The Union’s gas guide needs an editor

Newspapers rushed onto the Web to catch up with the’s but never learned the “golden rule” of Web publishing: provide unique Web content, then monetize it.

Reno-based Swift Communications, owner of The Union, called its plan “Web first.” Newsrooms were told to post Web updates, video, etc., ASAP, and the results were measured.

Trouble is, there was no strategy for the advertising group to monetize the Web content or measure it. Oops.

So they would up giving away print content and more for  free, cannibalizing their paid print subscriptions and eroding advertising.

Swift was not alone. It happened in a lot of places, largely the result of insular management teams who never saw the Internet train coming or were in denial. Surprisingly, most of them are still intact.

Now newspapers are paying more attention to the issue, but they are behind the eight ball.

One unique feature that has run recently at (and not in print) is called the “gas guide.” It provides the gas prices at local stations, a good idea.

Trouble is, all week long, the gas prices for the local stations have been incorrect. (I happen to pass this route daily from my home in Nevada City to an indoor swimming pool in Grass Valley, so I noticed this).

Nobody apparently has bothered to check whether the figures are accurate or not. I notice a disclaimer on the site, provided by an outfit called It also adds, “regular prices in the past 48 hours shown.”

It would be a lot more useful to provide the information in real-time.

But there’s hope. According to the site, “We need your help! We rely on volunteer gas price spotters to submit gas prices. If you know of any current gas prices in this area, please post them using the form below!”

Perhaps somebody could step forward to help out. I’m not sure what the business model is here, except for being a good samaritan.

I’m not sure if a gas guide has legs in such a small town anyway.

Around here, we all know the pattern. For example, the gas station by our house, the Chevron on Sacramento St., is typically the highest in the area, while the ARCO or Flyer’s in Burger Basin are the lowest. It’s been that way since I’ve lived here.

Close but no cigars.

Digital TV switch pushed back to June

Little noticed, but the switch to digital TV has been pushed back from Feb. 17 to June 12.

The U.S. House vote supporting the delay gives people four more months to prepare for the switch.

Around here, the switch became a “buy locally” issue. Some electronics retailers had been advertising they carried the digital-conversion boxes required for the switch, so local residents didn’t have to drive “down the hill” to big-box stores.

The Union had written a front-page story on the issue in December, discussing the Feb. 17 deadline.

Fish market, year-round farmers market in NC

Here’s a big “economic brightspot” for downtown Nevada City: I hear a fresh fish market and year-round farmers market is coming to town.

If all goes well, the fish market and year-round stalls for a farmers market will come to the long-vacant space across from Taylor-Drake furniture on Spring Street. Completion is set for May.

The fish market is expected to be a satellite retail space for Nevada City Seafood, oddly enough located in Grass Valley. (The Whispering Pines location is a good space for processing the fresh fish that comes up regularly from Fisherman’s Wharf, but the store needs a more visible retail outlet).

I’m a big fan of the Rockridge Market in Berkeley, a collection of fresh food stalls, and this is a similar concept. In the winter months, the food stalls in NC could be rented for plants if there aren’t enough fresh vegetables.

Let’s hope this deal is completed. It’s an excellent business concept to bring locals to the downtown!

GV resident, soap-opera legend Clint Ritchie dead

448601851No word from the local media, but a Hollywood soap opera legend who lived on a horse ranch here has died. 

Clint Ritchie, who played a small-town newspaper editor on “One Life to Live” for two decades, died at age 70 after a brief illness, The Los Angeles Times reports.

Ritchie’s death is creating some buzz among long-timers around town. There will be a private funeral service for him on Friday afternoon at Chapel of the Angels in Grass Valley.

“Ritchie was a mainstay of the daytime drama until December 1998, when he retired, only to return to the show the next spring for several weeks. He returned for brief stints in 2003 and 2004,” The Times said.

Ritchie grew up on a farm in North Dakoka, and he relocated to California as a teenager and took acting classes.

He also had roles on TV series such as “The Wild, Wild West,” “Batman” and “Thunder.”

Ritchie suffered a serious accident at the horse ranch in 1993 when he fell off a truck, The Times said. “It took forever,” Ritchie told People magazine. “I heard and felt bones breaking like toothpicks.”

He later returned to the show.

Ritchie died at a hospital in Roseville.

(photo courtesy of Associated Press).

