New Practices and Revenues for a New Era in Journalism

We're not just whining about our finances like the Chronicle. We're doing something about them.

The woes of my industry mount on an almost daily basis. Papers in Denver and Seattle recently closed, and two entire chains have declared bankruptcy: the daily Tribune Company and alt-weekly Creative Loafing Inc. Closer to home, the weekly Berkeley Daily Planet and still-daily San Francisco Chronicle warn that they, too, are threatened by closure. I have collected final editions of such newspapers for years, since the 1982 demise of East Bay Today and the conversion of the Oakland Tribune from afternoon to morning publication. I frame and display them in my office like journalistic tombstones. I had the privilege of working for several of them, including the Berkeley Gazette and Spectrum Weekly, an Arkansas newsweekly that I modeled after the East Bay Express. These days, I’m hoping I don’t have to buy a new frame for the Express.

The factors that have reduced us to this state are by now familiar. Classified advertising, one of the earliest forms of user-generated content and revenue, has migrated to the Internet. At weeklies like the Express, that migration also spelled the death of personals, which once provided us with edgy cachet and as much as 20 percent of our annual revenue. Meanwhile, daily newspapers have stupidly shot themselves in the foot by freely providing online what they once charged to provide in print. And, of course, all of us have suffered as the ever-greater proliferation of media options fractured once-unitary audiences into smaller and smaller niches. I could go on, but you get the gist.

So in response, this newspaper is revamping its business model. Of course, we’ll continue to sell print advertising, which still provides the vast majority of our revenues and remains an exceedingly effective way to reach a targeted local audience of active and aware young professionals with a median age of about forty and an annual average income of about $75,000. But we’ll also spread our wings, both by operating our current business differently and by venturing into new realms that hold the promise of sustaining us for years to come.

Here’s how we will change our operations:

User-generated copyediting. Alert readers surely have noticed the absence of a copyeditor among our staff members in the past year and a half. Lamentably, that has produced an increase in grammatical errors within our pages. So we’re preparing to enlist our readers in an exciting new model of online copyediting. Starting next week, the entire contents of each week’s paper will be posted to the new “Beta” section of our web site. The reader who finds and corrects the most grammatical errors each week will win a $25 gift certificate to one of our region’s remaining independent bookstores.

Wikipedia fact-checking. In a related development, we’re also happy to announce a new partnership with the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Using a new private-label interface that Wikipedia developed in the search for a sustainable business model of its own, readers of the Express will now be able to make corrections directly to the stories on our web site. Certain subjects on which people simply can’t agree — the efficacy of rent control, the solution for Israel and Palestine, whether there’s a future for the hip-hop genre known as hyphy — will not be eligible for online revision. And, of course, certain members of the East Bay community will not qualify for access. (Yes, I’m talkin’ to you, Don Perata.) But Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates can edit whatever he wants, since we’d rather have him change a story than steal our papers.

Reader-assigned stories. Another way in which we will place our faith in the wisdom of crowds is by allowing our readers to suggest specific topics for future stories. Express managing editor, arts editor, and webmistress Kathleen Richards has set up a dedicated Twitter account through which readers can tweet us both serious story tips and juicy celebrity dirt. And we have formed a partnership with Yahoo to cull each week’s top ten East Bay search terms, which we will use to inform the content of our new page two column, “The Buzz Machine.” Next week, expect coverage of American Idol, Kim Kardashian, Shawn Johnson, the Three Stooges, and Iran.

Reporters are personalities. Even as we enlist the assistance of our many talented readers, we’ll also raise the profile of our regular contributors and 1.5 staff writers. In that, we’ll be taking a cue from the Chronicle, where each reporter’s picture now appears in the paper twice a week. (And while I’m thinking of it, don’t you guys ever buy new clothing?) Just like at the Chronicle, we are turning our contributors into personalities. Gone will be any remaining pretensions of objectivity. If Robert Gammon doesn’t like Don Perata or Sheila Jordan, he’ll say so. (Well, okay, he already does.) This will help turn our reporters into online brands, and should increase our web traffic. Of course, readers will have to adjust. Since staff writer, music writer, entertainment writer, theater reviewer, and calendar editor Rachel Swan doesn’t really like theater, we probably won’t write about that any more. And since managing editor, arts editor, webmistress, and music editor Kathleen Richards listens only to black metal, stoner metal, and doom metal (try sharing an office wall with her), we probably won’t cover country, folk, reggae, or singer-songwriters. But by digging deep into Rachel’s love of jazz and Kathleen’s passion for Nordic dragon imagery, we expect to triple our online traffic from Germany and Scandinavia.

