Local Spin: Heralding Change
Valuing free and independent media, too.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
Because the news is my business, I was stunned by Executive Editor Joe Livernois’ admission in Saturday’s Herald. It wasn’t the paper’s rationale to stop publishing the stock market listings that got my attention. What startled me was this: “The success of the Herald’s digital future will dictate whether the Herald exists at all by the end of the decade.”
The potential demise of the daily newspaper is not really news.The fact the local editor is prepping us for that potentiality this decade is. And even though the Herald is the Weekly’s competitor, the loss of a seasoned journalistic voice is not healthy.
When the Weekly was founded 23 years ago, the Herald’s staff wasn’t thinking the end was near; they seemed to relish ridiculing the new kid on the block. The Herald’s circulation was more than twice as large as ours, and their editorial staff was bigger and vastly more experienced.
But over the years we witnessed new owners take the helm. With each change (at least it appeared from the outside), profits became the objective at the cost of the journalistic enterprise. The number of writers and editors today, compared to 20 years ago, saddens me.
Not only was the staff being slashed, so was the journalistic fire. When a few years ago the Weekly faced a legal challenge by chemical company Suterra, LLC in an effort to block us from publishing the ingredients in their CheckMate pheromone, used to combat the light brown apple moth, neither the Herald nor any other local publisher would join our fight for the public’s right to know. In past days, we would have fought together. Not this time. We went at it alone, and still won.
To be clear, and fair, I believe the employees of both local dailies care very much about our community and quality journalism. It’s their company’s business model, adversity to risk-taking, and loss of local contact that weakens their product.
Daily newspapers are in a pickle because there’s almost no need to pay for content. There is more information than the average person can realistically consume. Plus, as daily readers age, replacements are not lining up to subscribe. And if national retailers shift away from placing their inserts into dailies, millions of dollars will be lost every year and the business model may collapse.
What surprises me today isn’t that the Weekly has a larger circulation than both local dailies, but the speed with which the shift occurred. According to Audit Bureau of Circulation and Verified Audit 2011 reports, the Weekly prints 36,000 copies, compared to 12,000 for the Californian and 25,000 for the Herald. Our circulation remains healthy: 97 percent of the papers we print are picked up and read each week, our highest rate ever.
Being local and independent is at our core, and we believe at yours, too. In contrast, the Herald, Californian, nearly all the local radio and TV stations are now owned by large, even publicly traded companies whose headquarters and owners aren’t here. Our missions are different. Some years we’ve consciously sacrificed profits to invest in our product, technology, staff and community fund.
We also work hard to deliver a product that’s feisty and fun to read and worthy of your time. As our publisher reminds us: Good journalism is good business.
I’d be surprised if our company and even our print product weren’t flourishing at the end of this decade, and the one after. I believe there’s something entertaining and comforting about reading the Weekly in print. It’s easy to haul around, to pick it up and toss it into the grocery bag at Whole Foods or Star Market. You can read it at lunch – it’s OK to spill on it.
When the Weekly launched our first website, in 1996, we had more questions than answers. We never have made much money with our digital adventures, but we’re just beginning. The graphics, the photos, the timeliness of stories, all present well online. I personally depend on our web search engine for our archives. Our videos are increasingly strong. The new mobile app is very functional. More than 18,000 people receive our weekly e-newsletter. And we’re breaking stories online with such frequency, it is becoming second nature. We’re behaving more like a daily and like broadcast media these days. That’s exciting. And difficult. I feel for you, Joe.
At the end of the day, we believe that the strongest innovation we can continue to offer you is quality journalism – dynamic local content, great writing, well-researched and edited stories, our insight into what makes our community tick (or not), a comprehensive guide to events and places – supported by a local business community that advertises with us to communicate with you. That’s what we bring to the table. And that’s what will keep this local media around, and prospering.
BRADLEY ZEVE is the Weekly’s founder and CEO. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.