A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2017

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Neighborhood Newspapers


What They Do and Why They Do It

By Marcos Soriano

Two basic concepts of journalism are that a well-informed public is crucial to a healthy democracy, and that journalists have the responsibility of providing the public with the information they need to make informed decisions. Journalism’s dissemination of information has had major impacts at the national level—such as the Watergate incident, in which information released by the press eventually led to President Nixon’s resignation—but it’s also important on a smaller scale, at the neighborhood community level. I recently met with two editors of local San Francisco neighborhood papers, Paul Kozakiewicz of the Richmond Review and the Sunset Beacon, and Len Appiano of the Visitacion Valley Grapevine, to ask them about their views on neighborhood newspapers.

Paul Kozakiewicz met with me first. He started the Richmond Review on his own nearly 20 years ago, and then joined with a partner to create the Sunset Beacon a few years later. In 1997 Paul bought out that partner, and he’s been running both papers ever since. Combined, they have a circulation of more than 50,000, with the bulk of that circulation coming from door to door distribution. Paul is also a founding member of the San Francisco Neighborhood Newspaper Association (SFNNA), a cooperative group that brings together 16 different local papers.

A few weeks after sitting down with Paul, I got in touch with Len Appiano. Len has been involved with the Visitacion Valley Grapevine since he pasted together its first issue on his kitchen table in July of 1985, and he’s been the sole editor since December of 1990. The Grapevine prints up a few thousand issues each month, and the majority of those issues are dropped off at local businesses for free pick-up. Of the 17 neighborhood newspapers in San Francisco, the Grapevine is the only paper that isn’t affiliated with the SFNNA—a result of the paper’s relationship with its financial sponsor, the Visitacion Valley Community Center, which doesn’t want to be part of the association.

The Role of Neighborhood Newspapers

Both editors share a similar view regarding the role of neighborhood newspapers, namely that neighborhood newspapers exist to provide relevant information about the neighborhood to the people living in it. “We don’t leave our neighborhood,” Paul says, “we just do neighborhood stories about neighborhood people and businesses.” Len describes the Grapevine as a “mouthpiece for the community, a place to gather together issues that matter to local people.”

The information Paul and Len traditionally offer falls into several categories: politics, community figures, public works, history, and crime. Paul’s papers show a particular interest in local politics; he often runs articles on legislation that will affect the Richmond and Sunset districts, and he includes monthly columns written by the district supervisors. He’s even been known to write opinion pieces on local bills, though he does so in a careful way. “It’s always with my picture, it’s always a column and opinion by me. There’s no editorial opinion per se of the paper,” he says. “The hallmark of good journalism is to be fair. We try to talk to all stakeholders and get all points of view and let the people make up there own mind.” Len also espouses the importance of journalistic integrity. “I’ve got ethics,” he says, “I don’t try to influence, I just inform. I try to stay in the middle. I work to maintain balance.”

Both editors also cover local crimes, and acknowledge that the crime section attracts the largest audience. Len in particular covers crime extensively, dedicating more than a full page to it each month. “I want to scare the crap out of everybody,” he says, “so that they’ll be aware.” Paul’s crime section is smaller, but still carefully produced, and he runs a monthly column written by the local police captain when space permits.

Another role that both editors ascribe to neighborhood newspapers is that of public forum. Community participation in the paper is encouraged. “The door is always open,” Paul says. “We’ve had probably hundreds of guest columns over the last twenty years.” He also allows the public to participate in other ways. “Sometimes it goes in the calendar. Sometimes it’s a short little round up for the Spotlight. Sometimes it’s a full story. Sometimes it’s freestanding, a picture with a caption… I like to let people express their own opinions in letters.” Len also happily accepts contributions from the public. “Don’t ever think your submission will bother me,” he says. “I am ecstatically grateful [for articles written by the public].”

A neighborhood paper can also serve as a representative of the community to people who don’t live in the local area. Len considers the Grapevine “an advertisement for Visitacion Valley.” He mails an issue to the city mayor every month, and thinks that the paper has helped to keep the neighborhood in the mayor’s mind. “The mayor visits Visitacion Valley a few times a year, and he recently put several million dollars [of public funding into local projects]. That was indirectly caused by the paper, and directly caused by the neighborhood activists.” Many of those activists use the Grapevine as a place to publish their views.

