June 4, 2015

To fully grasp the tumult in American media, you need just look at the video of a proud man in front of a basement printing press that’s been his community’s lifeblood.

“Google, YouTube and Facebook have taken the heart out of all the advertising, and not just the national advertising,” says Marty Weybret, who exited Monday as longtime publisher of the family-owned Lodi News-Sentinel in California’s Central Valley.

How will quality local news really survive, wonders a man whose family owned the paper since 1959, absent people doing something they are currently disinclined to do: pay for it?

His own ambiguity about what’s ahead prompted him to just sell the 10,600-circulation daily (actually five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday) founded in 1881 and bought in 1959 by his father, Fred, he said.

The deal didn’t make news like Verizon buying AOL for $4.4 billion or Charter Communications buying Time Warner Cable for nearly $56 billion.

In fact, Google it and you won’t find many mentions beyond a press release and short story in the paper itself. He won’t disclose the price or purchasers’ identities due to a non-disclosure agreement. But he said the publisher will be Canadian newspaper executive Steven Malkowich, who will run it through a newly-constituted entity called Central Valley News-Sentinel Inc.

In this video interview with Weybret by the Central Valley Business Times provides a fascinating reality check for those immersed in big city media or a burgeoning online world where private equity kingpins funnel giant sums to new favorites like BuzzFeed, Gawker and Vox.

Often lost in the discussion of revolutionary change, and Facebook deals with the likes of the New York Times and BBC, is the fate of little guys who have been integral to the civic life of smaller-town America.

Weybret is understated as he underscores the frustrations of recent years as change hit the newspaper and the community. He’s simply not sure where this all ends.

As recently as 1990 the paper had a circulation of 18,000, he said. It was one of two family-owned dailies in California’s Central Valley, he said, along with the Bakersfield Californian.

The 32-page and 24-page papers of old are gone. Until 2007, “the business model worked great, an old business model that Dad never questioned. Then, suddenly, it was broken.”

“Who has the model for the 21st Century so the news industry can survive?” asked Weybret, standing by the presses in the basement of the one-story building that’s a stone’s throw from City Hall and police headquarters in downtown Lodi “The truth is there isn’t a working business model. It’s broken.”

“If Americans don’t realize the need for subscription fees, they will lose a lot of news. Nobody to cover the school board or other events.”

If there’s increasing reliance on citizens to essentially get their own news, he wonders, how exactly will they come to terms with complex issues?

“Are we doomed? Not tomorrow. Is it irreparable? A person of faith has to say there’s an answer.”

The path to survival, he said, is pretty clear: Citizens must be “willing to pay a subscription fees to read the news online. The free news is doomed.”

How much should they pay? Maybe eight, nine or ten bucks a month, he suggests.

“Newspaper readers are a minority in society now. I think because Facebook is more fascinating, TV drama is more engaging. Going online, people can fill their entertainment hours with entertainment of their choosing. They’re not willing to invest in an act of being told by an editor what to read or what is important.”

He cited a brief uptick in local news consumption in towns and cities hit by huge stories, such as the racially tinged strife in Ferguson, Mo.

“You can’t have a crisis or a riot every week to spur interest in what’s going on,” he said.

“I really do hope people will wake up to the value of the news and understand it can’t be free,” he said, then speaking of the industry’s decline as part and parcel of a greater challenge for local communities.

“If people in Lodi really value the community feel, the idea they know the local business owners, that they are closely connected to the local leadership, they need to be willing to shop in the smaller stores, get to know the shopkeepers. Shop local.”

He doesn’t begrudge Target and Wal-Mart and their low prices. But if citizens can just somehow support local retailers, those are the same businesses that will support local schools and the local charities, he says.

Douglas Caldwell, editor and publisher of the online Central Valley Business Times, conducted the interview and later praised Weybret to me for running a solid paper and being active in the community.

“It may not win a Pulitzer but it covered the school board, the county supervisors, the city council and the big industry (wine). It has not ignored the community.”

The initial responses to the sale from people with whom he’s spoken, Caldwell said, reflect anxiety about what’s down the road. He’s frustrated in that he’s been stymied in finding out details about the new ownership group.

Regardless, he’s left with the belief that “anytime a local business is swallowed up by a chain or outside owner not involved in the community, the community loses something. It’s like a flavor taken out of the stew. You might not be able to figure out exactly what flavor. But you know you’re missing something.”

Near the end of the interview, he asked Weybret about any counsel he had for the community. Weybret noted the increasing concentration of retailing and summed up matters succinctly:

“Shop local and read the local paper.”

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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