June 18, 2024
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Dubroff: Takeaways from the News-Press’s abrupt end and newspaper industry

IN THIS ARTICLE

When I arrived on the Central Coast in the fall of 1999 to start the Business Times, the Santa Barbara News-Press represented a formidable challenge.

Under the leadership of Steve Ainsley, the New York Times-owned newspaper held a position of thought leadership in the community and its reporting on environmental issues was world class.

One reason why I started Pacific Coast Business Times was that I’d had a tip from someone at the New York Times that the News-Press was on the block.

Henry Dubroff
Henry Dubroff

And here we are, twenty-plus years later with the News-Press out of business and a prominent community without a daily newspaper.

You might argue that the demise of the Santa Barbara News-Press was an entirely predictable event once owner Wendy McCaw removed the journalistic guardrails that Jerry Roberts, a fine editor, had erected around the newsroom.

But there are bigger principles in business at work in the failure of the News-Press and I’ll talk about a few of them.

• The news business is much more difficult than it looks. Courtesy titles and talk about Pulitzers don’t make for an engaging news product that occasionally grabs the reader by the throat. Successful operations treat their readers, advertisers, and staff with respect — that is a very difficult balance to achieve.

• The fostering and mentoring of talent is the biggest thing that a newsroom does. If you can’t point your talented journalists to a future at another publication or a chance to advance you cannot attract them. The cost of housing makes this a necessity.

• Digital disruption made McCaw’s revenue challenge a lot worse. South Santa Barbara County has a lot of media competing for relatively few clicks and eyeballs and the disruption that hit her classified, auto, real estate and travel/tourism advertising was going to make it hard to survive.

• Hard paywalls are a good idea — until they aren’t. Finding the balance between attracting new web visitors and creating the right sort of separation for news is hard to achieve. The News-Press never found the right formula — but it is hardly alone in that.

• Finally, it is hard to be an owner when your top priority is a return on investment. McCaw will eventually get a return on her estimated $100 million investment because of the value of the real estate that came with the purchase and her other holdings in the downtown area.

In the end, the Santa Barbara News-Press was not that special when compared to smaller market newspapers.

It didn’t achieve the kind of critical mass of digital subscribers that could make it successful in the way that the Washington Post or Wall Street Journal have leveraged their audiences. That said, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, the world’s third-richest person, has underwritten the Post’s losses with his personal fortune estimated at $150 billion.

It didn’t have the economies of scale that have allowed McClatchy, owner of the San Luis Obispo Tribune, Lee Enterprises, owner of the Santa Maria Times or Gannett, now owner of the Ventura County Star, to survive.  Even with those economies, they’ve all been through major downsizing or restructuring.

On my first visit to Santa Barbara back in the 1980s, I picked up a copy of the News-Press. It was owned by the McLean family of Philadelphia and it was published daily in the afternoon, an old-school tradition for a white-collar town.

It had a stock final edition that I found a bit quaint at that time — readers would come home from work or the golf course and see what their portfolios had done that day.

Before that, it was owned by the Storke Family, whose building on De La Guerra Plaza helped created the Santa Barbara architecture we know today. It won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing about the John Birch Society and played an outsized role in civic affairs.

The News-Press suffered a lot in the 21st Century.  But it had a remarkable history and still will be missed.

Henry Dubroff is the founder, owner and editor of the Pacific Coast Business Times. He can be reached at hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com.