Bites on old, new and experimental journalism in Sacramento

Sacramento Press editor goes it alone

Bites is old, as far as media experiments go. When Capital Bites debuted, Bill Clinton was president and alternative-weekly newspapers made money. You can’t even find the first Bites columns online now.

OK, so the late ’90s weren’t that long ago. Still, it feels weird to be writing a newspaper column in 2013. It’s a sort of vintage job, isn’t it? Like developing film or running a video store or dealing weed or being a mailman.

And the pace of change in the alt-weekly industry seems to be accelerating. In the last year, the Village Voice Media chain disgorged papers it swallowed up in the 1990s and 2000s. In San Francisco, after a brutal legal battle in which the Bay Guardian accused the SF Weekly of predatory pricing in its advertising, both papers are now owned by the same company. Ironic, given the Guardian’s tradition of railing against monopolies like PG&E and Village Voice Media. The venerable Boston Phoenix closed its doors earlier this year, prompting a slew of “death of the alt weeklies” stories.

Alt-weeklies aren’t dead. They are much thinner. Some are going to monthly publishing schedules. Many are going “digital first,” and trying to figure out where the money is in that. SN&R is something of an outlier, preferring to experiment mostly with print-advertising products and adopting a “wait and see” approach online. As in, “Let’s wait and see if the Internet goes away.”

Everyone is experimenting. The public-media model is getting a lot of attention. Works great for outfits like Capital Public Radio, but most old media outlets can’t suddenly start running pledge drives. The Sacramento Bee and daily papers elsewhere are still trying to mug readers with pop-up ads and pay walls. Not sure if these techniques are revenue generating. They certainly have discouraged Bites from spending time on the Bee site.

There are the online nonprofit heavy hitters like ProPublica and California Watch, which are great, as long as the foundation money lasts. And if only they covered City Hall.

Then, there’s cohort of hyperlocal, shoestring and citizen-journalism experiments like Sacramento Press. Bites wanted to root for it when it got started in 2009. It was small and independent and had the potential to liven up the local media landscape. But for a long time, it was too hard to stomach Sac Press’ boosterism and Bee-lite editorial outlook, and the way it became a channel for press releases from business interests and government bureaucrats. And the badges. Ugh, the badges.

Things got a lot better when Jared Goyette took over as editor a year ago. The guy cares about journalism and community and all that good stuff. He’s done well, it appears, despite an ever-shrinking budget. And the success or failure of the Sacramento Press experiment is now very much up to Goyette.

“I just went from being the editor to being the publisher and CEO,” he told Bites a few days ago. They haven’t made a big deal about it on the site, but Sac Press’ owners, Ben Ilfeld and Geoff Samek, are cutting Sacramento Press loose from rest of their Web-design and Web-ads business. They’ll still own Sac Press, but it’s basically Goyette’s baby now, and he’s got to figure out how to pay the bills.

Sometime over the summer, Sac Press will relaunch with a brand-new website. (With a new color scheme, Bites hopes?) The Press lost its paid staff writers because of budget cuts, but Goyette plans to beef up freelance contributions. The editorial focus will shift a bit away from neighborhood-based hyperlocalism to a more topical form of localism—centered on areas that readers care about, like food or bikes or tech. There will be more events, like the “Farm to Fork: Where’s the teeth?” panel it held at Urban Hive last week.

Goyette will, out of necessity, be reporting and writing more. That’s a good thing. “You don’t get into journalism for the page views,” he says. Also good, the new system will require all articles from citizen contributors to go through some editing.

But it’s not clear that any of this will work. Even if all goes according to plan, Goyette says the project still, for a while, will be spending money instead of making it.

“But we’ve got a little wind in our sails. And we’ve got a better revenue-to-cost ratio than we’ve had in a long time.”

Goyette is upbeat but not certain. “The thing that makes this valuable is our community. If we continue to focus on that, it will be around in some form or another.” Bites hopes the experiment succeeds.