Small newspapers losing legal ad $$$ to Web

images1The Vail Daily, a sister paper of The Union, just received some bad news: Vail’s town government has decided to post the full text of laws on its own Web site, instead of the newspaper, to cut costs.

The switch will save the town $20,000, not exactly chump change.

Needless to say, the Vail Daily’s publisher, Steve Pope, is opposed. Pope said is “unreasonable to expect that the common person” will regularly visit the town’s Web site, whereas most local residents scan his newspaper, according to the Summit News.

If more cities bypass newspapers for legal notices (and this is not the only example), it will be another blow to small-town papers, whose legal ads are about all that’s generating revenue gains in the deepening recession.

Here’s some background about the concern by Steve Outing, a friend and former colleague of mine at the S.F. Chronicle and a new media expert.

The town of Vail should reconsider its policy, in the interest of transparency. Or perhaps officials could advertise the town’s Web site in the Vail Daily’s online edition, directing people to the notices.

In hindsight, the Vail Daily also could have offered a rate cut before it came to this. I hear a lot of complaints from government agencies and nonprofits, which feel “captive” in the legal notice process. Now there’s an alternative.

What’s Terry McAteer up to in Inyo County?

A blast from the past. Our longtime schools superintendent Terry McAteer is up to his eyeballs in Inyo County, where he now runs the schools there. Terry is launching a community reads program and coping with the same budget crisis on his side of the Sierra:

Inyo's outdoor science school
Inyo's outdoor science school

•Terry M. described the cuts to the state schools’ budget as “grim” and “shameful,” with “dire consequenses,” as the Inyo Register reported.

As with our area, the Inyo County schools face a March 15 deadline to notify teachers of layoffs. The schools are one of the county’s largest employers.

•Terry has launched the county’s first community reads program, which he also helped initiate here. “The concept behind the Community Reads program is to celebrate reading one book as an entire community,” he told the paper.

The book is “Farwell to Manzanar,” about the Japanese American War Relocation Camp on Highway 395, south of Bishop — a good choice. You should read the book and visit the camp if you haven’t. It’s a sad side of our history.

• Terry also has backed a newly passed truancy ordinance where students in Bishop who ditch school can wind up in court, with fines of up to $300 and up to 36 hours of community service.

“So many people talk about raising the bar when it comes to education … I want to raise the bar from the bottom up, to bring up that bottom 5 to 10 percent,” he told the paper.

Keep it up!

(photo from school district)

Amid blue, GV stalwart Yuba Blue is expanding

yubablue_logoHere’s an economic bright spot: Mill Street retail stalwart Yuba Blue is expanding next door, capitalizing on the downturn to grow its business, according to my sources. Well done!

Yuba Blue was founded in 1995 by Sarah Lazard, a former neighbor of ours, and it expanded in 1997. Its popular with locals and tourists alike.

As I’ve said before, the upside of vacant storefronts is to provide space for successful businesses to expand at a low rent. Business 101.

I’m reminded that Tess’ Kitchen across the street also did this last year, expanding into a vacant spot occupied by Hedman Furniture.

Yuba Blue “gets” the Web: They have a successful online store at www.yubablueonline.com, complimenting the retail space.

This strategy reminds me of my favorite Grass Valley chocolatier, Dorado Chocolates, which also is expanding in the downturn.

Most merchants here still don’t see the benefit of marrying an Web site with a brick-and-mortar outlet. Despite the fears, the Web often compliments your retail business; it doesn’t cannibalize it.

NC’s year-round farmer’s market forging ahead

top_asparagus1Last month, I blogged about a new “stealth” business venture in Nevada City on South Pine Street, across from Taylor-Drake furnishings, that was underway: a year-round farmer’s market.

The construction, in a long vacant space, is continuing as planned and interest is building, according to my sources.

Imagine a big indoor/outdoor space where area farmers can rent  food stalls to sell fresh fruit and vegetables. In wintertime, plants could be added. Fresh fish, meat or poultry and other products, such as coffee, flowers and wine, could be sold along with produce.

The opportunities for local entrepreneurs are endless.

This reminds me of the Rockridge Market on the Berkeley-Oakland border, a highly popular venture.

This kind of project is just what Nevada City needs: It melds with the city’s milieu (so to speak) and is an ideal venture to draw more locals, not just tourists, to the downtown.

Why we should welcome Truckee into the fold

At a community-wide pow-wow on Tuesday, I was glad to hear about the need to better embrace Truckee as part of a *past due* rethinking of a tourism plan for our county.

Downtown Truckee
Downtown Truckee

I’ve always found it odd that we wouldn’t welcome a city — in our own backyard, no less — that has successfully reinvented itself. We could learn something.

My family and I have been driving through Truckee for decades, and it used to be just a pitstop. Now it’s a destination.

In fact, Truckee was just named one of the best small towns by Sunset magazine, as I blogged earlier. People in Truckee work together.

Truckee has branded itself as an outdoor playground and for being “eco-friendly.” It also has a straightforward, two-pronged tourism plan that works: with a visitor’s bureau (to attract tourists) and a chamber (an advocate for merchants). 

Down here, where being a county government seat helps keep us afloat (and masks our economic deficiencies), we’re often too insular. We also have too many chambers, downtown associations and tourism-related groups — often working at cross purposes.

I hope that changes soon. To compete with other small communities, we need to work together to embrace change and build a more diverse economy.

Should The Union, KNCO do a ‘coopetition’ deal?

