Stay free

Elsewhere in this paper, you might run across a mention that SN&R is 20 years old this month. It turns out Bites is getting a bit long in the tooth as well. In fact, if Bites had fingers, it would count 10 years of snarky existence.

The really old-timers can tell you stories about how SN&R was launched at a kitchen table, about how the editorial staff began as just two people, about the humblest of beginnings. These stories are almost always intended as a sort of “you don’t know how well you’ve got it.”

Bites has heard them for years, and until recently, really didn’t know how great things were just 10 years ago. There used to be jobs in journalism. There used to be a lot more reporters running around this place. In fact, as a news-gathering operation, Bites has never seen SN&R do more with less. Last year at this time, we were running a lean operation. This year, we’re rail thin.

In a way, we’ve paralleled what’s happened at The Sacramento Bee, although the two papers have very different business models. We’re not asking readers to pay for something that they can get online; we’re just as free as ever. There are no shareholders or multimillionaire CEOs to pay.

And weirdly enough, recent numbers show that SN&R has more readers—of its print version—than ever. Count in the online readership, which is modest but growing—and it’s clear that readership is strong—it’s just ad sales, the economy, things that are out of a mere reporter’s control—that are killing us.

Bites was talking to a Bee veteran a couple weeks back, who noted that as that paper shrinks and has to limit its coverage in some areas, SN&R will be pressed to fill in some of the gaps. “You guys are more important and relevant than ever.” Aww, shucks. Oh, crap.

Because it’s both heartening and daunting to imagine SN&R in 10 years.

Bites largely blames the Internet for the daunting, and credits it for the heartening.

Through our Web site and blogs, we can break news in ways that we never could as just a weekly print publication. And sometimes we do. We can give readers more content than would otherwise fit on the printed page. But that takes time and energy. It’s hard to do good long-form journalism. It’s harder to do it while feeding your blog, Facebook page and your Twitter stream.

And yet, we’ve tried to incorporate all of those, albeit a little tentatively at first. We’re simply betting that we’ll figure out what works by trial and error. Or, as editor Melinda Welsh laid it on Bites 10 years ago, “When in doubt, do.”

But do what, exactly? Is there something to be learned from the Sacramento Press, a local experiment in “citizen journalism” that launched a few months ago?

A reporter friend, who recently left the business, says she “couldn’t be less impressed” with the Press’ mix of news releases, bloglike opinion posts and, on a good day, actual reporting. But credit them with trying something new(ish), and give them a chance to develop. If they’d just credit our photos when they use them and keep their fliers out of our news racks—Bites would say the more the merrier.

But no, the Sacramento Press’ “citizen journalism” model won’t work for us, anymore than the Bee’s business model will work for us. We won’t be reprinting releases from the Sacramento Police Department. And we won’t be shoveling money at shareholders and multimillionaire CEOs.

We will pick up a phone, go knock on a door, go to the show, ask a lot of questions and tell readers something they didn’t already know. And whether you get that via Twitter or read it on the bus or have it beamed directly into your brain plugs—it will still be free.