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Here's our plan for sustainable local news at the Sac Bee

By Lauren Gustus

lgustus@sacbee.com

June 08, 2018 11:01 AM

Sacramento Bee journalists publish an average of about 170 stories per week. They're developed by reporters who work closely with photographers, fact-checked by editors and supported by our video and digital teams.

We tell a lot of stories. We don’t often share ours.

You’ve probably heard a thing or two about local news, how pretty much every outfit that isn’t The New York Times or The Washington Post is struggling financially.

Maybe you even know why: The amount of money we make from advertising in the printed newspaper has declined dramatically over the last 10 years.

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Our tremendous growth in online readership has made up for some of that decline. In fact, earlier this year digital advertising revenue for McClatchy, our parent company, exceeded our print advertising revenue for the first time ever. That’s progress.

Lauren Gustus, Editor of the Sacramento Bee and West Region Editor for McClatchy.
The Sacramento Bee

But we still have work to do in finding a sustainable way forward. Our future depends on it — our future as a local news organization, and our future as Sacramento's watchdog.

We have a plan.

We could fully fund our newsrooms – from salaries and benefits to notepads and pens – if we had 60,000 people supporting us through digital subscriptions. Roughly 15,000 do so today, so we’d need to earn the support of about 45,000 more.

That’s a big number, but it’s not as big as it might seem.

Visitors come to sacbee.com more than 30 million times a month for our stories and videos and to search our databases. If even a fraction of those visitors became subscribers, we’d meet our goal. So we are now asking them – and you if you don’t already – to support local news with a digital subscription. That’s the best way to help ensure that our journalists can continue to tell the stories that matter to you and to our community.

Now, this is an oversimplification. To do what we do, we also need sales support and printing presses and other costs that are not built in here. So the numerical goal of 60,000 digital subscribers is somewhat symbolic. But the underlying goal is very real: to produce quality local journalism so important to you that you’re willing to pay for it. That’s the sustainable way forward for any news organization – or for any company, really: to create a product you feel is worth what you pay for it.

That’s our focus, so much so that we’re now tracking our subscription numbers in real-time in the newsroom.

And we’re making some changes to make our work more essential to you, the readers we serve — and we’ll continue to do so as we look to better understand what you want and need.

Here are a few you may have already noticed:

  • We’ve launched a daily news report that’s available on smart speakers, or voice-activated devices. You can now ask to hear the news from The Sacramento Bee on Amazon’s Echo or Google Home and get daily updates while you’re getting ready to head out in the morning.
  • We’re experimenting with new beats, or coverage areas. There are topics we should own – such as city government and accountability, state politics, local education, the Kings – and topics we should test. To that end, we’ve launched what we’re calling sprints (or short bursts of stories) on issues facing local health care workers, and one on dining and drinking, which includes trends, openings and closings, and adds to reviews by our beer and wine columnists.
  • Next month we’ll launch a coordinated reporting effort called Big Valley (its name is inspired by the old TV show). The focus: how rising home prices affect people who proudly call inland California home. Stories will be published in our five California dailies — The Sacramento Bee, The Fresno Bee, The Modesto Bee, The Merced Sun-Star and The Tribune in San Luis Obispo — and we will add a reporter to our team to cover this area.
  • In print, we added some fun with two new popular puzzles in your Sunday paper: Whatzit and 7 Little Words (which now runs Monday through Saturday). Find them starting Sunday inside the Life & Style section.
  • We’ve also combined the Forum and Business sections on Sunday. There’s no change to how many local stories we publish in the paper or on Sacbee.com; however, there is an efficiency to be gained on our printing presses. Subscribers can also find more than two dozen additional “print” pages in our e-edition, covering sports, news, business and more, each day – making it easy for you to access all of the nation and world news you need in one spot.

Some of you will remember when we were a two-newspaper town. Today we’re competing with every single thing that’s on your phone, whether it’s a Yelp review or a friend’s text.

We’ve got to work smarter than we ever have before. And do it with fewer journalists, as we, like other media organizations, have been forced to adjust to the shift in consumption habits.

We must engage you in a meaningful public conversation. We must deliver a news product that 45,000 additional people are willing to pay for.

Local journalism is in trouble in cities and towns across the country. And that should be a worrying fact for all of us. If local journalists didn’t exist, there would be many gaps in what we know about our local communities. How the East Area Rapist suspect spent decades working at Save Mart in Roseville. What a Gavin Newsom governorship would mean. What that massive new housing project in Folsom means for homebuyers and commuters. Or how tents may be used to address our homeless problem.

We’re committed to finding a sustainable path so we can continue to produce this kind of reporting, and we’ll continue to update you as we make both change and progress.

Thanks for reading. And more important, thanks for your support. We can’t do it without you.

Gustus is Editor of the Sacramento Bee and West Region Editor for McClatchy.

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