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12.03.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Tom Honig
packing it in: Director of operations Mike Blaesser prepares for the November 2007 move to Scotts Valley.

The Daily Grind

The former editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel explains how corporate indifference and the Internet gutted the hometown paper.

By Tom Honig


When I stepped down as editor of the Sentinel a year ago, I knew the outlook for newspapers was not good. But I couldn't have imagined the destruction of an entire industry that now seems inevitable. Local and regional newspapers are teetering over the abyss. Skinny dailies with little advertising and shrinking reporting staffs seem less relevant in an Internet-dominated world; people say that the mere act of picking up a 22-page Santa Cruz Sentinel is a depressing activity.

I can't walk up Pacific Avenue these days without someone stopping me and asking about the future of our local daily. "It's so thin," they say. "Why did they move it to Scotts Valley?" And then, inevitably: "When will it become just a section of the San Jose Mercury News?" I have been notoriously wrong about the future of journalism--so has everyone else--and that means that anyone's guess is as good as mine. The Sentinel's owner, MediaNews Group, is headed up by a man named Dean Singleton, a powerful but debt-ridden newspaper baron whose interest in Santa Cruz is about as narrow as one line on a balance sheet. MediaNews operates 54 newspapers in 11 states. The corporate strategy is to "leverage news-gathering resources," which means buying regional clusters of newspapers so that they can share content.

The Sentinel was locally owned by the McPherson family of Santa Cruz until 1982. Ottaway Newspapers Inc., a subsidiary of Dow Jones and Co., purchased it with the principles of "local autonomy," meaning that on-site management knew best about local coverage and even local business decisions. Ottaway faced its own economic challenges as time went by, and it sold the Sentinel along with five other papers in 2006--first to Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. of Alabama, which then flipped it to MediaNews and Singleton.

Singleton once told me that the key element for success in a community newspaper is keeping a local nameplate on the front page. Nothing more. That comment makes me think that the Santa Cruz Sentinel name will indeed carry on indefinitely. But in what form?

At its height, the Sentinel employed 43 people in its editorial department, including a staff of six in the Watsonville bureau. Today, that number is 26--and my best guess is that the number will soon be 22--in accordance with an industry standard of one newsroom employee per 1,000 in circulation.

The Paper Erase
The ever-shrinking staff of the Sentinel seems to be carrying on as best it can as layoffs continue. Staffers did win several editorial awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association this year, but what the Sentinel didn't report is that circulation losses caused the paper to be judged in a new, less competitive category: under 25,000 circulation.

With fewer staff writers, more and more of the stories are written by interns and correspondents. Once a key part of downtown life at its Church Street location, today the Sentinel offices are in a hard-to-find building on the opposite side of the freeway from Scotts Valley. I worked out of the new building for about three weeks--the worst three weeks of my career.

The paper is printed in San Jose. Deadline on most nights is 10:30-- fully two hours earlier than in the old days, meaning that late stories don't always make the paper. They go on the web and are followed up on the next day.

Reporters and editors still do an admirable job on breaking news, crime and public events. Considering the new, early deadline, they've done a credible job of getting the news in the paper, even if the reader can sense a sort of frustration leaking out between the lines.

Here's what editor Don Miller, writing in a minor key, had to say in a recent column: "Life unfolds on the streets, in the schools, in the hospitals, in small businesses, in holding-it-together families, in local government meetings, in struggling newsrooms--and we do our best to present it, in all our imperfections."

Hardly a call to arms.

Not that I'm one to talk. In mid-November, I was asked to accept a journalism award. It wasn't because of a story or an investigation.

Instead, I was Everyman--the Vanishing Journalist--honored by the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The award was presented to all those (and there are hundreds) who have lost their jobs in the past year, mostly at MediaNews publications all around the San Francisco Bay Area.

Here's what I said:

"The people that run newspapers today--describe them how you will-- might understand finance and they understand budgets. What they don't understand is that the indiscriminate budget cuts are only hastening their own demise. You know what? You need good reporters and editors. You just do. It's the journalists who carry with us the knowledge and integrity that money simply cannot buy. We carry on because we know the power of questioning authority, questioning those even that we agree with--and giving those we disagree with a fair airing of their views."

Somewhere in there is the solution that newspapers ought to be seeking. Unfortunately, at least in Northern California, they're not.

