In California, a long struggle against ‘online-only’

Update: The California News Publishers Association voted Tuesday to allow digital news outlets “to participate fully in CNPA.”

AT THIS POINT, the “online-only” qualifier in the phrase “online-only local news organization” is unnecessary. The oldest such outlets have been around 15 years or more; by 2019, around 10 percent of local news was produced by sites without a print or broadcast arm, according to a study of more than 100 areas by the News Measures Research Project.

But local news sites are very young when compared to newspapers, radio or television, and they still don’t always get the respect they’re due. Last month, Ramona Giwargis, the co-founder and editor of the San Jose Spotlight, wrote a column criticizing San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and his staff for excluding the online-only Spotlight from a daily digest of news clips sent by the mayor’s office to more than 200 city staffers. A former mayoral spokesman told Giwargis that the city has a policy of not including online-only publications unless they are “nationally recognized.” 

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Giwargis alerted the Institute for Nonprofit News, of which the Spotlight is a member, about the situation; Sue Cross, the institute’s executive director, wrote the mayor a letter calling the policy “outdated and harmful to the public” and urging him to reconsider. So far, he has not.

San Jose Spotlight editor Ramona Giwargis. Photo courtesy of subject.

The Spotlight is only a year old, but relatively well established. Giwargis covered San Jose City Hall for three years for the Mercury News, the area’s dominant newspaper, and her nonprofit site has a staff of two full-time reporters and four regular freelancers. The omission of the Spotlight is “indicative of how there is still a focus on legacy media,” Giwargis says.

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“This is meant to inform San Jose city leaders and policymakers about how they can make the best decisions for the community,” she says. “And they’re being left in the dark.” (Members of the mayor’s staff did not respond to an interview request from CJR.) 

Stories like Giwargis’ are becoming rarer. Scott Lewis, the chief executive and editor in chief of Voice of San Diego, says the angst about “imposter syndrome, or gaining equal ground” with legacy news organizations peaked 10 or 12 years ago. Voice of San Diego, which was founded in 2005 and which focuses on investigative and public-interest reporting, was among the very first local online news nonprofits; today, it is among the biggest.

“We had the good fortune when we launched of making our mark very early in City Hall politics, with our coverage of some scandals that were going on at the time,” Lewis says. “That really made us part of the insider culture in San Diego.”

The big fight is gaining the same name recognition among the general public as a major newspaper or local television station. “That’s something we think about all the time, and we have a long way to go,” Lewis says.

 

I told them we might be interested, but we had no interest in joining an organization where we’re a partial member and had no voting rights.

 

IN CALIFORNIA, the biggest association of news publishers was known until 2017 as the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Though CNPA began admitting online-only members in 2012, those members pay reduced dues and don’t have voting rights. (The San Jose Spotlight is a member, under CNPA’s “digital” category.) Things are changing there, gradually; CNPA is now the California News Publishers Association, and last year it broadened its annual awards to include online-only work. Today, the association’s voting members will decide whether to give full, voting memberships to the digital-only publications.

“We’re hopeful that a majority of the members will endorse this concept and get this done,” says Tom Newton, CNPA’s executive director. 

Tom Bolton is the executive editor and a co-owner of Noozhawk, a local-news site in Santa Barbara founded in 2007. CNPA invited Noozhawk to join about a year ago as a digital member, Bolton says, and he said no.

“I told them we might be interested, but we had no interest in joining an organization where we’re a partial member and had no voting rights,” Bolton says. If the vote goes in favor of full membership for digital-only outlets, Bolton says he’d reconsider.

Noozhawk has a different business model than the San Jose Spotlight or Voice of San Diego. It’s a for-profit enterprise, and rather than focus on City Hall or investigative reporting, it replicates most of the content bundle of a traditional print newspaper, with business, sports, and arts sections.

Lewis predicts that the major players in comprehensive, newspaper-like bundles of online-only news will be the legacy newspapers themselves. A print newspaper that cuts back or eliminates its print edition will have a big head start on a start-up news site, even if the newspaper has suffered years of budget cuts and declining esteem in the community. The next frontier for online-only local news might be well-funded for-profit competitors to publications like Voice of San Diego. For $8 million or $10 million a year, he says, a well-heeled entrepreneur could fund a newsroom of 50 people and, in the right market, could make money at it.

“All of these rich people who wanted to buy the LA Times—why not take $20 million and start your own thing without all those legacy costs?” Lewis says.

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Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.