Feed the buzz: Major changes coming soon to The Sacramento Bee

Insiders discuss the paper’s big reboot and whether McClatchy can stay in the print business

Major changes coming to The Sacramento Bee this next month, as soon as May 12 according to some workers, will emphasize digital and mobile news over traditional print.

Major changes coming to The Sacramento Bee this next month, as soon as May 12 according to some workers, will emphasize digital and mobile news over traditional print.

illustration by sn&r staff

You wouldn’t start a newspaper today. Online journalism startups, sure, those are launched all the time. But words printed on paper and delivered by trucks? That’s no way to break news, and increasingly readers aren’t interested.

So The Sacramento Bee and its parent, the McClatchy Co., have been trying to gradually phase out print—out of necessity—and rebuild as a digital-first news organization. “McClatchy has been trying to get out of the printing business for a while,” says Rick Edmonds, who writes about the newspaper industry for the Poynter Institute, an organization that provides training and research for journalists.

In the next few weeks, Bee readers will really see McClatchy’s digital transition plan in action. Because The Sacramento Bee is about to get a reboot.

It’s more than a redesign. According to folks inside the Bee, the print paper is going to look dramatically different. The old sections like “Sports” and “Our Region” are going to be thrown out. The paper will be smaller, and the page layout will have more graphics and photos. You might even find an opinion column taking up the entire front page (a potential treat for Marcos Breton fans). The website and mobile apps are getting an overhaul, too.

In the words of one Bee employee, some readers will probably “flip out” over the changes. “No newspaper has ever been designed like this. It’s going to be a completely new concept.”

But once you start re-imagining the Bee, all sorts of questions come to mind. What is a daily print newspaper good for? Assuming there are some readers who still want one, is there a business model that gives it to them? And when will the last Sacramento Bee land on the last reader’s doorstep?

It’s been a rough decade for newspapers generally, including the Bee. The Sacramento-based McClatchy swallowed the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain in 2005 and has been deflating ever since. Stock prices were above $75 a share in 2005. By 2009, they hit 44 cents, and today they are bouncing around $1.50.

Company revenues slid year after year. Last week, McClatchy announced that it lost $11.3 million in the first quarter of 2015. When reporting the losses in a conference call, McClatchy President Pat Talamantes underscored the need to get away from print and “hasten our digital transformation.”

The reasons for the declines are well known. The Internet has fragmented audiences. Classified-advertising revenues evaporated as soon as Craigslist came onto the scene. Display advertising—particularly from big national brands—has steadily declined.

In 2005, Sacramento Bee circulation was near its peak, distributing 298,000 issues on a weekday, and 346,000 on Sunday. Last year, weekday circulation had dropped to 181,000, and 298,000 for the Sunday paper.

So, for several years, the McClatchy company has been trimming, sometimes slashing. Consolidating printing operations, cutting back on distribution, selling off property, all in the name of “cutting the legacy costs of printing.”

“It also means cutting newsroom staff,” notes Edmonds. Ten percent of the Sacramento Bee newsroom was in laid off in 2008. There has been a steady stream of layoffs, a few jobs at a time, since.

But even as payroll shrank and circulation fell, the Bee’s overall audience kept growing. As did online revenue.

Only 34 percent of McClatchy’s revenue comes from print advertising today, while the portion of revenue from online ads and other sources is growing. Not enough to make up for the losses in print, but that’s why the company is trying to restructure. And that’s a big part of what is driving the reboot.

“It’s a cost-savings, efficiency measure,” says one employee.

A lot of the corporate restructuring has been invisible to readers. But they will notice the digital transition when it hits the page—as early as mid-May, according to a post by McClatchy Vice President of News Anders Gyllenhaal, in a recent post on the Poynter Institute website. Other Bee insiders cite May 12 as the big day.

The Bee papers in Sacramento, Modesto and Fresno, along with the Merced Sun-Star, will be the first McClatchy papers to undergo the transformation. The changes are “the first phase in a broad evolution in how we publish,” wrote Gyllenhaal.