Data Dearth
For all the opinions on all the blogs and on all the future-of-newspaper websites, there is only one person that I know of who actually looks at data regarding newspapers and envisions a path out of the devastation. His name is Philip Meyer, a former journalism professor and author of the 2004 book The Vanishing Newspaper as well as an earlier classic in investigative reporting, Precision Journalism.

Instead of merely intoning about what's needed to save newspapers, he uses his background as an investigative journalist to use data to draw a connection between journalistic excellence and financial success. In other words: can good journalism save newspapers?

What Meyer's data demonstrates is what's wrong at the Sentinel, and at many community newspapers. While newspaper owners like MediaNews look only at the profit-and-loss sheet, others who own the successful community newspapers--even today--put resources into improving content. That's especially true in communities like Santa Cruz, where the Sentinel is the primary source of local news. The Singleton model simply doesn't work in a town like Santa Cruz, one that's fiercely independent and remains relatively isolated from adjoining counties. But in Singleton's world, there's one cookie-cutter strategy, like it or not.

That's Incredible
In a recent article in American Journalism Review, Meyer wrote, "A newspaper's most important product, the product least vulnerable to substitution, is community influence. It gains this influence by being the trusted source for locally produced news, analysis and investigative reporting about public affairs. This influence makes it more attractive to advertisers." It's worth mentioning that the Sentinel's former owner, Ottaway, invited Meyer to participate in one of the last editors' meetings before the sale of the Sentinel to MediaNews. My notes from that meeting have these words circled: "Credibility equals commercial success."

The word "credibility" isn't discussed much in the MediaNews environment. Yet it's exactly what newspaper owners ought to be focusing on if they have any hope of surviving. What does credibility mean? How do you promote trust within your own community?

The Sentinel can sell papers every day merely by writing about surfing, crime and medical marijuana. Those stories on the front page guarantee newsstand sales. But sales don't necessarily equate to long-term credibility.

Certainly the Sentinel--and all newspapers today--could cut down on errors and improve the clarity of stories. Formulaic newspaper writing is widespread these days and is a particular irritant to those of us who care about good writing. But these aren't the main problems.

Community newspapers ought to forget about the frivolous stories. Sure, go ahead and put wire stories about Madonna and Heather Locklear somewhere in the paper. But when it comes to local, the core audience--the ones who will keep buying the paper--want real news. Is the water clean, and is there enough of it? If you oppose widening Highway 1, what real-world solution is there to mass transit? How much pollution is spewed into the air over Highway 1, and would it be less or more if a lane were added? Forget the tree-sitters at UCSC--what kind of research is being done on campus, and how about a story explaining in simple language what they're working on at the Human Genome Project? Is illegal immigration affecting wages in Santa Cruz? What has happened to all those loan officers from the housing boom? Is District Attorney Bob Lee looking into any illegal predatory lending practices? If he isn't, why not?

These are stories that aren't easy to do, I acknowledge. And they're really difficult to do during cutbacks. By the way, the Sentinel is now like most newspapers--there's no training budget, and no program of teaching young journalists how to do precision journalism. MediaNews--as owners of the Sentinel and of most other newspapers in Northern California--could actually help in that effort. There are still outstanding journalists at every newspaper in Northern California, particularly at the San Jose Mercury News and at the Oakland Tribune. An alert and creative MediaNews management team could put down their budget books long enough to establish a training program using the talent already in their organization. At the same awards dinner that honored the Vanishing Journalist, the SPJ honored several MediaNews employees, including Karen de Sa, a Mercury News reporter who completed a months-long investigation into a court system that inappropriately seized children from their parents' home.

Alas, don't expect MediaNews to establish such a training program. Instead, their management has publicly discussed the idea of outsourcing some reporting and editing jobs to India. At the least, I expect that upcoming budget moves might include further cuts to the Sentinel's production staff and moving the tasks of headline writing and copy editing over to a universal copy desk in San Jose. Ugh.

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Photograph by Tom Honig
stopped the presses: Last October, the Sentinel's printing press was dismantled and sold for scrap. The paper is now printed in San Jose.

Just the Facts
What's the alternative? Under a different ownership, would better journalism prevail? Does real journalism guarantee economic viability? I don't see that there's a choice. Or, as Meyer says, "Just as the development of modern agriculture led to a demand for varieties of processed food, the information age has created a demand for processed information. We need someone to put it into context, give it theoretical framing and suggest ways to act on it. The raw material for this processing is evidence-based journalism, something that bloggers are not good at originating."

