Newspapers are dead. It's a familiar refrain ringing in the ears of journalists across the country. But they aren't dead, yet. Well, actually, some newspapers are, in fact, dead. But some are still going strong, while others are struggling to fit in with a digital-first world, and still others are turning the traditional model on its head.
Journalism is morphing daily, but what does it mean for you, the local news consumer?
For some Central Coast communities, it's meant that truly local news is hard to come by—and unbiased, accurate information about local governments and public policy doesn't really exist. The newspapers that once did things like send reporters to attend local City Council meetings are gone, and other news media outlets haven't filled in the space left behind. Residents are left to their own devises, searching the internet for the information they seek.
But the news about news isn't all dim and dark.
Our staff writers fill you in on the local news industry, the changing shape of journalism, and what it means for local governance and the future.
Industry in flux
It hasn't been easy, but San Luis Obispo Tribune Editor Joe Tarica said he's learned to roll with the punches when it comes to leading a newsroom in today's media industry.
Like many local newspapers across the country, San Luis Obispo County's McClatchy-owned daily has seen its editorial staff shrink, its print circulation decline, many of its operations outsourced or regionalized, and its focus shift to digital platforms.
"It's just an evolving process," said Tarica, a 26-year Tribune veteran who's helmed the paper since 2017. "There were a lot of hard decisions that had to be made across the industry."
In the last decade, The Trib moved to smaller offices in SLO, closed the offices of its sister weekly paper, The Cambrian, shut down the Morro Bay Sun-Bulletin, and has been hit with multiple rounds of layoffs. Most recently, the paper announced that it will stop publishing a Saturday print edition starting in November.
"It's really kind of our first foray into this," Tarica said of the Saturday decision. "[McClatchy's] starting with the smaller papers. ... We're keeping Sunday because it's just the biggest day of the week. The intention is to maintain the weekday [papers]."
These changes are tough pills to swallow, Tarica said. But they're also common in an industry that's seen advertising revenues decline by more than 70 percent since 2005, according to the Pew Research Center. The internet and its countless platforms for advertisers continue to impact the news industry and reshape journalism.
Since The Tribune's heyday in the '90s, Tarica estimated the paper's lost at least half of its reporters and editors. He said it could've been worse.
"The key is the staff, the on-the-ground people here going out and getting stories. And it's how do you protect that?" Tarica said.
The Tribune's not alone on the Central Coast in facing these challenges. In 2016, Lee Enterprises, another national newspaper chain, closed the Times Press-Recorder, which served the Fives Cities area of South SLO County. That paper published twice a week (weekly starting in 2008) for 129 years.
Lee continues to print the Santa Maria Times six days per week, and the Lompoc Record and Santa Ynez Valley News twice a week. Times Publisher Cynthia Schur and Managing Editor Marga Cooley didn't return requests for an interview.
North SLO County is served by two News Media Corporation weekly publications: the Paso Robles Press and Atascadero News. Those papers' staffs have declined in recent years—they now share two reporters and an editor.
Upstart community ventures like the Paso Robles Daily News, the A-Town Daily News, the Santa Ynez Valley Star, and the Estero Bay News have tried to fill some of these gaps. The Paso and Atascadero Daily News websites, started in 2012 by Scott Brennan, are community bulletin boards of sorts, publishing community news, events, press releases, and announcements.
Brennan said he got the idea for the websites while publishing a SLO County Visitor's Guide.
"I noticed that I'd get press releases with tons of news and information from nonprofits, local organizations, clubs, and government agencies," Brennan said. "I saw nobody's running this stuff. It's going unnoticed."
Dean Sullivan, a longtime local publisher, has focused on Los Osos, Morro Bay, and Cayucos to fill information gaps. This year, Sullivan launched Estero Bay News in the wake of Simply Clear Marketing shutting down its Tolosa Press publications, including the SLO City News, Bay News, and Coast News community papers. Sullivan's newest venture is a bimonthly publication "dedicated to covering the stories that make this community special—local business, schools, news, organizations, and the strong threads that bind our community," according to the Estero Bay News website.
While the local news industry continues to cope with the changing times, Tarica said it's as important as ever for community members to support local journalism through readership, subscriptions, or advertising.
