Just a quarter-century ago, local news junkies could get their fix by walking out to the porch and grabbing the daily paper … and the other daily paper. And maybe even two or three more. In addition to the stolid San Diego Union and sassy Evening Tribune, publishers produced daily papers in Escondido, Oceanside, El Cajon and Vista. The most obsessed readers could also gobble up the news in the local edition of the L.A. Times or pore over business stories in the Daily Transcript.
Then these papers began to blink out like stars at sunrise amid mergers and liquidation, ultimately shrinking to just a single daily. But amid all the bemoaning of journalism’s decline, another kind of print publication — the community newspaper — continues to survive and maybe even thrive.
Yes, local community newspapers have suffered. In general, they’ve shrunk in size and in staff, they’ve abandoned the subscriber model in favor of free distribution and they don’t come out as often as they once did. But two years after The San Diego Union-Tribune snapped up eight of them in one fell swoop, community newspapers that serve neighborhoods, cities or towns continue to avoid the grim fate of their daily counterparts. No big names have gone under here, and there’s even competition in upscale areas like La Jolla and Encinitas.
Working Harder but Still Afloat
“Certainly it’s not the heyday we used to enjoy, and we’re all working harder to be where we used to be. But community papers have weathered the storm with the recession much better than the dailies,” said David Mannis, publisher of six community papers like Uptown News and Gay San Diego.
Indeed, community papers haven’t suffered as much as dailies from the utter collapse of classified advertising in the era of Craigslist, and the Internet hasn’t battered them as much.
One key to staying afloat: They go local, often really local, without shame or apology. This means covering things like the open house at the little local airport (the Ramona Sentinel is on it), the National City mayor’s turkey giveaway on Thanksgiving (South Bay’s Star-News was in attendance) and the doings of San Diego’s Del Cerro Action Council (according to the Mission Times Courier, someone needs to take over taking care of Del Cerro Boulevard’s American flags).
“It’s still the same today as it was in the 1990s: Local news, what Johnny and Sue are doing in school,” said Jim Madaffer, a former community newspaper publisher and city councilman. “If someone got an award for reading 100 books in the school year, put the picture in the paper. You can guarantee that they won’t take just one copy. They’ll take several and mail it to grandparents across the country. That’s what I saw happen so often.”
Consolidation Is the Order of the Decade
Madaffer was one of the region’s few community newspaper moguls until 2014, when he sold his three papers — the Mission Times Courier (serving Tierrasanta, Allied Gardens and San Carlos), Mission Valley News and La Mesa Courier — to Mannis. Another big player is publisher Julie Main, Mannis’ ex-wife, who owns the La Jolla Village News, Beach & Bay Press and Peninsula Beacon. The regional behemoth, however, is the Union-Tribune, which bought eight papers — serving Del Mar, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Santa Fe, Poway and more — in 2013. (It’s much more common for community papers to be parts of chains instead of solo operations: According to a 2012 study, only 38 percent of a sampling of U.S. weekly papers were independent in 2009 compared with 50 percent in 1997.)
The U-T’s stable of papers includes some with decades-long history, like the La Jolla Light, founded in 1913, and the Ramona Sentinel, dating back to 1886. But the papers necessarily don’t look like they did in the past — some are smaller — or come out as often.
The La Jolla Light, for example, is no longer the same physical size (a “broadsheet”) as a traditional daily newspaper. South Bay’s Star-News is now a weekly instead of a twice-weekly. And community papers like Mannis’ Downtown News only come out monthly.
In another evolution, community newspapers have largely abandoned the subscription model, and few appear in mailboxes via direct mail. Instead, they tend to be distributed for free to homes, a strategy that has its pluses (pretty much everybody in a neighborhood gets the paper) and minuses (unwanted soggy newspapers on the sidewalk).
Online Explosion Hasn’t Socked Community Papers
The staffs of community newspaper can be tiny too. Mannis says he employs just 15 people to write, produce and support his six papers, which have a circulation of about 120,000.
Even with tiny staffs, community papers can still be chunky. The December issue of Downtown News is 28 pages, full of ads for theater productions and restaurants. The lead stories on the front page are about the new chief of the Gaslamp Quarter Association, the owners of a French cafe and parking meters that collect money for the homeless. (The latter story came from the nonprofit inewsource; local community newspapers have also run Voice of San Diego stories for free as part of our content-sharing policy.)
While community newspapers may use stories first published by online outlets, the rise of the Internet hasn’t socked them as much as dailies. That’s because online competition on the local level has been sparse and prone to failure.
If a resident of Poway turns to her smartphone in search of news about the weather or the Chargers or a regional controversy, she could click on the websites of the U-T, local TV news or KPBS. Or she could try nonprofit outlets like Voice of San Diego and inewsource. If she wants to read online about a new nearby dentist or a “neighborhood holiday tradition,” the website of the Poway News Chieftain is it.
Advertisers Still Covet the Printed Page
Patch, a splashy national network of local news sites, and San Diego News Network both tried to bring local online-only news to local communities like Poway earlier this decade, and both failed. Only a shadow remains of the local Patch operation, which fell victim to the national network’s collapse following a rapid expansion and a failure to sell enough ads. SDNN went kablooie after rapid growth too. Both relied, like community newspapers tend to do, on a few veteran journalists plus hordes of young, low-paid reporters. The main difference: The sites sent news to your laptop, not your porch or the newsbox in front of the liquor store.
Times of San Diego, an online-only operation, is the closest thing left to Patch and SDNN. That’s no surprise considering it’s run by Chris Jennewein, a veteran of both operations and the U-T. The site posts 20-25 stories a day, Jennewein said, but doesn’t focus on particular cities or neighborhoods.
Jennewein, who says his outlet is breaking even after nearly two years in existence, sees a future without much in the way of print community newspapers. At best, he said, they’ll be “retro, iconic products,” a bit like vinyl records. Instead, he predicts, we’ll get our news online, not on our porches, and we’ll use services like Facebook to send those newspaper photos of our kids across the country to Grandma.
For now, though, newspapers of all types are still embracing print because that’s where the money is. U.S. advertisers will spend an estimated $15 billion on newspaper ads in print this year compared to just $5 billion on online newspaper ads. As for readers, they “love knowing they can count on getting the papers delivered to their homes,” said Main, the publisher of the coastal San Diego newspapers.
For now, at least, that means paper and ink and a familiar thunk at the front door.