The Centre Daily Times Does Not Work Weekends

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I remember growing up with the tradition of the Sunday paper, it was always thicker than the rest, and the comics were in color. With two little brothers, the Sports pages and crossword puzzle were fought over. Breakfast was leisurely, and the last one up usually got the scraps of the paper, with the sections all disconnected and rifled through. Not that the CDT was great in those days either.

With pretty highly educated and widely traveled parents, one at one point an ivy league professor, the other with an ivy league masters degree, they had moved to State College when I was well into my schooling, and I guess you could say they were excited about the “culture” and “intellectualism” of a University town. Both of them Penn State graduates, the immediately got a card to the library and a subscription to every local publication they could find. I was less inclined to be so intellectual, a tad slower in school and not in those ranks of professor, I preferred the crossword puzzle, the comics, the conversation, and the lazy routine of all of it. I liked the homemade breakfasts and hearing the laughter over the triviality of small town news.

The CDT’s was at first a little disappointing, but I remember the breaking point one Sunday. It was the first day of hunting season, and my mother opened the front page of the paper to see a dead bear carcass as the headline front news. There were typos throughout that article, which seemed to even stand out more clearly in light of the dead animal on the front.

While they realized their Pennsylvania roots, they were also in touch with the Penn State Community and the six o’clock news. Hunting season might have been a big deal to some of their readers, but it seemed to alienate the newspaper reading audience. From that point on, the Washington Post or the New York Times, or Newsweek, TIme, Smithsonian Magazines etc seemed to join the Sunday literature. They never gave up their local Centre Daily Times subscription because it was the only local print newspaper in circulation, but then it became a running joke. That morning they rolled their eyes, and rattled off a ton of other things the CDT should have covered or could have covered that week. Sunday papers came with a lot of giggling and eye rolling. Back then, the CDT staffers did work on Sundays.

For years I read this paper, even living out of state my retired parents still check it nearly every day. They’ve become accustomed to CDT coverage being the kaleidoscope of that world of Happy Valley. It’s a way to touch base with a community as alumnis and as locals that have retired to warmer weather. I check the website almost every day, though I am in a world far removed from Happy Valley, and am spoiled by the moderately people-centric liberal curiosity of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the highly educated investigative journalism. Sure there is click-bait journalism with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and sure they buy stories off the associated press, but there is a bit of eagerness to the Constitution, some critical watchdog journalism, some cultural or investigative journalism. It would be years till I was in my early thirties till I finally comprehended the importance of news coverage, and how small town or national news media shapes our idea of the world, and potentially shapes an entire culture’s idea of the world.

I’ve had this discussion with journalists friends, including – several years ago – Adam Smeltz, whom I went to high school with, and whom I consider a remarkable journalist. He long shed his position at the CDT and landed a job for the Pittspurgh Gazette. It wasn’t a betrayal to his hometown, rather necessary for his own career. Smeltz was too big for the CDT, he would not have fit in, he was too advanced.

Smeltz carefully tried to explain to me that print circulation subscriptions have shrunk over the years. He blamed it on the spread of the internet, but I think there are two folds to the problem: 1. Ease of accessing news on the internet; 2. Slow and steady progression into increased mediocrity by the CDT editor, and their hiring of other assistant editors and reporters.

Another prominent local in CCCIBC explained their advertising monies had lapsed. With the fall of print advertisement subscriptions, they could afford to pay less writers, and worse they could afford to pay writers less. And it’s probably quite difficult to attract any good journalist on a measly salary. I’ve heard what the CDT offers is barely enough to afford rent in State College. Boosting advertising sales by hiring new admen might be futile, as any savvy businessman knows internet advertisement is where it’s at.

Still for the longest time the CDT has had a monopoly, and still does in Centre County.  More people read the CDT than the Centre County Gazette. Though I would argue the Gazette might do less reporting, but it does more quality and in depth reporting. It has fewer people, but the people tend to stick around, and the editorials are done by familiar community faces. The stories are well thought out. They might not always be the “first to hit the press,” but they eventually get published, and what you read in them is more thoughtful.

To me the excuses of shrinking print advertising and shrinking print circulation are just that: EXCUSES. Centre Daily Times has a monopoly, and a strong internet following. If you are having trouble making ends meet, perhaps beef up your admen to focus on technology, or cut staff and hire the people who are most visionary and excited. More video coverage would be good, and it doesn’t take much to take an iphone video on your cell phone. No longer are we in the days where professional camera men count on small stories.