"It's more important now than it ever was," Tarica said. "It's really kind of sad that at a time when the threat to information and democracy is at its highest ... that that's the time when we have a smaller staff. That's not good. Anything you lose now from this point—whether it's one reporter or you're talking about entire organizations going out of business and creating news deserts—it's just many times worse."
With more and more print news publications using other platforms to reach their audience, news industry trade associations and higher education institutions are starting to shift their focus from print to digital news distribution.
The California News Publishers Association (CNPA) is a nonprofit association that represents daily, weekly, monthly, and campus newspapers statewide. Traditionally, the association has a contest every year where the various news publications can submit their articles for consideration for awards in categories such as breaking news, feature stories, and in-depth reporting, to name a few.
In last year's contest, for the first time CNPA added a contest for digital-only publications and allowed print members with websites to enter digital content into the contest.
Joe Wirt, who heads CNPA's news department and its California Press Foundation, said the contest was the nonprofit's way of recognizing that a substantial number of publications are moving to digital platforms.
In San Luis Obispo, The Tribune is removing its Saturday print edition, putting the content in an online-only format, and incorporating some of that content into Sunday's paper.
"What they're doing, which is not really surprising, is persuading people to consume the information on the device they're more comfortable with," Wirt said.
Creating content for an online audience is now part of the journalism programs at both Cal Poly and Cuesta College in order to provide students with a versatile set of reporting tools. Cal Poly professor Patrick Howe said he's technically a multimedia instructor, but he teaches the advanced reporting course. That course used to focus on the university's student newspaper, Mustang News. Now, it's one of two practicum courses that all students—whether their emphasis is public relations, broadcast, or editorial—have to take. Students create content through the course that's dispersed throughout the university's Mustang News Media Group: Mustang News, KCPR-FM, and Mustang News TV. The content always circles back to being able to fit an online format.
"We don't really train people with the idea that they'll be print reporters," Howe said.
While that may be the case, he said it doesn't dampen the enthusiasm of his students. If they want to become print journalists, they're likely to get a job and, from what he's seen, be successful.
Howe said his concern is that the career ladder that was once laid out for him doesn't really exist anymore. So students learn to write content for online, write stories for broadcast, produce news segments for the student radio, or create news content for social media pages.
Ironically, or maybe optimistically, he said more people are consuming more news than ever.
"People still want what we sell; they don't want it in the form that makes us any money," Howe said.
He feels there isn't a workable business model for print news publications. The argument to move online is that at some point the money that news media can make via the internet will outweigh the money being made from print—but few local papers have had success with that.
"By moving back from being platform specific, you actually could get a lot more energy, vitality, and immediacy. So I guess I'm torn, because in some ways journalism is more interesting and exciting to digest if it's done well," he said.
Cuesta College started to revise its journalism curriculum about two years ago, according to Madeline Medeiros, the dean of academic affairs for the college's arts, humanities, and social sciences. The first thing it did was change the name of the program from journalism to journalism and digital communications.
Medeiros said the program has added new courses, such as a photo and video class, graphic design, and a course on social media and data visualization. The latter class allows students to use social media sites—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat—to find and report stories.
"They consider the impact of social media on news media and its relationship with political and social justice issues," she said.
The department's decision to change the program name and add digital-focused courses was done in an effort to appeal to more students.
"We would like more students to get into our journalism program because we think it's more important than ever before," Medeiros said. "We don't want to exclude any type of journalism, and we want to make sure our students know all the avenues and various ways that they can work in that field."
An alternative model
In their major report, "The Reconstruction of American Journalism," Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson describe worsening conditions not just for journalism, but what it contains.
"What is under threat is independent reporting that provides information, investigation, analysis, and community knowledge, particularly in the coverage of local affairs."
Published nearly a decade ago in the Columbia Journalism Review, the paper describes the evolving business of journalism, drawing a stark portrait of uncertainty for the future. It also offered ideas, and one of them was the creation of nonprofit media organizations as a sort of stopgap for a rapidly contracting industry.
"They proposed the nonprofit as a temporary model not a permanent solution," said Mary Glick, chair of the Cal Poly Journalism Department.
But since the publication of the report, nonprofits—national and local—have established roots and sustainable funding sources.
National investigative site ProPublica has grown its presence, initially as an open-source wire service, and it now offers targeted partnerships to bolster local investigative reporting, including robust efforts in Alaska and Chicago. Sacramento-based CalMatters boasts a staff of 25 reporters and a $5 million annual budget dedicated to covering policy and politics in California. Smaller, hyper-local outlets such as Voices of Monterey Bay exist too, filling vacancies left by extinct or shrunken city and neighborhood papers.
