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November 2, 2006

From the Publisher

Re: endorsements


I gave a talk recently at Humboldt State University on media and politics in Humboldt County. (I've been a reporter, editor or publisher for local newspapers for the past 25 years and was invited to give the Victor T. Schaub Memorial Lecture on campus last month.) To explain the role of media today, I told the students, you have to understand a little recent history and the mission of our different news publications.

The North Coast Journal was founded as a monthly in 1990. By nature, the Journal was not a real newspaper; it was a magazine of sorts. We survived (barely) until 1998 when we pulled the plug on the monthly, hired a larger staff (we're up to 16 employees now), got a big line of credit from the bank and began publishing weekly. We grew from 16,000 to 22,000 circulation, doubled the number of pages printed each week, and have been in the black (barely) every year since. Very few weekly newspapers in the United States actually match or out-circulate the established daily (one day per week) in readership, but it is a position we now enjoy.

No business venture is launched in a vacuum. The opportunity to start a weekly was afforded us by our only regional competitor, the venerable Times-Standard. In the mid to late 1990s, the T-S was a low-budget, high-profit paper. Advertising was expensive, especially for small independent businesses. The news section was filled with wire copy. There was constant turnover on the editorial staff and in management (half dozen different publishers and almost as many editors in one 5-year period). The paper's direction could only be described as rudderless and that presented an opportunity to us, focusing on all-local content and good journalism.

The T-S was purchased by its current owner, Dean Singleton (MediaNews), in 1996. The Journal took a little ad revenue away from T-S, but in those days, the old Tri-City Weekly took a lot -- so Singleton bought it in 1998, eliminating his primary competitor. (I should have sent him a thank-you card.) Eventually, the T-S showed some stability and a little improvement. But it wasn't until Rob Arkley launched the Eureka Reporter that the T-S began to do its job. The Reporter filled its pages with local news (no story is too minor for a big five-column full color photo), forcing the T-S to follow suit.

One of the ways the T-S was formerly not doing its job was at election time. Sure, they gave each candidate the exact same number of inches of copy in a story that read a lot like the voter's pamphlet: Why you should vote for me. I remember more than once being surprised that the paper skipped coverage of a major candidate debate or a speech before a citizens' group.

Not any more. Neither paper would dare.

So with the dailies now fighting over every scrap of news including election news, what is the role of the Journal today? And what about those pesky endorsements?

First, we have to be realistic. The T-S has 15 or so on its news staff and the Reporter 17 at last count. Both owners have very deep pockets, publish lots of pages every day of the week, and own their own presses. The Journal has ... well, we have four really good staff writers and some talented freelancers. So the plan is to continue to report and write interpretive stories (like the election stories of the last two weeks), trend stories ("How Green is my Plastic," Aug. 24), underreported stories ("Tree after Tree," July 13) and stories about what it is like to live in Humboldt County in the year 2006 in the middle of a newspaper war ("Somerville's Times"). This is our focus. We don't want to duplicate the daily media especially now that there is so much of it.

As to endorsements, we are evolving. In 1990 I said in this column, "No endorsements" because as a monthly, the time lag was too great between publication dates and I thought it was presumptuous to tell people how to vote anyway. We began endorsements in 1998 as a weekly, and continued through 2004 when we still had a lingering void in good print news coverage.

Today, the Journal staff has grown and while we are a reasonably happy family, we sometimes disagree. I'm fairly certain we do not all vote the same. (In 2004, we -- meaning me, in my column -- endorsed Rex Bohn as the better of two good candidates. He lost.) So after much thought and discussion, the Journal is returning to a policy of no endorsements. Our readers, like the Journal staff, are intelligent and given good information, perfectly capable of figuring out how to vote in local elections.

By the way, as a result of our revisioning process this year (and our growing number of pages), we are looking to recruit new freelance contributors to our news pages. Wait, wait! Don't send me your manuscript. Please. Send an e-mail to Editor Hank Sims, but only after you have carefully read the new freelancers' guide. Yes, it's a paid gig. Good luck!


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