Most everyone enjoyed that extra hour of sleep on Sunday morning but OC Weekly editor-in-chief Gustavo Arellano put out this story at 5:17 AM with much glee under the standing column of OC Register Death Watch. From the piece:
“Yesterday, multiple, trustworthy sources who requested anonymity told me the Register’s parent company planned to file bankruptcy sometime this week, if not sooner. I sent out an email for comment to Reg publisher Rich Mirman and one of their attorneys, which weren’t returned by press time.
Then at 1 a.m. last night, a source sent me a press release officially confirming the story, along with another thing I was hearing: that notorious landlord Mike Harrah–the man who bought the Register’s offices and land last year, and has been trying to build a 37-story office tower in SanTana for over a decade–was going to put in a bid with Mirman to take over the Register.
OH MY GOD…”
Well, an acceleration of a planned BK filing comes on the heels of a lost lawsuit by the Register’s parent company and there are huge bills and a lawsuit associated with the LA Times over delivery issues, so a bankruptcy filing actually makes perfect business sense. Now, those whom the Register owes money to must file for something called a relief of stay to try and get every dime owed them by the Register paid. It’s the lawyers who benefit mostly and once the new Freedom Communications emerges, with new owners, there’s likely to be more layoffs of the Register’s increasingly thin news-staffer ranks and I fear for those who hold significant institutional knowledge on Orange County. That’s not good for Orange County news consumers. It’s amazing that a market this size can’t support local media.
The suggestion in some blogs that Santa Ana developer Mike Harrah will somehow demand favorable editorial coverage for certain favored politicians should cause even the least ethical journalists at the Register pause if they’d do Harrah’s bidding. I’m certain many reporters and editors would resign first.
Arellano points out pieces “conveniently left out of (Jon) Lansner’s story.” Easy to say for someone with a publication still for sale after nine months after announcing it was for sale in the first place. If a female friend of yours got pregnant the day OC Weekly announced that VMG had put the Weekly up for sale, she’d be changing diapers today.
Rather than cheerlead the demise of a struggling daily, I’d rather see Arellano focus his attentions on helping the Weekly secure a new owner with a commitment to local journalism, arts coverage and strengthening the Weekly’s position in OC’s struggling media market.
New York’s Village Voice was sold in October to a new owner — no details on the transaction. But that paper is about as thin as the Weekly is today in terms of editorial/ad pages in a market nearly three times the size of Orange County. The future of alt-weeklies appears increasingly dim and one has to wonder which paper might fold first — the Register or OC Weekly. Major alt weeklies are dying fast. The Boston Phoenix is gone. The San Francisco Guardian is gone. Detroit’s alt-weeklies have merged. The Village Voice in New York is fading fast, and that’s the industry’s largest circulation alt-weekly at under 150,000 in a city with 7 million people.
From a 2013 story in Reuters:
Many former alt-weekly editors would like to persuade you that their cutting take on city politics and the arts combined with their dedication to the feature form won readers. Actually, it was the whole gestalt that made the publications work. Comprehensive listings paired with club and concert ads to both entertain and help readers plan their week. Classified ads, especially the personals, often provided better reading than the journalistic fare in the front of the book. No better venue for apartment rentals existed; even people who had long-term leases used the housing ads to fantasize. Even the display ads, purchased mostly by local retailers and service providers, were useful to readers.
The alt-weekly collapse came in spurts over the last decade, as a market shift destroyed whole advertising sectors. Craigslist destroyed the classifieds — housing, for sale, services (sex and otherwise), et al. — and the lucrative personals and matches ads fled for the Web, too. Depending on the paper, classifieds had amounted to anywhere between 20 percent to 50 percent of revenues. Now, that money is mostly gone.
