A reader’s letter in this issue chastises the Daily Planet’s business side for a tongue-in-cheek headline on the latest house ad: “In Greater Berkeley, almost everyone who counts reads the Planet.” The same question was raised in the newsroom by a staffer who thought that the line might seem elitist to some, as it in fact did to this reader.
Our house ads, we confess, are directed primarily at advertisers, not at readers, and for advertisers shoppers are what they're looking for. We know that we have more than 24,000 readers because they pick up their free papers, and of course not all of them can afford to shop in the shopping areas where we polled. But keep in mind that the Daily Planet has been supporting readers with free news for close to two years now. The paper continues to come closer to breaking even, but it’s not there yet. No one has come up with a better idea for how to pay for newspapers, one that wouldn't involve appealing to advertisers, who of course want to appeal to shoppers.
Could we be charging for the paper? Probably not. Each copy of the paper costs more than 50 cents to produce, and mail delivery of subscriptions adds more than $1 per issue. Readers who can’t afford to shop in Berkeley probably can’t afford to pay that much for their papers either.
Is Internet publication the answer? Salon, the first and still almost the only real online magazine, finally turned a profit for the first time in ten years, just in time to salute founder David Talbot on retirement. Many more have come and gone without breaking even. News on most of the rest of the Internet is thin, except for what’s reprinted from newspapers. And no one has figured out how to pay for it.
Yesterday’s Washington Post carried an article about the woes of the major papers: Daily circulation across the industry has declined every year since 1987. It’s a complicated picture, because despite declining circulation profits are still healthy for the media conglomerates. On the one hand, papers face competition for the attention of information consumers from broadcast media and the Internet. On the other hand, newspaper advertising is still a much better source of revenue than online publishing. The article notes that “for the first nine months of 2004, the Post booked $433 million in ad revenue. For the same period, Washingtonpost.com reported $45 million in revenue, hardly enough to support a newsgathering staff the size of the Post’s.”
Hunter S. Thompson’s suicide on Sunday marked the end of an era when journalists hoped to use edgy writing as a way of delivering social commentary, though serious newsgathering was generally left to the mainstream press. Others of yesterday’s “new journalism” heros have fallen on hard times. Ken Kelley, sometimes a fine writer and once a golden-haired boy wonder who edited a lively underground paper in the early ‘70s, was picked up last week by federal agents on charges of having child pornography on his computer in what was described in the San Francisco Chronicle as “a small apartment over a South of Market muffler shop.” Many papers like his, once heralded as the way to attract younger readers to print, have been swallowed up by national chains more interested in sensationalism than in news.
Most of the news in broadcast media is cribbed, one way and another, from print media. It’s rare that any broadcast outlet does serious sustained reporting on a story. Newspapers, big and small, are still the primary medium for in-depth reporting. Community papers like the Planet cover the local news that the big dailies miss, and when we do a good job our stories are picked up by the mainstream press. And newspapers, small and large, are mostly supported by advertisers, who in turn are supported by shoppers. We’re very grateful to our advertisers, many of them small merchants who are trying to make a decent living by giving good value to their customers, and who support an independent press with their advertising dollars. We do believe that almost everyone who counts reads the Planet, both the shoppers that our poll contacted around town and the non-shoppers that we see reading the paper on park benches, in cafes and on buses all over town. We’re proud to have them all as readers.