Amid budget crisis, Sen. Sam at Trolley Junction


images6While the Legislature and Gov. Arnold fight about closing the budget gap down in Sacto, I spotted our fearless elected rep. — Sen. Sam Aanestad — lunching up here in Nevada City.

Sen. Sam was at Trolley Junction Tuesday eating lunch with local longtimer Andy Owens, now the general manager of Hooper and Weaver Mortuary and also a minister.

It seemed a long way from the budget woes in Sacramento, where the state’s residents are on pins and needles, hoping lawmakers and the Gov. can get off the dime and strike a deal.

The budget gap stands at a whopping$42 billion through fiscal 2010. (That adds up to a lot of weenies to the moon and back!)

Meanwhile Tuesday, California was cut to the lowest credit rating among the states by S&P, the debt-rating group. 

“At its current level, the rating generally recognizes our view of the lack of political progress around the budget negotiations that we believe is serving to exacerbate the state’s current and projected cash position,” S&P said.

And unions are fighting state attempts at furloughs — a great example of  “not getting it.”

Let’s be fair: perhaps Sam was just taking a deserved break from the tumultuous budget talks. You gotta have some down time.

Besides, meeting with a minister isn’t such a bad thing. At this point, California could use all the prayers it can get.

On second thought, Sam’s lunch guest is also a funeral director. 

Sher: A breath of fresh air at TRPA

images5I’ve followed the TRPA for years as a Tahoe basin cabin owner and was always disturbed that it didn’t merit more investigative reporting from the local community newspaper — or even bloggers. (I figure it was an issue of resources and institutional knowledge, two big “rocks” in the newsroom of a small-town paper).

You’ve got enough fodder at TRPA — inaction, conflicting policy-making, infighting, conflicts of interest — to shine a light on one of the Sierra’s most important government agencies.

When I read the headline Monday that “Harvard graduate appointed to Tahoe Regional Planning Age…” in the Sierra Sun, I was forced to click on the article to see what it was about. (Please write shorter headlines for the Web; not ones that end in …).

I was pleased to see a press release that Byron Sher, the retired longtime California legislator, was appointed to the TRPA board.

If you know Sher, flaunting a Harvard law degree is not what he’s about. In a low-key style, he helped create some of the state’s major environmental laws over more than two decades.

I met Sher when I was covering the leveraged buyout of Pacific Lumber for the San Francisco Chronicle in the mid- ’80s. Later, he helped lead an effort to preserve old-growth redwoods that otherwise might have been chopped down under Texas owner Charles Hurwitz.

Hurwitz doubled the timber cut of Pacific Lumber to pay down junk-bond debt — a symbol of the excesses of LBOs in the ’80s.

“Of all the legislators we’ve known over 50 years, we rate Byron right at the top,”  Bill Lane of Portola Valley, former publisher of Sunset Magazine, told The Almanac.

As the publication summed up: “Laws bearing his stamp help protect California’s air and waters, reduce garbage going to land fills, encourage recycling, promote renewable energy, and preserve forests. He has also been strong on health and education.”

Sher brings a decidedly environmental bent to the TRPA. I’m OK with that, since I’ve never seen a Lakefront McMansion (and the fees that go with it) that TRPA didn’t like. When you’re sailing on the lake, you can see the glare from the windows.

Sher is from Palo Alto. But unlike around here, the Tahoe basin doesn’t seem to resent “flatlanders” as much. After all, sometimes they bring some experience and talent to the party. Besides, he now lives in El Dorado County.

Sher’s also a deft negotiator — something that is called for in dealing with the cross-fire of politicans and agencies that have their hand in the Tahoe cookie jar.

Lake Tahoe is a national treasure, and the TRPA needs a seasoned and talented leader such as Sher to help protect it.

I hope Sher is profiled in the local media someday soon.

(credit: photo courtesy of

Next shoe to drop: states go bankrupt

9-8-08sfp-f1As the recession continues to worsen, the next shoe to drop will be state bankruptcies.

We all know about California’s budget woes, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“At least 46 states faced or are facing shortfalls in their budgets for this and/or next year, and severe fiscal problems are highly likely to continue into the following year as well,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Combined budget gaps for the remainder of this fiscal year and state fiscal years 2010 and 2011 are estimated to total more than $350 billion.”

