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Newspaper industry decline seen during storyteller's recent sojourn

Tim O’Leary

Special to the Village News

Here’s a tale of four newspapers in decline. For me, it is the best of times and the worst of times.

It is the best of times because today I am a columnist, a pinnacle of my craft. I have a publisher who appears to like what I write and, with scant editing, spends her precious ink on my ragged doggerel.

It is the worst of times because her two weekly newspapers, which serve a vast area that stretches from Bonsall to Lake Elsinore, Menifee, Hemet and Anza, are struggling to survive. The newspaper industry is in free fall. I was reminded of that painful fact during a recent jaunt that I initially viewed as an escape from the four walls that had increasingly closed in on me over the past decade.

My recent freedom from care-giving – my wife Margaret is now far away in a dementia facility – allowed me to scratch my travel itch. It was a relatively short burst, just 440 miles by car. But it took me back to my first failure in getting a full-time reporting job and my first success in doing so.

My failure came in 1982 – the year I graduated from college. There an arrogant editor sniffed at me and scoffed at how a recent journalism school grad with only a part-time writing pedigree could aspire to the lofty Santa Barbara News-Press.

Seaside Santa Barbara is stunningly beautiful, and it was my first stop.

I found my first full-time writing home a year or so later, 55 miles to the north in Lompoc, which is close to a wild, blustery beach and was known at the time for its vast flower fields and its sprawling Air Force Base. It took me two tries, but there I was covering cops, courts, schools, the fire department, agriculture and the local housing authority.

I came into my own there, and thus Lompoc was the second and last stop on my four-day getaway. I had expected to stage a glorious return into a bustling newsroom of a small daily paper that in my day was staffed by a publisher, three editors, three full-time reporters, several stringers, ad reps, printing press and production crews and an assemblage of other misfit toys.

I thought I might bump into a former co-worker or two. I wondered if Vaughn Proctor, the veteran city reporter who grudgingly took me under his wing, was still alive. I remembered that Vaughn and his wife grew orchids as a hobby.

I parked in front of the Lompoc Record building. It looked dark, withered, void of life and purpose. The front door was locked. The side door that was typically used by the newspaper’s staff was boarded up.

I soon learned that years ago the paper had been sold to, or absorbed by, the Santa Maria Times. The Record now comes out just once a week, a mere two or three pages at the front of a zoned edition of the Times, which is printed 30 miles away. The Record still exists, but as a mere shadow of its former self.

Then I learned that the News-Press had folded in July, one of the 488 daily newspapers to die over the last 50 years. That paper’s downfall was dissected in a piece that reporter Nick Welsh wrote for the weekly Santa Barbara Independent in its Aug. 17-24 edition.

It was the cover story headlined: “The Death of a Daily.” The subhead read: “The Rise and Self-inflicted Fall of the News-Press.

Welsh adroitly told that many residents and media observers blamed the death on missteps taken by its last owner, Wendy P. McCaw, who was initially seen as a rich, eccentric local champion of environmental and preservationist causes.

Others simply attributed that paper’s death to the industry’s inexorable fall, one that is widely linked to the migration of newspaper readership and advertising revenue to digital platforms and other sources.

Experts said newspaper advertising revenue plummeted from $37.8 billion in 2008 to $14.3 billion in 2018, a 62% decline. Newsroom employment plummeted 47% in that same period, according to those sources.

Welsh reported that 60 people worked in the News-Press newsroom in 2006. It dropped to two after a string of internal and external problems and the paper moved from its iconic downtown “citadel” to a Goleta storefront.

That staffing vacuum, which has occurred everywhere, has devastated the depth and scope of American newspaper reporting.

More than 300 American newspapers stopped publishing in 2020 alone.

There is a lesson here, folks. Please support your local papers. Read them, buy them and advertise in them. Please heed Welsh when he said, “Without getting gloppy and sentimental, newspapers hold a unique place in the community they serve. They’re privately run, profit-driven enterprises that also attempt to function as a public trust. In this regard, newspapers function like self-appointed grand jurors – charged with keeping elected officials accountable and the public informed.”

We can all do our part. Perhaps we can save what’s left of this vital public service. Our little papers are important to the communities they serve. Please help them grow and strengthen as they struggle to serve us all.

I’ll let Welsh make the final pitch: “What happens now? I don’t pretend to know. But I do remember sitting on a panel discussion on the future of journalism in 2006 as the News-Press meltdown achieved critical mass. My answer then was simple. We need more bodies. More reporters.

“My answer today is exactly the same. More bodies. More reporters,” Welsh said.

 

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