Publisher Eric Johnston has left the Modesto Bee. His departure marks the end of an era. Though still demonized as a “liberal” newspaper by tea-soaked locals, under Johnston, Mark Vaschè, and Judy Sly, the once moderate Bee veered sharply right. Jeff Denham and Kristin Olsen became political darlings and the Chamber of Commerce became the go-to authority for the final word on local issues.
Vaschè was known to dislike confrontation, and will be best remembered for his ongoing “Civility Campaign,” which many took to mean “avoid criticism of my friends in power.” Probably the best example of Vaschè’s idea of news coverage was during the Ridenour era, when Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour was known as the “Stealth Mayor.”
Among the few stories featuring Ridenour was his participation with other mayors in the county in a group effort to update each city’s general plan. Though lauded as a positive endeavor, the result was a set of overlapping maps that in the words of Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, “Would have destroyed farming in Stanislaus County.”
The Bee began critical coverage of the Ridenour era with the SCAP scandal, just as the Mayor was leaving office. The Archway Commons debacle was brought to light long after Ridenour was gone. Some thought the only reason it ran at all was in an attempt to demean current city government.
Like Denham and Olsen, the Bee has been consistently anti-tax and anti-government. With Judy Sly taking the point, the Bee’s opposition to Measure X featured escalating attacks on the character of a City Council and Mayor it had supported during campaign seasons.
The Bee was also consistently anti-environment, best exemplified by its strong push for a Modesto Irrigation District water sale to San Francisco. Our depleted salmon runs, fragile Delta ecology, and the general shortage of water statewide were not part of the Bee’s argument.
After he was hired in April, 2012, new Bee editor Joe Kieta implied the newspaper had been less than consistent in delivering “the why and how” of local news. He also told readers to expect more journalism “that doesn’t pull punches.”
Many readers think the Bee has improved, especially in the last few months. Though it was slow to catch on to the groundwater crisis, when it did, the Bee delivered a series of important and well developed stories.
Another sign that the Bee may be moving forward is the recent commentary on Wood Colony by Jeff Jardine. In the past, Jardine has strayed only rarely onto political turf—his normal beat is human interest stories, where he does a fine job. He’s also capable of writing keen political commentary, and it would be a great service to Bee readers to see more of it.
In November of 2011, the Columbia Journalism Review published an essay that claimed, “In Modesto, California, the need for news far exceeds the current supply.” With the possibility of a new era dawning, Bee readers may have reason to hope their newspaper has finally begun to respond to their dire “need for news.”