SN&R’s founder looks back—and forward—on the paper’s 27th anniversary

Looking back to 1989—and forward to 2043

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.

Twenty-seven years ago, in April of 1989, we were putting together our first issue of the Sacramento News & Review. At the time, Kevin Johnson was playing his first full year with the Phoenix Suns. Darrell Steinberg was moving to Sacramento. And Angelique Ashby was a young teenager.

The media scene was dominated by three players. First, The Sacramento Bee, with hundreds of reporters and a huge Sunday paper, which was read by the majority of people in Sacramento. KCRA was the local television giant, winning top rankings year after year for the local nightly news. And KFBK dominated the radio news ratings, with its star Rush Limbaugh, who had just moved to New York City from Sacramento.

Our role at SN&R was to create an alternative news source, telling stories not covered by the big three, providing a voice for the less powerful and often forgotten members of our community and covering a slowly developing arts scene.

After approximately 75 million copies of the paper distributed, we are beginning our 28th year in a very different world, and a very different city.

In 1989, the region had roughly 1.7 million people. Now it is home to more than 2.5 million people. What’s more, political power has decentralized. In 1989, community decision-making was made by a relatively small group of interconnected individuals. No longer.

And the former big three media players are shells of their former selves. The Internet and cable fractured the television and radio audiences. The news staff of KFBK and KCRA are now greatly reduced. The Bee has had by far the most cutbacks, with perhaps 60 percent fewer people in the newsroom than in 1989.

The Bee’s circulation numbers are even more troubling. In 2015, the Bee’s weekday circulation dropped from 140,000 to 116,000. At this rate of decline, SN&R will out-circulate the Bee on Thursdays in two years—especially if the Bee ceases to publish on Thursdays.

The decline of the big three is a game-changer. We have to find a new role that goes beyond “alternative.”

I feel very lucky to be starting our 28th year. I am thankful for all the support from readers and advertisers. I am thankful to all my colleagues, who put so much energy and love into producing the paper.

There is possibly a high school student in Sacramento today who will, 27 years from now, be running for mayor. And I hope there will still be a wonderful group of SN&R staff commenting on that race. But I don’t know what form our future will take, and how it will be financed—just as I could not see into today’s world 27 years ago, when we put out our first issue.