Sticking around

What the Sacramento media landscape might look like in 25 years

If you were to travel back 25 years to Sacramento in 1989 and pick up a newspaper, much of what you would read would probably seem pretty familiar. There was a lot of hand-wringing about the revitalization of downtown and plans to spend millions in public money to upgrade the floundering Downtown Plaza. The cops were rousting homeless people from Discovery Park. The Kings were losing.

Other stories would remind you how long ago 1989 really was. Sacramento’s first modern high-rise, Renaissance Tower, a.k.a. the Darth Vader building, was built that year. It was the year early AOL customers first heard, “You’ve got mail!”

The media landscape was different, too. Bites recently came across a column from 1989 by The Sacramento Bee’s former ombudsman Art Nauman, addressing a reader’s complaint about the frustratingly large amount of advertising in her daily paper. “Without advertising in this newspaper, you probably wouldn’t have it to read,” he explained. Newspaper ombudsmen and advertisers are sorely missed. The Sacramento Union still existed in 1989, as did the Suttertown News.

And that, of course, was the year the Sacramento News & Review launched, bringing the alternative-weekly tradition to Sacramento.

Bites grew up on papers like SN&R. Living in the South during the Reagan years, the local alternative weekly was a lifeline, with its anti-establishment politics, listings for live music and indie movies. Without it, you’d just be lost in the sprawl.

Just as importantly, alt-weeklies have always turned a critical eye on the cities they operate in. Way before Bites ever took a journalism class or learned anything about the muckrakers the local weeklies were giving lessons in how to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” They were as unforgiving in their reviews of plastic politicians as they were of plastic pop stars.

That’s where SN&R has been at its best over the last 25 years, Bites believes. As when California Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush came after this paper for investigating his cozy relations with the insurance companies he was supposed to be regulating—shortly before Quackenbush had to leave office in disgrace for said cozy relations. Or when a SN&R reporter was detained by the National Guard at Los Angeles International Airport for trying to report on new security measures being implemented after 9/11. Or when it published a hard-hitting investigation of decades of collaboration between UC Davis scientists and the tobacco industry which used that research to market cigarettes.

Not that SN&R has always been righteous. The paper has run its share of puff pieces and advertorial. But as long as it keeps publishing, part of SN&R’s mission will be to speak truth to power. Bites hopes.

Another 25 years? Well, that depends. Does anybody really need an alt-weekly to find a show or a restaurant or a date or a drummer for their band? Does anybody need a paper newspaper at all? Vinyl is cool and all, but LPs are never again going to be the way most people listen to music. And for all the fondness Bites has for print, weeks go by without picking up a newspaper or magazine in its dead-tree form. Why would a young person in 2014 pick up a newspaper if they’re looking for listings or restaurant reviews, or for anything else that they can get anywhere else? They’ve got so many other ways to connect with their community. Good for young people out in the sprawl. Not so good for alt-weeklies.

It’s possible The Sacramento Bee will be around in some form—probably not paper— 25 years from now. A daily is simply indispensable for the brute-force task of covering a bunch of stuff every day. And it can still bring impressive resources to bear on big investigative projects. You can always tell what stories are the ones the Bee hopes will win a bunch of prizes. You just wish they’d save some of that investigative juice for the regular beats such as schools or downtown-development deals.

Alt-weeklies like SN&R also have something that readers can’t get anywhere else: local long-form journalism and muckraking and an explicit willingness to question authority—as old-fashioned as those things may sound. There are lots of places to get show listings. There is some great food blogging and some admirable experiments in citizen journalism going on in the Sactosphere. But there are few places to find reporters who are paid to dig into powerful institutions.

And no one has figured out a way to pay for that, in Sacramento at least, without the support of print advertising, same as in 1989. That problem needs to be solved if SN&R, or anything like it, is going to be around in 2039.