September 11, 2008
Please, Give Me a Helping Hand

As newspaper managers try to staunch the draining of readers and revenue, one suggestion being debated within the industry concerns a restyling of the traditional gatekeeper role of the media. That is, editors have been gatekeepers, determining what news gets into the papers, the form it takes, where it's placed, and so forth.

Howard Weaver, vice president of news at The McClatchy Company, which owns The Bee, blogged not long ago that the gatekeeper role of editors has been diminished by the accessibility and speed of so much news and commentary elsewhere. Rather than rue this change, Weaver suggested that editors look at it as a chance to better connect with readers by engaging in more conversation with them - "learning what they think, sharing what they know and ultimately creating information that will be far more valuable and satisfying for them."

Weaver suggested that an editor list possible story assignments and ask readers to help decide which get covered first. He also proposed that a reporter blog about the reporting and writing of a story, "detailing what questions they need answered, taking advice and later telling readers in real-time about their progress (or obstacles) in learning answers."

Sounds fun to me. I have five story ideas I'd like to pursue. Before I get to work on any of them, however, I'd like readers to let me know which of the five mosts interests them. Feel free to tweak the story ideas here, and to suggest other topics. I'll go with the story that seems to have the most built-in interest, based on reader reaction. Then I'll blog about each step, from writing the "budget line" that goes onto an in-house list of potential or developing stories through the final editing and publication. That said, here are the five potential stories, in no particular order of my personal preference:

Blended wines have been the bane of wine merchants and sommeliers for decades. Though they're traditional in many of the world's wine regions, they've been relatively obscure in the United States, where wine marketing for decades has been based on the name of the grape contributing the most character to the bottle. Now there are signs that that's changing. More blended domestic wines are appearing in the American market, often with fanciful proprietary names like "The Prisoner" or the simple "Red." Blended wines still are a difficult sell, say merchants and sommeliers, but an increasingly adventurous American palate is showing signs of more willingly embracing them.

Winery tasting rooms, which not so long ago were quiet way stations where wine enthusiasts could sample wines, ask questions and learn to define their palates, seem to have become the modern equivalent of old roadhouses favored by biker gangs. Partying groups arrive by limo or bus, virtually take over the joint, and disrupt the leisurely and somber appreciation of wine. Is this a real or imagined issue? If there's some substance to it, how are wineries reacting? Is this why we see signs at more wineries saying that limos and buses aren't welcome?

Absinthe, an exotic and controversial liquor once banned in the United States, looks to be making a comeback, with at least one California distiller now producing it. It's an essential component of the sazerac, reputedly the country's original cocktail, and the official cocktail of New Orleans. The article would look into what absinthe is all about, how it got banned, and what might be different about it now to make it acceptable.

As winter nears, we take a look at port, both from Portugal and from the United States, where production is on the rise. We examine its history, talk with key producers here and abroad, find several in the local market to recommend, and outline how the beverage best is enjoyed.

More than 500 olive oils from around the world competed for honors at the Los Angeles County Fair in June. The three American olive oils to win the highest awards all were from orchards in the Sacramento Valley. As the year-end entertaining season nears, we tell readers how to stage a home olive-oil tasting.

Please vote and add your comments here, or e-mail me at, and thanks for helping out.

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