Albion Monitor
It was good to see an article on the state's new policy for leaking fuel tank cleanup on the front page of yesterday's (January 11) L.A. Times. It's an important issue that could easily become one of the top environmental stories of 1996. And, of course, the Times reaches a far larger audience than this journal, so far more people now know about the controversy.

I was also glad to see the same story in the January 11 Press Democrat. Or, at least, some of it; found on page B3, the PD version offered about half the article that appeared in the Times.

Not seen in the PD was the last half, which presented information about the Lawrence Livermore report behind the recommendations. Here was revealed that Shell Oil contributed about $30,000 to produce the document. Also missing was a quote from an expert in ground water and soil contamination, calling the new policy "drastic." Gone, too, was an admission from one of the report's authors that their study did not take into account the type of conditions where leaking underground tanks are most often found.

So the PD trimmed the article's end. That's common in any newspaper; a good article is written like an inverted pyramid, so those editorial scissors can snip it off at virtually any point. And maybe the Copy Editor didn't understand the importance of the last half and thought it was expendable. It's a common error.

But did the PD cut anything else?

Yes, they did. Two paragraphs were removed that would have appeared just before the final quotes in the PD version. Here are those paragraphs:

Some of the regional water officials responsible for the cleanups argue the state is moving too fast, acting on the basis of a narrowly focused study that looked at contaminants in just one of several types.

"It will trigger demands that we close sites before we have sufficient information about a lot of them," said Gordon Boggs, who heads the Central Valley's regional water quality control board office. Boggs said 1,000 contaminated locations in his region have yet to be investigated.

As a result of the PD's editing, the story is left with only a couple of paragraphs critical of the new policy -- that "environmentalists," such as the Sierra Club, oppose the new rules.

This completely changes the meaning of the original article. It's not just grumpy environmentalists who disagree with the state; it's hydrologists, geologists, water board officials, toxic waste experts, and other professionals. The well-written story by Frank Clifford (good work there, pal) is now quite different.

I don't mean to pick on the Press Democrat; for the most part, it's a fine regional paper. (Okay, maybe I'll pick on them a little; rummage down in your recycle box for the January 8 Empire News section. At the bottom of the front page is a profile of a local female oil wrestler. Besides a color photo of the very healthy young woman, you can read about her "turn-ons" and "turn-offs." Cutting-edge journalism, this ain't.)

Other local newspapers probably ran abridged versions of the Times article, too, and maybe even removed the same sections. I will give the PD the benefit of the doubt and assume that the story was cut to fit the available space, and not because of editorial bias.

It's easy to see why the article would be trimmed; the "news hole" in any newspaper is only so big. Almost half the page where the PD's version of the story appears is filled with ads. Not that these ads are bad; the most prominent one announces a series of seminars for senior citizens at Community Hospital, and another is a calendar for dog and cat vaccination clinics. Each can be valuable information to newspaper readers.

At the same time, you have to wonder: if that news hole were just a few inches bigger, the PD would have had room to run a few of those missing paragraphs. Press Democrat readers would have a better understanding of the issues involved, and the original balance of the piece might have been preserved.

It's all a good little parable for the theme often repeated in these editorials: ads and news are a dangerous mix. Who did the newspaper serve by cutting the article in half? It wasn't the public -- it was the advertisers.

While the world of on-line journalism appears different, the similarities are real. Ads not only occupy space, they occupy time -- time needed to download elaborate graphics plugging the product. Visit the PD's mother ship, the New York Times, and you'll have to currently load the Advil, Lexis, and Crowne Plaza hotel ads before the first page appears. And in case you foolishly chose to not visit the advertiser's web sites, you'll get at least one full ad in the tiny on-line version of the newspaper.

Add in pressures from advertisers to avoid certain topics (or feature ones to their interests) and you have today's journalism: cut to fit what remains after the advertising.

As we've said before: the Albion Monitor proudly accepts no advertising. Our income comes only through subscriptions. It's you we serve -- readers who want uncompromised journalism about the environment, human rights, politics, and more.

It's your subscriptions that allowed us to bring you the first story on the underground fuel tank issue that appeared anywhere -- almost three weeks before the article in the L.A. Times.

That article circulated far outside the digital world. I've been told that printed versions have been passed around throughout the state: to water board officials, scientists, legislators, environmentalists, and others. This afternoon I received a request from a local public official at the close of an interview: could I please send him a fresh copy? His was a fax of a photocopy of a fax, and was nearly unreadable.

That's nice to hear; we're making an impact, and may have had some small part in increasing awareness of the issue statewide. And only thanks to the subscribers who support the Albion Monitor did the story appear; without you, this newspaper wouldn't exist.

If you live in Sonoma County, the easiest way to subscribe is to switch your Internet provider to Monitor Publishing. If you live outside Sonoma County, you can subscribe to the Albion Monitor for $29 per year.

In our next issue, more on the underground tank story that you won't want to miss.

Hope to see you then.

Jeff Elliott, Editor

Front Page