Friday, August 21, 2009

A week into the Californian's new tab format: the sound, the fury and the (occasionally) rude.

It’s been almost a full week since The Californian introduced the new weekday tabloid paper. We’ve been pilloried, scolded and told we were taking a once proud franchise to the trash heap. One reader even went so far as to shred the paper, stuff it in a Ziploc bag and pay $2.58 to mail it to me accompanied by a nasty note. Anonymous of course.
But we’ve also heard from readers who love the new format, or if they don’t they understand what drove us to make such a drastic change. One of the dozens who called in to say they loved the new tab was Virginia, who wrote:

“After one week of reading the paper with the new format, I’ve decided that it’s a big improvement. Whether I stand at the kitchen counter or sit in a chair, physically managing the paper is so much easier. So if you are taking a tally, please put this subscriber in the ‘love it’ column.”

Love it or hate it, readers have not been shy about telling us what they think. And while I wish some of the emails had been a tad more civil in tone, I appreciate all of the input, however harsh or negative.
But it’s clear to me that some folks simply don’t understand why we did it, so let’s address some of the issues raised over the last week:

READER: Why couldn’t you just leave well enough alone!
RB: I cannot emphasize enough the impact that this prolonged recession has had on our business. We cannot operate without advertising, and in any economic slump, traditional media companies (newspaper, TV, radio, cable, magazines, direct mail) are the first to suffer. To my knowledge virtually every media company in town has had layoffs or furloughs or cut back in some manner. For The Californian, some of our largest advertisers have simply gone out of business – Circuit City, Gottschalks, Mervyn’s, Linens ‘n Things among them – and with that hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. Just as I am sure our readers have cut back at home, moving to a tabloid Monday through Friday is just one of the things our company has done to adjust to the times.

READER: We can no longer share the paper. Please go back to your old format so we can share the paper in the morning. This is going to cause a divorce!
RB: Unfortunately, a tabloid cannot be easily “sectioned” like the old broadsheet format. If we could do it, we would. We do offer a special, deeply discounted “second” home subscription for $2.99 a month – 10 cents a day to keep peace at home - though only a handful of folks have opted to take it.

READER: I seem to notice the advertisements more and they get in the way. Can’t you just put them in one section and just give me the news without all those ads?
RB: First, those advertisements allow us to stay in business, and without them, there would be no daily newspaper. One of our top goals was to design and position the advertisements so they would be more prominent, not less. We need to help our advertisers grow their businesses. These are local businesses, our neighbors, and we hope you support them. Without them, we have no business.

READER: You did this without even asking me if I’d pay more for the paper!
RB: While I appreciate that sentiment, our experience on pricing shows that this is an extremely price sensitive market. In the past when we have raised the home delivery price by as little as $1 a month, we have encountered a wave of cancellations. Based on a recent analysis, we’d have to charge between $60 and $70 a month for the price of a seven-day subscription to begin to offset the loss of advertising, and that simply isn’t reasonable.

READER: You’ve become a supermarket tabloid! You no longer have local stories!
RB: We remain committed to quality local journalism and in fact are trying to give you more local content, not less. While the supermarket tab has given tabloids a bad name, there are plenty of high quality news tabloids thriving throughout the country.

We have been heartened by the folks who say that while they might prefer the larger format, they’ll give the tabloid a chance. And many took to it immediately, appreciating its portability and the added emphasis on local stories.
For those of you who simply hate it, we hope you will give it some time.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

McCarthy's test: making next week's healthcare town hall meeting inclusive and based on facts, not emotion. Let's avoid the circus

As we head closer to next week's town hall meeting on health care reform, it occurred to me that Rep. Kevin McCarthy has a golden opportunity to rise above the circus-like atmosphere that has characterized other such meetings. The town hall is set for next Wednesday, Aug. 26, over at the Icardo Center at Cal State Bakersfield, and already more than 800 people have confirmed. There is little doubt that this will be an overwhelmingly conservative audience in tune with the market, and it's safe to say that most attendees are already dead set against any reform. Consider, for example, some of the responses the congressman got when he put out at feeler on his Facebook page. Some excerpts (with occasional spelling errors corrected):

"Guess what... the government will now choose what treatment is best (if any) for you. Also you will have to wait for critical care i.e. transplants. That's why so many Europeans and Canadians come here for treatment. I'm sure if you are rich enough you can hire a private doctor like in Europe or bend over like the rest of us working folks. Stop frivolous court action, lower doctors insurance costs and give them more money to take Medical and such patients.

"I have an idea on how to "reform" health care... illegals do not get free care. That would save loads of money and would discourage illegal immigration. Think about it, when the government gets involved in things the system bogs down. Ninety percent of the problems we as a society have would be better solved in the private sector.

