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April 18, 2014

The Newsonomics of the Death & Life of California News

First published at Nieman Journalism Lab

Let’s look this week at the journalistic turmoil in the world’s eighth-largest economy: California, a.k.a. the Golden State (beta motto: “We get post-IPO Facebook capital gains taxes — you don’t”).

The massive changes we’re seeing in California journalism portend even faster journalistic change across the country. We Californians like to believe we’re always at the birth of the new new, from Hollywood to Silicon Valley. Certainly, that’s been true of news change — and now that change has greatly accelerated, doing spins, free falls, reversals of fortune, and lots more. It’s not really change — it’s chaos. No one can tell what the journalistic landscape of the state may look like in, say, 2014. All we can say with certainty: we’re witnessing the death and life of California news.

Who will own the biggest news media? Who will manage the biggest news media? How much of a life in print will be left for newspapers as they go digital? And, of course, how many journalists will be paid to get the news to the state’s 37 million residents and to the rest of the country? Already, well over 1,000 daily newspaper journalists have lost their jobs over the past five-plus years.

How many new combinations — among news entities formerly known as newspapers, broadcast, and digital news startups — will emerge and grow to scale? Those combinations are already beginning to tax legacy imaginations, and as of this week, we’ve got a new intriguing model to add to the mix.

The promise of California Watch’s model

Tuesday, we saw a new model birthed: the friendly takeover of one digital news startup by another. California Watch, the almost-three-year-old statewide-oriented model of a modern news agency, is merging with Bay Citizen, the two-plus-year-old Bay Area-oriented news startup, which has had more than its share of birthing pangs.

Both sites were born in the depth of the recession and a relatively dark period of Bay Area journalism. (See “Bay Area Online News Renaissance: 7 Pointers Forward.”) Both hired talented staffs (from voluminous applications) and won journalism awards. Yet California Watch, built on $5 million in foundation funding, developed under the wing of the Center for Investigative Reporting (itselffounded way back in 1977). It has prospered, grown, and earned quick legitimacy and even respect from the state’s major media, which run its stories. CIR, which has long focused on investigative pieces of national import, is now largely synonymous with California Watch; it’s one organization made up of 30 journalists (writers, editors, producers, data analysts, and more) and nine other staffers.

We’re seeing in the merger the greater strength of the California Watch model. Call it B2B (business-to-business), a statewide news agency re-imagined for this century. It’s a model being eyed by journalists in some of the other 49 states: Produce muscular, multimedia journalism once (with a little tailoring of stories by market) and distribute it to many news outlets, from Voice of San Diego to KABC-TV in L.A. to the San Francisco Chronicle. These news distributors pay small sums for the stories, but the money is adding up. Increase the flow of journalism, in the Bay Area specifically and California more widely, and the networking “new wire” importance of California Watch grows, especially as struggling dailies continue to cut their own content-originating staffs.

Bay Citizen foundered on leadership and strategic disagreements, on personalities, on the editorial priorities muddied by the otherwise-valuable feeding-stories-to the-regional-edition-of-The-New-York-Times program, and more. That’s all history now.

CIR/California Watch executive director Robert Rosenthal, and his former boss at the San Francisco Chronicle, Phil Bronstein — the two served as managing editor and executive editor, respectively in the last decade — now face strategic and operational decisions on how best to put together the combined nonprofit. Bronstein, who has served as president of the CIR board, now serves as the executive chair of the merged organization, in part owing to the last wishes of the Bay Citizen benefactor Warren Hellman, who died unexpectedly in December. Two long-time daily newspaper guys, now able to build a new news model outside the constraints of constant cost-cutting and legacy hand-wringing. The foundation is set, with such stories as “On Shaky Ground” (“The Newsonomics of California Watch’s Single Investigative Story,”), which won over many editor skeptics.

For the moment, the big news out of this move is this: the potential to establish a new local model of scale and capacity. California Watch/Bay Citizen will be able to move forward with an editorial staff of more than 50, providing a scale that’s been needed to fill the yawning vacuum of local and statewide coverage. National investigative nonprofits from ProPublica to the Center for Public Integrity have stepped up their work, in volume and value, as newspaper-based coverage has slipped. In America, though, it’s a local-to-statewide news — across the 3,500-mile expanse of the country — that’s been crying out for bigger, new models to build on the successes of the MinnPosts and Texas Tribunes.

MediaNews dives into Digital First

The merger isn’t the only big news news in the Bay Area; it’s just the most public.

MediaNews — the largest news publisher by circulation in the state, with more than 30 dailies and great strength in the Bay Area, north of the Bay Area, and in greater L.A. — is about to be shaken to its Dean Singleton foundation. Singleton built the company, deal by deal, and assembled a coalition of willing executives to run the businesses and newsrooms.

They clustered, they cut, and they maneuvered through bankruptcy, and now their leader has been pushed into retirement, replaced by the wild, private-equity-bankrolled revolutionaries from Digital First/Journal Register Company (JRC). CEO John Paton and company moved rapidly (especially in newspaper time) to turn the financially and editorially bankrupt JRC upside down, lopping legacy costs, shooting voluminous video, opening newsrooms, and jettisoning anything and everything that didn’t smell of local.

That’s easier done in New Haven and Macomb that it is in San Jose and L.A. Applying faster, digital-first fixes to larger newsrooms and newspaper operations offers a complexity of challenge that will makes good drama for the rest of us. Expect to see rolling retirements of the Old Guard, with Denver Post CEO Jerry Grilly already announced.

