Local Media’s Crucible: News Consumption Is Up, But Revenue Is Way Down - Voice of San Diego

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Local Media’s Crucible: News Consumption Is Up, But Revenue Is Way Down

Even as we crave more news, San Diego’s newspapers, magazines and broadcasters are struggling with shortfalls amid the pandemic

A San Diego CityBeat news stand in downtown San Diego / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego’s newspapers, magazines and broadcasters are struggling thanks to a sudden and extraordinary collapse of revenue amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Three local publications – San Diego Magazine, San Diego Home & Garden and San Diego CityBeat – have stopped publishing entirely, and at least one may never return. The rapidly shrinking San Diego Reader has sliced the pay of its employees in half. The San Diego Union-Tribune and KPBS, meanwhile, are facing shortfalls even as they see big jumps in the numbers of locals who are turning to them for news amid this extraordinary time.

Here’s a look at how San Diego’s media is faring:

The Daily Newspaper

The San Diego Union-Tribune continues to rely heavily on advertising revenue from its daily print editions, and now many of its most loyal advertisers aren’t advertising.

Advertisements for events, arts, retail and restaurants have all been “profoundly affected,” said publisher and editor in chief Jeff Light, even as the site’s online readership has tripled.

“We’ve made some changes in the paper to reflect the new normal. We reduced sports to a few pages in the business section, and suspended our weekly entertainment tab because there are no sporting events or live entertainment right now,” he said. “We’re remaking our Sunday arts section with expanded books coverage, essays, spirituality and digital experiences to fill the gap while we are all stuck at home. We’ve added back a full TV page daily and added pages to Food. It’s a different world.”

The U-T is already adjusting to a shrinking of the newsroom staff due to new buyouts that sent several employees packing this month. The buyouts, which also affected the U-T’s sister paper, the Los Angeles Times, weren’t connected to the pandemic.

“The people leaving San Diego are pretty much all of retirement age, so the effect has been to accelerate changes that otherwise would have been spread over the next few years,” Light said.

He said the newspaper won’t go online-only.

“We have a large audience of print subscribers who rely on us, and it wouldn’t make any economic sense for us to abandon the foundation of our business,” he said. “The dip in advertising hurts us, and we will adjust to control costs, but we were still profitable in March, even after taking those hits.”

What’s next? Will there be more cutbacks?

“For us, normal means following our 10-year business plan, which carries us through some important transitions – from a mostly advertising-based company to a mostly subscription-based one, from a mostly print company to a mostly digital one,” Light said. “We have a script, and we have been remarkably successful at hitting our marks. It’s too early to tell whether we need to rewrite that script.”

The Broadcasters

KPBS, a nonprofit public broadcaster with TV, radio and online arms, is “seeing a reduction in underwriting and a slower pace of membership support due to us putting membership drives on hold and financial constraints on businesses and family incomes,” general manager Tom Karlo told me.

KPBS halted a March pledge drive due to coverage of the pandemic, he said, and no new date has been scheduled. Earlier, he said, the presidential impeachment hearings and trial forced two other pledge drives to be postponed.

KPBS has reserves, he said, and may get funding from the main federal pandemic bailout package, which allocated $75 million for public broadcasting. As for staffing, he said KPBS has stopped recruiting for some open positions.

Still, Karlo said, more people are turning to KPBS for news, as shown by March figures.

“Our television audience is up 47 percent across all four channels; our San Diego News Matters podcast has increased 88 percent in downloads; and our web traffic is up 329 percent,” he said. “We have extended our news coverage from five days a week to seven days a week. People are turning to KPBS more than ever, and we are confident that will help us weather the economic storm.”

TV news stations are struggling as their advertising also dries up, but they may be less vulnerable to a big hit than newspapers. According to The Wall Street Journal, much of the income of local TV stations comes from cable companies that pay them to transmit their content to viewers.

Still, plenty of local advertisers aren’t buying commercials, and NBC 7 San Diego, Voice of San Diego’s news partner, won’t reap any advertising benefit from the now-postponed Summer Olympics.

KUSI, San Diego’s most conservative-minded TV news station, has just slashed several positions. “The news has certainly changed,” said news director Steve Cohen. “We’re doing two basic stories: Essential information and people helping people. Not much else is going on.”

The Alternative Weeklies

The San Diego Reader is still publishing a weekly edition, but its pages have dropped dramatically as advertising has dried up over the last few weeks. The Reader’s March 12 issue, with a cover story about healthy living, boasted 76 pages. In contrast, the April 2 issue, with a cover story titled “Friday Night at the Moose Lodge,” had only 44 pages, with several devoted to ads for marijuana shops.

The Reader, which revels in news stories that bash local politicians and media, has lost most its advertising for events and most of its advertising by restaurants. And that’s not all.

“Few readers want to get dental work or car repair done during the lockdown,” said publisher Jim Holman.

The Reader has about 30 employees who have agreed to accept cuts of half their pay, he said. The paper has also asked readers for $100 donations, and they have responded.

“It is humiliating and heart-warming to ask for and get help like this,” he said.

Holman expects the Reader to stay afloat. “We think that because of the belt-tightening, [revenue from] online and digital services, and donations, we’ll make it past the lockdown,” he said.

San Diego CityBeat got new owners in 2019, and they shed what was left of the alternative weekly’s focus on local political news, commentary and investigative reporting. Jobless staffers were outraged and bitterly criticized the owners as the free newspaper embraced fluffy entertainment articles.

CityBeat’s website appears to have no content dated after mid-March. According to KPBS, an editor said in an email that it won’t publish “until the economy improves.”

The City Magazines

San Diego Magazine, which touts itself as the oldest city magazine in the nation, announced on March 23 that it would stop publishing and shut down operations because advertisers were shutting their doors.

The magazine, which had 37 employees and published every month, appealed to an upscale audience. Its pages were filled with articles about topics like food, drink and travel, all sandwiched between advertisements for lawyers, doctors, plastic surgery clinics and more.

“San Diego Magazine is a 72-year-old brand and I will not let it die. This is hopefully a short pause,” wrote publisher Jim Fitzpatrick.

San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles Magazine announced that its April 2020 issue will be its last, and its website and social media platforms will go dark for good.

Mark McKinnon, the magazine’s owner, told Times of San Diego that the magazine printed 25,000 copies a month and had a staff of nine.

We had advertisers jumping ship,” he said. “I had to make a tough call.”

McKinnon, however, said the publication could return, perhaps with a greater online focus.

The News Outlet You’re Reading Now

Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit outlet that relies on grants and donations, is seeing more sustained readership than ever and plans no cuts due to the pandemic, said CEO Scott Lewis.

“I have not yet seen a negative effect on donations, and the hoped-for major donors to match the spring campaign donations came through,” Lewis said. “If we are considered crucial to the community, and if we operate efficiently and productively through the crisis, we can not only survive this but create a stronger, deeper connection to a broader community of readers, listeners and members.”

Disclosure: Randy Dotinga, the author of this article, was a contributor to San Diego Magazine. Erin Chambers Smith, the former chief content officer at San Diego Magazine, is a member of Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.

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