Spring 2001

‘The Price of Prosperity’

Journalists unearth stories beneath the veneer of wealth.

By Roland De Wolk
Always thirsty for a story about California’s blessings gone awry, the East Coast-dominated news media have drunk deeply in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Silicon Valley. Initially, stories of new great wealth often depicted a nouveau riche that might have been young, vital, educated and sophisticated but was still suspect, if only because of a subtext suggesting the ongoing …given the current economic climate, how best can journalists respond to these corporate, societal and technological changes and preserve the quality and integrity of news?shift of power from east to west had moved another massive and irrevocable step. This last year’s slowdown of the nation’s unsustainable economic growth has been most visible in the industries now commonly referred to as “dot-bombs”, and the attitude by the Old Coast (vs. Gold Coast) news media has been a barely restrained bacchanal.

Throughout this often silly cycle of coverage, insightful journalists covering the historically significant growth of the high-tech/Internet industries have reported the evident and not-so-evident contrasts in the heart of the Silicon Valley. Because of the highly complex nature of American civilization, these paradoxes and sometimes contradictions have long been common fare in news coverage of almost any of our politically vulnerable subcultures, and there is no reason to exempt California, the Bay Area, or the Silicon Valley. Reporters, editors and producers who have deep understanding of the Valley and its impact on our economies and cultures can take advantage of this respite in the economic boom to consider the more profound and compelling stories underneath these evident changes.

KTVU Channel 2 News in the Bay Area is launching a long-term approach to examining some of the broad and fundamental causes and consequences of what has happened, what is happening, and what we might expect to happen in the San Francisco Bay Area because of the driving force of Silicon Valley within our metropolitan region. We are calling this storytelling project “The Price of Prosperity.” And we are defining this series of stories in what we hope will be a useful, understandable and disciplined way. The approach we are using could be extremely useful for any news organization that wants to tell in-depth stories about the people who live and work in its circulation area (or ADI—Area of Dominant Influence). We think this approach can work whether the subject is Silicon Valley or the closings of rust belt industries or significant economic changes with deeper societal implications.

With assistance from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, KTVU is joining with the San Francisco Chronicle and the Web sites of both news organizations. KTVU is the most viewed news station in the Bay Area (the fifth biggest market in the nation). The Chronicle, recently purchased by the Hearst Corporation, has the highest circulation in the region. KTVU, which designed and proposed the series, is by almost any broadcast standard one of the most serious and straightforward TV news operations in the country. It has succeeded principally because of its long-earned reputation for attention to accuracy and depth, its newsbreaking stories, and absence of show biz gimmicks that afflict so many other not-so-successful news operations. The Chronicle, after a turbulent merger with the staff of the old San Francisco Examiner, is recommitting itself to becoming the excellent newspaper, a direction it’s been heading during the past few years.

“The Price of Prosperity” has been called by Jan Schaffer at the Pew Center “a “It is not death or torture or imprisonment that threatens us as American journalists, it is the trivialization of our industry….”
—Ted Koppel
master narrative,” as it seeks to make clear the strong connections among what can all too easily be seen—and reported—only as random daily events. Examining and understanding these crosscurrents occurring underneath the visible layer of stories requires some persistence of reporting. That itself costs time and money, two elements that shortsighted media owners are sometimes unwilling to invest. But when reported thoroughly and told in compelling ways, our long experience shows these stories are exactly the kind of investments that draw viewers to television news, newspapers and online news sites.

Although much of the Bay Area is wildly prosperous—and prosperous in large measure because of what has happened in Silicon Valley—almost anyone aware of the changes that have taken place in the region knows they come at a cost. Our stories will try to tell this tale.

This storytelling will take readers and viewers far beyond the now familiar high cost of housing and cost-of-living stories. For example, in a preview last November, KTVU ran a three-part series about the overwhelming pressures on individuals and families to be part of the almost mythically “successful” Bay Area population. Perhaps the most compelling of the stories documented the heretofore barely noticed rise in child suicides. Some of these children were so young that they were unable to write a suicide note. In fact, epidemiologists say children as young as five are taking their own lives in the Bay Area and other stress-driven parts of the United States.

Parents working extraordinary long hours to afford a nice home and other material signs of success are a national phenomenon. But in the most prosperous parts of the Bay Area—especially in the Silicon Valley—there are reports of parents offering nannies (or “au pairs,” in the argot of the Baby Boomers) up to $70,000 a year to take care of their kids while they routinely work 60 hours each week.

Trying to form a family is also immensely difficult, perhaps especially so for many of the highly educated and trained software and hardware engineers of the Valley allowed in this country on special H1-B visas. Clashes between “Television is an entertainment medium, and it’s always been shaky and unsure about how to present news….”—Richard Reeves“Old World” and “New World” cultures can be evident when looking at how some of these immigrants find spouses. Some resort to essentially purchasing brides from ancestral homelands and bringing them to the Bay Area. Resulting shocks of this adjustment can ripple across the community.

One ripple can be seen in the need, in the first place, to import trained workers. This occurs, in large part, because Bay Area schools cannot pay teachers enough to be able to live in the region. With enormous numbers of unqualified people taking the teaching jobs, especially in schools that serve poorer children, the future workforce receives an inferior education and cannot compete with the immigrants on special visas. Resulting resentments can run deep and have ugly consequences. If you are one of the young workers who can make great sums of money by working almost nonstop in the Silicon Valley, you are in serious danger of effectively losing your 20’s, as they zip by in the haze of work-related ambition. This is a critical time in anyone’s life, a developmental time that cannot be recaptured. Realization of that loss and the affect it has can be profound.

There are many other stories already finished or about to become part of the “Price of Prosperity” series. These include the environmental and personal health costs related to this new economy, the different types of crime associated with it, and the burgeoning new political power centers that have little accountability to the citizenry.

The challenges to exploring these sorts of stories are always great. Doing them in local television is perhaps greatest because of the inherent time restrictions that commercial broadcast stations work under. Making these same stories interesting, even compelling, for print is also sometimes a little acknowledged challenge. The reason: Given today’s shorter attention span “…the fact of the matter is the audience did not show any true interest in the Bosnia story.… they’re giving us a message that this story is not all that important to them….”
—David Corvo
and time crunch, readers aren’t attracted to long series of stories spread over many pages, even if newspaper reporters love doing them. Conventional online news sites are struggling to figure out ways to use the wonderful tools they have to tell these stories in interactive ways. Trying to join these media forces together adds to the challenge.

It’s a challenge we gladly take on, for it is finding and telling the stories that lie beneath the surface layer of prosperity—the ones some news organizations seem to have missed—that motivate us in this endeavor. It is digging through these top layers to unearth the stories that tell what is happening in the foundations of prosperity that makes this an exciting project not only for journalists to report but for viewers and readers to receive.

Roland De Wolk is the creator and producer of KTVU Channel 2 News Investigative Reports in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also teaches in the journalism department at San Francisco State University and is the author of “Introduction to Online Journalism,” just published by Allyn & Bacon. De Wolk was a newspaper reporter for 15 years before turning to electronic media.

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