The future of the Sacramento News & Review

Jeff vonKaenel

This column is about the future of the News & Review. In this week’s paper, we introduce our new executive editor, former Sacramento Bee associate editor and editorial board member and Boston Globe deputy national political editor, Foon Rhee, who will apply his many years of experience to helping us figure out how SN&R should respond to the changing landscape of news media in Sacramento.

But the new evolves from the old. Nearly 30 years ago to the day, after my wife Deborah and I had worked together for eight years at the Chico News & Review (CN&R), we moved down to the capital city with our 6-month old baby, set up a little office in our dining room and began preparing for an April 1989 launch of the Sacramento News & Review.

In 1989, The Bee was dominant in the community. It was the second best daily in the state, after the Los Angeles Times, with one of the country’s best publishers, C.K. McClatchy, who led the effort to dominate the competing Sacramento Union newspaper and created a paper with an excellent liberal reputation.

The Bee had a large circulation and hundreds of reporters and editors, producing excellent state and local coverage. They were making an obscene amount of money. And they were all around us. We lived on McClatchy Way. Our son would go to McClatchy High School. We checked out books at McClatchy Library. We saw plays at Sacramento Theatre, which received considerable funding from Eleanor McClatchy. McClatchy and The Bee were everywhere.

With the daily Sacramento Union on its last legs, The Bee was inhaling almost all the newspaper oxygen, otherwise known as ad revenue. It was a fierce competitor, launching Neighbor sections to prevent smaller community newspapers from gaining ground. When Sacramento Bee publisher Frank Whittaker heard we were coming to town, he took me out to lunch and told me he intended to put us out of business. This was the goal of their Ticket section, launched one year after our arrival.

This was the media landscape when we arrived in town. We wanted to do great journalism, and we believed our free weekly could develop an audience. We soon realized the Bee had a weakness. At the time, it was more focused on the Bay Area art scene than the developing Sacramento art scene. We were pretty excited about the idea of building up the local arts and music scene. We had a niche!

I spent the months between December and April meeting with 300 local business owners, politicians and community activists, asking them for advice and learning about Sacramento. We found office space at 20th and V streets, blocks away from The Sacramento Bee offices. We persuaded founding editor, Melinda Welsh, to join our small team—one of my best sales jobs ever. We scheduled our April launch.

The weekend that we put out news racks in preparation for our Thursday launch, C.K. McClatchy died unexpectedly of a heart attack while jogging. Our first issue came out the same day as his funeral. That morning I helped pass out newspapers and muffins from La Bou at light rail stops all over Sacramento. Later that same day, I attended C.K.’s funeral. I did not know him, but had tremendous respect for him, as a newspaper man and as a person who understood the impact that a newspaper could have on a community. That night, KCRA-TV anchor Stan Atkinson linked the two stories: the renowned Bee publisher’s funeral and the birth of a new weekly in Sacramento. It was surreal.

But the next issue was a week away and we had work to do. And it has been that way for the last 29 years—1,544 issues. I am proud of what we have done. Many of our stories have had a significant impact on Sacramento. Stories such as Kevin Johnson’s Strong Mayor Campaign and our PG&E-SMUD election coverage. Coverage of Sacramento’s homeless and housing crisis, and our ongoing celebration of local artists.

We put on events. The weekly downtown summer concert series started as an SN&R SAMMIES showcase. We helped organize Second Saturday and provided the initial publicity for it. Our interfaith Call for Unity concerts raised money to build Habitat for Humanity’s homes.

Our paper over the last three decades grew in a space that was dominated by The Sacramento Bee. But this has changed. The Bee is a shadow of its former self. How can we be an alternative newspaper when there is nothing to be an alternative to?

I am not happy about this. I much prefer the days when The Bee had a $29 million editorial budget and more than 350 reporters and editors. And we had a bigger paper filled with ads from Tower Records.

But what now? What does Sacramento need? And given available resources, what can we provide?

I don’t know the answer, but perhaps our future will resemble what’s happened to CN&R. We started there as an alternative paper, but as the media market changed, our editorial coverage evolved. CN&R now has a weekly circulation of more than 40,000 while the very weak daily paper has a weekday circulation of less than 10,000.

While a weekly can’t provide 24/7 news coverage, CN&R is an excellent weekly read, covering most significant issues, providing superb arts coverage and including a spirited community dialogue on critical issues within its pages. As a result, CN&R is now the go-to paper in Butte County.

So, is print dead? If you come by our offices on Wednesday morning and see our distribution drivers loading up their cars to deliver thousands of SN&R newspapers out to more than 300,000 readers, you might not think so.

Newspapers obviously play a different role in today’s world. The internet is a faster and cheaper delivery system. But it also has problems. There’s information overload, and so much of the information online is not reliable. Newspapers may not always get it right, but we intend to. Online, we go head-to-head with groups ranging from those with an underlying agenda to those whose goal is actually to spread false information.

The second big problem with the internet is the echo chamber approach created by the likes of Google, Facebook and cable news. These outlets reinforce existing opinions instead of challenging views, leading to polarization rather than illumination.

Every media has its strengths and weaknesses. During disasters, and on election night, certainly television and the web are the way to keep up with the changing 24/7 news. But when there is no major news story, they tend to focus on the latest viral social media trend, or Donald Trump’s last tweet. I’ve never found that learning about Starbuck’s holiday paper coffee cups or the president’s views of how fires get started has provided me with a better understanding of the world.

And, after TV and the web have moved on, a weekly newspaper continues to help the reader and the community better understand the issues. Information is not the same as understanding. If you are making choices about what to do, you need more than just information.

By definition, we can only tell stories that will interest people a week in the future. That eliminates a lot of stories. Just as in music, where the silence between notes is as important as the notes themselves, much of gaining understanding is deciding what to ignore and what to pay attention to. Sometimes less is more.

The media world is very different today than it was when we put out our first issue in April of 1989. Our paper must respond to these changes. I’m looking forward to having Foon Rhee, our new editor, help us find our way.

Stay tuned. 

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.