Even more exciting than our new ways of doing business are our new schemes for making money. (Eat your heart out, Hearst Corporation.) Here’s how we will generate new revenue streams:

The return of paid internships. Industry graybeards like myself can look back fondly on the $100-a-week checks that we once received for being interns at places like the Berkeley Gazette. Alas, for today’s crop of wannabe journalists, paid internships are about as antique as 8-track tape players. But here at the Express, inspired by the inexplicable popularity of blogging, we’re determined to bring back the paid internship. Interns will henceforth pay us $5 per hour for the privilege of contributing to our news section. Interns must pledge to work at least twenty hours and contribute at least five stories a week. To apply for a summer internship, please call Kathleen Richards, our managing editor, arts editor, webmistress, music editor, and intern coordinator.

Event promotion. In each week’s paper, we typically preview about a dozen upcoming musical performances. From now on, in partnership with our friends at the East Bay’s clubs and concert halls, we will be a promotional partner in these shows. The Express will receive a 15 percent share of ticket revenues for every show we promote in our music section. We reserve the right to charge more for shows with added security costs (hip-hop and death metal) and also for genres that may not sell as many tickets (freak folk or anything by the Mills College crowd).

Paid circulation. The Express has always been a free newspaper, but now, for the first time in our history, we are preparing to institute a form of paid circulation. We’ll soon begin targeting selected Republican neighborhoods in Alamo, Danville, and San Ramon and throwing copies of our paper onto driveways and front lawns. Residents can make us stop these deliveries for only $19.95 per half year, or just $29.95 for a full year. This new Tri-Valley edition will feature extra coverage of hip-hop, graffiti arts, spoken-word poetry, and Berkeley politics.

Homeless storage lockers. As cities across the East Bay clamp down on freestanding newsracks, the Express has acquired a huge warehouse stacked floor to ceiling with yellow and silver hardware. The scrap-metal value of these newsracks pales in comparison to their original $700 sticker prices. What to do with them all? In a partnership with the City of Emeryville, the Express is proud to announce that it is converting old newsracks into homeless storage lockers. Through seed-grant funding obtained by Advocates for Homeless Services, the Express will receive $50 per week to provide members of the local homeless community with a clean, dry place to store their clothing, shoes, and copper plumbing fixtures. The lockers will be accessible to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at our Emeryville warehouse, right across from Elevation 22 townhomes and condominiums. For more information, please contact clubs editor, music writer, editorial coordinator, and circulation coordinator Nate Seltenrich.

A new revenue model for investigative journalism. The Express is renowned for the vigor of its investigative journalism, as characterized by our historic coverage of Your Black Muslim Bakery, Don Perata, and AC Transit. Most recently we have received well-deserved acclaim for our critical coverage of the popular web site Yelp by managing editor, arts editor, webmistress, music editor, intern coordinator, and investigative reporter Kathleen Richards. But we’re also smart enough to recognize that even evil web sites can have good ideas. The challenge with investigative journalism is its cost; such stories can require months to report. That was fine and dandy when I had seventeen journalists working for me, but now that I’m down to four, investigations are a costly luxury. That’s why I have just assigned blogger, staff writer, environmental columnist, and investigative reporter Robert Gammon an annual revenue goal like the ones our advertising salespersons have. As part of his yearly investigative quota, Bob will now be expected to convert two stories into revenue opportunities. Consider, for instance, how much money former State Senate President Don Perata might have paid Gammon over the years not to report about all the shady deals that got the FBI on his trail. Sure, Bob and I wouldn’t have had as much fun, but admit it: you’re probably sick to death of reading about Perata. More importantly, money funneled to the Express from bogus campaign committees will enable Bob to keep obsessing about all of his other favorite targets. It’s a win-win scenario. By the way, Perata for Oakland Mayor in 2010.

A new form of classified advertising. Nothing — not even the second Bush recession — looms larger as a cause of my industry’s woes than the disappearance of classified advertising. The classifieds as we knew them are probably lost to Craigslist forever. But we’ve come up with an even better source of classified revenue. The Senate Intelligence Committee is preparing to declassify more than 78,000 pages of White House torture memos from the period between September 11, 2001, and January 20, 2009. Thanks to our partnership with committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, the Express will soon receive $57 million in federal economic stimulus funds to publish the complete text of these previously classified documents. (Why is Hearst messing around with Nancy Pelosi and stupid antitrust exemptions when they coulda struck gold with Dianne Feinstein?)

Express buds. Facebook has fans; we’ll have buds. In partnership with Harborside Health Center and the Analytical Laboratory Project, we’ll be opening a new co-branded retail outlet at the Bay Street Emeryville shopping center. Choose from all your favorite buds: Cheese, Grape OG, White Rhino, and Afgooey Super Melt. The medicine is just $40 for an eighth of an ounce, and of course, the THC content will be measured and guaranteed. By combining the high-quality pot from Harborside and the scientific precision of Analytical Labs with the marketing savvy of the East Bay Express and our new landlords at Bay Street, we think we can transform the medicinal marijuana industry.

Watch the video: Saving Newspapers: The Musical

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