Mike Tharp: The best obtainable version of the truth

April 30, 2011 

I'm gonna blow our own horn.

Our mission is simple. We will invigorate our brand and its relevancy in the community. We don't just cover this community, we are about making a difference. So no matter where you're reading us -- in print, online or in the palm of your hand -- it's about insight, knowledge and perspective on the things that matter to us all.

We have a great story to tell -- all of us -- and we intend to share the stories that shape our past, present and our future. It is the only story where we are all main characters. It's more than just news.

Dang! Wish I'd written that. Instead, Pam Siddall, publisher of the Birmingham News in Alabama, wrote it. (I did write the first sentence.) She's kicking off a campaign to declare her news company's commitment to and engagement with its community.

And, in light of some recent news about the Sun-Star, I wanted to do the same.

You read that we're moving our printing operations to The Fresno Bee. You read that our parent, McClatchy Co., lost $2 million in the first quarter. You may have read that industrywide, the newspaper business is posting weaker revenues and lower earnings because of soft advertising, lower circulation and higher newsprint prices.

But thanks to Pam, a trip this week to my old teaching grounds, Cal State Fullerton (where I talked to about 400 students from five classes), and a trip to Oakhurst's Willow Bridge Bookstore early this month (where I talked to some salt-and-pepper-of-the-earth foothill folks), I feel about as good as any editor can legally feel nowadays.

At each place I had to answer questions about the future of newspapers, especially by students wondering whether to enter the field. I told them all they were in the right business. I told the folks at Monica McClanahan's bookstore they'd be able to keep toting their newspaper to the bathroom for the foreseeable.

Huh? What am I smoking? What's in that drink?

I said I come by this feeling legally, and it's because I go to work every day at the Merced Sun-Star and hang out with our reporters, photographers, sport writers, other editors and the many hard-working advertising, production and circulation people in our building.

Even better, I get to click on our website and open our newspaper to see and read and hear the high-quality journalism we are producing for you, our audience, every day.

A reporter's job is to show, not tell, and as the Birmingham News' promotion puts it: "Before they blog it, tweet it, post it or share it, we report it."

So what have we done for you lately?

Well, let's look at this year and last.

Thanks to the Sun-Star, you learned about the emotional and psychological distress imposed on our residents by the foreclosure crisis. That three-part series, "Houses of Blues," was more or less imitated nine months after we published ours by The Washington Post, in a November 2010 story headlined "Foreclosure takes toll on increasing number of children." We like to beat the big guys -- and you, our audience, benefited from our effort.

Our watchdog journalism led us to the comprehensive disclosure of the Firm Build case filed by the district attorney, charging three former key executives of the defunct nonprofit with knowingly exposing high school students to the cancer-causing agent asbestos.

We told you about Merced College administrators spending $15,000 on retreats to a casino and a winery -- and we let you make up your minds whether that was a useful way to spend the money.

We scoured spreadsheets and revealed to you that over the previous three years, as the threat of layoffs loomed, Merced County had paid $11.2 million in overtime to its employees.

More generally, you, our readers, have enjoyed access to Victor Patton's trustworthy accounts of the vile crimes and major court cases affecting our public safety. You've been able to capitalize on Yesenia Amaro's coverage of local, regional and national health care issues, unique in our area, some of them reported in Spanish. You've kept up with the always important news about agriculture through Carol Reiter, as well as touching yarns about all kinds of animals she knows so well.

Mike North has weathered the slings and arrows involved in evenhandedly covering Livingston and Atwater politics and made a regional name for himself with his idiosyncratic hunting column. Ameera Butt has kept you up to speed with every line item of the Merced city budget -- and loaned her Arabic-speaking ability to our Washington bureau for a profile of Libya's Moammar Ghadafi.

Our two sports writers, Shawn Jansen and Sean Lynch, give you a front row seat at all high school and Merced College games. And they entertain and instruct with their weekly podcast, "The Sean and Shawn Show."

As do Mike and Ameera in the reporter-conceived "Off the 99" public affairs program on both our website and radio station KYOS 1480 AM.

Marci Stenberg, who sleeps next to a police and fire scanner, knows most everybody in Merced and has photographed nearly every dramatic event for years. Bea Ahbeck brings an original visual vision to her photographs, which grace many of our pages.

Brandon Bowers' posting of searchable databases on various governmental salary levels has let you, our online readers, see for yourselves who's making what and where. His photo galleries, many of them submitted by you, generate thousands of hits a month, which tells us you like them (especially the mug shots).

Keith Jones, who's worked on newspapers all over America, invites newsmakers to our editorial board meetings, writes editorials and handles your feedback to us -- letters to the editor. Connie Hodges takes care of your birth and marriage announcements as well as compiling the invaluable Around Town column that tells you what's going on, when and where.

And our roster of weekly local columnists gives you fun, guidance and analysis -- The Old Trainer on dogs, Heidi Britt on families, Russ Winton on wine, Sarah Lim on history, Debbie Croft on the Sierra foothills, Doane Yawger on vintage cars, Adam Blauert on the outdoors, Kristi Wolf on Merced College, William Dunbar on UC Merced and a column dedicated to our "seasoned citizens."

Our collaboration with the other four McClatchy dailies in California and the Washington bureau has never been closer or smoother. Especially with The Modesto Bee. All this sharing of content is a force-multiplier for our coverage.

Then there's you. Our audience. Your letters to the editor and your flood of online comments make sure we hear your voices. A free and frank exchange of views.

So I've got questions for you:

Where else are you going to go to get this quantity and quality of information? What blog, website, tweet or social network can provide the amount and depth of accurate news and entertainment that we give you on an hourly and daily basis? Why would you invest your time in absorbing words and images from sources not nearly as reliable as we are? Who's going to keep you informed? Who's going to right wrongs? Who's going to shine the light?

I've got one answer for you.

Nowhere else and nobody else. You're not going to find anywhere else what we offer you in our newspaper and on our website and on your mobile phone and your iPad. We own the local news and information franchise for our audience area, Merced County.

If you're not reading what we produce, online and in print, you don't know what's going on. We help build better citizens. We help make smarter voters.

Our commitment to you, in Carl Bernstein's phrase, is the best obtainable version of the truth. Where else are you going to get that in these parts?

Dizzy Dean, the colorful St. Louis Cardinals pitcher and broadcaster, once said, "It ain't braggin' if you can back it up." We don't think we're bragging because we back it up with every issue of our newspaper and every spot on our website.

I gave the college and bookstore audiences GIGO -- garbage in/garbage out -- as a watchword. That means content is king, whatever platform you get it on. The content must be credible and accurate. And in the case of the Sun-Star, content is our mission.

Someday that content won't be in print as much as it is today. But what will always matter is the quality of the content. And our promise at the Sun-Star to you is that we're here to stay. We're here to give you the best obtainable version of the truth.

That's our story.

And we're stickin' to it.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com.

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