The CDT probably has hundreds of letters from me where I attempted to voice to them “objective journalism,” or verifying facts instead of printing off a single press release. I’ve emphasized accuracy a lot, asking that they pick up the phone and verify factual information with a secondary source. I’ve pleaded with them not to lay their loyalties in the Penn State machine or in the lap of politicians, but the loyalty should be to their readers first. After all, we are the ones buying their papers, clicking on their click bait for stories, and following them closely every day trusting in them to tell the story. Journalism has an unusual capacity to serve as watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens. The Founders recognized this to be a rampart against despotism when they ensured an independent press; courts have affirmed it; citizens rely on it. As journalists, YOU have an obligation to protect this watchdog freedom by not demeaning it in frivolous use or exploiting it for commercial gain. YOU have the obligation for protecting the public.

My emails range from scolding, to scorching, to pep talking, to pleading, to just asking what is going on behind the scenes.

In 2009-2010, I watched the incessant coverage of Sandusky. CDT had access to these stories on the front line, often before the national news outlets. And if they didn’t have that access first, they had more in depth access, with more local connections. I watched these stories, which were being read and followed by almost all national news outlets, being posted haphazardly with typos throughout. Not that everyone notices a typo, but national journalists certainly do. I know you can’t catch every typo. I barely proofread before posting, and I am sure I have plenty of typos, but I am also NOT a journalist, and I don’t have a professional editor. I have a blog, which no one proof reads, and which I don’t get paid for. I think I get a pass, unless you want to pay me enough to professionally write and have an editor, or pay me even enough to care. This isn’t my livelihood, it’s a hobby.

Then there was the political coverage – and you knew I was going to bring this up – pertaining to all the troubles in our courthouse over the past 5 years. For big hearings, sometimes I attended. There were on several occasions I noticed, not a single member of the CDT in the room. Penn Live Reporters, and Rushton was sitting there, perhaps someone from WJATV, but where was the CDT? The CDT, I was informed, had stopped really attending courthouse hearings, because they didn’t need to. The former DA scripted each new article for them in flamboyant press releases, many of them containing half truths, which the CDT published (almost) verbatim – possibly eliminating some of the more outrageous quotes.

These were the good old years when the CDT could have a crime beat reporter who did not even have to show up at public hearings and report on court proceedings. No secondary sources were ever cited in these articles. In fact, most of the time names of defense attorneys were not even mentioned. It was no wonder to me, looking back, that the community did not have any idea about the “crisis in the courts.” Glowing reviews were regular about the outgoing district attorney, the CDT almost seemed to be protecting her. Nothing was really ever published about Simon’s epic Right to Know Battle which went up to commonwealth court. Nothing was published detailing the dramatics and hysterics, and a District Attorney “storming out of court” during a sentencing hearing – Well maybe that, but they were sure to defend Parks Miller.

Meanwhile we saw the prison population in Centre County swell to historic proportions over petty crimes. Felony this, felony that. Why charge a misdemeanor when a felony will do? We saw the length of prison sentences increase to drastic and frightening proportions, and we also saw the numbers of work releases granted shrink alarmingly to almost none. The CDT is well aware of the statistics, the problems, the courthouse hysterics…. They have plenty of letters from me.

Till Bernie won the primaries nothing changed. The press coverage of Parks Miller was glorifying, protective and glib. Bernie was an underdog who had a fat chance of winning in the minds of the CDT. What a nice 180 degree backwards pedaling act of humility they seemed to put on when he won the primaries by the landslide he did. I was hoping that this message would bring about the importance of fair coverage, which I had been ranting and raving about for years.

Mike Madiera was dumbfounded by the press coverage, he purportedly said that the CDT all but crucified him (that’s my language, not his). And that they criticized every little thing he did wrong, yet Parks Miller could somehow enter office and forge bail signatures, participate in ex parte communications and participate in vengeful/retaliatory/tough on crime justice – at the pure detriment to this community. No one at the CDT gave any objective story. There was no watchdog journalism. There was slanted journalism, where the writers betrayed their audiences in seeking to be lap dogs of important people.

But the Parks Miller saga is not the only classic CDT lack of neutrality and social climbing for stories journalism that I saw. The other journalism – of lack of it I see – is distinctly connected to Penn State. Seldom do we see coverage of the Board of Trustees meetings. And when we do see coverages of the BOT or of Barron, or of any Penn State stuff of importance (other than Thon or Sports), we see the CDT posting the gilded side of things. Probably reprinting a professionally written Penn State press release and changing the words around a little. Do they bother with secondary sources? I think not. Do they stay after the BOT meetings and hear the public commentary (it’s not longer televised)? I think not. What percentage of commissioners meetings do you guys attend, and tell me what else the hell are you doing on Tuesday afternoons?

Do they publish glowing reviews about Penn State constantly regardless if it is in the interest to the employees of Penn State and the community? Yes. Let me give you a good example of this: HOW COME CDT DID NOT COVER ANYTHING REGARDING TIMOTHY BREAM TILL HE WAS FIRED. There was very little mention of Bream, except he “didn’t get charged” and he was living in the house at the time of Piazza’s death, and he was full time employee for Penn State’s athletic department. Did any one reporter bother to call Penn State public relations or ask around of their sources when Bream defied a subpoena and didn’t show up for the preliminary hearings? NO! Did anyone bother to ask why Bream wasn’t held in contempt of court for defying preliminary hearings? NO!!

