Don Rogers: Stepping up to the moment
The golden age for community newspapers peaked only a baker’s dozen years ago, before the financial meltdown, before Facebook let the grownups in, before the pandemic.
Back then, The Union ran more pages than ever. The ski town paper I edited was plumper some days than The Denver Post. The Sierra Sun was giving it a go as a daily. The business was healthy, even robust.
We might reach even more readers now, especially right now. The audience for what we do is booming, the demand maybe never greater. And we report across the mediums, print being just one and not first anymore. The morning emails are my favorite, from our papers as well as others across the land.
But something in the machinery supporting the journalism has sputtered on the journey from print to the fuller spectrum online. The digital giants took our news content and the lion’s share of the online business without helping shoulder the investment in reporters and editors.
To my way of thinking, the means to provide local journalism has been siphoned off for lesser purposes. Google, Facebook and other aggregators should straight up pay for the content they take for free now, if you ask me, and I know you are not. Some nations in Europe have tried, France currently, and a frustrated Australia’s government ordered this just last month.
Western civilization has let the lampreys suck the host dry at a high cost to communities. Big Tech’s overwhelming share of the digital revenue pie also constricts other local news media, especially online-only operations.
This is not really a question of content — more people read us than ever — and not about partisan leanings so much at our level.
Nice conservative papers in nice conservative towns in the heartland struggle with the business every bit as much as Left Coast ones in liberal towns and our delightfully muddled mess of Progressives to state of Jefferson advocates.
All the papers go down at the same clip, about 20 percent of the total across America closing in the past decade or so. This is happening even as communities hunger for and research suggests they suffer from lack of local news when the hometown paper is gone.
Then came the pandemic, highlighting the demand for what we do and the cracks in how we as a society fund an essential service.
Can you spare …?
I’m more comfortable giving donations than asking for them. But here we are. Even The Sacramento Bee has a tin cup out these days.
NPR built a dynasty around donations and pledge drives, mixed with government funding and “underwriting” — fancy talk for advertising. Thing is, their non-profit system has worked well for decades.
Some online-only local news sites I watch campaign ceaselessly and well for donations. If these operations are non-profit, it’s not by intent.
Our weeklies at the lake are free to the consumer, and their websites have no pay walls. Asking their readers for help doesn’t seem like such a stretch, more like a voluntary subscription.
Feels different with a “normal” paper with home delivery and paid subscriptions to help fund that delivery. Asking for extra help at The Union took a crisis like this, with half our advertising suddenly just gone. No one’s fault, this classic force majeure, blowing in with the very air we breathe.
Our papers are part of a company small enough to qualify for a payroll loan helping us keep full staffing for two months longer than otherwise and to survive the worst. But in early June we’ll be back to our own devices, a short ride in something short of Cinderella’s carriage but on wheels to poof, most definitely a pumpkin.
With advertising down so much, reflecting the economy at large, many positions don’t have enough to do. So we redirected our efforts to covering the news, cleaning and organizing, repairing newspaper racks, and working on our marketing.
The part you might notice most is the coverage. I’m like Dad, bursting with pride in what our folks are accomplishing. You’re certainly the better judge, but I hope you are seeing the boost in local stories, their depth, the podcasts, the broadcasts, the general effort to keep us all well informed.
Oh, I’m Dad all right. I know the flaws, where we haven’t grown yet, along with the sheer potential in each reporter, sales person, circulation staffer, the carrier force, key people in other offices who support us, all of it a puzzle and more intricate than you might imagine. The whole rolling ball is a little too big for any one of us to get our arms around and so requires a team, well, a family working together to keep going through the ups and downs, golden ages and starker times.
If our pandemic effort proves a meteor, doomed, let it burn brilliantly now, while most needed. We’ll pick up the pieces in a bit, and soldier on. We all will.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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