These nonprofit newsrooms share some commonalities: They produce online content and don't depend on generating local daily news. They've cut out the costs associated with print, namely distribution trucks and people to drive them, paper, and getting printed. Their focus is on the reporting.
Kathy McKenzie, an editor at Voices of Monterey Bay, said that's what her readers want.
"We have more of a magazine approach," she said. "We're doing a lot of long-form articles so we can get into the nuance and big picture of Monterey Bay."
The website emerged in 2017 when a group of reporters from the floundering local daily wanted to re-commit to less timely public-service journalism.
So far, she said, the response has been dramatic.
"We've been very fortunate that people like what we're doing, and we just receive checks in the mail," she said. "We're not talking big amounts, maybe $50 here and a $100 there, but it adds up."
The news website got its start with support from the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), the umbrella organization under which Voices of Monterey Bay operates as a nonprofit. INN also offers a match program each November, committing to match, dollar for dollar, each contribution Voices of Monterey Bay raises. McKenzie said they pulled in $48,000 with the INN's help last November.
McKenzie said she and her colleagues still have a long way to go. They have four permanent staff, four columnists, and sometimes six freelancers, though the number fluctuates. But McKenzie said not everyone gets paid. Two staff members don't accept payment, she said, investing their time in a mission they believe in. But the excitement they've stoked in readers makes McKenzie optimistic that, eventually, everyone will get a paycheck.
Marcia Parker, a board member at INN and the publisher of CalMatters, said fundraising isn't just about the money. Voices of Monterey Bay, CalMatters, and the 198 other INN members are helping to promote the nonprofit news model.
"They're doing national marketing of the national news model," she said.
Parker hopes that number will double in short order, possibly by the end of 2020. But she stressed the importance of a diverse group of funding sources.
CalMatters was built on wealthy donors cutting generous checks, Parker said, but not all nonprofits have that luxury. The Sacramento-based media nonprofit has since branched out. Parker said it does events, gets some ad revenue from newsletters, has signed up 1,200 members who contribute regularly, and is always on the lookout for new grant opportunities. CalMatters recently began a new project called the California Divide, funded by a $500,000 grant from the Irvine Foundation and The GroundTruth Project's Report for America program. It's a two-year program that Parker expects will employ four reporters.
"We don't consider ourselves investigative, we consider ourselves explanatory. We do have some investigative capacity," she said, "but we're really public-policy driven."
With that reporting, CalMatters has amassed 188 media partners who use its content free of charge.
Less local news
People still read local newspapers religiously when Carlyn Christianson was just starting out as a public official in San Luis Obispo.
That was in the early 2000s, when people read the paper first thing in the morning with breakfast, or fingered through a few pages while waiting on a latte at a coffee shop. That, she said, or people watched the news on TV during dinner.
Since then, things have changed dramatically.
Christianson, now a SLO City Council member, said residents come to meetings with information they've discovered on all kinds of platforms, from Nextdoor to advocacy organization websites. These sources aren't always trustworthy, Christianson said, and the information isn't always factual.
- Graphic By Alex Zuniga
- COMPARING TRUST According to a 2018 survey from the Poynter Institute, Americans trust local newspapers more than national print outlets.
"So part of it is that it's not fact-based," she said, "but part of it is that it's just not similar enough to have a conversation. ... There is no common ground to start from anymore, and that is really, really, really problematic."
The way news is gathered and disseminated has changed drastically over the last two decades.
While the increasingly popular news- and opinion-sharing spaces of the internet and social media make it easier than ever to find and spread information, it's only becoming more challenging to separate fact from fiction.
The changes to the news landscape haven't been easy for the newspaper business, and it's been especially hard on local outlets, many of which have had to cut costs by reducing staff, pages, and printing days—or closing down completely.
That trend is changing the way the general public interacts with local governments and politicians across the nation. Studies suggest that a lack of local news coverage is associated with lower voter turnout, less-engaged public officials, and less-informed voters.
In San Luis Obispo, Chistianson said the conversations surrounding city policies have changed.
"I think we're still in a transition period where people are getting more sophisticated about news," she said.
