By Miriam Raftery
February 17, 2014 (San Diego’s East County)--As a journalist, I find it disturbing to see the high number of East County media outlets that have closed their doors, slashed content, or sold out to a corporate conglomerate in recent months. Those remaining are struggling amid a culture of readers that increasing are failing to support the important job of news gathering that is so critical for our democracy—not to mention keeping you informed of breaking news, emergencies and events in your community.
The latest round of bad news for readers is that Patch.com has announced it has laid off all of its editors at its four East County online news sites (La Mesa, Lemon Grove, Santee, and Ramona) following sale of the parent company. The result is homogenized regional news on each site, with precious little local news. The Daily Borregan and the Julian Miner have closed down completely due to lack of revenues. The Backcountry Messenger, the only print newspaper serving most backcountry communities, has closed down due to the publisher’s retirement. The Ramona Sentinel—along with seven other community newspapers across the county—has sold to the UT San Diego’s owner, Doug Manchester, meaning loss of even more independent voices locally.
I’m old enough to recall growing up with the Daily Californian, a true daily newspaper with in-depth reporting on issues across our region. That’s long since evolved in the East County Californian, a weekly publication focused largely on youth sports and community events.
Citizen bloggers have arisen to partially fill gaps in some communities. The Deerhorn Valley Antler, the Alpine Community Network, and Lakeside’s Brush Fire Party Line on Facebook are three notable examples of citizens helping to keep neighbors informed about many issues. But none of these are substitutes for bona fide news organizations with staff, journalism training and budgets to cover various local board meetings from water to fire to school boards, let alone invest in major investigative news story research.
With a couple of exceptions , most East County communities now have no competitive newspapers –and the majority have no newspaper at all. East County Magazine’s online news is the only journalistic source of information covering most towns in our inland region.
The UT San Diego under Manchester’s leadership does offer limited East County coverage, but rarely east of La Mesa or El Cajon. Moreover the UT reports too often reflect developer/owner Doug Manchester’s pro-development bias, omitting many arguments against projects ranging from large housing developments to industrial-scale energy facilities. Manchester, a major donor to the Republican Party, has also violated the basic rule of journalism to be fair and impartial, even wrapping the front page of his newspaper in editorials for various conservative candidates. Many East County political races are not even covered at all.
The UT was formerly the Union and the Tribune, under the Copleys, and while under same ownership there was some rivalry among reporters to outdo the competition. That changed with the merger and then later, the sale to Manchester, who also bought up the North County Times, formerly a reliable source of information on our northeast communities.
Budgets at TV news stations locally have also plummeted. Newsroom look more like ghost towns due to numerous layoffs. There is growing emphasis on fluff and celebrity stories instead of real news. Even the much-praised I-team of investigative reporters at ABC 10 News (ECM’s news partner) has had cutbacks recently.
So what can be done to reverse this trend?
For starters, readers need to shoulder some responsibility. News reporting isn’t free. In my era, every household paid to subscribe to at least one newspaper, or sometimes several. Today with the proliferation of news online, the younger generation of readers has come to expect everything free. They are getting what they paid for, sadly.
If you want high quality, in-depth reporting on issues in your community or for that matter, to be kept informed of state, national or international issues that could impact you as well, then buy a subscription to your favorite news publication or donate to your favorite nonprofit media outlet. Better yet, become a sustaining monthly donor. It’s the only way to assure that independent community news organizations such as ours will survive. Although we’ve won 58 major journalism awards and have thousands of fan letters from our loyal readers, with 150,000 readers each month, only a tiny fraction of those have actually signed up to be monthly donors at even the lowest level.
Isn’t high quality, independent journalism worth at least $10 a month?
At nonprofit news organizations, 100% of profits go straight back into reporting news you can use – not fattening up shareholders’ pockets or paying hefty salaries to corporate CEOs. Nonprofits rely heavily on readers’ support – and at every nonprofit news outlet I’ve talked with, there is never quite enough to cover even the basic operating expenses.
It costs money to pay reporters, photographers, editors, and videographers. Even volunteers have expenses for mileage. Libel insurance is a must—and costs thousands of dollars every year. Maintaining a complex news website such as ours, with archives, lively comment posts and more costs hundreds of dollars more each month. Then there are costs for newsletter services, audio archives in the case of our radio show, sound editing, and our all-important emergency alert monitors and wildfire reporters in the field.
Integrity is everything in the news business. Yet some struggling news outlets have succumbed to temptation and allowed advertisers or corporate donors to dictate what does—or does not—get printed. In East County, developers of unpopular projects have attempted (sometimes successfully) to buy up ad space in small-town papers or even radio broadcasts, then threaten to yank funds unless truthful reporting was suppressed. One local publisher told me her newspaper won’t cover anything “controversial” due to fear of losing advertiser support. Insiders have told me about at least three others that declined to cover important local stories due to undue influence by corporate advertisers.
If you want to help sustain and grow independent media at East County Magazine, a publicaiton of the 501c3 Heartland Coalition, and enable us to help fill the voids left by the demise of some other East County publications, then please click here to send a donation online or by check, or even more importantly, become a monthly donor. Monthly donors are also members of our Editor’s Club, entitled to discounts and early-bird opportunities for our special events. Large underwriters can also become a sponsor of a special section on our online magazine (which averages 150,000 readers a month), our homepage or our newsletter.
We appreciate the many great story ideas and suggestions from our readers, which you can send to firstname.lastname@example.org. With support from our readers, we hope to be able to report on many more of the stories that matter most to you.