Difficulties Neighborhood Newspapers Are Facing

The last several years have proven exceedingly difficult for people involved in the newspaper business. A July 2007 article in Business Week (“When do you stop the presses?”) listed the first half of that year as the worst time for American Newspapers since the Great Depression, and earlier this year Dean Singleton—CEO of MediaNews Group, which owns the Denver Post, San Jose Mercury News, and 55 other American dailies—gave a speech at the World Newspaper Congress that included the following dire statement: “In the future there will be two categories of newspapers: those that survive, and those that die.…By my estimate, as many as 19 of the top 50 metro newspapers in America are losing money today, and that number will continue to grow.” Perhaps the most shocking example of a paper in the red is the San Francisco Chronicle, owned by the Hearst Corporation. In early 2007 the Chronicle’s Chief Legal and Business Development Officer James M. Asher admitted that the paper’s losses totaled $330 million during the time period starting in mid-2000 and ending in September 2006—that’s more than one million dollars a week.

The larger metro papers aren’t the only ones suffering. In the last year two of the SFNNA papers—the SF Downtown and the San Francisco Bay View—have stopped printing, and many of the other papers are also feeling the pinch. I asked Len about the Grapevine’s current difficulties, and he attributed them to rising costs, including an 8% increase in newsprint costs, and soaring gas prices, which affect distribution. “It’s a money-losing venture,” he says, estimating those losses average $400 a month. “The Grapevine hasn’t turned a profit since… January 1995. I’m fortunate enough that I have other means of income. I don’t get paid; I do the paper as a hobby.” In order to minimize costs, Len has learned to cut corners every way he can. “I print in black and white, ‘cause color costs money, and I do all the distribution myself. The printing is the only real cost.”

Paul, on the other hand, says he hasn’t suffered from any recent economic hardships. “If anything we’re doing a little better after twenty years,” he says. “More people are discovering the association now. There’s less print choice. We have a strong niche.” Rather than trying to use that economic stability as a base for growth, Paul has chosen to keep things the way they are. “I have everything just the way I like it. Two twelve-pagers is fine, it’s enough money to support my family and pay my mortgage. You don’t do this to get rich. I could make a lot more money working for the Chronicle, but I wouldn’t be serving my community. A lot of this is public service, you know.”

Given the recent hardships facing the newspaper business, some economists have begun advocating a transfer to web-based publication. When I asked Len and Paul whether they’d ever consider ceasing to print their papers, and instead relying on the internet, they both scoffed at the idea. “The advantages [of print] are huge,” Paul says. “You want something you can clip out and put on the refrigerator.” Len believes that the internet would be incongruent with his audience. “Old people don’t go online,” he says, “they want to sit down with the paper, slap it around, hold it up and say ‘have you seen this?’”

Even so, both Paul and Len maintain web sites, though those sites are admittedly pretty primitive. Len refers to the Grapevine’s online presence as “that pile of crap,” and he mainly uses it as an archive for older articles. Although he admits he’d like to “jazz it up,” he generally spends less than an hour and a half a month working on keeping it updated. As for Paul, he sees his web-efforts mainly as a public service. “I’ve never made a dime on that, I’ve never tried. But… if you don’t get it delivered you can go online and get it.”

Motivations to Keep Going

Len is intimately familiar with the economic difficulty of running a paper. Paul says he makes a comfortable living, but admits he could make more money elsewhere. And yet both of these editors have given decades of their lives to neighborhood news. I asked about the motivation behind their continued efforts, and received some surprisingly compelling answers.

“Imagine you’re walking down the street with fresh copies of this month’s paper under your arm,” Len says, “and people are running up to you for a copy. ‘Hey, is that the new Grapevine?’” Len, who personally drops off new copies of the paper in the local businesses and hand delivers each month’s issue to subscribers, enjoys the chance to catch up with friends. “I’m still in Visitacion Valley because I’ve met so many nice people there.”

Paul sees that desire to serve the community as a common, and admirable, trait amongst neighborhood newspaper editors. “A lot of us are doing it for our love of our communities, for our neighborhoods, and not so much for the money, as is evidenced by how many people are struggling to make it… It’s kind of a special breed, and a small club. I’m really happy and proud to be working with the editors and publishers, the neighborhood press.”

 

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