"I have been over into the future, and it works."
Muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens' famous -- and dead wrong -- observation after visiting the Soviet Union in 1921 applies to Thursday's experience as a judge in one round of the California Newspaper Publishers Association's Better Newspaper Contest.
This time, Steffens' comment is true. The future, and the present, state of newspaper journalism in California is doing just fine, thanks.
With Brian Feulner, the Lodi News-Sentinel's chief photographer (/www.theintrepidsoul.com/), as a compatriot, we judged three categories of photojournalism for medium-sized and large dailies and special sections from dailies with circulations of 25,001 to 75,000.
The entries reassured a young and an old newsie. Despite the financial straitjacket still squeezing our industry ... despite the unparalleled challenges of finding a business model that works with digital media ... despite the IEDs -- Internet Explosive Demands -- detonating in the blogosphere ... despite all that and more, California's newspapers are committing serious, useful and original journalism.
We found images and words -- in print! -- that give all of us still practicing the craft renewed confidence in the excellence of, and need for, storytelling by pros.
Those of us who haunt blogs and who land on the online comments planet know that human communication is now more immediate and adversarial than ever. At the Sun-Star, we embrace the new platform of avatar-starred comments on our work, pro and con. Our reporters, photographers and editors know we must meet you, our audience, on whatever ground you choose.
In return, we want you to read and watch and listen to what we do as journalists. We've got a lot of rules we work by. They can be summed up in three words -- accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.
The best obtainable version of the truth, as Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein puts it.
When we fail, you'll read our corrections and clarifications.
That accountability is more honored in the breach than in the observance throughout the blogosphere.
Whether you believe us is all that matters.
That came through Lima Charlie, loud and clear in military-speak, from the entries we judged in Sacramento.
Here are the standards for the photojournalism we reviewed: visual impact; storytelling quality; content and composition; technical quality. We graded images on a point system according to how they met those standards.
"You're seeing the best of the best," Bryan Clark of CNPA told us before we started. Later, other judges from across the country will take another whack at our choices. "They'll see how good California journalism is," Clark added.
Brian from Lodi is a stud photojournalist. His critiques were informed by his own skills. He's also a surfer, a mountain climber, a hiker, an adventurer. His fellow judge learned in the darkroom of the best teacher of photojournalism of his generation, Rich Clarkson, in Topeka (www.richclarkson.com).
We eliminated and forwarded entries based on Brian's expertise as a shooter and his partner's four decades of experience.
What made the session most reassuring were the special section entries that mirror the journalism we practice at the Sun-Star.
The standards for judging were: worthiness of purpose; quality of writing, usefulness of information; graphic design, use of photos; originality of concept.
The entries ranged from 10 to 52 pages. Three of the 13 entries struck us as keepers. One was a 24-page section citing chapter and verse of the numerous corruption scandals that have plagued a county for years. Elected and appointed officials on the take. FBI called in. Indictments. Convictions. Scandals as recent as when the section went to press last year.
Another involved a 20-year-later look-back at a schoolyard shooting that killed five grade-schoolers and wounded dozens of others. Pre-Columbine, pre-Virginia Tech, this retrospective of a murderous rampage and its aftermath delivered the goods. It gave the audience a perspective that only trained and disciplined journalists could bring to the effort.
The third introduced us to the son of migrant workers who became an astronaut. A feel-good, up-by-his-bootstraps story, sure, but it also told and showed the odyssey that took a poor Hispanic boy from the farm fields to the stars.
Where do you find this care, this attention to detail, this accuracy, in blogs? Or on ideology-driven TV networks? Or in the comments section of the Sun-Star online?
The best obtainable versions of the truth are available only through newspapers and a few other "legacy media" willing and able to devote the hundreds of hours of reporting (research), fact-checking, interviews and recorded images that lead to a worthy story.
We ain't perfect. And you're the first to let us know when we come up short -- along with Sun Dog, our ombudsman. We also find cool ideas on blogs, from your comments online, from your letters and e-mails and phone calls to us.
Please keep those comin' in. In the New Reality of the news business, all of us at the Sun-Star have to do more than we ever have to make sure you get as much news as we can give you, our readers. And as much value-added information as we can to our local advertisers.
To help us keep doing that, you may have noticed two new bylines in the Sun-Star: Jamie Oppenheim and Amy Starnes. We welcome them to our newsroom. Jamie covers education, and Amy covers Atwater/Livingston. You can reach them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Their arrival, and the newspaper judging, strengthened a notion held for a long time: whether it's online, on a Kindle, on an iPad or whatever platform you decide to use next ...
We welcome all of you to walk or run or fly with us on our journey toward truth.
That's why we do it.
We have been over into the future, and it works.
Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or email@example.com.