People tell me not to get so wrapped up about the CDT. But the importance of our press cannot be overstated. For many people, it’s a window to the world. There are no cameras allowed in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania during hearings, the print media is our watchdog. There are no other competing print media outlets. People who don’t follow one area of the news or another come at the CDT with this naive sort of assumption that the paper is covering the news with their best interests in mind.

I always new the CDT had problems, but the extent to which I saw within the past few years astounded me. Sometimes I wondered if I had been sitting in the same political speech, or same courtroom as the reporter. What I never demanded from the CDT was biased coverage on any one front, they were good enough at that so I didn’t have to demand it. What I always asked for was FAIR and OBJECTIVE and CITIZEN’S FIRST COVERAGE.

I can tell you my emails were ignored for years till Cantorna got elected, suddenly I have Lori Falce’s and the Editorial Staff’s direct cell phone numbers. I’ve never called them because I’m afraid at what I would say. I’d probably begin by saying, “what the hell is wrong with you guys?”

Through the years, I’ve gotten to know some remarkable reporters at Penn Live, State College dot com, and a number of sort of outlying journalists (whether they were outlying through geography or outlying through being secondary-not-main-stream-small-local-operations). I vented to them. Most of them upped the anney. Penn Live started sending reporters down, they upped their coverage of Centre County. They got boots on the ground. And there is no political coverage like Penn Live, they call a spade a spade when they see it. Wallace McKelvey is one of the finest political journalists in the state, he digs and digs and digs. He is as curious about getting to the bottom of the story as he is to the fame he gets when he writes it, McKelvey is a fox when it comes to gathering information. He doesn’t stop, his curiousisty is insatiable, and his coverage is nothing short of unique.

I’ll end on a positive but pessimisstically redundant note: I’ve always had hope for the CDT, just like my parents moving to state college years ago. They wanted to read an intellectual small town newspaper covering the ongoings of a small town. Sure they wanted to read about arts fest, the homecoming parade, and their kids excelling high school sports. But they also always wondered where the bite was? As in how are the serious things not getting covered.

After witnessing constant scandal after constant scandal, as well as the crisis in our courthouse, I often think back to how things could have been diverted before they got out of control. Watchdog journalism is the essence of our democracy, that’s why our forefathers wrote in “free press” to the constitution. That’s why WWII was started when the press published photos of concentration camps.

The press owes no duty to any politician, corporation, university or cause. The press belongs to the people. It’s due time this po-dunk paper reminds themselves of this.

Now the CDT – on their limited budget – has made a few interesting hires. Bret Pallasio is the new crime beat reporter. He is eager, curious, investigative, excited and a new college grad from small school. Sure he is inexperienced, but the energy and enthusiasm and want to establish himself in the field of journalism sure beats the tired reprinting of press releases.

I’m hoping with this new editor and a few more smart hires, even if they are young and inexpensive, and the CDT can get back to the days when they worked weekends, and their readers were still excited about the Sunday paper. If long hire casualties need to be made for new raw and excited talent, then that’s a risk worth taking. Because otherwise the CDT will become extinct, like many of these lost podunk papers (Clearfield Progress, Lockhaven, etc), and some conglomerate like Pennlive will take over.

But of course, CDT, you’ve heard this all from me before.

My advice is to cultivate the new blood, and treat them well. CDT needs a major facelift, and needs to reassess their priorities as journalists to being watchdogs (not lapdogs), because my experience is telling: This community clearly relies on the coverage. So stop spinning it.

And stop just covering the fluff, you are doing the Centre County community and all the alum a disfavor. Try watchdog journalism, not lapdog journalism. Check your sources. Don’t go off a single press release. List the names of the witnesses, defense attorneys, public commentators at BOT meetings. When a person goes missing, don’t just publish the press release by state college police with no photo or a grainy black and white photo, take the second to reach out to the family (likely readers) and bother to get a clear color photo. Show up at City Council, show up at meetings, show up at Court, show up at BOT, and don’t just sit there and get a copy of the press release you can rewrite…. Try and talk to you readers.

Just try and be less of a disappointment! With as much intrigue and clandestine activity in Centre County, there is no excuse for half-ass journalism. And if you don’t have a passion or can’t hack it, I think the Philipsburg Paper is hiring.

Be our WATCHDOGS! Hire some MORE GOOD PEOPLE! Young, innovative, technologically saavy people, who have a passion for delivering what we want and need from you: The Story, as our advocate for the truth. Get your act together or get out.

 

 

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