Royal was a good communicator. As a matter of routine, he openly and honestly kept his readers informed about the nature of his job, the criticism he's encountered, and the many changes being made at the newspaper by its corporate owners, Digital First Media.
At the end of December he wrote a column warning readers that the daily comics page was about to change drastically. He explained that it was a corporate budgetary decision to have the exact same comics page in all of the company's newspapers to save labor and cut costs. Combining humor with a refreshing sense of honesty he opened himself up to an inevitable barrage of complaints saying:
"Yes, we know readers don't like this. In fact, we understand many of you just flat out hate it whenever it happens. And we expect to hear about it Monday, when the new daily comics page debuts.
The number to call about the elimination of "Frank & Ernest" or "Squid Row" is 646-4381. That's my number. If you call, I will sympathize with you. I'll try to understand what you liked about Hagar. But what I won't be able to do is put your favorite back in. That's because I can't."No feel-good positive spin there. He laid it out as it really was. If every company communicated that way, with respect for the customer's intelligence, this would be a much better world.
A month later Calkins wrote another column informing us that come March the overall look and layout of the newspaper would be changing. The production of the Herald, along with eleven other newspapers in the chain, will be consolidated into one production facility in Chico, costing "four or five" Herald copy editors and paginators their jobs (unless they were willing to leave the cool shores of Monterey for the sizzling summers of Chico).
Two weeks later Royal Calkins vanished.
With no explanation, the paper's February 7th front page announced that Don Miller, editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, would now be doing double-duty as editor of both the Sentinel and the Herald. The article made a clumsy attempt to reassure readers that Miller was familiar with his newly annexed territory because he likes "hiking at Point Lobos, golf, riding bikes and eating at local restaurants." So he's qualified to publish a travel guide, but it would have been far more reassuring if he named a few local political issues he'd been following instead.
Naturally a lot of people became concerned. Including me. How can the local newspaper effectively cover local politics if the guy in charge lives and works in a very different community?
Have no fear, Herald publisher Gary Omernick told us in a February 13th column loaded with enough spin and fluff to make a boatload of cotton candy. The sincerity we came to expect from Royal Calkins was nowhere to be found. Instead, Omernick blamed the community's skepticism on competitors "trying to scare advertisers away from The Herald to help their bottom lines." Never mind that the Monterey County Weekly and the Carmel Pine Cone, despite being editorial rivals, have both openly acknowledged the importance of the Herald as the Peninsula's primary news source. As for the rest of us, Omernick said "I don't put much stock in what disgruntled people say because...well, they're disgruntled." Way to blow off people's concerns, Gary!
If the publisher can glibly blow off readers' concerns, then readers are fully justified in blowing off the Herald's spineless explanations. Fortunately, the Herald has some good competition to ask the hard questions. In a February 13th article the Monterey County Weekly asked What does the hedge fund that really owns the Herald have in mind? Along with uncovering at least some of the truth, the Weekly's editor lamented the loss of Calkins because of his tenacity in uncovering county political corruption.
So what happened to Calkins? As of now, the best we can do is make an educated guess. The possibilities are:
- He left voluntarily and amicably. This is the least plausible explanation. His departure was abrupt and unexplained. Had he resigned voluntarily he would almost certainly have written a goodbye column in accord with his normal habits of keeping readers informed about the goings-on at the newspaper. He understood that readers don't like surprises, as evidenced by his columns informing readers of upcoming changes earlier this year.
- He walked off the job in disgust. Possibly. Watching your newspaper being slowly dismantled by corporate bean counters has got to be stressful and perhaps one day he decided he'd had enough. According to the Monterey County Weekly he did send an internal e-mail praising his staff, suggesting there might have been friction from above and comfort from below.
- He was downsized. We know that Digital First Media is consolidating everything. Ad production is being done in India. Printing is now done in San Jose. Production is moving to Chico next month. And three other positions (publisher, advertising director, and circulation manager) had already been consolidated with the Sentinel, making this explanation plausible. But it doesn't explain why Calkins didn't write a goodbye column, which he probably would have done had he seen it coming.
- He was fired. Maybe for violating company policy, maybe because conservatives had been calling for his head on a platter, maybe because (according to one theory - not mine) local politicians didn't like the way he brought corruption to light and they put pressure on the newspaper's owners to get rid of him. Maybe.
- He was murdered. Well, there's no body, and his family hasn't reported him missing, so we can probably rule out foul play.
Regardless of the reason, one thing is certain. Despite all the happy "we're committed to serving the community" talk from the new editor and old publisher, we can no longer believe that the Herald has the readers' or the community's best interests at heart.