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An editor’s notes: Christmas Eve musings

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Posted: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 4:40 pm

As I write this, there’s a loaf of banana bread on my desk, a holiday gift from an old friend who just dropped by the newsroom.

My email includes messages from readers hoping to help Army Cpl. Chris Petrossian, a Lodi soldier whose Christmas was nearly ruined by thieves who stole the gifts he’d sent home for his family.

There’s Christmas music playing softly and some residual chunks of fudge sit on the counter next to the photo assignment book.

Most staff members have left for the day, but several remain, including Sara Jane Pohlman, working on her Lodi Living pages.

Two others, Daryl Bunao and Matt Wilson, are designing pages for a weekend publication of The San Francisco Chronicle.

What an odd, glorious business this is.

I’ve been reflecting on journalism, and what it has become, since being interviewed last week by a documentary crew. They’re pursuing a film reflecting the state of the newspaper business.

It is a tough business these days. Many of my newsie friends have moved on, nudged by layoffs or quitting to find something less stressful, more secure.

I heard an apt phrase not long ago. Working in the news business now is like, “taking a drink of water from a fire hose.”

Yes, newspaper work can be relentless, the hours punishing.

And yet.

We still make a difference. Witness the story by Kris Anderson, our police reporter, on Petrossian, the soldier who returned from Afghanistan to find a shaken family and thousands of dollars in gifts stolen.

Within hours, that story by Kris, and accompanying photos by Photo Chief Dan Evans, drew cards, letters, offers of food and money.

I told the documentarians that our mission is quite simple: As a daily community newspaper, we must be all things to all people. That means lunch menus and logbook, obituaries and wedding announcements, prep sports and local business profiles.

It means taking a hard look at issues, too, whether it be our future water supply, public access to the Mokelumne River or how prison realignment is mixing more hardened gang members into the jail population.

As our staff has grown smaller, that digging has become less frequent. That’s a universal lament in newsrooms. We’ve all lost some digging muscle in recent years.

And yet, we still probe and prod when we can. We still strive for artful page designs and creative headlines.

I stuck two praiseworthy headlines up on the bulletin board this morning.

“Grinch ruins soldier’s Christmas surprise,” was the headline over the story on Chris Petrossian.

“’Elvis’ spotted selling e-cigarettes, sunglasses on Cherokee Lane,” was another, this one written for a story about an Elvis impersonator who has opened an e-cigarette store in Lodi.

Many ultra-talented people have left journalism. Many remain, and I am lucky to work with some of them.

Still, there are so many questions.

What is the future for newspapers?, one of the bright and inquisitive filmmakers asked me.

I said I didn’t know. I am hopeful, though.

You have to be optimistic, I said. If not, you will surely founder and fall.

It has been pointed out, more than once, that “you’ll miss us when we’re gone,” isn’t much of a business model.

So we have to keep pushing, questing, lips toughened by sips from that ceaseless fire hose. This phrase, too, comes to mind: The harder you work, the luckier you get.

In 2013, we entered contracts to do some publications for The Chronicle. For the newsroom, that’s meant additional hours and embracing new skills. For the paper as a whole, it has meant a fresh stream of revenue.

What will 2014 bring?

I don’t know.

As the holiday music plays and we are wrapping up the day’s work in the newsroom, I know this:

I am glad to be here.

I know we are making a difference. That we are part of a caring community.

That we have good people who are both talented and optimistic.

That we still have hope.

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