact that the South Bay is hardly known for anything is partially the daily's fault. The Breeze perpetuates the myth that nothing ever happens here, and so no one, including those who live here, pays attention when things do.
(Nov. 8, 2003)
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