Forgive an immodest assertion: The citizens of San Bernardino County, California, where I began my career as a reporter, would’ve benefited by paying me $100,000 a year to keep covering my beat.
Does that sound far fetched? The market valued my job at less than a third of that sum. Nevertheless, I can now prove that I’d have been worth 6 figures. I’ll make that case hoping to dramatize the kind of market failure that occurs when a profession’s services are significantly undervalued. By the time I’ve finished, I hope you’ll agree that a rational citizenry would desire its local beat reporters be paid far higher salaries than is now the case.
The story begins with a guy named Rex Gutierrez. He’s a politician. Though elected to the Rancho Cucamonga City Council in 1992 and 1996, he resigned his seat in 1998, due to a controversy surrounding a small community newsletter that he owned. Critics charged that he used his position as City Councilman to intimidate local businesses into advertising in his publication. He denied any impropriety but resigned his seat, bowing to the city attorney’s finding that his publication represented a conflict of interest.
When I became Rancho Cucamonga’s beat reporter in 2002, Rex Gutierrez was eying his old City Council seat. I covered his campaign, interviewed him shortly after his re-election, and spoke to him for several hours every week. This is a guy who loved to talk. I’d pick his brain about whatever municipal matter I happened to be writing about. He’d dish dirt on political rivals, tell fibs contrived to reflect well on his character, and lie whenever he thought he could get away with it. One night, a Rancho Cucamonga resident was driving past an empty lot where City Council candidates planted campaign signs in the dirt. To his surprise, the resident saw a guy driving a pickup truck through a large sign belonging to Councilwoman Grace Curatalo.
Though the truck attempted to flee, the resident got a license plate number. When I first asked Rex if he knew anything about the incident, he feigned ignorance. He changed his story when I informed him that the license plate was traced back to a rental agency, where he had signed for it. The whole thing was an accident, he insisted, offering an elaborate scenario explaining the improbable situation. Shortly thereafter, he left an apology message on the answering machine of Councilwoman Grace Curatalo. It flatly contradicted both his prior stories. Shameless and indefatigable, Rex would never admit that he lied. He may even have believed himself.
Despite some tense interviews, my relationship with Rex didn’t sour until I caught him violating California’s open meetings law. My reporting prompted a recall effort, one that ultimately failed. I always kept a close eye on Rex after that. I just had a feeling he was crooked, and I’d pore over his campaign finance statements, figuring out who his biggest backers were. By the time I quit my job in 2004, I’d figured out that a local developer, Jeffrey Burum, was a major Gutierrez backer. This knowledge was easily forgotten as I moved to Paris for a month, traveled across Europe, and settled in Seville, Spain. The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin got themselves a new Rancho Cucamonga reporter named Molly. I wrote her a helpful e-mail offering advice if she ever needed it, and she lasted awhile, moved to another newspaper, and got replaced. So I wrote another e-mail to Wendy, her replacement, offering my information if she ever found it useful to contact me. We’ve been in touch once or twice in the last couple years. She sent me a quick note earlier today, asking if I had any thoughts about what just happened to Rex.
Here’s the short version — the San Bernardino County Assessor, a meth-addict who also faces charges of political malfeasance, resigned in disgrace recently. His transgressions included using County staff positions to fund an illegal political operation. “Although it is very difficult to quantify with precision how much money these employees cost the taxpayers of San Bernardino County,” an investigator’s report states, “the number clearly is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Hundreds of thousands of dollars squandered, at minimum! Can you guess any of the names of the objectionable employees? Rex Gutierrez got one of the positions by prevailing upon Jeff Burum, the politically influential developer, for a favor. What did he do to earn his $71,448 per year in taxpayer money? Colleagues say he spent 15 to 20 hours per week in the office at most. “Ms. Hill said she never saw Mr. Gutierrez perform one task necessary to the mission of the Assessor’s Office,” the report states, recounting an interview with a representative colleague. “She added that in 2007 less than 10% of his time was spent on Assessor-related activities; in 2008 she said it was more like 0% of his time.”
Rex!! Oh man, I’d have broken that story two years ago if I were still on my old beat! That isn’t a knock against the current reporter. She doesn’t cover County government. She wasn’t around when Rex ran over the sign, or when he broke California meeting laws, so she wasn’t in contact with all of his political enemies, folks that would’ve bitched to me off the record about his cushy job had I been there when he got it. I am not speculating here. I contacted a couple old sources today. They knew about this a long time ago, aren’t in the habit of going out of their way to tip off reporters, didn’t realize this kind of political patronage was actionable, and let the whole thing go unremarked upon.
“So if I were still calling you every couple of weeks, you would have mentioned it when Rex got hired?” I asked.
“Why didn’t you just call the newspaper anyway?”
“You mean just call the main number?” one of my old sources said. “It never occurred to me.”
The other said, “I don’t know anyone there anymore, how can I be sure who to trust?”
These days, I’m sure the Rancho reporter breaks great stories through valuable sources of her own—and one day, she’ll leave too, and those sources will also be lost to the newspaper, and thus to their fellow citizenry.
When I started at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, I made far less than $40,000 a year, worked long hours, took my job very seriously, and excelled at it. Neither my ambition nor my financial expectations would’ve permitted me to stay there at the wages they paid for very long, and I heard the same story from the most talented colleague I knew, another guy who would’ve almost surely broken this County corruption story sooner had he stayed for several more years, with all the attendant extra sources and reporting experience. So much of the most promising talent at newspapers that size move on after a year or three. And when turnover is that high, institutional memory is short. Every new reporter starts from scratch, spends a year just getting up to speed, finally finds himself with great sources and a reservoir of trust after 15 months… and then it’s time for a job at a more prestigious newspaper, or a higher paying job at a PR firm to save for a first house, or a stint in graduate school to facilitate a jump to a big city daily.
Perhaps part of the problem is that reporters like me are acculturated to advance our careers by moving from city to city, abandoning local concerns and investment in one community. Daniel Larison and Rod Dreher are correct to point out that our lifestyle choices have negative impacts on localities (whether mobile youth is a good or bad thing overall I have no idea). But all that is beside the point.
Our culture being what it is, medium-sized communities must pay a higher wage to reporters if it hopes to attract and retain good ones—and I think it ought to want those reporters, because their lack is ultimately more costly than their salaries. That doesn’t mean the government should subsidize journalism. But it does mean that citizens should support their local broadsheets, or hit the tip jars of civic minded bloggers, or create non-profits dedicated to local reporting, or something other than ceding government to an endless parade of men like Rex Gutierrez— the kind of opportunists who will try ever harder to game the system as fewer and fewer resources are invested to catch them. As it stands, too many of our most talented thinkers and investigators are doing discovery at corporate law firms. Want better reporters? Stop relying on journalism romantics to toil for the love of a craft many aren’t that good at, and work to allign reporter pay—whether at newspapers or some alternative—to the added value the better hires would provide.