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A proud anniversary covering California politics

With this issue, the marks its first full year of publishing. Coincidentally, that’s the paper anniversary, which is wholly inappropriate for a digital publication like this but completely within the budget.

More importantly, this inaugural year comprised 27 issues containing 100 original pieces of public-interest-driven political reporting, analysis and guest essays that didn’t exist a year ago. Given the direction of American journalism, that is no small thing. I launched the publication partly in response to the continued shrinking of newsrooms. According to a recent study, 2020 set a record with 16,000 lost newsroom jobs, and the Pew Research Center reports 26% of all newsroom jobs have been lost since 2008.

Thus an immense amount of local political reporting has been lost. Outside New York, D.C. and perhaps Los Angeles, most media markets are vastly less competitive, even lethargic. Sacramento’s Capitol Public Radio didn’t even cover its local 2020 primaries. This has produced the near extinction of that average citizen in a mid-market metro area who a couple decades ago stayed abreast of local and state political issues through their local media.

Not only is our electorate less informed about state and local politics, but the bad elements in government are enjoying a golden age with far less disinfecting scrutiny of their activities. So with my 30 years in media, government and politics, I decided to counter some of this by launching The Sacto Politico to provide more incisive political reporting and analysis we all need.

It was also no coincidence my first issue’s lead article was “Why did Sacto media cover extremist rally but not the extremism?” This exposed some embarrassingly lazy TV and print reporting that portrayed a far-right extremist rally as if it were a mainstream gathering. Missed was the fact one of the rally’s two organizers was a GOP-endorsed Congressional candidate who the previous month trained his campaign using a former national strategist with one of the largest U.S. hate groups. The other organizer would later be arrested for his part in the Jan. 6 D.C. insurrection. Other speakers that day were associated with QAnon, a white militia, and spouted far-right conspiracy theories. One spoke of demon-possessed Democrats, and another claimed the left was marching America toward an Auschwitz-style furnace.

So how could multiple news operations miss all of this? The depleted nature of newsrooms perhaps meant editors were either too harried or inexperienced to prod their young reporters to do a quick internet search of the speakers and organizers. The assigned journalists probably arrived early and left quickly after interviewing an organizer and some early attendees. This meant the media outlets didn’t even witness much of the event they portrayed to their audiences. Welcome to the state of modern journalism where hamstrung outlets prefer three drive-by clickable headlines to one fully informing news story.

In contrast, the Sacto Politico emphasizes depth over clickable quantity. This included taking the time to feature long-format Q&A interviews with many of the top California recall candidates prior to the debates when no other outlets were interested. This got many of the top candidates on record not just about their proposed plans, but also importantly on vaccinations, election fraud conspiracy theories, and the Jan. 6 D.C. riot.

And there were scoops. Oh my, were there scoops. Some ask if I ever worry the story stream will dry up, and my answer is “no.” My publication’s niche is political news other outlets no longer can or choose to cover. Good journalism still exists, but in smaller quantities than in the past. This leaves many lower hanging scoops than I would ever have been able to score 10 years ago, plus a few I believe only my own intrepidness would ever get. A sampling:

  • Getting the treasurer of a GOP-endorsed Congressional candidate on record admitting they had failed to report more than $300,000 in campaign donations and expenditures.

  • Exposing Sacramento’s two main U.S. House representatives – Doris Matsui and Dr. Ami Bera – for taking nearly $200,000 in donations from the very opioid companies being sued by Sacramento County.

  • Attending a recall rally with many other capitol reporters and alone revealing the participating state GOP leaders knowingly shared the stage with extremists with QAnon, hate group and militia ties. One of the event co-organizers even recently called for Americans to arm for civil war.

  • Scooping the entire state press corps by asking the Sacramento Press Club a simple question about their closed-door recall debate: Who gave a ticket to the process server who slapped a subpoena on candidate John Cox? (The controversial answer: a still anonymous member of the press club.)

I’ll note that by far my biggest challenge has been getting Republicans into the publication. Democrats of course dominate state politics, and state Republicans continue to become more and more insular. But I still worked hard to feature conservative voices while staying true to my editorial standards. You see this in one of my first Q&As with then recently elected Sacramento County Supervisor Rich Desmond and my recent Q&A with County Supervisor Sue Frost, who holds a minority view on masking and vaccine mandates.

Features like these have led to the loss of a few subscribers. Some Democrats complain, “Why are you giving a platform to Republicans?” The simple answer is “because it’s news.” But even more than this, the credo of any good journalist must be to always inform your audience, not just reflect their pre-existing opinions. My publication is for people interested in all of politics, not just the part with which they’re most familiar or comfortable.

On a person-to-person level, many are surprised that I have found most every one I have interviewed to be likable individuals. This applied whether they were running for office, left or right, a labor leader or had just successfully defeated an affirmative action ballot proposition for which I voted. But why should this surprise? Though politics is too much of a battlefield nowadays, we are all still cut from the same cloth.

Another universality The Sacto Politico regularly covers is Americans’ across-the-board desire for true nonpartisan campaign finance reform. Regardless of political affiliation, 80-90% of voters regularly report they want big outside money out of politics. Yet while corporate-owned news outlets readily acknowledge the overwhelming influence of political fundraising, they rarely cover it. Why? Well a sad part of the truth is they benefit from the extremely rich political industrial complex as much as any D.C. lobbyist. Thus by keeping the issue largely in the shadows helps their bottom line.

But campaign finance reform is the ultimate reader-service issue in this nation. It’s why I dedicated an entire issue after the last election to “The Shame of Our Campaigns,” which has continued as its own series. Only by media outlets regularly reporting just how compromised and corrupted our political system is, can it be changed.

As I close this first year of publication, my goal for the second will remain much the same. That is to provide readers the basic political coverage that has over time disappeared in other outlets. For I deeply believe it is this kind of journalism – practiced without fear or favor – that plays such a critical role in the survival of our communities and a properly functioning democracy.

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