Website users will notice more video, and Talamantes said last week that the company hopes video advertising will provide a significant revenue boost.

One prototype of the print paper shows a more open and more graphic layout. Gyllenhaal writes: “The print edition must play to its strengths. It’s not the way to deliver breaking news, but it’s hard to beat for in-depth reading, as a once-a-day compendium of news and to provide a sense of completion readers say they crave.”

Gyllenhaal also wrote that weekday papers would be reorganized into just three sections, two for smaller-market papers. That makes sense, says Edmonds. “There’s not enough advertising to produce a four- or six-section newspaper anymore,” he explained.

Bee employees with whom SN&R spoke say that readers will see a smaller newspaper, though the amount of actual news should stay about the same. Exactly what form the new sections will take is still a bit mysterious.

Gyllenhaal writes about a section devoted to in-depth reporting. Bee employees variously said there might be a section devoted to opinion, or the paper might be organized into sections along the lines of “Today, Now, Tomorrow” or “Go, See, Do.”

“I wouldn’t take that as gospel, some of those section titles,” said Ed Fletcher, a Bee reporter and spokesperson for the union at the paper.

Though several other Bee employees were willing to talk about the changes, they asked that their names not be used. The employees also said that they were told by Bee management not to speak with SN&R. Bee spokeswoman Pam Dinsmore told SN&R that “there’s nothing to discuss” about the changes.

Will Bee readers “flip out” about the redesign? Probably. When the newspaper recently announced the elimination of box scores in the sports section, it caused a flood of angry letters and cancellations. Finding out the daily paper no longer has a sports section will be a bigger adjustment for some.

“It’s obviously a risk,” said one Bee employee. “But I think there’s a point of view that, ’At some point, this model is just not going to work any more. So let’s just do it now. Let’s get ahead of it.’”

Fletcher agreed. “I think there’s an acknowledgment that we can’t stay the same and expect to thrive going forward,” he said.

The changes start to address some questions that have been facing newspapers for a long time now. How should print and online work together? What do readers want from each? What is a print paper good for?

Those are questions that Timi Ross-Poeppelman, a Sacramento State journalism lecturer and adviser to the State Hornet, has wrestled with as a teacher and as a Bee reader.

“I was getting irritated, because I was getting the Bee every morning, and I had already read everything online,” she said.

Gone are the days of “shovel-ware” said Ross-Poeppelman, when “you just shoveled what was in the paper onto the website,” or vice versa.

“You need unique content in both. You need to figure out what works better in print, and what works better online.”

Media design consultant Mario Garcia, whom McClatchy hired to help with the new design, recently posted on his blog that newsprint is no longer for breaking news. The print paper should play more of a supporting role, “still in the show, but not the protagonist,” Garcia wrote.

Edmonds agreed. “If you really can get digital mobile to be the place for breaking news, then print is more interpretive, the second-day story.”

Most of the Bee employees SN&R spoke to say they are optimistic about the changes, and hope these moves will help bring stability to the newsroom. “Part of the hope is that we can pull some resources from print and reallocate them to online,” said Fletcher.

And the idea of a digital transition, of getting out of the print business, raises the inevitable question: How long should Sacramento expect to have a daily newspaper?

Newspapers like the Detroit Free Press and, for a time, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, cut their print editions to three days a week. In 2009, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer switched to online only.

Ross-Poeppelman said she thinks there will always a niche for print. “I don’t think print is going away, ever.” But then, “I think at some point it may take a different shape. It might just be once or twice a week.”

There are no near-term plans at the Bee to abandon the seven-day-a-week print model. “Reducing the number of days we provide the printed newspaper is not a part of this plan,” said Talamantes last week.

“The reality is that print is still the desired medium for many customers,” added Fletcher. But he says the Bee needs to accelerate its push toward becoming a digital operation, “not just a newspaper that also has a website.”

“We don’t want to get stuck providing a service for shrinking audience,” he says. “We don’t want to just do a lesser version of the same thing we’ve always done. We want to re-imagine it.”