"Well first things first. I think that it is only legal for an Immigration Officer to ask if someone is illegal or not. And for the papers and documents to prove it. Second.

"Kevin - Why is the majority party insisting on a program that won't work and we can't pay for? Are they brain dead?

"There are lots of things wrong with the health care bill, but the number one problem is that the federal government just doesn't have the authority to take over the health care system. The 10th Amendment was included in the Constitution for a reason, and things like the bail-outs, GM, and this health care bill are just the kinds of things that amendment was written for."

These kinds of comments are reflective of the feedback McCarthy has been getting, and they are certainly representative and valid. It would be easy for this thing to turn into a GOP love fest like a "tea party" of sorts, but that really doesn't serve the public interest. McCarthy's challenge will be to create an environment where both sides are welcomed and Democrats and those who support health care reform (and there are a few in town) feel comfortable enough to show up and speak their mind. Let's hope he does so. (Photo of McCarthy at the last GOP convention courtesy of Getty Images)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Short takes around town: Barry Goldner on the mend, Jeff Newman heads to Montecito and rumors of Panera Bread coming to town

Catching up with some local folks around town and those never ending rumors about what's going in at the new RiverWalk Park.

* ... THE RARE MUTED ATTORNEY: Good to hear that Barry Goldner, a partner in the law firm of Klein DeNatale and Goldner et al, is on the road to recovery after some minor surgery. Barry (pictured) had been spotted around town virtually voiceless and in one case carried on a conversation at Starbucks by writing out his questions and answers. Barry - he is married to Teri Goldner, the former federal judge who is now chief counsel for the County of Kern - is a naturally gregarious sort and being a lawyer who bills by the hour, it must have been a difficult time for him. I asked Barry what was up and he responded:

"I had a growth on my vocal cord, which was removed last Wednesday. I was not allowed to speak for five days. So today is my first day of speaking again. Growth was benign (whew!)."

Good to have you back, Barry, and get well.

* ... GOODBYE BAKO, HELLO MONTECITO: Jeff Newman Jr., owner of Today Cleaners, is letting everyone know that he's moving the family to the tony hills of Montecito. In an email to friends and business associates, Jeff said he'll keep the business but run Today and Sparkle Textile Rental Services from the coast. He said the recession produced some irresistible deals in the always pricey Montecito real estate market that he simply couldn't resist. Jeff says sons Ryan and Matthew will start at Montecito Union School on August 31. Wife Adrienne and their kids will live in a condo until escrow closes October 1. Said Jeff:

"This has been a very difficult decision for me personally! I grew up in Bakersfield and have so many wonderful friends here that I definitely want to stay in contact with. Obviously, my company is located here so I will be spending the required amount of time to make sure it continues to run well."

* ... MEANWHILE COMING TO RIVER WALK: Lots of speculation about what's going in over near the new Target at RiverWalk Park off Stockdale Highway. I spoke with Bruce Freeman, president of developer Castle and Cooke, and he tells me there have been no leases signed but he did confirm the rumor that his company is in talks with Panera Bread company. Panera was interested in the "front pad" near Target but the deal is not final. Meanwhile, Target is expected to open around October 11.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Californian goes tabloid: the sound and the fury and the reality of doing business in a nasty, prolonged recession

The Bakersfield Californian debuted its new Monday-Friday tabloid today and the response was immediate: some liked it, few loved it and lots of folks just plain hated it. It's early in the process but the negatives are outweighing the positives, but that's to be expected. Change is hard, even for those who claim to be early adopters. And we know we're messing with something sacred here. The relationship between a reader and the newspaper in that bleary eyed pre-dawn hour is a familiar and intimate one. Changing the format is like mixing your cereal with fat free milk when you're used to whole milk. It will work but in the beginning there's something that's just not right. The greatest complaint is not about the content (we're beefing up local content at the expense of some commodity wire reports) but rather the fact that the paper no longer comes in sections: Local, sports, lifestyle and the A-section with national and international. Said one reader:

"Every morning my wife and I have coffee and we divide up the newspaper. We can't do that anymore. Put it back the way it was!"

The anger and the pain here are real, but we didn't go down this road without thought, or good reason. We made this change for three reasons: to provide more focused local coverage, to help the advertisers and to save money. The last two goals could only best be accomplished with the tabloid product. This is the harsh reality of doing business in the midst of the greatest economic meltdown of our generation: we simply have to find ways to save money. Could we have avoided this? Sure, but we would have significantly raised the price of the paper, and that is simply unrealistic in a price sensitive market like Bakersfield. We could also have kept the current broadsheet format but made the paper so small in page count that it would have been reduced to two sections, that we would have run into the same resistance regarding "dividing" the paper at the breakfast table. So at the end of the day the one option we didn't have was to continue to do what we were doing. Like that fat free milk, it will grow on you.