EDITOR’S NOTE: Understaffed and under-paid, the staff of the Chico Enterprise-Record and Paradise Post worked night and day covering California’s worst wildfire in history, while their community burned around them. Ten of the staffers lost their homes in this disaster. This Holiday Season, let’s come together and give a gift to those affected by the fire all the while keeping the community informed. Below is a link to the GoFundMe page we have created, please click and donate whatever you can.
CLICK HERE TO DONATE
*All donated proceeds will be shared by all ten displaced DFM workers.
By Julie Reynolds
CHICO, CA — Early on November 8, Carin Dorghalli, arts editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record, saw a beautiful sunrise through her kitchen window on what was supposed to be her second-to-last day on the job.
“The clouds were purplish…I mean they weren’t clouds, it was the smoke, of course. It looked like a beautiful sunrise, and it wasn’t until a few minutes later when my parents and I realized that the cloud was getting bigger and bigger,” she says.
What she saw was the Camp Fire, the most destructive wildfire in California history. Before the week was over, it would take 85 lives and destroy 18,804 structures.
And the neighboring town of Paradise would be no more.
Dorghalli, 24, had planned to leave the Enterprise-Record, not because she didn’t like the job but because it only paid her minimum wage. Yet she couldn’t leave now, not when her community needed information like never before. And so she agreed to stay on until the end of the year, juggling two jobs.
“The Monday following the fire, I realized, wait, I’m still part of this newsroom. Yes, Friday was supposed to be my last day, but I don’t have to be done here,” she says. “I’m watching my co-workers work through the weekend when they could have been at home with their families. And I thought, ‘Oh, I have to come and help.’”
Dorghalli was born and raised in Chico, and lives “across the ridge from Paradise.”
She is one of a handful of dedicated journalists at a paper that has endured drastic cuts in recent years. In an industry that’s seen dramatic downsizing in the past decade, the Enterprise-Record’s owner, Digital First Media, is setting new records by cutting newsroom positions at twice the national rate, despite its papers’ continued profitability. The Enterprise-Record — known locally as the ER — today has only four reporters covering a metro area of 200,000 people. Several more employees had planned to leave before the fire broke out.
Now Dorghalli and several colleagues are staying on to help cover what’s arguably the most important story in the ER’s history. The outpouring of support from fellow journalists has been extraordinary. Former employees have offered to write stories for free. Other DFM papers sent reporters — including Pulitzer winners Thomas Peele and Robert Salonga, who covered Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire for the East Bay Times, and photographer Karl Mondon of the San Jose Mercury News.
“When the fire broke out, I essentially stepped in as a full-time photographer to help cover it because our photographer — our one photographer — was on medical leave,” Dorghalli says.
That photographer lost his house in the fire that destroyed the town of Paradise.
She says half the members of her church also lost their homes and are now scattered, living with friends and family. Some moved away. One left for Texas. “After this they thought, ‘Well, moving now would be extremely cheap because we have nothing to take with us.’ And so they went ahead, hopped on a plane and left.”
A bare-bones newsroom
Dorghalli isn’t the only one who plans to leave the paper before the new year. Reporter Steve Schoonover, a 38-year veteran, was set to retire a few days after the fire, but he’s staying on to help report on the area’s recovery.
Also on the way out is the Enterprise-Record’s editor, David Little. As of this week, he’s been a daily newspaperman for 40 years. He’s also editor of the Oroville Mercury Register, and is Regional Editor of Digital First Media’s Northern California community newspapers. The Paradise Post, which publishes twice a week, is housed in the ER’s building, with a staff of just two — one editor and one reporter.
“My great-grandfather came here in the 1920s to work for the Chico Record,” Little says.
He’s sitting in his office of many years, behind a desk piled high like any good journalist’s. “And then my grandfather worked for The Enterprise and then the Record, and then the Enterprise Record when they combined in 1948. My father sold advertising for the Enterprise Record in the 60s before he and we moved on.”
Little was born in Chico and spent many summers with grandparents here. “Chico was a fun place to grow up, still is. A perfect place to raise a family, which is why I don’t envision myself leaving.”
He’s seen the ER’s staff shrink from a high of 45, including the copy desk. Today it’s 10 full-timers, including the four reporters and one photographer. There’s still a copy desk but it’s now a frenzied regional “hub” called the NorCal Design Center that’s designing and copy editing at least 17 other papers, including the Santa Cruz Sentinel and the Monterey Herald.
“Newspapers are vitally important to me,” Little says. “I don’t know what our society would be like without them. But (it’s a) blessing being able to be the editor of a newspaper in the town where you were born and the place where you grew up, and the place where your friends and family have lived and still do live.”
The morning of November 8, nothing seemed out of the ordinary to Little.
“The western sky was blue as could be and that’s what I was seeing in my house as I was getting ready for work. But the minute I got out to the driveway, there was this black cloud like a bomb had exploded over the Sierras. We have fires here every summer, so it was obvious what it was, and so I drove as fast as I could down here,” he says. “We walked in that day with no photographers to cover this monumental story.”
“We still had no inkling of how big it was going to get, but you could tell it was different. So I jumped to the roof of the building and took a photo.” He had to climb a ladder to get up there, but that photo Little shot with his smart phone was picked up by the Associated Press and published around the world.
Listening to the newsroom police scanner, Little was startled by what he heard.
“It’s scary when you hear panic in voices of first responders and firefighters who are always cool and collected people,” he says. “You could tell bad things were happening.”
