Second of three articles

Free daily papers: more local but often superficial

Giveaways cover communities ignored by the metros, but are thin on sources and context

By Michael Stoll
Posted Aug. 23, 2005

The three free tabloid newspapers that circulate in San Mateo County print the shortest articles. The papers' publishers and editors say time-pressed readers demand brevity. Few stories in the free papers are as long as an average story in the leading metro dailies. Free papers are indicated by green bars, paid papers by blue.
For each paper, we read four days' worth of San Mateo County news in the last week of July. All editions were between Monday and Friday, though not the same days for each, due to availability. Word counts in all but the Examiner were estimates based on physical measurements of news columns. We excluded un-bylined stories shorter than 10 square inches. Because the Chronicle and Mercury News covered so few San Mateo County stories, their statistics are based on a smaller sample (three stories for the Chronicle, six for the Mercury News) and do not reflect overall Bay Area coverage.

In the Bay Area, free daily newspapers are providing an essential service, covering local stories ignored by the dominant dailies.

But a review of local stories in the three most prominent free tabloids suggests the quality of reporting falls well short of the journalism provided by newspapers you purchase. The giveaway dailies often push inexperienced, underpaid reporters to churn out short articles that lack context, adequate sources and initiative.

The people who run those papers -- the Palo Alto Daily News chain, the San Francisco Examiner and the San Mateo Daily Journal -- acknowledge that what they are doing isn't likely to win them any Pulitzer Prizes. They are publishing, as the Examiner's former Chairman Robert Starzel noted this spring, a different kind of paper -- a 20-minute "quick read." Or as Will Harper, an occasional media critic at the free weekly East Bay Express put it, "not especially good coverage but ... a meaningful contestant for my 30 minutes of burrito-eating time."

That might not matter if these mini-dailies remained a marginal phenomenon. But today free papers are growing faster in the Bay Area and the rest of the country than any other kind of newspaper. Journalists see them as harbingers of changes in the craft, with wide-reaching implications for the quality of information available to the public.

The people these papers quote most frequently split in their opinion of whether local citizens are better or worse off with the free tabloids. Politicians are generally pleased that the volume of local coverage available to residents has expanded, affording them a powerful new way to communicate with their constituents.

"I frankly think that the more the better," said Rich Gordon, president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, who has seen three free papers converge on his territory. "It gives folks a greater opportunity to find out things going on in the community."

But Mr. Gordon and others have found in-depth reporting lacking, partly due to time and space constraints and the papers' inability to keep many reporters on local beats for more than six months before they move on to better paid jobs. "Details getting behind a story or an issue, probing kinds of things -- I don't think that's their forte."

Duane Bay, a former mayor of East Palo Alto, was less charitable. He said staffing at the Palo Alto Daily News in particular was so lean and the editing so slanted against government -- in his view to manufacture mini-scandals to push more papers off the news racks -- that residents would on balance be better off without it.

Case study: San Mateo County

San Mateo County is a good place to examine how much the free dailies are contributing to the local civic life. Since 2000, the three new newspapers have intersected there, promising readers something for nothing -- fresh updates on planning commission meetings, local arts events, auto accidents, cops reports and land transactions. With a total of six dailies vying for readers and advertisers in this largely suburban county of 700,000 residents, an area once almost ignored is now flush with press competition.

A quick analysis of newspaper coverage in the county by Grade the News affirms that the papers focus on serious local concerns more consistently than all but one of the paid papers. But the free papers fill these gaps at a price. Looking at a snapshot of their output -- four days during the last week in July -- we found:

Pared-down news

In sum, free papers in the Bay Area together seem to be maximizing their reach by pioneering a pared-down journalistic model. While they take on more important stories than local television news does, they lack the explanation of trends and investigative reporting for which the press collectively has earned the reputation as a vital democratic safeguard.

The free papers respond that they are a different class of publication, local papers that were never intended to displace the Chronicle or Mercury News. They claim that without a free option, many of their readers wouldn't pick up a paper at all, so something is better than nothing.

"We've never been very good at impressing people," said Dave Price, one of the Daily News' two publishers. "You look at it and say this isn't the New York Times. It's a little hometown paper. That's all it is.

"Newspapers have become regional," he said. "They don't tell you about things that go on in your neighborhood. Most people feel the newspapers don't speak to them."

Papers like the Daily News have become more influential as their circulation continues to rise and that of paid newspapers falls. Across the country, more than a dozen free papers have sprouted up, mostly in cities where they compete for the eyeballs of commuters and young people who wouldn't ordinarily read a newspaper. The Bay Area free papers have more local content than most of these handouts, which rely on abreviated wire service stories.

