by Kevin Cody
Last month, I attended a party of Los Angeles Times reporters in Nicholas Canyon for Sam Enriquez, who got his start at Easy Reader. Enriquez went on to win multiple Pulitzers at the Times and is now national news editor for the Wall Street Journal.
A few days later, I joined a group of fellow Easy Reader reporters at Sophie’s Place in Riviera Village for dinner with Matt Wuerker, Politico.com’s editorial cartoonist. The Palos Verdes native also started out at Easy Reader. On Tuesday, his wife emailed us to report he had won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartoons.
It’s a matter of no small satisfaction to know someone could start at a small, weekly newspaper like Easy Reader and ascend to journalism’s highest ranks. But that satisfaction is tempered by concern for today’s young journalists in the newly arrived digital era. And concern for their readers.
At Enriquez’ party, I spent the better part of the evening talking to a Times web reporter in the hopes of learning the secrets of the internet. LATimes.com attracts nearly 200 million page views a month.
Last month the Times erected a paywall around its site in the hopes of making it profitable. Access to the site is now $3.99 a week.
I assumed the Times web reporter would be happy at the prospect of people paying to read his stories, rather than reading them for free.
He wasn’t. He thinks the paywall is a bad idea. Every morning, he reads Google News for free, so why would he or anyone else pay to read the Los Angeles Times online, he asked.
Google News “curates” articles from newspaper websites, including the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, which in 1997 became the first newspaper to erect a paywall.
The Wall Street Journal is owned by Rupert Murdoch. Last year, he launched an internet-only newspaper called The Daily. He said he needed only 500,000 subscribers at 99 cents per week to turn a profit. That is a modest circulation by national newspaper standards.
“The old business model based on advertising-only is dead…Critics say people won’t pay, but I say they will,” Murdoch told the Washington Post.
A year later, he’s not disclosing circulation numbers, but estimates range from 10,000 to 100,000 a week.
In February, the Daily Breeze announced the appointment of a new publisher “charged with leading LANG (the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, which includes the Breeze, Beach Reporter and Palos Verdes News) into a more digitally focused model of content distribution and advertising, as opposed to the traditional newsprint model.”
LANG is owned by MediaNews, which is managed by a newly formed company called Digital First. The name is not meant to disparage print, but to reflect where print falls in the news cycle, Digital First founder John Paton has explained.
In an interview with the Canadian Journalism Project, Paton described his company’s reporting process.
“We follow a six-step news ecology. Any story of merit starts with an SMS (text) alert, then we post to the web. Third, we use social media to tell people we’ve got this. We then use the SMS alerts and social media as the next steps to rinse and repeat that process while we’re adding media to that and enhancing the story.
“The final process for us is print. Print last. I say print last not because I disrespect it – I’m a 36-year career newspaperman. I love print, but it’s changing.”
After hacking through Paton’s tortured language, I realized, I agree with him. Printing is dandy, but texting is quicker. So, of course, text first. Enhancing a surf contest story, for example, with a surf video is a no brainer, assuming there’s someone to do the video. Paton advocates “crowdsourcing,” or finding someone to do the work for free.
What’s troublesome is Paton’s acknowledgement during the same interview that “Digital first is a transition strategy, not an end-game strategy. I don’t know what the end-game is. Neither does anybody else in the business.”
So why the stampede to digital if no one knows where it’s going, which is to say, how it will make money?
Newspaper advertising declined by $26.7 billion, about 50 percent, between 2005 and 2011, according to the Pew Report. During the same period. Newspaper internet revenue increased by $1.2 billion. That’s $1 in new digital revenue for $27 in lost print revenue.
The Times’ web reporter told me the Times’ print edition has never lost money. I said that’s good. He said, no it’s not, they just keep cutting costs. He’s witnessed 20 rounds of staff cuts.
This year, internet advertising dollars exceeded print advertising for the first time. But as Paton alludes to, no where is it written that advertising dollars must go to paying reporters.
The internet strategy is basically a Hail Mary.
This is not a problem only for newspaper people.
Assume there were no Easy Reader, no Beach Reporter and no Daily Breeze.
Where would beach city residents go for news about their communities?
Do a search for AES Redondo, which hopes to transform the Redondo waterfront by building a new power plant. Excluding newspaper sites, my Google search turned up two hits. One was AES’s own web site. The other was a 30 second YouTube video of AES blowing off steam at sunset, or maybe it was sunrise. The video was very pretty but not very informative.
Do a Google search for Hermosa Beach oil. In 2013, Hermosa residents will vote on whether or not to permit oil drilling from the city yard into the city’s tidelands. My Google search, not including newspaper sites, turned up a single hit: RefineryNews.com.
Are Hermosa voters to rely on an oil industry newsletter for information on how to vote on oil drilling? Actually, in this case, they could because the RefineryNews.com article was an unattributed cut and paste job from Easy Reader’s April 7, 2012 story on the subject.
If you are a Manhattan Beach resident concerned about teacher salary negotiations, you’ll find two non newspaper sources with a Google search. One is the school district website, the other the teachers union website.
Google News and other “curated” sites are like the proverbial scorpion riding across the river on the back of a frog. Sooner, or later, the scorpion will kill the frog because that is its nature.
If the brightest minds in journalism have no idea how to fund news sites don’t expect to read the solution here. Easy Reader will continue publishing online because EasyReaderNews.com gets over one million annual visits and who knows, maybe there’s a pony buried in there. If there is, I’m betting it’s an e-book.
Meanwhile, we’re expanding our news and print distribution into Palos Verdes and El Segundo and partnering with Body Glove on a regional surf magazine called Drop Zone.
As for the next move, let everyone else throw up the Hail Mary’s. We’re going to keep grinding it out up the middle.
Kevin Cody is the editor and publisher of Easy Reader.