For the better part of last week, my morning newspaper was a no-show. I’d call the L.A. Times and yell into the one-way void of their telephonic voice portal. Nothing would happen. The same affliction, it turns out, befell subscribers of the Santa Barbara News-Press. Had UFOs abducted everyone delivering newspapers on the South Coast? Readers got restless. Newspaper carriers, we would later learn, were among the first casualties inflicted by a well-intended new state bill designed to protect gig economy workers from the manifold oppressions of the gig economy. People who had worked directly for the two newspapers were told they no longer had jobs. They could apply for their old positions, but with a new company with whom the newspapers had contracted. As with all games of musical chairs, a lot of people awoke to discover they no longer had a seat. How many, we still don’t know.
Progress, like God, I guess, moves in mysterious ways.
I finally met my carrier this weekend. He was searching the street to find my digs. He was a new guy. He was delivering three papers, not just one; his route, he said, was crazy making and confusing. I sympathized. But for myself, as well. If I ever got to read a morning paper again, it would be after I got home at night.
The car he drove was chillingly emblematic of the newspaper industry as a whole. The wheels weren’t falling off, but they were about the only thing that wasn’t. The body was slap-dashed with a blizzard of Bondo-gray patches. They alternated with streaky smears of scratched paint. The steering wheel was intermittently wrapped up in duct tape. There was something mesmerizing and primal about it, like a boxer’s wrapped fist or a wounded shark hunting for a cozy place to die.
If you read newspapers, you already know newspapers aren’t doing particularly well. Between 2008 and 2018, 25 percent of all journalism jobs in the United States disappeared. According to the Washington Post, the number of lost journalism jobs in the U.S. in 2019 was almost 4,000. For newspapers specifically, the numbers are even worse. Nearly 50 percent of employees found themselves forced to find new jobs in that same 10-year period. Circulation has dropped to the lowest ever since 1940 when economists first started tracking such things. Revenues dropped 13 percent in 2018 alone, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission. To the extent there’s been significant new growth, it’s been with online advertising. The bad news there is that half those new revenues go to Google and Facebook, who are doing to newspapers — Jeff Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post notwithstanding — as they have done to downtowns.
If the numbers are grim, the reality is more so. In communities that have not been rendered “news deserts” outright, “ghost papers” struggle to stay afloat, anorexic shadows of their former selves. As exquisitely imperfect as the news media undeniably is, local newspapers provide a service that can’t be replicated by all the aggregators, bloggers, and social media sites combined. At some point, some working stiff has to actually watch all those city council meetings, sit through those long and tedious trials, and talk to all those people who think they have something to say.
Because they often do.
On good days, we — local newspapers — provide the mud and straw from which the bricks and mortar of communities are built. On good days, we provide the community a thermometer to take the temperature of its soul. On occasion, we have such days.
I am, of course, biased beyond belief. As a paid writer, reporter, and editor, it’s in my obvious self-serving self-interest to believe the sun rises and sets according to the treadmill of my deadlines. That being acknowledged, we do bring something to the party. Just look at any community that lost its paper; they’ve become the sound of one hand clapping, the dog that didn’t bark, and the singer without a band. In all that silence, you can no longer hear yourself think.
We’re all scrambling to find a new way. Big changes, we are told, are afloat for the much-beleaguered and significantly improved News-Press, though that paper’s new editor, Nick Masuda, has “absolutely and unequivocally” denied persistent rumors that the paper was being sold to the Los Angeles Times.
We at the Independent are trying out something new and different. According to Pew Research, only 14 percent of the public pays for local news. We’re trying to increase that number. It’s not asking that much.
We’re asking our readers to strip-mine their couches, sock drawers, car ashtrays, and other repositories of errant coins and subscribe to the Independent. Our rates, I have to say, qualify as a steal. For $30 — $29.99 to be precise — you get a year’s subscription; $2.99 gets you a month. By contrast, Edhat charges $52; Noozhawk suggests donations that start off at $99. We’re considerably cheaper than Netflix or Spotify or any number of those apps you pay for but never actually use. But please bear with us as we work out some sign-up kinks.
Technically, this subscription gets you everything the paper has to offer online without interruption or intrusion. Without it, you won’t be able to read everything we’ve posted online, just the shorter stuff. News articles longer than 650 words, for example, will not be accessible without subscriptions. During natural disasters, such as floods and fires, or unnatural ones — elections — our intention is to make sure everyone can get everything. The paper that hits the streets every Thursday will remain, of course, 100 percent free.
Mostly, it’s an opportunity to try something new to allow us to evolve and grow. Think of it as a tip; think of it as a donation; think of it as you will, but please subscribe. It’s your way of keeping the dog barking, the one-hand handclapping, and the lead singer accompanied by her backup band.