Only recently have large media companies realized the revenue potential of the free daily model. Knight Ridder Inc., the nation's second-largest newspaper chain, which owns the Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times and several Bay Area weekly papers, purchased the Daily News chain in February for an undisclosed sum. Its news executives have called the free papers an "experiment," and said they are taking a hands-off approach to them because they are popular.

Stephen Buel, editor of the weekly East Bay Express, which is now seeing competition from the new East Bay edition of the Daily News, said free dailies represent the future of journalism. "The establishment newspaper industry tends to be dismissive of a publication like this," he said, "until they wake up one day and find them eating their lunch."

Journalism as haiku

Most of the articles in all three free dailies could fit on a postcard, ending just as articles in most traditional newspapers are getting warmed up.

Jerry Lee, publisher of the Daily Journal, said his news coverage is constrained by the newspaper's tabloid format. "The size calls for a shorter length," Mr. Lee said. But story length is also strategic.

"Unfortunately, attention spans are getting shorter and shorter because this generation has relied on television and Internet. If newspapers want to stem their decline they're going to have to adapt to that.

"Definitely there is a place for longer in-depth investigative stories, such as the Chronicle and the Mercury News," Mr. Lee added. "Our model is that we want to provide as much different information as possible, and therefore it's not in our philosophy to provide that depth."

The San Mateo County Times, the paid broadsheet owned by the Oakland Tribune's parent company, the Alameda Newspaper Group, didn't provide much more detail. It averaged about 465 words per story, fewer than 100 more than the Daily News.

But the County Times also ran far more San Mateo County news than any other source. It printed roughly 4,200 words in local stories a day over the four days surveyed, compared with 2,700 in the Daily Journal, 2,300 in the Daily News and 1,800 in the Examiner.

The study clearly shows that the Mercury News and the Chronicle, whose home territories both border on San Mateo County, do a poor job of covering the county. The average daily coverage in each was a little more than 600 words. While their regional news is unparalleled, both metro dailies, whether due to staff reductions or indifference, have essentially forfeited local news in San Mateo County. The County Times and the three free dailies are readers' only options for local news.

So many stories, so few reporters

The most serious complaints about the free tabloids concern inaccurate and incomplete reporting. Reporters from all three free dailies, and to a lesser extent the paid broadsheet San Mateo County Times, find efficiency by milking each meeting for multiple micro-stories. All three free papers also print stories accusing named suspects of crimes without getting their side of the story.

In newsrooms that demand several stories per day, even the most talented and hardworking journalists can end up missing key facts if they lack the time to gather them.

On Monday, July 25, for example, the San Mateo Daily News ran a lead story across the top of the front page claiming that the city of San Mateo "is negotiating" with Peet's Coffee, a chain shop, to bring a new store downtown to compete with local coffeehouses. The article said "residents" were petitioning the city to stop courting the company.

Instead of a correction, the Daily News ran an article the following day by the same reporter. It quoted San Mateo's development director, Robert Beyer, saying the city "had nothing to do with the decision" to rent out the space to Peet's, "and the city's only contact with the chain has been for a review of planning requirements." The story also added some useful information that should have been included the previous day: The original petitioners were not just any residents, but in fact owners of a competing coffee shop.

These errors and omissions might never have happened in a traditional paper with more robust staffing. The story went off track because it was apparently based on a single source -- the anti-Peet's petition.

That only one source was named doesn't mean the reporter was lazy; her editors kept her plenty busy that week. Her byline appeared in every issue we saw, including another story on Monday and three more on Thursday.

Allison Borden, an associate planner for the city of San Mateo, said she wasn't disturbed by the error because she expected it from the Daily News. "I don't think they intentionally try to misrepresent the facts, but there are times they take an angle on a story that they think will get more people to pick up the paper. Sometimes you'll see a headline you think is very interesting and you read the story and there's nothing really exciting in there."

Passive reporting

What the free tabloid papers do most of the time is wait for government or business sources to tell them what's news. The paid San Mateo County Times also took a passive approach to news in our survey.

On July 27 Stanford University issued an 829-word press release titled, "Discredited ''Mozart Effect'' Remains Music to American Ears According to Stanford Business School Research."

The story the next day in the Examiner had the same gist: "A modern-day myth: Stanford researches acceptance of the Mozart effect," but didn't mention the previous day's announcement. The reporter apparently called the subject of the press release and a local mother for comment, and in few hours had a customized 289-word story. It may have looked like the newspaper was showing initiative, but the story was essentially a boiled-down piece of public relations.

The San Mateo Daily Journal was the first on the scene the day that federal agents raided the BALCO sports medicine lab in Burlingame looking for evidence of illegal steroid sales. But it was the big papers -- the Chronicle and Mercury News -- that ran with the story by siccing some of their top investigative reporters on it. The Daily Journal didn't have the resources to bring its own story home, Publisher Lee acknowledged.

