Difficulties faced during the worldwide pandemic and the challenges the newspaper industry are topics Frank Pine of the Southern California News Group and the Bay Area News Group discussed with the Chronicle.
Being the executive editor for the Southern California News Group and the Bay Area News Group, Mr. Pine is responsible for 13 newspapers in California, including The Sun, Redlands Daily Facts, The Press Enterprise, and The Daily Bulletin from the Inland Empire.
Q: Has the pandemic helped or hindered your work?
A: Generally speaking, fewer people are reading print and more people are reading more online. Since the pandemic has occurred, we have not seen a good drop off for our readership and it has been pretty stable, but we’ve seen a huge increase in people reading our news online. More people want news during the pandemic than before the pandemic and our online audience has doubled. It’s definitely hallowed out our advertising because everything is closed and that has presented some business problems.
Q: Would you say the IE is a news desert? Do you think we are or may soon become a news desert?
A: No, “news desert” is a place where there’s no news and there are 4 newspapers in the Inland Empire”, plus there’s KVCR.
Q: Since the Press Enterprise, The Sun, and the Daily Bulletin are roughly owned by the same people, although they’re 3 different cities with 3 different realities, is it concerning that these cities may be publishing the same news and the cities are not getting the local attention they need?
A: I think one of the challenges in today’s news economy is that there’s less money to pay for news because there’s less advertising, so back then you had plenty of advertising dollars to underwrite coverage for cities. When I started in journalism 25 years ago, we used to have a reporter for every city, and now we don’t have that anymore because there is just enough money to pay for it anymore. People think that “local news is great, it’ll always be around”, even though nobody pays for it, and “free” is not a business model. Reporters don’t work for free, the newspaper isn’t printed for free, and somebody has to pay for it.
There’s a fundamental problem that news organizations have, which is that the advertising has become unbundled with the content. It used to be that newspapers basically have a monopoly on local advertising because there was no other way for you to get an ad into somebody’s house. Newspapers owned the printing presses and the distributions network, and in those heydays, newspapers had their revenue peak and everyone advertised in the newspaper, but once the internet came along, it has been way cheaper to buy an ad on Google, than to buy an ad in a newspaper. Advertising revenue went away from underwriting the content, so it no longer pays the salaries of reporters, it pays tech billionaires.
Q: What kind of stories do you think dominates our everyday lives? How many of these stories are local?
A: Stories dominating our everyday lives right now would be about COVID-19, community shutdowns, which businesses are opened/not opened, or which businesses will never open again, and infection spread rates. A couple of months from now, it will be stories about the economy.
Q: Do you know of anything that is going on locally that could warrant national attention?
A: I think lots of things in the Inland Empire warrant national attention, but sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t. There was a protest in Fontana last night where people through rocks at the city government center, rocks at police, and passing cars, which is getting national attention today.
Q: How do you think the has the number of readers/ viewers changed in the IE’s throughout the past year/past decade?
A: There are more readers now than there ever have been before, but they are all online, and there are far fewer of them in print. So there are more people who are reading the news, but fewer people who are paying for the news.
Q: Why do you believe it’s important that people support and know about local news?
A: I think good, credible information is a critical part of our democracy and people should be informed about what their government is doing and what’s going on around them. Being informed allows you to be a more productive member of society and makes you smarter. If you’re plugged into local news, you know about new buildings, restaurants, etc. that are being built down the street and know what your government is up to that people need to be aware of. It is our civic duty to be informed and to participate in a democracy, and the best way to get informed is by getting fact-based information from professional news organizations.