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Barney Brantingham retires

In this week’s Independent, Nick Welsh covers the retirement of everybody’s favorite Santa Barbara columnist, Barney Brantingham. When I started at the SBNP as an intern, people used to ask me all the time if I’d met Barney and if so, what he was like. I’d respond that he kept to himself in the newsroom but he sure did seem to know what was going on around town. It seemed like it was no big deal for him to churn out a column almost every day of the week while making it look like the easiest job on the block. I admired that work ethic and tried to emulate it. It was an approach that served me well in my newspaper days.

But the place where Barney really showed his true colors was when everything went to hell at the paper in 2006. He was much loved by the readers – he very easily could have hung on there for a very long time without too much strife. But he walked out early and covered the rest of us walking out for the Indy. That took guts, and it made me sure I was doing the right thing when I departed.

Barney was Santa Barbara’s Herb Caen, a name that probably doesn’t mean much except to us newspaper types. But he loved the town and he covered it through the eyes of the people who live here – the kind of writing that we don’t really get to read much anymore. Thanks, Barney, for being a mentor to me and a much-loved voice for our city.

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On giving up the newspaper

The LA Times didn’t show up in the driveway today. I didn’t think much of it at 5:45 a.m., just figured the delivery guy was running late, and it would be there when I got back from my run.

But it wasn’t there. And before I got up the front walk, I realized why: I’d written CANCEL on the last bill in big letters, and sent it back. They’d cut me off from my print junkie ways – because I asked them to. Then I promptly forgot about it, probably because I felt a little guilty.

I felt a little piece of my journalism pedigree get torn off in that moment, like I’d dog-eared a page, put down the book and walked away because I couldn’t figure out the ending.

It feels like that for me with newspapers now, every time I think about it. Since 2006, when my best-ever reporting job spiraled into insanity for reasons better explained over cocktails, I keep anticipating some kind of death star moment for the entire industry.

But it doesn’t go like that, of course. It’s a slow, protracted, infected-with-a-mystery virus kind of death. And the good doctors have given up because they realize the patient is low-income and finding a cure won’t bring much fame their way.

Meanwhile a shiny-faced distant cousin has shown up, whose name is CONTENT. CONTENT, whose name is all caps because he is a demanding and insatiable little rogue, professes good intentions but mainly just wants to be fed. He doesn’t care about craft or wordsmithing or Finding the Story. CONTENT is a brat, but he’s healthy and here to stay. We have to put up with him. So, many of us once journalists have been hired to babysit CONTENT. He’s not our favorite, but we appreciate that his parents are willing to pay for his care. They can afford it – they’re big companies with deep pockets.

I spend nine hours a day with content. It exudes from my pores. But I haven’t called myself a reporter or considered myself journalist since I quit my last newspaper to travel the Western U.S. back in 2009. I figured that one day I would work my way back, be an editor in Santa Fe or cover Santa Barbara County government and courts or write on international track meets and European travel in tandem. I’m qualified for all of those jobs.  None of them seems realistic these days as a long-term career.

I have to be positive and point out that there is amazing writing and reportage being carried out today, and it’s accessible to all of us because of the Internet. The New York Times Magazine and the New Republic, in particular, are producing some of the best stories I’ve ever read on a regular basis. Pacific Standard, right here in my own backyard in Santa Barbara, is finally coming into its own as a sharp thinking person’s magazine. There is great journalism online, and I challenge you to differentiate it from the content that is yanking your shirt tails and demanding your attention every second.

I gave up my newspaper, after always subscribing to a paper since I was 16, for three reasons:

  1. Because I read insatiably on the Internet, and gain a far more vast realm of knowledge than I ever could with one regional publication, honing in on my interests and passions.
  2. I am ready to accept the fact that I may never be able to return to journalism as a profession. It doesn’t feel like a heartbreak anymore to admit that out loud.
  3. The Times puts some of their best stories online before they ever appear in print. So I would find myself rereading articles from the day before, and wondering why I cut down a tree to do that.

There was a time, when I was reporting, when the short walk to get the newspaper off the driveway in the morning was the best moment of the day. I knew that when I grabbed that paper and unfolded it, I’d see a story I had written on the front page. A story that told my neighbors something about their community and the world around them.  A story I cared deeply about, even if it was a small one.

I miss that feeling. I guess I always will.