Reorganizing newspapers on paper (or computer) is one thing — the new management knows its toughest and first challenge can be summed up in one word: culture. Yes, after the newspaper industry has been half-sized, culture, good, bad, and silly, is usually the first challenge new management faces in pushing change.

As MediaNews’ California properties change, they’ll change the landscape around them. Expect differing kinds of new competition and new potentials for unorthodox partnerships. Partner up, in fact, the MediaNews turmoil with those of another high-profile experiment: Patch.

The hyperlocal shoot of AOL, it has made a big bet on California. Of its 800-plus sites, 132 are based here. Many of the sites are lively, with good features, calendars, and lots of local, if episodic, bloggers — even if the sites don’t come close to living up to Patch’s tagline: “Hi there, we’re Patch, your source for local knowledge you can’t live without.” AOL, of course, won’t release traffic data, but its latest financial report showed that its $120 million investment isn’t close to bringing in enough ad revenue. That’s confirmed by checking on the sites (national ads prevail) or attending a local Patch-sponsored community meeting, as I did last Friday. Second question from the audience: “Why don’t you have local ads?”

Given Digital First’s open-newsroom strategy and philosophy, Patch is particularly vulnerable to the MediaNews changes. MediaNews can do what Patch is doing — and cover the news with more than single reporter/editors. Or MediaNews properties could partner with Patch.

Don’t think that Bay Area media change is restricted to text and print. KGO Radio, the market’s long-time talk leader, saw its talk line-up of multiple decades jettisoned one night in December — to public uproar, where else, but on Facebook — as it embraces the all-news (broadcast and digital) mantra and goes head-to-head with KCBS.

Public radio on the move in L.A.

Moving briefly to the south, we can see that the change is only prologue.

If Californians like to be first, they can be the first to claim one metro area with three — count ‘em, three — bankrupt daily newspapers. That would be metro Los Angeles. Both MediaNews (Los Angeles News Group, or LANG, with holdings like the Daily News, the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Pasadena Star-News) and Freedom Communications (Orange County Register) fell into bankruptcy and emerged quickly from it, with banker and private equity owners. Then last summer, the two tried to mate, as Alden Global Capital, holding about 40 percent of each, tried to arrange an arms-length (tough to negotiate with yourself within the bounds of law) marriage and somehow failed. Tribune’s Los Angeles Times entered bankruptcy in December 2008 and has yet to emerge from equity owner/bondholder hell. Those three companies continue to gyrate in the marketplace, maneuvering within their increasingly limited options.

With L.A. Times publisher Eddy Hartenstein assuming the Tribune CEO title as well last spring, the Times has been shaking up its strategy and management, edging into its own digital-first territory. One clue: the November appointment of a quartet of new VPs tried to find new harmony in digital revenue. They include Jennifer Collins from Variety and Andrea Nunn from HBO, giving an indication the newspaper company is trying to stretch well beyond its roots. They move in as long-time Times chief revenue officer John O’Loughlin moves out, having just assumed the president’s job in a exec-suite reorg at the Houston Chronicle.

Among the Times’ many options: a flipping-the-switch bet that would have it abandon some print to cut costs and become more heavily digital faster.

Ahead of still more staff cuts, the Times lost its change-oriented editor, Russ Stanton, in December — and then saw him hired by public-media mover KPCCas VP of content. Even a few years ago, that would have seemed a bizarre career move. The editor of The Los Angeles Times goes to lead the news effort at a local public radio station?

Yet when you compare the two enterprises — today — you see one in decline and one believing in its own upside.

Yes, The Los Angeles Times still has (today) 500-plus newsroom people, and KPCC can claim fewer than 60. But as the Times cuts, though, the Southern California Public Radio (SCPR) board has given the go-ahead to double its newsroom to more than 110 by July 1, 2014, needing to raise $24 million over four years to do it. Already raised toward that goal: $8 million so far. Already hired: 20 people in the last year. For 2012 alone, the plan is to bring in at least 13 more news positions — including producers, editors, bloggers, and hosts.

Those numbers are curious ones, but still seem small. Don’t, however, under-estimate SCPR president Bill Davis. Davis is a public media exec in the mold of his mentor Bill Kling, the Minnesota Public Radio visionary entrepreneur who first outlined how public radio could become public media and move into the local news vacuum. In fact, MPR, through its joint parent American Public Media subsidiary, is a sibling to KPCC.

Davis knows how to raise money, and he sees the journalistic devastation that’s enveloped his city. Add that energy and ability to the mix and the journalistic arithmetic begins to change. Five hundred newsroom people at the L.A. Times sounds like an army. Peel off the parts of that army that are devoted to sports, entertainment, and the production of content (as opposed to the creation of it), and you may be down to a couple of hundred who report the local news.

That local news — sans entertainment and sports — is what the expanded KPCC plan aims at. So let’s say that KPCC could get to 100 (Kling’s magic number) in the next several years, as public-spirited citizens (a la Philadelphia and Chicago?) chip in to create and sustain a local news alternative. Let’s say the Times continues to reel, run aground on the shoals of legacy costs, and its newsroom, already dispirited, trims down to 150 local news creators. As Rick Santorum said not long ago in Iowa: Ballgame.

Finally, let’s head to the border. There, the San Diego Union-Tribune, worth a billion dollars a decade ago, has been sold twice in three years. This time, local developer Doug Manchester bought it and promises to turn the newspaper of record in California’s second biggest city into a booster sheet. Across town, online startup Voice of San Diego — a California Watch affiliate which just had to cut staff due to budget cuts — has recently partnered with the local NBC station for news coverage.

Mix ’em, match ’em. It’s a Mating Game that seems like it could only come out of California.

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