By I.A. Stewart
It may be the hottest news story of the summer in Santa Cruz, and it’s completely ludicrous.
The Huntington Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau (HBCVB) successfully registered the phrase ‘Surf City USA’ as its own, and has since ordered many businesses, including a number in Santa Cruz, to drop the name.
Since then, the Santa Cruz Sentinel has run numerous columns and reports-some placed on the front page of the paper-about the Surf City feud, as well as a 1600-word editorial outlining the ins-and-outs of trademark law. (Just for reference, the two-page feature stories you find in City on a Hill Press usually run under 1500 words).
To run a contributed editorial of that length suggests a real confidence that the subject will fall on attentive eyes.
"It’s a good local story about something that is near and dear to the hearts of Santa Cruz residents," Sentinel reporter Conan Knoll told CHP. "For a long time, it was a funny story, but I think once the lawyers got involved, people in Santa Cruz were taken aback."
But should such a petty, and generally comical story like this really be getting all the attention it has? Is it the job of newspaper editors to simply cater to what will generate the most pick-up, or should they judge for themselves what the most important stories of the day are?
Every day at 3 p.m., desk editors at the Sentinel hold a meeting to discuss placement of the top stories of the day. According to Knoll, running the Surf City stories on A-1 was not a difficult decision.
"Part [of deciding] is ‘what is the most interesting local story of the day?’" Knoll said. "Part is trying to predict what people will be interested in reading. Had it been 9-11, it probably wouldn’t have made the front page."
As a young newspaper editor, I can appreciate the reasons for pushing a story like ‘Surf City,’ especially for a local, small-town daily like the Sentinel. After all, it’s true, ‘Surf City’ is a good local story. But it is not a front-page story. Once newspapers decide that they are going to push these blown-out-of-proportion, hyped-up stories over more important local, state-wide, national and international news, we are going to be stuck reading about the Laci Petersons and the Terry Schiavos and the Jon Benet Ramseys of the world for the rest of our lives.
More and more, newspapers are cutting back because of diminishing circulation figures. And the first people to go are the investigative journalists: the ones who spend months at a time on a story, the kind that gave us Watergate, because it is easier and cheaper to push fluff than real news.
As a newspaper editor, and as a newspaper reader, I feel that newspapers’ readership deserves better than what it is getting. But until we, the readership, demand real news, we are going to be stuck on the wrong end of some editor’s business decision.
Don’t get me wrong. There will always be a place in newspapers for ‘Surf City,’ or for Michael Jackson or OJ Simpson or Elian Gonzales. But that place is page two.