Reporting on the State of the Planet

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday October 22, 2009 - 09:31:00 AM

The folks who showed up for the first-ever Planet supporters’ picnic in September have been waiting until now for a followup report on the event. We invited all of the approximately 500 people who have already contributed to the financial support of the paper, and more than 10 percent of them—50 lively souls—showed up to share food and their thoughts about the future.  

For those of you who have never organized an event on behalf of a cause or a candidate, that is a remarkable turnout—a 2 percent response to a mailing is considered good. 

The people who came were notable for their political diversity—people one could never imagine sitting together companionably at a table discussing strategies, and yet there they were, courteous and friendly, sitting in a circle on the grass and talking about their common belief in the need for a free press.  

There were too many interesting ideas put forward to list them all here. Some were easily implemented, and others seemed more speculative or perhaps impossible.  

Example: one young man, perhaps the youngest in a somewhat graying crowd, spoke passionately about the need for the community to “take ownership” of the paper from its current proprietors. His concept was getting nods of assent until the words “like KPFA” were spoken, and then there were groans, from those who knew more than they wanted to know from the KPFA experience about the difficulties of shared governance, as appealing as it is in principle.  

Berkeley’s several longstanding worker-run organizations (Inkworks, the Cheeseboard, Nabolom and others) were advanced as more hopeful models. Non-profit status was discussed, but most speakers recognized that the money to pay for reporting would still have to come from somewhere. 

Many simply volunteered to do “anything” to help the paper survive, which was immensely heartening but also daunting—organizing such a flood of enthusiasm is no easy task.  

One practical suggestion came from a man who has spearheaded several successful political efforts since moving to Berkeley when he retired a couple of years ago. He said that he’d found that it was good to take advantage of already existing and successful organizations to support new projects, so he recommended that Planet supporters should work within groups they’re part of to raise money for the paper with special events.  

And it’s happening already. Bob Brokl and Al Crofts, who put on a bang-up Obama benefit last fall with their Artists for Change organization, have offered to do something similar for the Planet after the first of the year.  

It’s looking like it will be a Sunday early-evening party, with musical and literary entertainment, in late January. They’re looking for endorsing sponsors and for hands-on volunteers.  

That’s the good news this week. But, sad to say, there’s also bad news. Despite all the enthusiastic support we’ve gotten, reader contributions still haven’t broken the $50,000 mark, and advertising revues have fallen by 60 percent in the last few months.  

Print media nationwide watched $7.5 billion dollars of ad revenue disappear in 2008 alone, and unfortunately the BDP is not exempt from this trend.  

Times are tough for print media, for reasons as yet not fully understood. Part of the problem is often taken to be the Internet, but online advertising is also languishing everywhere. It’s not close to replacing the print advertising revenue which has evaporated. Even though printing and distributing a newpaper costs a bit, such advertisers as there are still prefer to see their ads in print, so abandoning the print version of the paper wouldn’t reduce our deficit. 

Advertisers, ours included, are suffering badly in this economy. The owner of a very well established high-end retail business told us her sales are the worst she’s seen in 30 years in Berkeley. Advertising should be an obvious solution for lagging sales, but when paying the rent is an issue small businesses have trouble affording ads.  

So we’ve had to make some very hard choices. We’ve already reduced the number of sales and editorial staff positions by attrition, and now there’s nothing left to do but lay off members of the salaried newsroom reporting staff. We’ve put this off as long as possible, but we can’t avoid it any longer. We’re not alone—on Monday the New York Times laid off another 100 people in their newsroom. 

So it is with very heavy hearts that we have decided to convert most of our news reporting to freelance work which can be adjusted regularly to meet current revenues. This decision affects two of our senior reporters most directly.  

Both Richard Brenneman and J. Douglas Allen-Taylor have done a great deal of very fine work for the Planet—we are justly proud of their accomplishments, and they should be too. It’s very painful to let them go, but we can’t afford three salaried staff positions any more. We’ve told them we’d be delighted to have both of them as freelance contributors, and we’re happy to report that Allen-Taylor has already opted to continue his UnderCurrents column on that basis. 

We’re making one more attempt to jumpstart our advertising sales effort, just in case the economy really is improving. We’re continuing to ask readers to support the paper by paying for it if they can—two dollars a copy from every reader would pay most of the bills.  

We’re putting newsracks with donation boxes in inside locations to make it easy. The free outside boxes are still there, and circulation in the form of reader pickup continues to climb.  

We’ve persuaded our former managing editor, Michael Howerton, to return to the paper wearing an entirely different hat, as Associate Publisher. He knows and loves the East Bay and the paper, so he should be able to make a difference in this job. He’ll make sure that the best ideas about distribution, ad sales and reader support are implemented. 

Without the full complement of staff reporters, we will need to rely even more than we do now on our readers to let the public know what’s going on. Taking a leaf from the playbook of web-based news sites, we’ve opened the new Partisan Position designation for articles written by people involved in newsworthy issues, hoping they will be able provide truthful though not-quite-impartial reports. Our opinion pages remain open to all points of view.  

Now more than ever we need readers to contribute whatever they can, whether it’s money or work, to help keep us afloat as long as possible. A good place to start would be joining Bob and Al in working on the January benefit. They can be reached via benefit@berkeleydailyplanet.com and by leaving a message at the Planet office (841-5600). 

Or just follow their example and make up your own event. Everything helps—as trendy people seem to be saying lately, it’s all good.