Confessions of a Newspaper Junkie
The Pulitzer Prizes were awarded this week for excellence in journalism. Or what’s left of it, as more and more storied newsrooms across the nation fall victim to an unsustainable business model. In fact, editorial staffs at papers like the Orange County Register and Denver Post have been publicly vilifying their ownership groups for gutting jobs and siphoning profits.
I find it tragic, because I am an old school newspaper junkie. Some people wake up to the delights of their kids or pets. For me, it’s greeting that bundled hunk of newsprint on my doorstep. Old faithful. I unwrap it, anticipating the day’s headlines, even though they are already eclipsed by Trump’s morning tweets. That’s okay. I prefer my news be more that 140 grammatically tortured characters, and I delight in the surprise and discovery that comes with unique human stories well told. I tend to rotate the sections I read first. These days it’s Sports, what with Shohei mania, and the always juicy NBA playoffs.
I’m attached to the tactile pleasure of newsprint. I’m fascinated by the mission of newspapers too. One of my oldest friends has won a couple of Pulitzers for political cartooning, and I’ve hung with his colleagues in New Orleans – singular lot of hell raising crazies who could have chosen a more lucrative path but were hard bitten by the news beat. They risked their lives – and saved others – during Katrina, winning a Pulitzer for their coverage.
Yes, I am a dinosaur, part of the aging, dwindling population who will pay for their news to be driven to their door. Seems quaint now. And that loss of subscribers, coupled with the migration of ads to the internet, has poisoned the fortunes of the newspaper business, and made journalism a dying profession. Which seems especially tragic in these times when truth is more elusive – and critical – than ever before. The internet has habituated people into believing their news should be free. And so it is. Bought and paid for by PACs, bots, ideologues, and foreign governments.
For 20 years I’ve subscribed to the Los Angeles Times, not because it’s superior to the New York Times or Washington Post, but simply because it covers local news, entertainment and sports. I’ve witnessed its fortunes diminish through bankruptcies and ownership changes. But with the recent purchase by local billionaire (and owner of two Laguna homes) Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, hope springs eternal. He has promised to invest in great journalism again, and he has the deep pockets to do so. He said the newspaper is “a public trust in the private sector.” And he’s right. Because in these perilous times – when more ad dollars are being siphoned to Google and Facebook (remember, newspapers don’t capture your personal information and sell it), it will take the largesse of wealthy, committed citizens who believe that newspapers are vital to our freedom, to sustain them. Probably at a loss. Like Jeff Bezos with the Washington Post. Or New Orleans businessman John Georges, who launched the daily Advocate after the storied Times-Picayune was reduced to publication three times a week, a crushing blow to a proud city that loves its local news.
Closer to home we had Allan Simon buy this newspaper a few years back, then gift it to management, and we are all better off for it. It’s a juggling act. A skeleton staff of hard working, committed pros bringing the news of our town to your doorstep for free every single Friday for 52 weeks a year. And relying 100% on ad revenues to cover the costs of print, distribution, and operations. At the same time we’ve seen our local community editions of the larger LA Times and Orange County Register pull back on local coverage and virtually phone it in.
Is there another way to make newspapers profitable? Look at the LA Times and you will see they are now heavily invested in branded, grass roots events. This weekend is their annual Festival of Books at USC. They’ve been advertising it for months (where the paid ads used to be). And next month is their second annual LA Food Bowl, a month-long celebration of the region’s rich and diverse food scene. They also sponsor international travel experiences with their award-winning writers. Does this add up to a winning revenue formula? For an enterprise so capital intensive, probably not. But it’s something Facebook can’t do, and I am grateful they’ve leveraged their intellectual capital with innovative events that are stimulating, fun, and community driven. So thank you Dr. Soon-Shiong. I am hopeful you are sincere, and in return I will continue to pay for the thump of your paper hitting my entry as long as you keep printing it.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on KX 93.5, and can be reached at [email protected].