Why CalCoastNews Continues to Exist: Celebrating 5th Anniversary of Defamers

Once in a while, I read CalCoastNews.

It’s been five years since I published Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It. I have enough distance from the skirmishes I used to have with them to reflect on everything a lot more neutrally and calmly. So when I read their website, I’m no longer filled with anger or resentment over them continuing to exist. Instead, I fully understand why they do and why readers continue to follow their every word with slavish devotion.

Let’s be honest. The SLO County news media landscape is abysmal. The Tribune is no longer the news leviathan they used to be over a decade ago. They moved to smaller offices, laid of staff, reduced the frequently of when their physical newspaper is published and delivered, and put most of their content behind a paywall with an ever-changing monthly subscription rate. They’ve bowed to their corporate hedge fund overlords at McClatchy to deliver content that is less newsworthy in the matter of public interest and more clickbaity — articles that are written to incite more impressions and ad clicks. This is meant to appease their dwindling base of advertisers. And they’ve made no inroads of clearing the perception that they’re a demonstrably left-wing “rag.” The Tribune is harder to access content that is rapidly diminishing in value.

SLO New Times isn’t faring much better despite all their content being available for free. They publish news every Thursday and struggle to remain relevant on a daily basis since they don’t post a whole lot of online-exclusive investigative news content. They invest more in special issues, which are meant to raise revenue and cover growing printing and overhead expenses, than pretty much everything else. This weekly alternative newspaper repeatedly undercuts their journalistic neutrality by having an anonymously published Shredder column. The Shredder is so focused on flexing their acerbic, sarcastic wit that they forget to specify nuance in the news they write about. At some point, reading the New Times feels counterintuitive. One doesn’t know for sure if they’re serious about publishing news other than what we already know.

Then there’s CalCoastNews.

CalCoastNews readers are willing to overlook their many faults because of their courage to cover stories the previous outlets mentioned don’t cover for one reason or another. Readers are smitten with their fearlessness and willingness to shake up the status quo. I think that speaks to the level of dissatisfaction and distrust SLO County residents have with the news media, the government and our elected officials. They have a distrust that’s so profound that they’re willing to cast aside any issues that website has to rally around their relentless pursuit to uncover larger issues within the community. Stifled by declining revenue, reader engagement and internal mismanagement, the mainstream media is struggling to invest in investigative journalism. And CalCoastNews clearly recognizes that vacuum. They portray themselves as the only game in town when it comes to reporting matters that make the establishment uncomfortable.

Looking back at everything that happened, I realized I made a series of critical mistakes, which I chalk up to inexperience and immaturity.

When I started criticizing CalCoastNews and fact-checking some of their reporting, it didn’t dawn on me that I was coming across as someone who was critical of an entity that appeared to try to look deeper in local issues. They were so sensationalistic and hyperbolic that I felt a good contrast could be established between what they reported and what the actual truth was. But because I was the only one doing that for the longest time, I had a fairly large target on my back. CalCoastNews took the opportunity to brand me as a “government troll” because the truth I uncovered sometimes fell on the side of government officials they were critical of. From there, a false narrative was spun that I was in cahoots with officials to “shut down” their website with my words somehow. Things got a lot weirder from there.

What I should’ve done was say, “Okay, look: If I think I can create a better news entity than CalCoastNews, I should just focus on that.” At the time I started ratcheting up my criticism of CalCoastNews in the early 2010s, I was working for a publication that I felt lacked the ambition and drive to publish hard-hitting, investigative news. I was also working at a job that required a lot of my time and energy, so I thought it was easier to create a fact-checking Facebook page, deconstruct CalCoastNews stories at my own pace on my free time. But because I developed this unique approach to analyzing and criticizing their reporting, they made the conspiratorial case to readers that I was hired by x, y and z of Democrat Party elites to do their bidding. In reality, I just wanted them to do a better job and was frustrated by how they constantly missed the bullseye — because when they missed, many innocent people were adversely impacted.

I should’ve waited patiently for the right opportunity to build a better standard and lead by example. Instead, I got lost in the fog of war that I helped perpetuate — all because I was too desperate to stand out. I should’ve just risen above.

Right now, my focus remains on local issues, not the issues with entities covering local issues. That’s not my fight anymore. I feel like my time is best suited to helping the community in any way I can. The best way to combat “bad speech” is with better speech. CalCoastNews can continue to do what they’re doing, but I still believe we can do much better.

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