While Cities Rise, Journalism Faces Uncertain Future

In planning, as with anything else, the mere flow of time does not bring progress. The enthusiasm and ideas that swept over these pages in the first decade of this century -- smart growth, downtown revitalization, AB 32, SB 375, and all the rest -- are now met with delay, deferral, and, in some cases, bankruptcy. And yet, even in mellow times, any moment can be a crucial moment in planning.

Buildings may take their time, but deals, laws, and policies can be enacted at any time and yet have long-reaching, sometimes unforeseeable effects. (Just ask Suzette Kelo, or the authors of CEQA.) Development, deterioration, and even stasis can mean triumph -- or tragedy -- for many people. One neighborhood group cries victory, while another is condemned to live in the shadow of something awful. Such are the stories of land use, albeit at their most melodramatic.

The prospect that California will never run out of land use stories -- a prospect so axiomatic as to hardly require mention -- has held firm ever since CP&DR started chronicling them 25 years ago. Cities, in fact, are on the rise, and planning is heeding the call to manage larger populations while conserving resources. But, as I assume editorship of this publication, what is far less certain is the future of journalism.

Planning and journalism share a potent relationship. All of us who write, blog, and otherwise muse on land use enjoy the juxtaposition between the ephemeral nature of media and the permanence of the things that we cover. Stories come and go (and sometimes plans do too), but, roads, buildings, and communities remain. This permanence requires that we get our stories right the first time (and hundredth time as well, depending how many CEQA suits get filed).

Though all journalists draw satisfaction from their role in the democratic process, rarely is the connection between reporting and the real world so direct as with land use. Buildings cannot hide, but they sometimes require journalists to help them speak. Good stories -- well researched, clearly written, objectively recounted -- can inspire the ideas, revelations, debates, and even protests that can make or break plans and developments. We journalists, and we at CP&DR, believe that in the aggregate we will leave an indirect, but distinct, legacy not in our words themselves but in the betterment of a great, if challenged, state.

Even as California considers selling a kidney to replenish its coffers, the regeneration of the built environment (as well as the despoilment of the natural environment) will continue.

A generation ago, cities were the ones facing their demise while the morning paper ran memorable headlines about rivers catching fire and presidents telling them to "drop dead." Now both papers and cities have reversed their courses, each having heeded the call of history to now head in the opposite direction as they were before. Indeed, whether they prefer downtown lofts or Barbie's Dream House, people will always need places in which to live, work, and dream. But lately it seems that they may consider journalism expendable.

My arrival at CP&DR comes at the pivot of journalistic history, from ink to bytes, and, to an extent, from professionalism to amateurism (the latter of which can indeed be excellent). You can't build a mixed-use, transit-oriented temple to New Urbanism without a few bricks, but you certainly can certainly disseminate information, analysis, and opinion without paper. What serious journalists cling to, absent the financial and editorial bulwarks that used to surround print media, is the conviction that objectivity, originality, clarity, expertise, eloquence, balance -- and all the other hallmarks of our profession -- will persevere in the digital era and that readers will respond accordingly.

I have written my share of blogs and other informal pieces, and I will continue doing so on the CP&DR website. But a fundamental difference separates blogging from reporting. As a friend of mine, New York Times reporter Nicholas Confessore, trenchantly pointed out in an article several years ago: "If every newspaper went out of business tomorrow, blogs would have nothing to blog about."

And that's where CP&DR comes in. We may not hit the pavement on broadsheet for a million daily readers, but we will always strive to publish original, high-quality news pieces that give our readers something to muse over, act upon, and, indeed, blog about. Sometimes we will fall short, but, we hope, sometimes we will hit our mark.

This is the motivation that brings me to these pages. Succeeding Paul Shigley, whom I admire greatly, I believe that journalism has a future, and I believe that focused publications like CP&DR can have a tremendous impact, especially now that the stalwarts of our industry are struggling. Whether a locally focused article reaches a small group thoughtful, active people with an intense interest or whether something else flows off our pages, gets swept into the main current of the Internet, and gets blogged, tweeted, and posted throughout the cloud, we hope to do justice to both our topics and our profession.

As for what CP&DR will cover under my tenure, we know that plenty of familiar themes and topics will recur -- just as they did in the decade that Paul Shigley covered. But, most likely, the best stories will be the unexpected ones -- the ones that come out of nowhere or, better yet, come from you, our readers, and our network of sources and supporters on the ground. One of the great things about covering someplace as vast and diverse as California that we will never run out of stories to tell.

Ultimately, my inspiration stems from California itself. On that topic, I disclose my bias. It is one of the world's great sub-national entities, and it deserves publications like CP&DR. The land use community here is most obviously bound up in common laws and policies, and less obviously in common styles, cultures, and politics. Above all else, we are bound in common by a spirit of aspiration.

I write this greeting, incongruously, from a lecture hall in Cambridge, Mass. It's a fine, if drizzly, place. But, with a heyday reaching back three centuries, it feels different from California. Hopes and dreams really are drawn to California, and they need a worthy landscape in which to flourish. It is an exceptional place, and in the volumes to come, I look forward to capturing a few of its crucial moments and seeing a few of its dreams come true.