It's not lost on me that these words are appearing in a weekly newspaper and not in the newspaper where I spent 35 years. Metro Santa Cruz remains committed to the in-depth form of journalism. This newspaper, too, has a lack of resources and a pay scale that defines writing here as a labor of love. At least, however, the effort for good content is here.

Ultimately, that's what newspaper writing is really about: depth and context. But the heavily leveraged newspaper chains won't be part of it, and they just might go away. Their presses, as happened with the Sentinel's old press, might be sold for scrap.

Some papers, as Darwin might have suggested, will survive. And future generations, like Darwin, will examine what traits they had that allowed them to thrive even while others could not. It's true that the mass audience is going away, probably never to return. But like any smart business, the survivors will find a strategy to keep their best customers happy. They'll give them what they want: important, useful and trustworthy content--just like the old days, presented without fear or favor. That remains a strategy for success. If only more newspaper owners paid attention. Tom Honig served as editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel from 1992 to 2007.

The Elite Newspaper Of the Future

By Philip Meyer


The endgame for newspapers is in sight. How their owners and managers choose to apply their dwindling resources will make all the difference in the nature of the ultimate product, its service to democracy and, of course, its survival. ...

Robert Picard, a media economist who looks at newspapers from an international perspective, believes that they try to do too much. He expressed this view in June at the Carnegie-Knight Task Force conference on "The Future of Journalism" at Harvard University. Newspapers "keep offering an all-you-can-eat buffet of content, and keep diminishing the quality of that content because their budgets are continually thinner," he said. "This is an absurd choice because the audience least interested in news has already abandoned the newspaper."

If they should peel back to some core function, newspapers would still have to worry about the Internet and its unbeatable capacity for narrowcasting. The newspapers that survive will probably do so with some kind of hybrid content: analysis, interpretation and investigative reporting in a print product that appears less than daily, combined with constant updating and reader interaction on the web.

But the time for launching this strategy is growing short if it has not already passed. The most powerful feature of the Internet is that it encourages low-cost innovation, and anyone can play. ...

On the other hand, it is possible to envision a scenario in which newspapers trim down to a specialized product and survive by serving a narrow market well. They are already trimming down. But what are they trimming down to? Have they thought about what's left after all the shrinkage?

One of the rules of thumb for coping with substitute technology is to narrow your focus to the area that is the least vulnerable to substitution. Michael Porter included it in his list of six strategies in his book Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance. The railroads survived the threat from trucks on Interstate highways and airlines by focusing on the one thing they could still do better: moving bulk cargo across long distances.

What service supplied by newspapers is the least vulnerable?

I still believe that a newspaper's most important product, the product least vulnerable to substitution, is community influence. It gains this influence by being the trusted source for locally produced news, analysis and investigative reporting about public affairs. This influence makes it more attractive to advertisers.

By news, I don't mean stenographic coverage of public meetings, channeling press releases or listing unanalyzed collections of facts. The old hunter-gatherer model of journalism is no longer sufficient. Now that information is so plentiful, we don't need new information so much as help in processing what's already available. Just as the development of modern agriculture led to a demand for varieties of processed food, the information age has created a demand for processed information. We need someone to put it into context, give it theoretical framing and suggest ways to act on it.

The raw material for this processing is evidence-based journalism, something that bloggers are not good at originating.

Not all readers demand such quality, but the educated, opinion-leading, news-junkie core of the audience always will. They will insist on it as a defense against "persuasive communication," the euphemism for advertising, public relations and spin that exploits the confusion of information overload. Readers need and want to be equipped with truth-based defenses.

Newspapers might have a chance if they can meet that need by holding on to the kind of content that gives them their natural community influence. To keep the resources for doing that, they will have to jettison the frivolous items in the content buffet.

The best publishers have always known that trust has economic value. In The Vanishing Newspaper, I reported that advertising rates increased by $3.25 per Standard Advertising Unit (SAU) for each one percentage point increase in the persons who said they believed what they read in the paper. And papers with higher trust were more successful in resisting the long-term decline in household penetration. ...

The mass audience is drifting away, and resources should be focused on the leadership audience. If existing newspapers don't do it, new competitors will enter their markets and do it for them.

Philip Meyer is professor emeritus of journalism at the University of North Carolina. This article appeared in its entirety in the October-November 2008 issue of the American Journalism Review.


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