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If you ask me, A News Cafe has been on a bit of a roll lately.
Valerie Ing’s recent column, “What Skeletons Are In Your Closet?” was one of the best things I’ve read on the ongoing national blackface controversy. Shortly before that, former longtime Record Searchlight editor Greg Clark offered his accurate and decidedly gloomy take on the journalism industry, “Newspapers Are In A Death Spiral.”
Also in the mix was A News Cafe publisher Doni Chamberlain’s insightful coverage of the latest disaster to befall Shasta County, Snowmageddon, along with my efforts to get someone, anybody really, to tell me what the Good News Rescue Mission’s capacity is.
Hal Johnson’s weekly Live Music In The North State listings continued to offer the best guide to local live entertainment in the county, and high school film buff Robert Burke’s humorous movie reviews kept us all up to date on the latest Hollywood blockbusters.
After nearly 12 years of publication, A News Cafe has become a deeply layered website, featuring local news, entertainment and lifestyle coverage. I like to think of it has a variety magazine, with an independent point of view.
And we’ve been on roll lately, which is all the more amazing to me because about this same time last year, I was worried A News Cafe would cease to exist.
It was Valentine’s Day last year when publisher Chamberlain announced she was exploring new ways to bring revenue into the website, including setting up a subscription paywall. I’ll admit I panicked, knowing that establishing a paywall has been the death knell of many an online publication.
The “soft” paywall went up last summer. Subscribers who wish to view our premium content have the choice of paying $1 for 24 hours access, or $5 monthly on a recurring basis. If they’re feeling flush, readers may contribute up to $40 monthly. For non-subscribers, there’s still a substantial amount of non-premium content that can be viewed for free.
“She’s locked you up in a cage!” said one Facebook friend/fan the first time I posted one of my stories after the paywall went up last summer.
I had the sneaking suspicion he was right. Like many consumers of online news, he wasn’t willing to pay for the content, not even a measly dollar to read his favorite local writer. A paywall practically guarantees the story won’t go viral on social media, unless you’re writing for the New York Times or the Washington Post.
At the time, I felt like I’d lost a significant part of my audience. But over the next coming months, something I expected to happen, the collapse of A News Cafe’s page-views and its comment section, didn’t happen.
To be sure, it was slow-going at first. I selfishly measured our progress with the page-views and comments my articles received, which dramatically declined when the paywall first went up. But much to my surprise, readers began to figure out if they wanted to read the story beneath my clickbait headlines, they had to pay.
A half-year later, the page-views on my articles aren’t as high as they once were, but when I crack 1000 readers, it means more. Now, our readers are paying customers, willing to put their money on the line in support of A News Cafe, the work of my colleagues and my own work. They value what we do, and that’s quite gratifying.
It’s also vitally significant, particular in light of Clark’s opinion piece on the daily newspaper’s inevitable demise mentioned above. It’s not just print journalism that’s in trouble, it’s journalism in all its forms, including radio, television and the internet.
The latter item in that series, the internet, was predicted to be the antidote to the monopolization of print, television and radio by a relative handful of mass media corporations that has occurred in the wake of 40 years of federal deregulation. In many ways it has been, but for an unexpected reason: The internet blew up the advertising model most media companies previously depended on for revenue.
The industry as a whole is still picking up the pieces and attempting to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The result in northern California is what I call a “media desert.”
As Record Searchlight executive editor Silas Lyons mentioned in a recent plea for more subscribers not dissimilar to this one, the newspaper is a shadow of what it was just 10 years ago, down from 47 newsroom employees to just nine.
These days, with its focus on transient crime, the paper resembles those wanted posters seen in post offices and is almost as thin.
Jefferson Public Radio does a fair job of presenting different points of views on numerous local topics, and I appreciate the fact I can listen to progressive host Thom Hartmann on KKRN and KFOI, but like most public radio stations in northern California, they appear to be locked in permanent pledge drive.
Meanwhile, the most listened-to station in Shasta County, KQMS, featuring back-to-back right-wing pundits Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage, pays the bills by shilling over-the-counter erectile dysfunction pills, prostate-shrinking potions, concentrated vegetable juice and My Pillow.
I haven’t watched local TV news for years, so I can’t comment much about KRCR, KHSL, KCVU and KIXE, other than to speculate that they too face similar financial pressures in the altered advertising universe that has become the new normal.
The result is a local media that in general has become a mouthpiece for public officials and institutions, private wealth and the status quo, rather than its inquisitors, journalism’s proper and dare I say Constitutionally mandated role. In our media desert, speaking truth to power occurs, but only rarely.
A News Cafe represents a veritable oasis in this arid region. This has much to do with publisher Doni Chamberlain’s ability to assemble a crew of writers who collectively can do it all, and her willingness to let them do their own thing.
That’s why I call it a variety magazine—we’ve got variety in spades.
My thing at a A News Cafe has always been to investigate local BS when I detect it, whether it be the phony arrest and failed prosecution of medical marijuana advocate James Benno by Shasta County, the mega-church Bethel’s anti-LGBTQ crusade or the cruel and unusual punishment the city of Redding metes out to homeless campers.
There’s no question that some of these stories have caused publisher Doni Chamberlain an untold amount of grief, and I’m sorry to admit that more than one advertiser has bolted because of something I wrote. To Chamberlain’s credit, she’s never tried to steer me away from a good story, no matter who or what it’s about.
To the majority of our advertisers’ credit, they’ve stuck by A News Cafe through thick and thin, and I for one am extremely grateful for that.
According to Chamberlain, our growing subscription base offers us some modicum of protection should an advertiser find A News Cafe story objectionable. The advertiser may flee, but our paid readers will stick with us. That’s another thing that didn’t occur to me when I first panicked about the proposed A News Cafe subscription paywall.
What can I say that I haven’t said before, including several times on this website? I was wrong.
As far as my favorite part of A News Cafe is concerned, the comments section, I was wrong about that too. It has actually improved since the paywall went up. According to ANC comment moderator Barbara Rice, this is in large part because the paywall filters out the trolls who used to regularly pester the website.
Apparently. the inability to pay for content is one of the troll’s defining characteristics. I don’t miss them, and I don’t think anyone else does either.
The truth is the journalists working at all the media organizations mentioned above do the best job they can with the limited resources at their disposal. But this is a sales pitch for A News Cafe, so naturally I’m going to side with my colleagues and the boss.
Screw the rest, we’re the best!
We’re a genuine oasis in the middle of a media desert.
If you’re not already A News Cafe subscriber, you should subscribe immediately. There’s no telling what you’ll miss, but I can assure it will be something big.