Who Runs San Diego?

Who Runs San Diego? The Role of Community Weeklies

By Doug Porter

There are more than two dozen community weekly media outlets in San Diego.  Most appear on printed tabloid-sized newsprint editions. Some have a rather tenuous relationship with internet editions.

Nationally speaking, paid circulation weeklies outnumber daily papers by a 6 to 1 margin. And nobody even keeps track of the smaller free papers. Depending on who you’re talking to, weeklies are the lights at the end of the media tunnel or just a few years away from being doomed to digital extinction.

What they have in common is their focus on a limited audience. Geography, ethnic background, social and/or sexual orientation are the target markets for these publishers, who range from corporate overlords to retirees. This week’s column will focus on those serving limited geographic areas. (A future installment will cover the non-geographic weeklies)

A perusal of the weeklies in the San Diego market reveals one big difference between the weeklies and our Daily Fishwrap: these supposedly below-the-radar newspapers generally have a robust amount of advertising.

blah blahThe more personal connection with their readership offered by the weeklies makes them the rarity in this day and age of sensory overload: a place where advertising can still be noticed. The dirty little secret about media in general and advertising in particular is that consumers have learned to tune out what they see and hear.

According to one article in the New York Times, we’re bombarded with up to 5000 messages per day. I’m told about a dozen of those are likely to make enough of an impression. Turn that number around and it means that 4988 entities wasted their money on most of us. A major corporate advertiser may be inclined to say the cost of reaching out to a dozen customers in a small newspaper isn’t cost effective. A dogwashing service will be thrilled at gaining a dozen news customers.

So the higher odds of an ad getting noticed (and that is how the bills get paid) in a weekly paper makes them an important player. All those things I’ve said about advertising are also true when it comes to content; it’s important for you as a user(and potential contributor)  to see things as the publisher likely sees them.

newspaperPapa Doug Manchester has recently scooped up nine or so weeklies and even started a free distribution one in Encinitas just two months ago. Unlike the (daily) North County Times, these papers are continuing to publish. The UT‘s absorption of the NC Times was a ploy to add one more notch on the volume button of the Manchester megaphone.  It failed, as the vast majority of subscribers declined the offer to pony up for Papa Doug’s mothership.

A bevy of UT execs have been dispatched to oversee the weekly operations. And when Papa says “jump”, these minders do just that. During the primary campaigns this past spring, coverage in those weeklies of candidates competing with those blessed by the boss-man ended abruptly once the word came from Mission Valley.

Manchester’s newest media minions are: The Encinitas Advocate,  La Jolla LightDel Mar Times, Rancho Santa Fe ReviewCarmel Valley News, Solana Beach SunPoway News Chieftain, Rancho Bernardo News Journal and Ramona SentinelMany of these titles exist online as sections of another, ie the Del Mar Timesincludes Solana Beach and Carmel Valley. Word is that Papa’s tiring of handing out cash for operations; look for more consolidation as time goes on.

The San Diego Community News Group covers San Diego’s beach communities. Their papers are distributed door to door and include: Beach & Bay PressPeninsula Beacon, and La Jolla Today.  The company has a hands-off relationship with the internet. While you can find replicas of their pages online, to communicate with the editor you’re expected to use snail mail: “Please send letters to:1621 Grand Ave., Ste C San Diego, CA 92169″

uptown-14890The San Diego Community News Network has papers covering a wide swatch of central San Diego all the way out to La Mesa. Its newspapers include:Mission Times CourierLa Mesa CourierMission Valley NewsUptown NewsDowntown News and Gay San Diego.These folks get it. Their depth of coverage, original/interesting content, community engagement and internet friendliness is remarkable.

The Community Media Corporation owns twenty media outlets throughout Southern California. The weeklies they run in this area include the East County Californian, the Alpine Sun and the Chula Vista Star NewsThese papers have limited original content punctuated with assorted press releases. The CV Star News does have some good reporting from time to time.

Finally, there are an assortment of independently owned weeklies including The Coronado / Imperial Beach Eagle & Times, East County Gazette, The Bonsall/Fallbrook Village NewsClairemont TimesThe Valley RoadrunnerThe Julian News and The Coast News

In the context of a “Who Runs San Diego” essay it would be easy to assume that the market is so fractured as to render these entities powerless.

While they generally(the Manchester-owned ones use omission) do not function as a blunt force tool for local plutocrats, their attention to the details of community activities–along with the willingness of some of them to print press releases–make them an important “small ball” player.

Town councils and planning boards are sometimes incubators for up and coming politicos and nobody’s more willing to cover these entities than community weeklies. And they provide a pathway for smart citizens to get involved. Little victories count.

Winners and Losers

NorthParkSignAngle1-150x150The personal connection between small weeklies–as opposed to the abject impersonal nature of mass media–and  the people they serve means that your voice as a citizen is more likely to be heard. Their dependence on small business advertising also means they’re often reluctant to serve up much in the way of controversy.

The increasing focus on community identity in the city of villages known as San Diego, bodes well for the future of small publishers. The danger here is that these weeklies will be bought up by bigger players with the goal of sustaining a favorable (to their interests) climate of opinion within which decisions were taken. The economies of scale, combined with the ever-increasing costs of production are factors threatening the future of the independent weekly.

The ability of small publishers to merge their traditional role as local guardians with the demand for a 21st century “Town Crier” functionality will, I think, determine their future viability. Each niche is different; therefore the means of communicating must be relevant.

Being able to let people know about an upcoming street repair project and keeping them informed of when they can expect the water to be turned back on after a contractor screw-up will create an unmatchable value for the community media of tomorrow.

Here’s What You Need to Do

soapboxIn a world of big media and spectacular events it’s often easy to overlook the value of community media. Not only do I encourage people to read and support local outlets, I think it’s important to interact with them.

Write letters and op-eds to the outlets relevant to your own community, keeping in mind the audience and platform you are dealing with. Most  weeklies are thrilled to get original content. Realize that you can often–okay, almost always–be more persuasive on a more personal basis in a small newspaper than with a megaphone via mass media, especially if you are polite.

Follow them on Facebook and Twitter. I have to say as a North Park resident that the Uptown News’ twitter feed is often informative. Of all the scenarios possible in the future of the media, my personal favorite is the one where weeklies become multi-faceted community “platforms” and are encouraged, nurtured and just profitable enough to make a decent living for a few folks with a passion for journalism.

This article first appeared in the San Diego Free Press on August 27, 2014.