Some people still believe almost anything they see online, and Christianson said residents often come to City Council meetings with concerns that are based on misinformation from obscure sources. A lot of effort goes into dismantling rumors and false perceptions, she said.
It's also getting harder to keep people interested in complex topics, so the city is working to create concise staff reports that omit difficult-to-understand jargon. The city, she said, is also doing more outreach work online and via social media.
Similar work is being done in South County, where local news coverage has dwindled significantly in recent years. The Times Press-Recorder, a community weekly dedicated to Five Cities coverage, closed in May 2016 after declines in advertising revenue. The Adobe Press, which served Nipomo, suffered the same fate.
Pismo Beach City Manager Jim Lewis said those closures were big losses to the community. There are still several local news outlets that cover SLO County as a whole, but Lewis said there isn't as much focus on South County issues and residents.
"That means society is less aware of what's going on in their backyard," he told New Times.
That hasn't changed how government runs in Pismo Beach, Lewis said, and he's not sure it's led to any less engagement from constituents. The city, however, is working harder than ever to get the word out about events and policy changes. Pismo Beach has retooled its newsletter, Lewis said, and increased its social media activity. And public officials do more in-person community engagement work—attending meetings, walking neighborhoods, and hosting forums.
Lewis also said the city is putting more effort into ensuring that residents have factual information. Anyone with internet access can publish whatever they want online, and Lewis said that's the real threat.
"I do worry," he said, "that traditional media as we know it will be no longer."
The public's trust in the media hit a low point around the 2016 presidential election, during which time the term "fake news" became ingrained in the U.S. vocabulary. Accusations of biased reporting continue to persist, but trust in journalism, and specifically local reporting, is beginning to recover.
According to a survey the Poynter Institute conducted in 2018, 54 percent of the 2,000 participants said they have a "great deal" or "fair amount" of trust in the media. This is an increase from the 32 percent of respondents who said they felt the same way about the media in 2016.
While those numbers take into account all forms of news—including print, television, and radio—trust is even higher among local newspapers. According to the survey, 73 percent of people reported having a "great deal" or "fair amount" of trust in their local papers. Meanwhile, only 59 percent reported feeling the same about national print outlets.
To get a sense for whether these surveys accurately reflect how readers on the Central Coast feel about their own local newspapers, New Times' sister paper, the Sun, conducted a poll.
According to the combined results of polls on the Sun's website and Twitter page, about 43 percent of respondents said they somewhat trust local newspapers but find the reporting to be biased. Meanwhile, 23 percent said the level of trust depends on the topic, another 23 percent said they trust local newspapers either a lot or completely, and 11 percent claimed they don't trust local newspapers at all.
Admittedly, these aren't the most scientific polling methods, and the sample size of 35 respondents is too small for any sweeping general conclusions. The results are similar to what national studies suggest, and they reinforce opinions some local party leaders shared with New Times about Central Coast newspapers.
Chair of the Santa Barbara County Republican Party Bobbi McGinnis—who said she's more familiar with South County newspapers—believes local outlets are trustworthy and accurately cover the issues, such as conflicts regarding the county's cannabis regulations. However, she feels there are sides of some topics, such as oil and gas, that are being ignored by local media. Most coverage is critical of the oil industry while ignoring its benefits, like the number of well-paying jobs it creates locally, she said.
"I think what's underreported is that we have some of the best natural resources, but we are handcuffed by decisions by [county] supervisors ... that are really hurting our communities," McGinnis said.
On the other side of the political spectrum, San Luis Obispo County Democratic Party Chair Rosemary Wrenn said she believes local journalism is vital to the community and finds it to be fairer and more accurate than national broadcast media. However, she said—speaking on behalf of herself and not the entire party—she is disappointed that some newspapers contain less local reporting and rely more on national news from national outlets. She acknowledges this is an industrywide problem, not just a local one.
This sentiment is echoed in a comment left on the Sun's Facebook page responding to a question asking readers to share their thoughts on the trustworthiness of local newspapers.
"You are owned by a major corporation, ... so you only care about clickbait stories and what gets you the most attention. No serious journalism anymore," commenter Richard Smith said.
For the record, the Sun and New Times are locally owned and not a part of a major corporation. But many newspapers throughout the country are and, according to Smith, that's part of the problem. ∆
—Zac EzzoneEditor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the changes made to CNPA's news department and California Press Foundation head, Joe Wirt.