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San Joaquin County newspapers are budgeting, innovating to survive

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Posted: Thursday, March 12, 2009 10:00 pm

The Rocky Mountain News closed Feb. 27, just 55 days shy of its 150th birthday.

Scores of comments left by readers on the paper's Web site lamented the loss. E.W. Scripps Co., the owner of the paper, blamed the economy.

Across the country, newspapers are slashing dividends and filing for bankruptcy, and they have eliminated over 18,000 jobs in 2008 and 2009.

The Central Valley's papers are feeling the pain, too. There have been job cuts at papers such as The Record, Tracy Press, Manteca Bulletin and the Lodi News-Sentinel. The papers have faced a decline in advertising revenue and a loss of print circulation over the last year.

To stay afloat and serve their readers, local papers are cutting sections or the number of pages that are printed, opting out of wire news services and enticing readers with up-to-date and locally relevant content.

On Monday, the Associated Press reported that McClatchy Co., the owner of The Sacramento Bee, The Modesto Bee and The Fresno Bee, would be cutting 1,600 jobs from its entire workforce.

It's not just the Internet that's to blame for the staggering challenges facing the newspaper business these days.

The recession has consumers and, as a result, retailers, tightening their budgetary belts.

Consumers will often look at "the extras" they can drop to save money, such as a newspaper subscription - which runs, on average, from $8 to $11 a month for a local publication.

"Retailers are also trying to cut their corners," said Roger Coover, the publisher of The Record in Stockton.

One of the first things retailers look at is their advertising budget, which includes print and online ads with newspapers. That may not seem like such a devastating thing, but considering most newspapers offer their online content for free, that leaves subscriptions and rack sales to pick up the slack.

San Joaquin County newspapers at a glance

Tracy Press
Owners: Robert and Cheri Matthews
Publisher: Robert Matthews
Editor: Cheri Matthews
Circulation area: Tracy
Years operating: 111

Manteca Bulletin
Owner: Morris Multimedia, Savannah, Ga.
Publisher: Paul Mahony
Editor: Dennis Wyatt
Print circulation: 6,000
Circulation area: Manteca, Ripon, Escalon, French Camp
Employees: 105
Years in existence: 100

The Record
Owner: Ottaway Newspapers, Middletown, N.Y.
Publisher: Roger Coover
Editor: Mike Klocke
Circulation: Sundays: 61,619; Daily: 56,360
Circulation area: San Joaquin and Calaveras counties
Employees: 280, of which 50 are part-time
Years in existence: 114

Lodi News-Sentinel
Owner: Fred Weybret
Publisher: Marty Weybret
Editor: Richard Hanner
Circulation: 15,499
Circulation area: South of Twin Cities Road, north of Eight Mile Road inside Sacramento and San Joaquin County lines
Employees: 85, of which 27 are part-time
Years in existence: 127

News-Sentinel staff

"People have to remember that advertising pays 80 percent of the bills at the Lodi News-Sentinel and 100 percent of the bills for Lodinews.com," said Marty Weybret, publisher for the News-Sentinel. He said that advertising has decreased by 15 to 20 percent since the mortgage crisis erupted in 2008.

Circulation at the paper has declined by about 2,000 readers in the past 10 years. However, online readers have increased by more than 3,000 since 2004.

"In one sense, we don't have a lack of readers," said Richard Hanner, the News-Sentinel's editor. "Between print and online, we have more than ever, but we have seen a slippage of revenue."

Another challenge area papers are facing is the ability to compete with not only online news sources, but TV, radio and Web sites such as YouTube.

Paul Mahony, publisher of the Manteca Bulletin in Manteca, believes that the real task facing the industry is reporting on news unique to the population it applies to.

"The challenge is to be relevant to the community," Mahony said. The Bulletin runs seven days a week and has a circulation of 6,000 papers throughout French Camp, Manteca and Ripon.

Businesses must adapt to the changing times if they are to survive. The Tracy Press has downsized from a daily paper to publishing twice a week.

Nowhere is that more true than with newspapers where new technologies such as video and animated online ads have slowly ingrained themselves into readers' news source expectations.

"Print can survive," said Erica Smith, a journalist and multimedia designer with the St. Louis Dispatch who runs a Web site called Paper Cuts, dedicated to tracking the employment status in the newspaper industry. "But the evolution of print media must be allowed to continue; what worked in 1800 didn't work in 1980. And what worked in 1980 doesn't work today," she said.

