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Editorial: Why our next 40 years depends on you

Journalism is essential to democracy but its future is in jeopardy

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I can't imagine a more ideal community in which to operate a serious-minded news organization.

Our readers care deeply about the quality of their local government and the schools. They include experts on virtually any topic we cover. They are engaged in local issues and don't hesitate to advocate strongly for their points of view. To publish a newspaper and website in this environment is a unique journalistic undertaking and a huge professional challenge for reporters and editors every day.

Back in 1979, it was this challenge and opportunity that inspired me to start the Palo Alto Weekly. The daily newspaper that I grew up with, the Palo Alto Times, had been sold the year before to the Chicago Tribune Company, and in April 1979 it was radically transformed into the Peninsula Times Tribune. The folks from Chicago decided that what residents of Palo Alto and other Peninsula cities really wanted was a regional newspaper.

As soon as I got wind of their plan, my strong instinct was that it was a strategy doomed to fail (which it did 14 years later in 1993 when the paper closed.) I went to work preparing a business plan for a new weekly newspaper that would focus exclusively on Palo Alto and Stanford, essentially stepping into the role that the Palo Alto Times played in the community but with an orientation toward more in-depth reporting and a more progressive editorial viewpoint that aligned more with the community.

As a prospective entrepreneur, I didn't bring much to the table. I was born and raised in Menlo Park and Portola Valley and went to Stanford University, where I spent way too many hours as a college journalist reporting for KZSU, the campus radio station, covering a lot of anti-war protests and related campus controversies.

Upon graduating, I spent three years in Washington D.C. as press secretary to then-Congressman Pete McCloskey, then returned to Palo Alto and worked a year handling press relations and community outreach for the California Coastal Commission in San Francisco. Knowing this wasn't a background that would easily attract investors for launching a newspaper, I tried to compensate by doing an immense amount of research on the publishing business. In my business plan, I laid out my vision in great detail and made financial projections for getting to profitability in three years.

During the six months following the formation of the Peninsula Times Tribune, I pitched local residents whom I either knew from family ties, through my work for McCloskey or by their reputations for civic engagement. By Aug. 11, the day before my wedding, the last of the 14 investors I was seeking called to say they were in.

These 14 local families, who each invested between $15,000 and $25,000, shared my vision for a new, locally owned and independent paper for Palo Alto but were less certain about my ability to pull it off. In the end, as I came to realize, the opportunity to be an owner of their hometown newspaper was exciting and unique enough to set aside whatever doubts they may have had about me.

Some of these original shareholders have since passed away and their shares inherited by their kids, or in a couple of cases, grandkids. That there has been little additional turnover is a testament to the commitment of the 14: to sustaining a responsible and ethical organization providing good journalism to local residents. And over the last 40 years, not one shareholder has attempted to influence our editorial content, the Weekly's position on local issues or its political endorsements — a fact of which I am especially proud.

Like every media organization, we have plenty of critics who would disagree that we are responsible, ethical or provide good journalism. Ironically, as I was finishing this column I received an email from one reader describing the Weekly as "just another mouthpiece of the landed gentry" because of an editorial we published urging more thoughtful efforts to resolve the debate over Castilleja School's future. I recognize that there are others in the community for whom we are just one editorial position away from such labels, or from losing them as a supporter.

But I learned early on that today's upset reader is often tomorrow's enthusiastic supporter, and that it is neither possible nor desirable to avoid controversy in search of unattainable universal praise.

Journalism is disappearing

And this leads me to the crisis facing local journalism today. There has never been a time when the future of local journalism has been so much in doubt, and I'm worried that people in our Palo Alto bubble don't get it.

I am surprised at the number of highly informed people I meet who don't appreciate that local journalism is disappearing all over the country, leaving thousands of communities without sources of news other than social media or information put out by their local governments. Recent studies have shown that cities that lose a strong, local source of professional reporting suffer a decrease in voting, competition in local elections and citizen participation in civic affairs.

It is important to realize that we are not immune from these forces in Silicon Valley even though we may be the most highly educated and affluent region in the entire world. Almost every community on the Peninsula and the Bay Area had a local newspaper when we began publishing. Today, most of those newsrooms are gone.

If we are to prevent this from eventually happening here and in other communities that still have decent professional news organizations, readers need to acknowledge the danger to democracy that comes from the loss of local journalism and do their fair share to support it.

Local newspapers across the country are asking readers and major institutions in their communities to help them shift from a business model that depends on advertising revenue to one that relies on subscriptions, memberships, partnerships and other creative forms of support. You've seen our regular appeals for this support both in print and on Palo Alto Online, and we are gratified by the large number of readers who have responded. But we need thousands more to successfully evolve our business model in the years ahead.

What has brought local journalism to this point of vulnerability?

