For a few years now we have been trying to develop a sustainable model so that Berkeley could continue to have a periodic print newspaper.
Many of our readers are well aware that local news reporting is a major casualty of the current economic collapse. Even before the economy got really bad, many papers were experiencing catastrophic drops in revenue which prompted drastic cuts to the news-gathering effort. But we still believe that the success of the democratic process requires citizens to be well informed. The challenge is figuring out how to pay for it.
Advertising sales in particular continue to be problematic. The increasing number of empty storefronts on our main streets is visible evidence of how business in Berkeley is lagging. We’ve seen all too often the same sad cycle: advertisers cancel because they think that they just can’t afford advertising any longer, and six months later they’re out of business.
It’s also just conceivable that we’ve been publishing the right paper for Berkeley readers but the wrong paper for Berkeley advertisers—too controversial, too intellectual, too dense. We’ve noticed that the publications we’ve most admired—The Nation, the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, The New Yorker from time to time, even going back to I.F. Stone’s Weekly—have not been supported by advertising. We’ve discovered that owners of many “local” Berkeley businesses don’t even live here, and it’s been hard to explain to owners in Illinois or Hayward or Malibu why we’ve been willing or even eager to make waves at the risk of annoying customers.
The campaign against the Planet’s free- speech policy by a few misguided zealots who represent themselves as friends of Israel has certainly contributed to our advertising problems in some measure. The Planet’s advertising sales people who’ve had to cope with this have shown remarkable courage in facing up to a frightening situation.
Just a few advertisers have been intimidated into cancelling their contracts, though many more have bravely ignored the bullies or even told them off. We have been enormously gratified by the support we’ve received from many, many members of the Jewish community: three big ads in the paper with many signers, an online petition with many more signers, and countless personal expressions of sympathy and solidarity from Jewish friends.
The Berkeley city government’s perpetual hostility to free newspaper racks has been a trial.
We’ve tried several alternatives to selling advertising in order to increase our revenue: free-will subscriptions, donation boxes, web contributions and direct fundraising. The community’s response has been heartwarming.
Just last month, Artists for Change and other friends of the Planet hosted a terrific party which raised more than $10,000. Overall, at least 500 generous supporters all over the country have contributed more than $50,000 since we started asking for help. But we’ve discovered once again what we knew from previous experience—fundraising takes a lot of work and the return is small compared to the cost in time and effort.
We’ve tried to reduce expenses by going down to one print issue a week and eliminating some staff positions. But it hasn’t done the trick. We’re still far from breaking even, which was our modest goal when we took over the original Daily Planet almost seven years ago.
Sadly, this week we think we’ve reached the tipping point, beyond which prudence dictates that we must not go. We’ve learned that the theft of the money which was supposed to pay our federal and state payroll taxes, as reported in last week’s Planet, goes back at least five years, and it adds up to staggering sums for which we may be held liable. We can’t continue to contribute the major funding for the Planet given the level of financial uncertainty we now face from this fraud. Still, we’re lucky that we haven’t relied on the Planet for our livelihood—we’ve been in contact with other victims, most of whom face bankruptcy and the loss of small businesses which are supporting families.
The only way to cut expenses further is to give up print publication for the moment. We know that many if not most of our 40,000-plus faithful readers prefer paper, and frankly, we do too. But our central mission continues to be reporting the news, and new technology has made online news delivery very attractive.
A web-based model has some real advantages. Editing, laying out, printing and distributing a print paper complete with advertising is a very expensive proposition. Also, increasingly print publications are lagging behind the news as it’s reported electronically—the web is much faster. Many more photos and even videos can be added easily and quickly.
We’re well aware that our readers most value the paper as a forum for community members to share information about what’s happening in Berkeley and the rest of the urban East Bay. Web technology makes it possible to count who’s reading what online, and we’ve discovered that the Planet’s opinion pages are far and away the best-read part of the paper (and often the best written as well). In the online Berkeley Daily Planet we’ll continue publishing news and opinions contributed by our readers, and we’ll be looking for even more of the same since we won’t be constrained by the economics of print.
We want to expand our participation in the great experiment which is sometimes called citizen journalism. A lot of things have been happening in the urban East Bay which we haven’t been able to afford to cover by conventional reporting. We think there are knowledgeable people out there who could let readers know what’s happening, not just in Berkeley but in Oakland, Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany and Alameda. We’re very sorry that we can no longer continue paying the full-time salaried staff which has been needed to edit and lay out a printed paper and to sell advertising. The majority of our current employees have been with us almost from day one—they have been loyal and super-competent, as evidenced by the many prize plaques which hang on our office wall. Our former employees, with one or two exceptions, were great too, and we were lucky to have them.
We think that if we give ourselves and the community some breathing room at this point we can together come up with new ideas for continuing to serve the reading public. For example, we could publish periodic printed selections from the best of what appears online without needing to rely on conventional advertising support.
It’s even possible that there are others like us in the urban East Bay who would be able to invest time and capital to carry on the Planet as a print paper. If they are out there, this is the time that we’d like to hear from them.
Our current plan is to continue print publication through February, and then to shift to web-only publication. To keep faith with the many contributors to the Fund for Local Reporting, after March 1 we will use the money remaining in the fund to pay one staff reporter, with the rest of the content provided by independent writers both paid and volunteer.
It’s popularly believed that every cell in the human body changes every seven years. Since we’ve been at this task for seven years come April 1, we might be completely new people by now. That makes it a propitious moment for starting over, in a revitalized enterprise which might turn out to be even better than the original. It’s the beginning of a new year, a good time to turn a new page in the ongoing saga called the Berkeley Daily Planet. In the spirit of Sunday’s two holidays, we want to tell our readers that we love you all (well, most of you) and to say Gung Hay Fat Choi to everyone. We’ll be seeing you around in the new year.
—Becky and Mike O’Malley