For its size, Humboldt's lucky to have the robust print/online media scene that exists here. A daily paper. A couple of weeklies, including the one you're reading. Monthly magazines of varying quality. A thriving news website, the Lost Coast Outpost, just hired award-winning news guy Ryan Burns away from the North Coast Journal.
That's just one example of shuffling around when it comes to this alt newsweekly over the past year. In the spring, Grant Scott-Goforth was hired as an assistant editor and staff writer. In May, during HSU's graduation, arts editor Bob Doran was shooting photos and had a stroke. Jennifer Cahill became arts and features editor.
Social media guru Andrew Goff was the first Journal staffer lured away from the Journal to work for the Lost Coast Outpost. The LoCO's a project of former Journal editor Hank Sims, who left this paper in 2011 after a demotion. Sims and Goff are longtime friends. In a LoCO story announcing the hire, Sims wrote, "I got my Goff back."
Hold your hats. We're just getting started.
Journal editor Carrie Peyton Dahlberg transitioned to working halftime in the spring, and then was laid off in November. Plenty of speculation on that. The Mad River Union wrote an easy piece quoting unnamed sources. In her publisher's column, Judy Hodgson explained: "We are streamlining the editorial department and the position of editor is being eliminated."
Cahill and Burns were named co-editors in Peyton Dahlberg's stead.
But Burns didn't want to be the Journal's co-editor. He bounced off to LoCO.
"I think Carrie was the best editor this paper has had in my memory," Burns says. "And I have no desire to try to fill her shoes."
Are you following so far? Good. Because I'm not sure I'm following so far. I moved here last year and was pleased at the chance to do some freelance writing for the Journal, a classy, locally owned alt weekly. I've been working in and out of alt weeklies since 1994. While in grad school, I was editor of the Reno News & Review in Northern Nevada. Editing a weekly paper with all fresh, local content and photos — that's a demanding gig. Satisfying but grueling.
Last fall, Peyton Dahlberg tossed some stories my way. She's a detail-oriented editor who asks good questions. I felt proud to see my byline in the Journal.
Her loss troubles readers.
In a letter to the Journal after Peyton Dahlberg's departure, Stilson Snow of Eureka asked: "How does a paper keep up this level of quality without an editor?"
Good question. Hodgson's optimistic.
The Journal hired Thad Greenson from the Eureka Times-Standard to fill Burns' role as co-editor. He starts in January. Cahill will continue to handle the artsy back of the book.
"We're going to give this a try," Hodgson says.
Here's to hoping it works. The epiphany hit me not long out of journalism school — a newspaper is a business, not a public service. I recently watched an alt weekly flail while I was living in Hawai'i. The paper folded last year. RIP, Honolulu Weekly.
So it can't hurt the Journal, financially, to have a tighter staff. A stable financial profile can make the difference between a hearty paper and a slow, painful collapse.
That said, daily publications have obliterated editorial staffs in recent decades to the detriment of their papers' content and quality. To lure new readers, companies made their newspapers less relevant.
Advertorial sections — a health or restaurant supplement with paid-for stories and reviews — have been cash cows keeping papers afloat. I've written this stuff. Once I interviewed car dealers about their great customer service. "We never run a bad review of a restaurant," a Nevada casino pub editor once told me. I'd like to think readers lose trust in the integrity of media when a chunk of the content is a sellout to advertisers. But folks still watch American Idol with its record-setting numbers of product placements. So who knows.
The Journal hasn't devolved into anything like reporters mentioning tasty Coca-Cola in the Blogthing.
In fact, things are looking good for the paper.
"We had a skinny year," Hodgson says. "We had to trim places. Now we're in good shape going into next year. Sales are phenomenal. I'm feeling better about print journalism."
Given the number of newsy pubs in the area, competition for ad dough is stiff. LoCO's growth lights a fire under the Journal's tush.
"LoCO is hiring a top-notch, cream-of-the-crop reporter," Hodgson says. "I think the world of Ryan. The fact that LoCO can now afford to hire a reporter of his caliber — that's significant news."
With Burns aboard, LoCO can offer more original news — and do this without spitting ink onto dead trees.
"From a business point of view, it's certainly inexpensive to do paperless journalism," Hodgson says. "No graphics department, no printers, no distribution network, low overhead."
On the plus side, though, print offers advantages for readers and advertisers. Hodgson has watched people read the Journal from cover to cover, beginning with the first page, like a book. "They keep turning the pages – and it's a powerful advertising tool," she says.
So, finances are OK. But will good old capital-J Journalism still thrive at the Journal?
Going forward, Hodgson hopes to save long-form journalism — those 4,000-word in-depth stories — for the times when they're needed. Sometimes a story can be better told in 1,800 words, she contends. And that can save the paper from bumping up four pricey pages on occasion.
"We try to be frugal," Hodgson says, noting that to remain profitable, the newspaper should run about 60 percent advertising to 40 percent editorial content.
As for quality, Hodgson notes that the Journal's staffers all have reporting, writing and editing experience. Burns agrees.
"I think this community is fortunate to have writers as talented and dedicated as Heidi, Grant, Thad and Jennifer," Burns says. "I'm sure Carrie's experience and editorial guidance will be missed, but this is a solid crew. They're gonna keep producing kickass journalism."
For her part, Peyton Dahlberg plans to stay in Humboldt, pursuing freelance writing and other opportunities. Does she think editorial streamlining will work?
"Downsizing is never easy on the people left behind but I'm sure they'll do their best," Peyton Dahlberg says.
At an Association of Alternative Newsmedia conference more than a decade ago, an alt weekly publisher told Deidre Pike that he didn't care if people, including his staff, thought he was an asshole. That guy is still putting out papers today.