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April 11, 2009

Mike Tharp: The Sun-Star is too small to fail

Golden Valley High School students asked and answered a bunch of questions this week from the visiting executive editor of the Sun-Star. Asked, because some of 'em were interested in hearing about how we gather news, decide what to use and not to use, a few war stories, a few sports stories and a couple jokes.

Answered, because I posed questions to them. How do you get your news? What sort of news do you read? How many of you read a newspaper? Their answers were both discouraging -- only a couple actually pick up our printed product every day -- and encouraging.

Encouraging because I found this Generation Y (because that's what you see from how low a lot of 'em wear their trousers) to be curious consumers of information. For them, Facebook, MySpace and texting form the CBS, NBC and ABC of my generation -- the electronic fires around which we tribes gather and listen to and tell stories.

Storytelling. That's what the news business is all about. McClatchy's former senior vice president for news said the four most powerful words in the English language are: Tell me a story. How that story gets told has become the bane and blessing of being in this business today.

As you know from reading the Sun-Star and our Web site and just by being our neighbors, both we and McClatchy, our parent, have suffered heavily in the last year or so. Folks are gone. Money's tight. Nerves are strained. The paper's smaller. Everybody in print is trying to figure out a business model that includes the Internet as a way to resume making as much money as we once did.

We don't yet know what kind of platform, as it's called, will be the one you reach for and become used to in getting your daily dose of the American diary. While I must care about the shape and size and heft and cost of that platform -- how we deliver our information to you -- I'm much more concerned with the information itself.

The mantra I've shouted in the Sun-Star newsroom in recent months is simple:

We're too small to fail!

We hold the franchise on the local news that you, our audience, cannot get anywhere else. Where else can you read a dramatic two-part series about meth use in the county? Where else can you learn what the county supes and city council and school boards and other pols are doing -- behind the doors they prefer closed? Where else can you follow your favorite high school team and player?

Nowhere, that's where.

Nobody else cares enough to do the digging to unearth what Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein called "the best obtainable version of the truth." We ain't perfect. We whiff on some stories. But I'd put our performance up against any newspaper in the state in terms of covering the turf, terrain and territory we are responsible to report on for you.

Those Golden Valley High kids reminded me of another earthquake in our business. It used to be that we, the high and mighty editors and reporters and thumb-suckers, told you, our audience, what we thought you oughta know. We knew better than you what newsprint castor oil you had to swallow with your morning cuppa joe.

No more. Now you, the audience, tell us what you want. We dance to your tune. We try to provide, as best we can given the financial shackles, what you say you want to read about in print and watch online.

Which brings us to the Sun Dog. Elsewhere on this page you can read the first column by Tom Frazier, who nicknamed himself Sun Dog. Kind of a hybrid of a watchdog and a bulldog. As he points out, at a time when other Clark Kents are dropping ombudsmen as if they were Kryptonite, we're revving one up.

And one different from any I've seen. Tom has never written or edited a newspaper story in his life. He's a retired Air Force veteran of 21 years, flying all over the world for his country. He's a camera bug. He does something called geocaching, which amounts to hunting treasure with a GPS. He's a kneejerk volunteer all over town.

In short, he's unlike any ombudsman any newspaper that I know of has ever used. (We're not paying him for his time and trouble-making.)

But he is like you all. He's an ordinary Mercedian. He's the reader we're trying to reach and touch and hold. A regular guy. Not some dude with a Ph.D in communications who can't find his assets with both hands. Not somebody mired in the craft and culture of journalism who's drunk the Groupthink Kool-Aid way too many newsies have swallowed.

Why Tom? I don't know him well. But I trust him to be honest.

Tom can barely tell the difference between a headline and a deadline. He thinks a lede means somebody has misspelled the word that means "to guide." He thinks a kicker belongs only in football, soccer or rugby. Nut graf? Chinese algebra to him.

Which is the point. He's gonna look at our work the way our audience sees it. An outsider looking in, not an insider looking deeper inside. He's gonna reflect your points of view, your frames of reference, your values, your virtues -- not ours. I know he's sometimes gonna tee us off. But we at the Sun-Star are gonna pay attention to the Sun Dog because we're trying to make you feel that you can't get along without us. That you can trust us.

We don't want you going anywhere else for the local news you need to make your choices in life, get your kicks or slap your head and say, holy spit! So feel free to contact the Sun Dog, as well as me, when you think we come up short.

Or when we get it right.

Remember, Merced:

We're too small to fail!

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or

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