At least 41 states have looked ahead and anticipate deficits for fiscal year 2010 and beyond, according to the group.

Job cuts and furloughs will just exacerbate the problems, putting more people on the street and straining the system. Unemployment in the state and county is expected to creep to 10 percent.

Structural changes in government are needed to get out of the woods — a difficult challenge. Even furloughs, the least painful step, are being fought tooth and nail in California.

It shows how clueless some government workers are about the problems we face.

Our area is so close to the debacle in Sacramento that we can’t help but be impacted: tourists who shop here, and the county being sucked into the vortex of the state’s budget woes (my 1/31 blog post).

Meanwhile, as we sit on our hands, the Dow continues to slide below 8,000. Our retiree’s “nest eggs” continue to diminish, putting a crimp in local spending.

Wish we’d done a better job of diversifying our economy, and more people around here would “get it” that pinning your economy on tourism and retirees makes you vulnerable.

To follow the government financial troubles, go to Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It’s a good resource.

Cookin’ on the grill on Super Bowl Sunday

Hard to see we’re in a recession, judging by the long lines at the supermarket today for Super Bowl Sunday. Neither team is one that most of us root for regularly. (At least one of them is west of the Mississippi).

We’ve been swimming a lot and eating a little, but the Super Bowl calls for something special. The beautiful weather makes the choice a “no brainer”: Fire up the grill.

I cooked a turkey on the spit on the barbeque and slow cooked some ribs on the “Big Green Egg.” As an appetizer, I prepared some shrimp in cilantro and lime marinade. I’ll grill those, too.

We’ll cook some veggies on the grill too.

To wash it down: A bottle of Lucchesi “Tempranillo” from our quarterly wine club selection and, yes, water.

Enjoy the game.

Biggest threat to media: iPhone, Blackberry et al.

“Whiskey” almost reached the door with the hefty New York Times Sunday edition this morning before dropping it on the porch: not bad for a 3-month-old puppy, since the paper is bigger than she is.

I also read newspapers for the ads: Besides the Super Bowl trophy from Tiffany, the full-page color ad for the iPhone at the back of the Times’ “A” section always catches my eye.

If the Times didn’t want to run an ad from a competitor, it probably wouldn’t want to run this one. But at this point, the paper  no doubt would rather collect the more than $100,000 color ad rate.

The iPhone ad showed the “apps” you can get for your iPhone: snow report from 2,000 ski areas; a Yoga workout; Loopt to track (and map) your friends whereabouts in real time; and of course, the Yellow pages. The list of “apps”— much of it original Web content — grows daily.

The ad also didn’t mention you can surf the NY Times (or the Web site of any other paper, radio or TV station for that matter) on 3G.

By contrast, we’re getting the print version of the Times for a reduced rate of $24 a month, not much less than the cost for high-speed Internet access. Internet access is free in some “hot spots.”

Nowadays smart phones are the best tool to get informed, entertained or communicate (in text and video) that I can think of. And it’s “anytime, anywhere.” It’s a whole lifestyle in the palm of your hand — something the media would kill for.

We’ve long been “early adaptors” of technology — having owned an iPhone for three years.

We’re not alone. Barack Omaba is our first president to use a Blackberry in the White House. My son is playing a game on the iPhone this morning while we read the print version of the New York Times.

Newspapers and television are no longer the “one stop shop” for information and entertainment. The best they can hope for now is to provide an “app” for the iPhone or Blackberry for readers to get their content. Too few have done that.

Smartphones also are an achilles heel for community newspapers —the last hope for the business because most are still monopolies.

Most of them dismiss smartphone readers as not being part of a “core” audience. Huh? They represent prime advertising demographics, as well as the younger readers who will make or break newspapers.

As an example, how many people who visit a world-class ski resort (at least the kind upscale advertisers want to reach) get their news on their own smartphone versus the ski town’s community newspaper in print? 

Community newspapers need to move a lot faster to make their content easier to read on a smartphone. Much of their content doesn’t read well on a smartphone — if at all.

The smartphone trend will accelerate despite the recession. Now you can buy an iPhone at WalMart.

P.S. — Enjoy the Super Bowl: I’m hoping Arizona (and Kurt Warner) can pull it out. He has seven children. Wouldn’t that be a boon for Nevada County? A high-paying wage earner and a family with seven children! Ah, he probably lives in a place like Mission Viejo.