Editorial: Annual Report

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday April 01, 2008

The obits are everywhere this week: “Few believe that newspapers in their current printed form will survive. Newspaper companies are losing advertisers, readers, market value, and, in some cases, their sense of mission at a pace that would have been barely imaginable just four years ago.”  

That’s Eric Alterman, reprising in the New Yorker what he’s been saying for a while now in his regular column in The Nation. 

It’s certainly true that exactly five years ago today, when the O’Malley family assumed responsibility for publishing the Berkeley Daily Planet, we never imagined that it would be quite so difficult to make our efforts break even financially. At that point many newspapers were still considered cash cows, promising and often delivering very handsome returns on investments. Even four years ago, as Professor Alterman notes, things still looked rosy to many.  

The hard facts were in Editor and Publisher on Friday, in a story by Jennifer Saba: 

“The newspaper industry has experienced the worst drop in advertising revenue in more than 50 years. 

“According to new data released by the Newspaper Association of America, total print advertising revenue in 2007 plunged 9.4 percent ....compared to 2006—the most severe percent decline since the association started measuring advertising expenditures in 1950.” 

That’s the bad news. The good news, to paraphrase Mark Twain, is that the rumors of our death have been greatly exaggerated.  

The best thing about never having gotten enough revenue from advertisers to pay our costs is that we don’t miss it as much as we would have if we’d ever actually gotten it, if you can follow that twisted syntax. In fact, the paper is bigger and better than ever, yet the subsidy we provide is down somewhat. 

Of course, our operation is a lot leaner than that of typical metro papers in their heyday. The top executives (that would be Mike and me) aren’t taking home six figure salaries (or any salaries at all for that matter.) We wish we could afford to pay more to our staffers, but since we can’t, we don’t. Along with our readers, we appreciate the excellent work they continue to do regardless.  

And we haven’t lost our sense of mission. Partly, perhaps, this is because those folks who probably are up to something, the ones whose hands are in the public pocket at every opportunity, have from day one delighted in spreading rumors about the paper’s imminent demise. Sheer cussedness has impelled us to prove them wrong. 

We’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished. The Planet has won all sorts of awards, the latest being the James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.  

Our ace reporters have broken a great number of notable stories—the biggest accolade is same stories’ subsequent (unattibuted) appearance in the metro dailies. Our feature writers and columnists are among the best in the business. Many people rely on the Planet’s comprehensive community and arts calendars to plan their weeks. We’ve pioneered the concept of giving our readers plenty of space to analyze events in their own voices and from their own perspectives, now much the vogue in Internet publications like the Huffington Post.  

Ah yes, the Internet. Being blamed, everywhere, as we write, for causing the demise of print papers. Alterman’s piece contains extensive descriptions, presumably for the benefit of non-web-savvy New Yorker readers, of the most popular “news” sites on the Internet, with the Huffington Post leading the way.  

Why the ironic quotes? Well, up until now there’s been precious little original news reporting done for web-only daily papers. A lot of what people see when they look to the Huffington Post, Google News or the equivalent to find out what’s happening is just links to articles in the diminishing number of print dailies. 

But someone has to pay reporters. Huffington has just hired a few of them, but still has, last I checked, fewer reporters than the Berkeley Daily Planet employs. And our defined universe is a lot smaller than theirs. 

Nonetheless, Internet publication is one very fine way of getting the news out, once real reporters have collected it. Here at the Planet we’re starting to figure out how to take advantage of the opportunity. We’ve maintained the word “daily” in our title since the beginning, even though we’ve not been able to publish new content every single day, but it’s finally possible to do that thanks to the Web.  

Regular online readers might have noticed by now that we’re putting up new stories almost every day on our website, berkeleydailyplanet.com. Most of these will eventually appear in newsprint, but you can get your news fix early online.  

What community papers like ours excel at is reporting in depth on topics of mainly local interest, especially land use decisions. That’s our sweet spot, one that metro dailies are leaving to us as they downsize because of declining ad revenues and falling profits. Without additional printing and distribution expenses, we will be able to devote still more of our resources to comprehensive daily reporting of what our readers need to know. 

There are good reasons, too, why advertisers are increasing flocking to the web. Computer search engines allow willing buyers to connect with eager sellers in no time at all. That’s why the Planet’s advertising sales department is working on enhancing the role of our online paper to function as a powerful directory which can easily be accessed by consumers who want to find and support local businesses.  

As we go to press, we’ve learned that the East Bay Daily News, one of the many pubications acquired by the Media News conglomerate in the last year or so, is being shut down by its corporate masters. Some good reporting and photography, against all odds, has been done by those who worked there during its brief existence, but sophisticated East Bay newspaper readers just weren’t looking for a publication which featured “What is Hannah Montana’s real name?” in a prominent location on the front page. 

Someone called to ask if we’re going to have our annual celebration of the anniversary of our first publication, which is, fittingly, today, April 1. We are, but we’ve postponed the open house to a later day, Mayday, May 1, when we can expect better weather, since we now have so many friends we need to be able to spill outside into the backyard. (And perhaps this is the moment to acknowledge the contribution to our success of our gracious landlord, Bob Sugimoto, who has lived upstairs for most of these five years and has provided us with fresh tomatoes from his plants out back every year since we’ve been here. )  

An old writer friend, Michael Rossman, sent us a letter recently reminding us how lucky we are to be able to undertake this great adventure: 

“...how I envy you, in the best of ways, for being so enabled to live out a dream—quirky, idiosyncratic, substantive, modest-scaled, real. How fortunate you are, how fortunate you have made yourself, to be able just (amongst all other responsibilities) to sit there writing discursive, intelligent surveys and probes and nudges into so wide a variety of civic, citizenly, and humane affairs. In endless industry, fascination, and enjoyment, or so it seems; I’m sure I’m not just projecting....you are so consistently sensible and wide-reaching that this (for me) easily excuses your occasional quirks of focus and reaction, and leaves me with a sense of local, home-grown civic comfort to know your voice reaches so many so regularly in our small canton. And more personally with a little vicarious thrill of pleasure each time I see how you’ve enjoyed yourself doing it again.” 

He’s pretty nearly got it right. He’s missed some of the more difficult moments in this peculiar enterprise, but we know we’re lucky to be here, and we do often enjoy ourselves. That’s why we’re still around, despite all odds, still having fun most of the time. And why we expect to be here for a while longer, god willing and the creeks don’t rise. 

—Becky O’Malley