Ten people in the building lost their homes, and Little says a similar number of carriers did too. “Three people were missing for the first weekend. You know the fire ignited on a Thursday and one of them we didn’t locate until Monday, but all three are OK.
“So it was really nerve wracking, and everybody has connections and friends and family and ties to Paradise because it’s fifteen miles away. We’re one community.”
His wife and mother-in-law were in Paradise that morning. “I’m listening to the scanner and texting and saying, ‘Get out!’… And everybody was going through situations like that.”
That first night, reporters covered the fire while being evacuated from their homes in East Chico. “It was logistically very difficult to try and keep your mind on your work while offering up your house or extra rooms to people who needed them, trying to make sure everybody was OK.”
And then the flood of support from fellow journalists began.
“Sports writers asked if they could write news stories and reporters asked if they could take photos and part-timers asked if they could work extra hours and we had alumni, who work at other newspapers, come and volunteer their time so they could write stories. And people I don’t know are volunteering to come into the community at their expense, just to work in our newsroom.”
Other newspapers even began sending food to the overworked newsroom.
“The first time that somebody did that it choked me up,” he says. The metro editor at the Las Vegas Review Journal “sent me a message one day saying ‘Hey, we know what it’s like to cover tragedies and we know you probably need some nourishment so we’re gonna send you some food.’ Just reading her note to the staff choked me up. I could hardly talk about it, because why are these people in Vegas thinking about us, you know, after the tragedy that they covered? Then the LA Times sent us a meal, the Redding Record Searchlight, which has covered the Carr Fires, sent us a meal. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which won a Pulitzer for covering the Tubbs Fire, sent us a meal. And the San Jose Mercury News and the East Bay Times … and it’s just like, all these esteemed journalists, just to think that they’re thinking about us … It just kept fueling us when we were tired and burned out and wondering how long we could last.”
Ironically, the messages of support didn’t come from Digital First Media’s corporate leaders, although Little says the company has donated money to help the ten workers who lost their homes. But meals and kind words continued to pour in from papers once considered competitors. At some point, Dorghalli says, Little “had to tell someone, ‘Hey, instead of sending us pizza, can you send us masks? We could really use some masks right now.’” And they did, delivering N95 respirator masks to the staff, who were battling “all the toxic chemicals and the little bits of plastic that are floating around,” she says.
Papers without editors, a paper without a town
On Sunday, the ER announced Little’s retirement, noting that the head of the copy-desk hub, Mike Wolcott, will be taking over Little’s job while still running the hub. It’s pretty much standard operating procedure for Digital First Media, where extreme cost-cutting means editors now struggle to manage multiple papers. In Boston, where DFM recently bought The Herald, one editor oversees at least seven and as many as 15 papers, leading Emily Rooney of WGBH’s Beat the Press to comment: “He’s overseeing a vastly diminished business enterprise. He’s not really the editor.”
Little says he’s proud to be leaving on a high note, overseeing the most important stories in his town’s modern history. But he’s worried about the present — and future — state of local newspapers.
“You know, I’ve been saying for 20 years the worst part about the newspaper business is that it’s a business,” he says. “And we see that now more than ever, newspaper owners do what they think they need to do to stay alive. But I think there has to be that public service component to it as well.”
The future of the Paradise Post is a big question mark for now, he says. Because its subscribers no longer live in Paradise, the paper is printed and inserted into the Enterprise-Record.
The town was a perfect newspaper demographic, he says. “They were loyal subscribers. A lot of people on that missing list were names I recognized from people who sent in press releases, or letters to the editor — people who were real avid newspaper readers.”
Dorghalli also has concerns for the ER’s future. She says the only reason she could afford to work there was because she lived at home with her parents.
“To be super blunt, here I am covering a national crisis and I’m making minimum wage — you know, that’s a little bit ridiculous,” she says. “Everyone here is wonderful, supportive, and encouraging and they all are with me and all want me to make more than just minimum wage. But I guess the company just won’t allow for something like that.
“If my heart were solely making the decision, I would stay here. But I have to use my brain a little bit, right?”
Meanwhile, she’ll continue covering her community’s recovery for a few more weeks. One of her most popular stories is about a man from Colorado who bought and donated an RV to a displaced family. “I mean, he raised this money, bought an RV and gave it to a family of six absolute strangers. Until the moment they exchanged the keys. You don’t get to see that every day!” After she wrote this story, others came forward to donate more RVs, and a volunteer attorney “helped turn the RV movement into a nonprofit solely run by volunteers called RV4CampFireFamily,” she reported.
Dorghalli says it’s “super humbling” knowing her reporting is having such a big impact on peoples’ lives.
“I don’t want to leave,” she says. “No one wants to leave. That’s not a choice we had, unless we want to run our lives into the ground. We can’t live off of minimum wage.”
In a few days, she’ll be photographing a local high school football team that captured a state championship. “Imagine if there was no one covering that game? And no one taking pictures of the players. That would be sad, right?”
Little still holds out hope that local papers can be saved.
“I always wonder if newspapers will get to a point where they’re all family-owned again,” he says. He believes the cost of ownership might drop enough that interested local people can again buy them — “almost like Jeff Bezos but at a small level, where it’s not a corporation.”
“Any newspaper is a good newspaper and they all need to be kept alive — whether it’s a daily or a weekly or an online-only newspaper,” Little says.
He says it’s not just important when your town burns down. “It’s everything small to large in your community. You just need a place to let those stories be told, and a place where people can tell their stories via letters to the editor page or via columns, or just calling the newspaper to pitch story ideas. What happens when that newspaper isn’t there anymore? I just don’t want to be around to see that happen.”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.