Confronted with the same harsh economic realities as other American newspapers, the owners of the Berkeley Daily Planet are seeking a new business model to keep community papers alive.
Without it, say Mike and Becky O’Malley, Berkeley may join the growing roster of cities and towns without a staff of writers paid to track important developments and probe the workings of local government.
“We’re saying that the era of the advertising-supported print publication seems to be over, and we’re facing the same problems as every publication, from the New York Times on down,” said Becky O’Malley, the paper’s executive editor. “When we took over, we had some hope that we would at least break even, but the reverse has happened.”
“Not that advertising revenues have entirely gone away,” said Michael O’Malley, the paper’s publisher. But advertising doesn’t cover the paper’s biggest expense, the salaries of the reporters who gather the news and the editors who shape the final product that appears each Thursday morning in news boxes and stores from Richmond to Alameda.
While downsizings have become daily news in the media world, “unlike other publications, we have a lot less to cut back. We’re starting from the point other papers are trying to reach,” said the editor.
Subscribers never paid for the cost of producing a newspaper. Advertising did, with the reader only paying basically to cover delivery costs. In the case of free, non-subscription papers, advertising carried the whole weight, covering all the costs.
“Now the San Francisco Chronicle has raised their subscription price to $400 a year,” said the Planet’s publisher.
The advertising industry has collapsed along with print and electronic media. While Paper Cuts, a weblog (graphicdesignr.net/papercuts) that tracks newspaper job losses, reports that about 15,553 newspaper jobs vanished last year, Advertising Age reported last week that 18,700 ad business jobs vanished in December alone (see adage.com/article?article_id=134423).
The magazine reported that the advertising industry’s only growth for the year was the 800-worker increase in Internet media and search engine sectors.
But even Internet advertising has been hit by the slump, and while there’s talk that journalism may migrate to the online realm, “even online publications have to pay their reporters, while the price of advertising is much less and the revenues are much smaller,” said Becky O’Malley.
So what does the future hold for the Berkeley Daily Planet?
“We don’t have a solution,” said the newspaper’s editor. “But if we can work it out here in Berkeley, others could take it as a model for their own communities.”
All options are on the table, she said. “There has been a lot of talk about other ways of funding community journalism, and we’re looking at all of them.”
But, as yet, no single solution has emerged.
The paper has already sought voluntary subscriptions, and the O’Malleys are currently exploring a range of options, including a subscription-only paper, and whether or not to migrate entirely to the Internet. A plea for voluntary subscriptions has yielded modest revenues, but not enough to keep the paper afloat.
Becky O’Malley said that while grant funding isn’t a silver bullet, it may play some role in the paper’s future.
“I’ve had extensive experience in non-profits,” she said. “I’ve worked at Pacific News Service, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and written for Mother Jones back in the days when it was a non-profit.”
The O’Malleys have launched the Planet Fund for Local Reporting to raise money to support the newspaper’s reporting efforts, and they’re currently exploring the idea of incorporating the fund as a tax-exempt non-profit. For more information on the fund, see the box on Page Two of the print edition.
Readers may donate to the fund either by mail or through the link at the top of the right-hand column of the paper’s website, www.berkeleydailyplanet.com. A survey appearing on Page Three of this issue, and as a link at the top of the web page—asks readers to comment on some of the options.
“We’re trying to do a reality check,” said the editor.
The O’Malleys said they haven’t set a deadline for a final decision on the newspaper’s fate. But the costs have been high, and at some point, they say, they may have to devote the remainder of their resources to their children and grandchildren.
And with the Internet emerging as the dominant medium of the age, the loss of local journalism would mean “we’re looking at a world in which the only news you can’t get is the news about your own town,” said Becky O’Malley.