Mostly gone, too, is record-company advertising. Before that business was disrupted, the labels would give record stores — remember them? — big bags of “co-op” money to advertise the new releases, and even reissues! Video stores — remember them? — were big advertisers, too. Amazon has helped to clean out whole categories of retailing that once advertised in alt-weeklies, such as electronics, books, music and cameras. Big-box stores have displaced many of the indie retailers that long provided advertising backbone. And while Hollywood still places ads, it’s nothing compared to the heyday. To give you a sense of how precipitous the drop, the smallest edition Washington City Paper printed in 2006 contained 112 pages, with 128-pagers and 136-pagers being the most common. In 2012, the page counts ordinarily ranged between 56 and 72.
These retail shifts have made it harder for publishers to distribute their weeklies. Before Tower Records went under, a paper could drop thousands of copies a week at the store’s many locations, and the stacks would disappear in a day or two. The video stores that once distributed them? Gone. Borders Books? Gone. What’s equally alarming is that some surviving retailers now say they’d rather use that tiny space by the door or bathroom where the newspaper rack once stood to sell their own goods.
The advertising shift from newsprint to Web is mirrored by a cultural shift. In my mind, the alt-weekly remains the perfect boredom-alleviation device. Waiting for a subway train? Pull one from your bag and it will entertain you. Your girlfriend is late for your date? The paper will keep you occupied. That beer and bag of nuts not distracting from life’s troubles as you mope on a barstool? The alt-weekly saves the day again.
But even a human fossil must concede that the smartphone trumps the alt-weekly as a boredom killer.
In a second day analysis, Arellano opined that the Register would willingly be Harrah’s stooge. He writes: “That’s the big conspiracy theory going around Orange County Register employees: that Harrah wants to buy them just so they can become the tenants he needs for One Broadway Plaza, so the Register can become the propaganda tool that will drown out any critics, and so he can tear down the current Reg offices to flip that into other developments.”
There’s actually nothing stopping Harrah from razing the Register’s building now; there’s a press in Riverside and plenty of office space anywhere in OC the OC Register can lease for its staff. If Harrah wants to make money off the paper, he’d be smart to leave the news operation alone to work independently because a slanted publication will bleed readers and ad dollars. The fact is the OC Register’s coverage pretty much mirrors positions Harrah already holds.
What if Harrah bought the Weekly? The paper has been for sale for a while. The Boston Phoenix was for sale for a long time too when crushing debt and no buyers forced it to close.
It would have to be much cheaper for Harrah to buy the OC Weekly if his goal is silencing opposition (I suspect if this were to happen, the editorial staff would . And as publications in OC go, it sets the high bar for self-aggrandizement. Would Weekly writers and editors willfully carry about an agenda for a new owner or would they maintain their editorial independence? I don’t think they would. Buying the Weekly to shut it down might make better business sense for Harrah. The questions are: how much would it take to buy the Weekly and how much debt does it carry?
According to the OC Weekly’s own website, it currently has a circulation of 45,000. Pew Research reported in 2014 story on alt-weeklies, that OC Weekly’s circulation at a little over 65,000 in 2013 which was down 7.1 percent from 2012. So if I did my math right, this means three years ago the Weekly’s circulation was just under 70,000 at 69,665 (the Pew story denotes Publisher’s statements were used to analyze circulation data from the Weekly). That’s about a 35 percent drop in circulation in three years. Arellano became editor-in-chief in 2011 and made moves to digital that are paying off.
OC Weekly stats report about 1.2 million unique monthly visitors to OCWeekly.com in 2015 up from 875,000 monthly uniques in 2006. Quantcast.com paints a different story citing 350,000 monthly uniques globally in the past 30 days for the Weekly.
Orange County is too big a media market not to have quality local media. I’d like to see the Register change its editorial stance from conservative/libertarian to something more balanced. And frankly, I’d like to see the Weekly embrace a more progressive approach too. The focus for both ought to be on growing.
A rising tide lifts all boats, or so the expression goes. Rather than cheering on the sinking of a bigger ship, pay attention to the leaks in your own boat.