I love competition, so I enjoy a newspaper war (even if it was just an overhyped skirmish). And I mourn the death of any newspaper, even if it was really just a zoned edition.
My heart in this “war,” though, was with the other Long Beach daily, the Press-Telegram, colleagues for nearly three years in my days with Digital First Media.
Journalists love to write about each other, and Aaron Kushner’s bold (if foolhardy) adventures in Southern California drew attention from when he first bought the Orange County Register and proclaimed his strategy to double down on print, digital revolution be damned.
I was skeptical from the first and might have said so on social media, and did say so privately, but I refrained from blogging about Kushner. I didn’t want to blog phony optimism, but I was hoping Kushner would succeed, for the sake of all the journalists he was hiring (including friends of mine). Others hailed Kushner’s strategy as bold, showing embarrassingly little skepticism, as Clay Shirky noted this year in a withering commentary.
But it was a foolish strategy. Newspapers haven’t figured out the right digital strategy yet, but pretending that print isn’t dying isn’t going to work. And Kushner compounded his blunder by buying the Riverside Press-Enterprise and then launching daily “Registers” for Long Beach and Los Angeles (the LA Register launched after Long Beach but crashed earlier).
Media reporters ate up the Long Beach newspaper “war,” exaggerating its historic significance. It was even a stretch to call them both freestanding newspapers. The “Long Beach Register” was a section of local news wrapped around the Orange County Register, delivered in Long Beach. For most of my career, we called that a zoned edition, even if you slapped the local community’s name on it.
The Press-Telegram historically was an independent newspaper, locally owned, then belonging to Knight-Ridder and MediaNews Group before DFM. But as DFM’s Los Angeles News Group centralized many operations of its nine daily newspapers, the Press-Telegram essentially became a zoned edition of the Los Angeles Daily News. The “contact us” page lists far more journalists and executives scattered at other LANG sites than actually based in Long Beach. The highest-ranking journalist stationed in Long Beach is City Editor Melissa Evans.
But the Press-Telegram has a long local history, and DFM responded well to the fight, increasing resources in the Long Beach newsroom, which like newsrooms everywhere, had seen significant staff reductions.
My August 2013 visit to the Press-Telegram coincided with the launch of the Long Beach Register, and it was exciting to see Melissa, Community Engagement Editor Rich Archbold and the rest of the Press-Telegram troops rallying to the cause.
The company even spent a little marketing money. As I write this, I’m wearing a t-shirt proclaiming “We are Long Beach” naming local landmarks that those interlopers from Orange County might not know, promoting the Press-Telegram and our Long Beach weekly, the Grunion Gazette. In a smooth maneuver, DFM grabbed the URL longbeachregister.com before anyone in Orange County thought of that, so it redirects to the Press-Telegram.
In January of this year, DFM’s senior editors met in Long Beach aboard the Queen Mary (a long-retired ocean liner that’s now a hotel/museum/restaurant and perhaps an uncomfortable metaphor for newspaper editors meeting there).
— Steve Buttry (@stevebuttry) January 14, 2014
We heard about the successful response to the Register’s challenge by Melissa, Rich and their colleagues (led by LANG Executive Editor Michael Anastasi). I’ve looked for a copy of the “We Are Long Beach” video they shot for the meeting, but that appears to be something they did for internal use, rather than posting online.
Almost a year later, I’m sure I’m not the only DFM editor looking back wistfully on that meeting of about 15 DFM editors. We talked about our plan for “going on offense” in the coming year and about launching Project Unbolt and topical “verticals” in our Thunderdome newsroom in New York. We learned about quiet plans to launch a project in the Philadelphia area aimed at millennials. But bigger forces overtook our plans.
The company’s for sale now. At least five of the senior editors at that Long Beach meeting, including me, have left the company this year, voluntarily or un. Thunderdome closed. I ran Project Unbolt, but I could visit only one of the four pilot newsrooms, and I don’t know how well the culture change at the heart of the project weathered all the other changes in the company. DFM Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady left and launched that Philly project, Billy Penn, with his own money.
But the Press-Telegram won its “war.”
Melissa’s leadership won her a DFMie as the company’s mid-level editor of the year and Gazette Editor Harry Saltzgaver was our Journalist of the Year for non-daily newsrooms. The scrappy Press-Telegram staff also won some monthly DFMies.
So I’ll salute the Register and its journalists (including some friends and DFM expatriates) for a valiant challenge. However misguided the corporate strategy was, the journalists did their job with gusto. And I’ll salute the Press-Telegram for its victory in tough times for our industry and their company. This “war” made journalism better in Long Beach, and I hope that continues.