Bankrupt Newspapers

     The Orange County Register last week joined the Los Angeles Times in the ranks of newspapers seeking bankruptcy protection.
     Right around the same time, an article in the New York Times said financial problems for newspapers was the reason why they don’t “fight to open court proceedings the way they used to.”
     But those two Southern California papers, and many others, stopped fighting the big battles a long time ago, when they were flush.
     I know because I asked the Register and the Times to help us fight an access battle in Orange County Superior Court a decade ago.
     In that era, reporters would check a box that contained the day’s new filings at the end of the day. That late check on new filings is a traditional task on a court beat.
     But the court took the box away when it moved its location, and reporters were told they could see the new cases only after they had been scanned and processed, something that takes a minimum of 48 hours and often much longer.
      (I have seen that tactic of taking away press access during a move or a remodel repeated many times since. Just last month, Contra Costa Superior Court took away a press box and behind-the-counter press access when they remodeled. We are currently trying to recover that access.)
     When I lobbied the Register and the Times to help us get the box back in Orange County Superior, the Register’s editors did not return my calls, while the L.A. Times reporters readily agreed that we should fight
     One particularly sharp reporter for the Times told me she had made a comparison of the number of stories the paper ran on new filings before the box was removed and after, demonstrating a dramatic drop-off.
     But her editors went silent and the word later came down that their lawyers did not believe that newspapers are entitled to same-day access.
     A reporter for the Houston Chronicle — another paper that is struggling — told me the same thing two months ago.
     Luckily, judges have thought otherwise.
     A federal judge in Houston recently ordered the state court clerk to give Courthouse News same-day access, after the clerk had taken away behind the counter access and told us and the public to “get online.”
     Online, however, meant a delay in access up to nine business days.
     In court after court around the nation, we have jawboned court officials when end-of-day review of new matters was delayed or impeded. Most recently, those obstacles are often created through a court’s move to electronic imaging and filing — an ironic effect of the move away from paper that is often touted by court officials as the greatest thing since sliced bread.
     Court officials sometimes help return press access, especially on the federal side, but the person who saves our bacon, time after time, is a judge.
     We had been pressing officials in Sonoma County Superior Court for over a year to improve access and met stonewalling and a refusal to answer calls. As a last resort, we wrote the presiding judge a few weeks ago.
     Lo and behold! It is a bright new day in Sonoma County. The bureaucrats are answering our phone calls promptly, we had a good meeting with key supervisors and access is now on the verge of being excellent.
     But newspapers have not been willing to fight those battles over the system, only over individual files and hearings.
     They don’t see the big picture.
     Over the years and the campaigns for prompt access to court records, from San Francisco to New York, from Chicago to Houston, from Phoenix to Boston, I have often wondered why we didn’t have more company.
     The theory that has evolved is that as newspapers consolidated and died in the first round of attrition after television came into the news markets, they lost much of their power to influence local officials.
     Just as a tiny example, the old press room on the third floor in Los Angeles Superior Court used to have a door going into the hallway that leads directly to the presiding judge’s chambers.
     The press room is now on the roof, behind the cafeteria.
     As newspapers became monopolies and duopolies, they also became fat and lazy, milking their cash cows. They stopped staffing courthouse beats, relying instead on press releases and tips. They became competition-free nodes of wealth in their respective markets and thus loath to rock the boat.
     They forgot that our role in the news is something bigger than obtaining access to a celebrity file, a meritorious fight but one that does not amount to a whole lot in these tumultuous times.
     The legitimizing and ennobling role of the press, that covers for the obnoxious paparazzi, allows a focus on the trivial and permits pumping up a lead paragraph, is that the press, through the spread of information, holds power in check — the power of politicians, of private entities, and of bureaucrats.
     Many newspapers have lost sight of that idea. And so, they have lost their way.

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