Three major trends have destroyed the advertising business model that enabled local news to prosper until the early 2000s:

The internet and the loss of retail. The internet, and Google, Facebook and Amazon in particular, have made it almost impossible for local, independent retailers to survive, especially in our region, where the cost of doing business is so high. Historically, retail has been the lifeblood of local newspapers, so retail consolidation has severely cut into the revenue needed to support robust editorial departments.

The generational change in business ownership. The remaining locally owned businesses are increasingly being operated by a new generation of owners — either the adult children of parents who have turned the business over to their kids, or young entrepreneurs with a new business idea. This new generation of business owner didn't grow up reading newspapers and is entirely oriented toward using inexpensive advertising on Google or Facebook or free social media to promote their products and services. Moving to these other platforms has diverted more than half of all advertising money previously spent in publications.

The reader shift to digital. Younger consumers of news, like the new generation of business owners, did not grow up with or establish print newspaper reading habits. They are mostly relying on digital news sources and have been accustomed to getting that news without paying for it. In Palo Alto, many older readers have also shifted to Palo Alto Online for their daily dose of local news, often in addition to reading the printed Palo Alto Weekly.

These conditions have thrust local news organizations, especially those owned by large companies, into a downward spiral. To maintain profitability as advertising declines, journalists are laid off, leading local news coverage to shrink, prompting more readers to cancel their subscriptions. This then leads to further reductions in advertising. The cycle continues until the newspaper is no longer performing the essential public service role of holding public officials accountable or covering the important news of the day.

Reshaping the economics

Fortunately, the Weekly has a jump on many of our peer news organizations. In 1994, we were the first newspaper, daily or weekly, to publish our content on the web, thanks to the help of a software engineer who was an avid Weekly reader. Since then, we have invested heavily in creating a website that now attracts an astounding 285,000 unique visitors each month, more than four times the population of the city. We publish news online 24/7 and distribute several emailed newsletters, including Express, a daily local news digest sent every weekday morning at 10 a.m.; Weekend Express, a Thursday summary of upcoming weekend events and the Peninsula Foodist, covering the local dining scene, every other Wednesday.

But as we create new ways to keep you informed and entertained, our future as a local news organization will literally be up to you. An evaporating pool of advertising must be replaced by direct membership support from readers, whether you get your news from Palo Alto Online or the Palo Alto Weekly. Our hope is to create the model for the future success of similar local news organizations, because they all face this existential threat.

As it has in so many other fields, the Palo Alto community and Silicon Valley can be leaders in reshaping the economic model for local journalism so that, in 40 more years, those of you still around can look back and say you were a part of saving it.

You can do your part by becoming a subscribing member at PaloAltoOnline.com/join.


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16 people like this
Posted by JCP
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2019 at 6:55 pm

JCP is a registered user.

Great editorial, thanks Bill.

Times certainly have changed since the days of the Vietnam war, when the public was engaged without the distractions of the internet, social media, Beyonce, et al.

Unfortunately, most people don't look to print/subscription-based journalism as a remedy for what ails them. As you say, the online experience has become a myopic and narcissistic experience that does not bode well for civilization.

How do we get back to the days of active public participation in the larger discussion?

There may not be a good answer. But I think it requires a radical approach to addressing the issues, not just reporting on what has occurred.

The Castilleja expansion is a case in point. Your latest editorial was milktoast/pablum. There was no fire or brimstone, just a cautious and uninformed attempt to look like a mediator. The issue is significant and the effects of the proposed expansion are far-reaching and will impact the community at large, not just the surrounding neighbors, for generations to come.

If you continue to try to appeal to the mainstream observer, there will be no rallying cry for the issues that true local journalism should inspire. It's not about feel-good pieces and restaurant reviews. You need to take a stand and be passionate about it.

As a neighbor of Castilleja I feel betrayed by your hands-off approach to the outrageous expansion plans, the joke of a DEIR, and the inept actions of the City's planning department to enforce the CUP.

Castilleja wants to remove housing, kill mature oaks and redwoods, add to traffic woes, disregard bicycle safety, violate setbacks, and endanger local residents. There is no benefit for Palo Alto. The proposed project only benefits Castilleja, who has shown only an entitled and arrogant view of how they should be perceived.

I was an editor of a weekly publication in Santa Cruz in the 1970s and we actually took a stand and made some impact. What have you done? I can't think of a single instance where your articles and editorials have changed the thinking of local government or the public. All I have seen is a rag full of real estate ads, with very little meaningful content.

Sorry, you are good about covering high school sports. I'll give you that.

37 people like this
Posted by I believe in subscriptions and excellent journalism
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 11, 2019 at 8:14 pm

I believe in subscriptions and excellent journalism is a registered user.

I am a proud subscriber to the Palo Alto Weekly and am grateful to Bill Johnson for his vision. Newspapers have been incredibly important over the last few years and I would be devastated to see the ones I rely on weaken or even disappear.

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