A downturn like this — the worst in decades — is the best time to shake up a business, including in a small-town media market such as ours. 

Earlier I suggested The Union strike a deal with the Auburn Journal to milk the business along the 49 corridor, where a Home Depot, Trader Joe’s and others are springing up or going to. The venture could include cross-selling some advertising in both counties, a potential “win-win.”

The Union operates in a business “cul de sac,” and The Journal could get some incremental ad dollars. Highway 49 is more of a profitable business corridor than the scenic but isolated Hwy. 20, the path to where The Union’s sister paper, the Sierra Sun, operates.

The Journal is run by a family-owned newspaper chain called Brehm Communications of San Diego. (It prides itself on a hand-carved wooden BCI logo in corporate headquarters, among other things). Weird.

Here’s a less ambitious plan, though: The Union also could strike a cost-cutting deal with KNCO, its neighbor in the “cul de sac” we call home.

For both the newspaper and the radio station, the biggest money-maker is ads from the “mom and pops” that operate here. In the past it was a good business for both. But we’re not growing anymore, so there are fewer “spoils” to split.

An alliance between the two could be structured on either the ad or the edit side, for that matter. (Merging edit between The Union and The Journal would be more difficult because of different markets).

Here’s the background on both businesses, which dominate our media landscape:

•KNCO is suffering from its expansion into neighboring Yuba County, where the market has since tanked. Its timing was bad. KNCO’s holdings also include KUBA and STAR FM.

More than a dozen local people, including some well-heeled retirees, are investors in the station. Some of them are newsmakers too — creating a potential conflict in the news reporting.

The group includes Chairman Ed Sylvester, President Scott Robertson, chief executive Bob Breck and Secretary Gordon Beatie, all from Nevada City or Grass Valley, as the regulatory filings state. (Jim Keil used to be an investor before his Grass Valley Chevy dealership folded and he left for Mexico.)

The recent performance of Nevada County Broadcasters has been disappointing to its investors, to be sure. They are supposed to receive dividends.

•For its part, The Union is suffering from the downturn here but also the woes of family-owned chain ownership.

Swift, the Reno-based chain that owns The Union, has been cutting jobs, reducing frequencies of its papers and closing some papers throughout its chain. At the Nevada Appeal, its flagship paper, the publisher also is the editor — an inherent conflict of interest.

At the Vail Daily, once a solid monopoly market, Swift now faces competition from a new paper, The Mountaineer. It was started by the former owner of the Vail Daily, Jim Pavlich, a millionaire.

The Vail Daily’s editor just disclosed that staffing there is down to 2002 levels. The Vail area’s real estate sales plunged 67 percent in January alone.

Management changes are underway at Swift as well. Swift’s CEO was promoted to chairman, creating a new opening for a CEO, as was reported in Entrepreneur.com. Who fills that slot will help determine Swift’s future, here and at its other papers.

KNCO also is turning up the heat on The Union with a new Web site created by Spiral Studios in Nevada City. KNCO.com is selling ads too.

In addition, both The Union and KNCO are facing competition on the Web from a startup called nevadacountymall.com. So it would make sense for the newspaper and radio station to strike some sort of deal, nipping the startup competition in the bud.

The Union’s and KNCO’s control of the local media market would best be described as an “oligopoly,” but I doubt if any deal would face regulatory scrutiny in this downturn.

It also could be informal: The Union’s previous publisher, Jack Moorhead, seemed to have no problem letting KNCO in the door in the first place. He’s friends with many of the investors. For years, both companies prospered on the business side as the area’s two dominant media players.

In Silicon Valley and elsewhere, cooperative competition between companies is called “coopetition.” “Coopetition occurs when companies work together for parts of their business where they do not believe they have competitive advantage, and where they believe they can share common costs,” as Wikipedia states.

Media concentration can have a downside, however, as Ben Bagdikian (a journalism professor of mine) wrote in the “Media Monopoly.”

The biggest ongoing concern is ensuring “tough reporting on the community’s powerful — as important to its overall success as helping the community recover from very difficult times,” as the Sacremento Bee’s publisher explained in a letter on Sunday. She’s right.

In the meantime, the ranks of local bloggers is growing here, offering independent voices. This is a hobby for me, but I’ve been surprised at the traffic growth in just one month and positive feedback.

People here are voracious consumers of honest information. What bloggers need is an independent aggregation site. I like “NC Voices,” an original effort. A new site is starting, however, called nevadacountyunites.com

The media landscape is changing, including in our small market. It’s my belief that the more independent voices we have, the more the reader benefits.

Snoop from your home PC with Web databases

The best Web sites around provide unique databases, and some let you do a little snooping.

The Sacramento Bee caused a furor when it launched a database that lets you find out state salaries of high-ranking officials — but also your next door neighbor.

We have some good online databases in our own backyard too. MyNevadaCounty.com, our  award-winning county government’s Web site, provides a wealth of information.

One of my favorites allows you to search for deeds, liens, fictitious business names and other recorded documents in our county from the comfort of your home PC — informative in a recession. It’s here.

For example, type “Thomas J. Hastert” under “search recorded documents,” and you can research some of the same information that investigators did when they were looking into Hastert’s business dealings.

When it comes to fictious business names, you can type “Holbrooke LLC” to order information on the limited partnership that owns the Holbrooke, now major news with a threatened closure.

If you want more information, you can order any of the documents from the clerk-recorder’s office.

This is a valuable free online database for all citizens.