"Technological improvements like digital photography and pagination have allowed newspapers faster production and more environmentally-friendly operations," said Eric Johnston, who started his career 20 years ago as a News-Sentinel photographer and was recently made the president and publisher of the Modesto Bee.

Johnston contends that the Internet has changed the dynamic of the industry from not only a reader standpoint, but also from a sales and distribution standpoint.

"Newspapers have migrated from a once-per-day publication cycle to a continuous one - the old wire service adage of 'a deadline every minute' has found new life in digital newsrooms."

In order to survive, The Record has not only taken advantage of the Web and its abilities in news reporting, but it has begun to offer customers a variety of other services.

"We call ourselves the San Joaquin Media Group. It's our effort to branch out and be more than a newspaper," Coover said of his evolving business.

For instance, The Record also hires itself out as a distribution service, delivering other papers like the San Francisco Chronicle, The Sacramento Bee, The Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily and others.

When other papers may be cutting back the number of special sections they produce, The Record began publishing a glossy-print magazine called "Elegant Lifestyles of San Joaquin County" as a way to reach a higher-income group of readers. They've upgraded other special sections, such as their bridal section, to glossy print, and started yet another magazine titled "San Joaquin Woman."

Coover said that they've also expanded The Record's online presence, Recordnet.com, by giving advertisers more choices and by becoming a reseller of Google's Adwords, a service that allows Web site operators a way to create their own ads.

"My focus has generally been that our industry beats itself up so much, that I try to focus on the innovation," Coover said.

Coover said that the industry no longer focuses on competition with each other or scooping one another. In fact, many county papers utilize content sharing.

The News-Sentinel and The Record share pertinent sports stories from time to time. The Tracy Press and the News-Sentinel share stories on a regular basis and many papers in the area share with the Modesto Bee.

Mahony said that the Web has given the Manteca Bulletin more options for advertisers and has been a plus for the business. Owned by Morris Multimedia in Savannah, Ga., The Bulletin prints and distributes sister papers in Turlock, Oakdale, Ceres, Riverbank and Escalon as a means to keep costs down.

As a way to attract readers, the News-Sentinel began offering more options online, such as videos that accompany some stories, Twitter.com updates to keep readers apprised of upcoming stories and reader-generated content like vacation photos.

"I see traditional journalism shrinking but not going away," Hanner said. "Instead, it will be complemented by lots of people and lots of platforms from Twitter to blogs to YouTube to Facebook. Journalism should morph, as it is doing, to be more relevant, more reader-focused."

One form of writing the News-Sentinel has experimented with is called Alternative Story Form, which breaks away from the traditional style of news writing.

Carrying minimal debt and with a cohesive base of readers and advertisers, the News-Sentinel may be better-positioned than most newspapers to weather the difficult current economic climate, Hanner said.

Bill Davis, a mass communication instructor at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, said he focuses on teaching "backpack journalism," making sure future reporters can write for print, the Web, for TV, radio or any form of broadcasting.

"(Reporters) need to shift gears and write in any style," Davis said. Today's journalists need a multitude of skills in order to survive. Not only should they be able to write in any style, but they need to be able to take photographs and record video.

"We're trying to teach all of our students to do that; not to necessarily rely on a traditional reporting job," he said.

But will it work? Is it working now?

"With reference to Charles Darwin, it isn't the biggest and strongest that survive - it's the most adaptable to change," Johnston said.

Contact Business Editor Marc Lutz at marcl@lodinews.com.

What's being said about the industry

"The economy will get better someday. More people want to read a real newspaper than care to read online. As long as that remains the case, the newspaper will have a long life."
Roger Coover
Publisher
The Record
"Our priority has been and will always be local news. If you find areas that you can share content, other newspapers are no longer our main competitor."
Bill Davis
Instructor
San Joaquin Delta College
"There's always going to be a need for storytellers to go out and gather information and organize it. (But) I'm not sure what the newspaper of the future is going to look like."
Eric Johnston
Publisher
The Modesto Bee
"Newspapers - regardless of how the information is distributed - are a source of objectivity and trust. In a world where you can find … Web sites touting 'news' created by someone working to advance their own agenda, newspapers are an island of integrity."

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