Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 1, 2011

Guest Opinion: Why your help is needed to keep local journalism strong

by Bill Johnson

"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Thomas Jefferson might well sound the alarm today about profound changes underway in the media business, ranging from the way news is gathered and presented to the way it is funded.

These changes are threatening the viability of quality local journalism everywhere.

Imagine trying to stay informed on the issues before the City Council or school board without journalists covering the meetings, asking questions and presenting analyses for debate and discussion throughout the community. Whether you now obtain your news from the Palo Alto Weekly or from Palo Alto Online, or both, you are depending on a dedicated staff of local reporters and editors working hard to bring you the most important news of the community.

Local weekly newspapers have traditionally been the heart and soul of a community's identity and culture. They reflect the values of the residents and businesses, challenge assumptions and shine a light on our community's imperfections and aspirations.

But as more residents turn online to stay informed about local news, and businesses rocked by the recession turn to inexpensive marketing alternatives, the traditional business model that allowed local journalism to be supported primarily through advertising is quickly evaporating.

That's why we've launched our campaign to Support Local Journalism.

Unlike national and international news, there is no substitute for locally produced news. By its very nature, local news depends on local newsgathering.

Local news is as popular and as highly valued as ever. In fact, the total number of people we reach has expanded substantially due to our website and "Express," our popular news digest sent out by email every weekday morning to more than 13,000 local residents.

All of our efforts are geared to creating greater public awareness and engagement — toward building a stronger community.

So if local readership interest has never been greater, what's the problem?

The problem is that the advertising business model for newspapers no longer works the way it used to. Craigslist is a prime example of this. Classified ads used to make up a significant portion of newspaper ad revenue. If you wanted to buy a used car, rent an apartment, look for a job or a mate, you opened your newspaper and scanned the ads. Add the current worldwide economic crisis and you have the "perfect storm" of radical change in the news and information industry and how it is financed, at every level.

Bottom line: The days of expecting local advertising to fund 90 percent of the cost of operating a quality local media organization are gone.

We need you — the citizens who value and benefit from the professional reporting we do and who recognize the critical role of the media in monitoring and, when needed, challenging the actions of local government and other institutions — to commit to funding a much greater share of our operations.

So here is our proposition:

Sign up to become a "subscribing member" and agree to an automated monthly credit card (or bank debit) charge of $5, $8 or $10. By automating this process, you eliminate the need for us to spend money to repeatedly solicit your renewal of support. You can, of course, cancel at any time. Or, if you prefer, make a single annual payment.

As a member, we will provide you with some special "perks" that you might enjoy or appreciate, including a "Support Local Journalism" bumper sticker, a small gift and special invitations to events and offers from local businesses.

It's simple. Go to www.SupportLocalJournalism.org/PaloAlto and fill out the online form, or phone us at 326-8210. Or simply return the form you should have received in the mail earlier this week.

Can't afford it right now? That's fine. You'll continue to receive the Weekly and be able to use Palo Alto Online free of charge. We're not requiring subscription memberships, just urging readers to acknowledge the value and cost of quality local journalism.

We hope and believe the vast majority of residents have always shared our view of the value and necessity of a strong local media and are willing to provide support equal to two or three cups of coffee a month to secure its future. This same model works well for KQED, so why not in support of the media organization that focuses exclusively on our community?

Thanks for doing your part to keep strong local journalism alive and well in Palo Alto and our surrounding communities.

Bill Johnson is publisher and founder of the Palo Alto Weekly and president of Embarcadero Media.

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