Overall in the Examiner, fewer than one in 10 of the stories we reviewed in late July appeared to have been generated within the newsroom independent of press releases, meetings and other happenings. In the Daily News, Daily Journal and County Times it was around one in five. That lags far behind the initiative the Chronicle and Mercury News normally demonstrate in their reporting (though not in their minimal coverage of San Mateo County). In our annual report cards, about half the stories published in the Bay Area's two largest newspapers, arose from reporters asking the public’s questions rather than reacting to official statements, staged events or incidents breaking in the last news cycle.

Hard news and soft

The San Mateo Daily News led the free dailies in printing news about serious local issues. In our sample, 78% of the stories in the Daily News described "core" topics of importance to the community: government, politics, economics, health, environment, crime, etc. At the County Times core topics comprised only 57% of coverage, on par with the Daily Journal and the Examiner. Unfortunately, the best-sourced stories in the County Times concerned the least important topics: human-interest features about county fairs and pet adoption.

Five years ago, before the arrival of the free papers, newspaper reporters were a rare sight at the county Board of Supervisors, various city councils and scores of boards and commissions that run local government.

Now four reporters typically cover county government and other meetings and race to get their stories out first, said Mr. Lee of the Daily Journal. The result has been the elevation in the importance of local government.

Politicians -- the papers' most frequent sources -- have taken notice. They are impressed that the free papers have sparked the Bay Area's hottest local newspaper war by increasing the volume and timeliness of news about fire department budgets and land redevelopment projects.

At the same time, few stories examine local goings-on in a regional context that might explain the true significance of, for example, the higher salaries that officials propose paying themselves. Some government officials complain that all of the free papers there have traded news quality for efficiency in a way that most traditional paid papers would never have considered, and that can harm the governing process.

'Anti-government' reporting?

A number of the people in local government described the Daily News' coverage, not just its editorial commentary, as "libertarian," "anti-tax" and "anti-government." None of the 41 Daily News stories we reviewed showed an obvious political slant. But critics said it is most apparent in subtle use of adjectives that belittle most government action.

Said former Mayor Bay of East Palo Alto, "You know if the Daily News reports something it indicates that something happened, but you don't really know what it was. You take everything in the article with a grain of salt."

Daily News Publisher Price disputed the criticism. Self-respecting journalists ought to be "rabble rousers," he said.

The Daily News has been an aggressive requester of public information. In 2003, with the help of the Mercury News, the paper went to court fighting several Peninsula cities to get access to the salaries and names of public employees making more than $100,000 a year, for which it won a "bouquet" from Grade the News. The papers ultimately ended their fight without success.

But the Daily News also has such a reputation for editorial crusading that some politicians have stopped talking to the paper.

"Nobody would pay for that rag. But it's easy, its free, everybody can pick it up and just throw it out," said LaDoris Cordell, a City Council member in Palo Alto, in northern Santa Clara County. "I don't find anything positive, and it's a shame, because it's wonderful way to bring a community together."

Accountability to readers

Critics say the business model of the free daily, with 100% of revenue from advertisers, takes community needs out of the equation. Not having subscribers releases the papers from accountability to readers.

Dena Mosser, a city council member in Palo Alto, said of the Daily News: "The way they keep the circulation high is by being National Enquireresque. People pick it up to see who's ox they've gored today.

"It has changed our community in ways that are pretty unattractive," she added. "At a time when the public is uncomfortable about government at all levels, this is a newspaper that trades in controversy. People who don't get really involved in the democracy or their community have this nagging feeling that everything's falling apart."

But Mr. Price said he is more than fair in handling errors, occasionally putting corrections on the front page. And he said getting the cold shoulder from politicians was a badge of honor: "Any good newspaper has a lot of that happening. If you're a namby-pamby newspaper that doesn't ruffle any feathers, then of course politicians will talk to you."

The Daily Journal and the Examiner have not raised as many complaints about bias as the Daily News. While the Examiner's new owner, Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, has moved the paper's editorial section to the right, and is a notable contributor to organizations that oppose abortion and support the concept of "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution, the paper has not pushed those agendas into news coverage. The Examiner no longer runs its editorials on the front page, as its previous owners did.

Adrienne Tissier, a San Mateo County supervisor, said she hasn't detected a political agenda in any of the free dailies.

"They have changed the landscape," she added. "You really do get a sense of what's going on in local communities that you hadn't had before they came on the scene."

Editor's note: The writer worked as a reporter and editor at the San Francisco Examiner under previous ownership.