More Bad News for the News

By Becky O’Malley
Wednesday February 04, 2009 - 06:17:00 PM

The economic news continues to be bad and worse. Today, we are sorry to say goodbye to our old friends at Elephant, founded by Stuart Skorman as Elephant Pharmacy, made over by investors after he moved on with the trendier-sounding name of Elephant Pharm. In the brave new world of the Awful Oughties, neither a good business plan nor honest business practices nor clever marketing turned out to be enough to save Elephant. Like an increasing number of retailers, from large (Circuit City) to small (the deli on your corner, perhaps), it’s not possible to survive without credit, and credit’s broken.  

Many customers don’t realize that it’s been the common, and sound, practice for retailers to purchase inventory with borrowed money and repay with interest after sales. Without product on the shelves, no free classes, no friendly clerks will make any difference. And no amount of advertising. The ads that Elephant ran on the front page of the Planet and on the website were excellent, and got good response from potential customers. But as the stock on the shelves dwindled, there was no way that advertising was going to save the business. 

In the capitalist model that started with California high technology and took over in the last quarter of the 20th century, if you weren’t growing, you were dying. When Elephant started out, some hoped that it would be able to survive as a locally-owned non-chain. It quickly became apparent that the amount of management that the modern business needs is more than one store can support, so the company expanded to several more locations in an attempt to achieve the critical mass needed to pay for a competent executive team. But just as inventory requires loans, expansion requires serious capital, and serious capital, if you haven’t noticed, is now spooked.  

Customers loved Elephant. It made no difference. Money rules, and when the money dried up, the business withered.  

Elephant’s executives, starting with Stuart Skorman and on through a succession of hopeful and enthusiastic people, were a pleasure to do business with. When a few misguided fanatics tried to persuade advertisers to boycott the Planet because we printed readers’ criticism of Israel, our Elephant contact of the moment, herself Jewish, called us up to laugh about it after she got the push. (That campaign, by the way, was a dismal failure—our ad sales actually went up. And now that even the MediaNews clones with which we’re surrounded are printing letters from the same critical voices, the boycotters have nowhere to turn with their venom.)  

Which brings us back to the boring question of the week. With retail on the ropes, who’s going to support local journalism? An old friend of ours, the late Elsa Knight Thompson, claimed credit for inventing the KPFA marathon, but we always advised her to keep quiet about it, because many found the concept annoying. And yet, here we are again, using precious editorial space to whine about money. Sadly, it’s becoming unavoidable. It’s getting clearer and clearer every day that if news consumers don’t support newsgathering, it will go away. 

There have been a couple of high-minded essays recently suggesting that the only thing that will save newspapers is big endowments. One fellow who works in the fundraising department (it has a fancier name) at Yale suggested that an endowment of about $5 billion would bail out the New York Times, now suffering the penalties for a series of bad investments. Many others have echoed his sentiments. 

When I have time (not any time soon, alas) I hope to compose an essay for some national publication pointing out how much we’ve been able to do around here with a whole lot less money. It is possible to do excellent journalism on the cheap, if you don’t mind low-rent offices in unstylish neighborhoods with chairs that should be taken immediately to the dump and no expense accounts. Our digs might be seen as seedy by some, but we’ve had tomatoes growing in the back yard for the six years we’ve been here. Can the Times match that? 

Now the publisher has come up with a new brilliant idea. We’ve always tried to contribute some modest financial support to music and arts organizations and other non-profits even though our major support has been of this paper. Many of our fellow donors to such causes tell us they’re also Planet fans. So why not give them the benefit of what we might call a Twofer, two contributions for the price of one? 

Here’s how it works. Make a contribution to your favorite non-profit cause, telling them that it’s earmarked for a Planet ad. (This is tax-deductible.) When the Planet gets such donor-sponsored ads, we’ll match them 50-50, doubling the advertising space purchased by the same number of dollars for a regular ad. We’ve already gotten the ball rolling by co-sponsoring some interesting literary events in the last week or so. 

The value for arts organizations with productions to advertise is especially great, but all kinds of non-profits these days could use more exposure for their mission. The group benefits, and the Planet benefits. Our advertising sales department can advise on how it’s done. They’re putting together a list of good causes in case you don’t have your own. 

Not, of course, that we wouldn’t accept a $5 billion endowment. Or even one of $5 million. Or even less. Berkeley is home to a few heavy-hitters, and who knows, they might kick in.  

Until they do, however, we’ll hope that our regular readers will manage to contribute whatever they can afford. As a rule of thumb, each “free” weekly paper you pick up from a box costs about a dollar to produce and distribute. You might just want to give that amount times 52 to our Fund for Local Reporting to pay your basic dues for the year, or give twice that amount to pay for someone else’s papers too.  

Our staff is having a lot of fun kicking around ideas for premiums to offer if we do a real public-broadcasting-style marathon. Mugs? Messenger bags? Lunch with the cartoonist? The possibilities are endless. But if that kind of stuff annoys you, you could always just contribute before we get started, and we might be able to avoid the whole thing.