Jack Durham & Kevin L. Hoover: The Decline And Fall Of The Humboldt Beacon – December 12, 2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

Jack Durham & Kevin L. Hoover

McKinleyville Press/Arcata Eye

For 110 years, the Humboldt Beacon has served the people of Fortuna and the Eel River Valley, persevering through two world wars, The Great Depression, the Humboldt flood of ’64 and an untold number of other trials and tribulations.

Last Thursday, the Beacon put out its final edition, ending over a century of service to the community. It’s a sad day for Humboldt County, especially for the 12,000 residents of Fortuna. The Beacon has played an important role in their lives, as well as ours.

We both worked for the Humboldt Beacon as Northern Humboldt Bureau Chiefs back in 1996 after the demise of the Arcata Union. Basically that meant one of us and an ad person in a Jacoby’s Storehouse office, a few doors down from where the Arcata Eye is now.

The Beacon, Union and Redwood Record (in Garberville) were owned by Patrick O’Dell of Humboldt Group, a mini-conglomerate of his holdings. In the fall of 1995, after pledging never to do so, O’Dell closed the Union and the Redwood Record, and in the worst way. He declared that both papers were now “consolidated” into the Beacon. As Union employees who had helped modernize and re-launch the paper, we had zero input on any of this. It was all planned in Fortuna.

If you were a subscriber to the Union or the Redwood Record, instead you now received the Beacon in your mailbox every Thursday.

With the consolidation, O’Dell had a vision – the Beacon would become a county-wide newspaper. It would cover everything – Garberville, Fortuna, Eureka, Arcata, McKinleyville, Trinidad and everything in between.

It was a bold idea, but there were at least two problems – it was a fundamentally flawed business model, and O’Dell didn’t commit the resources to adequately cover the county.

For everything from Eureka north to the Del Norte County line, the Beacon had one full-time reporter. Covering a region that large is an impossible task for one person, but even harder when the reporter spends two days a week laying out pages in Fortuna. That left the reporter three days to cover Northern Humboldt.

Also undermining the whole premise was that an editorial office in Fortuna processed the information coming in from Arcata. These two towns obviously had, and have, distinctly different sensibilities. At the time, there were as many of those red “RUSH IS RIGHT” bumper stickers stuck to the smog-belching pickup trucks of Fortuna as there were “JAIL HURWITZ” stickers plastered to the smog-belching Volvos of Arcata.

The product of all this was a spotty newspaper which covered lots of different communities, but didn’t cover any single community with any depth. Even Fortuna suffered, with its local newspaper now watered down of local content, the paper’s resources spread thin all over Humboldt.

We were happy to be practicing journalism and getting paychecks as well as working with the fine newspaper people who staffed the Beacon at the time. But at the same time, we also saw that O’Dell’s vision was doomed to fail. It was the usual story: an eager team on the front lines and crippling dysfunction in management.

After the way the Union ended, many Arcatans and Mack Towners simply refused to touch, much less read the Beacon. It was like one hand clapping. We kept doing the work, but readers told us they didn’t want anything to do with it, and increasingly, neither did we.

Instead of covering everything, we thought it would be far superior to focus on a community or two and get hyper-local. Basically, do everything exactly opposite of O’Dell’s vision.

So, less than a year later, in 1996, the McKinleyville Press was born, followed nine weeks later by the Arcata Eye.

The Beacon then began reverting to its innate DNA as an Eel River Valley paper. Its half-baked effort to cover the entire county faded away, the names of the newspapers it “absorbed” disappeared from its logo and within a year or two it was once again a Fortuna paper. The Beacon was better off for it, as were the residents of Fortuna.

Like any paper, the Beacon had its strengths and weaknesses, but it was there in Fortuna covering the community, striving to be fair and accurate. Trained reporters answered phones and took notes when people told them their news. It gave the community a voice and a place to debate local issues on the opinion page. It reflected Fortuna.

People have said they can’t imagine Arcata without the Eye, and that – when it is at its best – it reflects its brash, vigorous and colorful town. In that, it is no different from other micro-papers around here that embody the community they cover. The McKinleyville Press physically looks like McKinleyville, the Ferndale Enterprise, Ferndale.

As O’Dell shed his properties, it was said that he would never close the newspaper his dad, J.D. O’Dell had left him. But once it was down to that and the winery, he seemingly lost interest in publishing. In 2005, he sold the Humbldt Beacon to Denver, Colo., based MediaNews Group, which owns the Times-Standard along with 54 other newspapers in 11 states.

After MediaNews took over the Beacon, it was a slow march downhill. MediaNews closed the Beacon’s Fortuna office in 2009 and moved operations to Eureka. Last week, Times-Standard Publisher Dave Kuta announced that the Beacon’s last issue is Thursday, Dec. 8. The reason for the paper’s closure: Advertising revenue has fallen, while the cost of producing and distributing has gone up.

That’s something we understand. Advertising dollars at both the Eye and the Press are scant. Sometimes it’s a struggle to just come up with enough money to pay the printing bill. We both do our best to survive, but sometimes it’s pretty dicey. It’s been that way from the start.

While ad revenue can be a roller coaster, the costs of putting out the papers never go down, only up.

Against this journalism-punishing backdrop, the mid-county now has to identify serious sources of news, and how to pay for them. Unless someone steps up to the plate to take over where the Beacon left off, Fortuna will be without any consistent, reliable community news.

Sure, you’ll read or hear about Fortuna somewhere if there’s a major fire, a murder or a scandal erupts at City Hall. And you’ll still get your ration of feel-good pics of – to use Anderson Valley Advertiser Editor Bruce Anderson’s worst nightmare – cocker spaniels and kids frolicking in lawn sprinklers.

But you won’t get regular updates on what happened at the City Council meetings, or how that ties into county machinations. You won’t read about the projects under consideration by the planning commission or what’s going on at the local schools. You might not even read about that major scandal because there won’t be a reporter snooping around City Hall and cultivating sources.

Residents will basically get a form of hit-and-run journalism – outside media outlets will cover a high-profile story, especially if it has visuals, then disappear and ignore the town for weeks or months at a time.

There may be a blogger or two that writes about the town, and there may be some information provided to the public by city officials, but this hardly replaces real journalism. Maybe Facebook will evolve into a serious news source, but it has a long way to go.

Bloggers, with some exceptions, tend to be activists with an ax to grind, many anonymous. While they can add to the political discourse, they rarely strive to provide balanced coverage of anything. They cherry-pick information and push their own agenda.

Newsletters and online documents from city officials can be very informative, but they’re mostly slanted to advance the institution’s own interests.

Visit a town that doesn’t have a newspaper providing regular coverage and ask the residents what they know about the workings of their local government, community services district, etc. The answer: Not much. In such places, information available to the public is sketchy, much of it based on neighborhood gossip, or the rantings of local gadflies. Who’s telling the truth? Where is the town’s record?

There’s no replacement for real community journalism, that operates with standards, discipline and attribution.

How can other communities with newspapers prevent what happened in Fortuna? What can people do to help make sure that community journalism continues?

Simple: Buy a subscription to your local paper. If you own a business, advertise. If you’re part of a local non-profit, club or organization, you should also try to advertise – even a small display ad and your one-time legal ads when you need to run one. Send in pictures of your kids’ achievements and letters to the editor. Criticize the news coverage. Participate.

The big picture is this: without a community news-gathering entity, the town begins to lose self-awareness. Decisions are made without complete information. The normal level of dysfunction has every opportunity to deepen.

Supporting hyperlocal media costs you less than you spend on other quality of life things like, say, tea, or DVDs. But it’s something that, with decent support, can help catalyze a town.

Beyond that, even supporting your local journalists and publishers is only part of the picture. We need to participate in all of our local institutions – government, culture and, yes, media.

Some will, some won’t. Whether our communities wish to support a mainstream news operation is up to us all, and at the rate things are going, our future is uncertain.

What we do know is that in terms of news media, this community will wind up with exactly what it is willing to support.

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