The Independent

Longtime local media veteran John Boland reflects on the alt-weekly world in the era of digital media

When John Boland and James Carroll purchased
The Paper in 1989, it’s fair to say that the newspaper industry was a whole lot different than it is today. The web was still five years off and the idea of a “digital presence” for newspapers was limited to text-based terminal services like Prodigy and Compuserve.

Boland, a Sebastopol resident and president and chief executive officer at KQED (he’s stepping down at the end of 2019), recalls that when he purchased The Paper, its office was in a dungeon-like space in Forestville. He and Carroll relocated to Freestone and converted a general store that was already there, into half–newspaper office, half general store.

The Paper, the Stump and the Independent—the DNA of pubs that birthed the Bohemian in 2000—were very much West County papers, Boland says, but in 1992 a business decision was made to move the newspaper, by then called the Independent, to Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa, at which point it went to Sonoma County-wide distribution.

At the time of the move, says Boland, the paper was being published twice a month, but once they moved to Santa Rosa, “things really improved and took off,” he says, recalling fun times when he and Carroll would forgo paychecks to help keep it all afloat.

“When we bought it,” Boland recalls in a recent phone interview, “we thought it didn’t need to be mainstream, but needed to be a more accessible alt-weekly.” He says they looked at the Village Voice and San Francisco Bay Guardian alt-weekly models for guidance, and said, “Let’s take it a little more in that direction—do arts and entertainment, but also investigative journalism.”

Those two big-city weeklies have both bitten the dust in the digital era, an irony that’s not lost on Boland or anyone else with an interest in the history of alt-weeklies and why some have made the transition while others have folded.

One striking thing about The Paper, the Stump and the Independent is that they were alternative-leaning weeklies published in a rural area, making for some difficulties on the revenue-generating end of the deal. But West County was, and still is, the alt-soul of the North Bay. Back then, says Boland, “Sebastopol was definitely known as Berkeley North.”

Reflecting on the business aspect of running an alt-weekly in farm country, Boland says, “It’s always been a struggle, and particularly in a less populated area like this, as compared to a populated area.” A true labor of love, he and Carroll “depleted savings,” he says, and “borrowed money from relatives.”

The history, in brief: the Stump‘s offices were in Monte Rio, and as Boland describes it, the paper was “very much a Russian River thing.” It became The Paper in the 1980s, when Nick Valentine was both editor and the graphic designer. “It was kind of known for its very alt, almost underground content, and for his graphic designs.” Guerneville was originally known as Stumptown because of all the logging that went on in the 19th century, he explains.

By the time Boland and Carroll purchased The Paper, Valentine had left and Tom Roth was the editor. The paper’s editorial was then focused on Sebastopol, Bodega Bay and the Russian River communities, even as it served all of West County, notes Boland.

In 1994, Boland and Carroll sold a majority interest in the newspaper to fellow Bay Area alternative publisher Metro. Boland stayed on as a board of director member of Metrosa, Inc., retaining a 12 percent ownership in the publication that continues to this day. In 2000, after publisher Rosemary Olson sought to expand circulation to nearby counties, the newspaper became the Bohemian.

Anyone in the newspaper business these days knows there’s a strangely liminal dynamic afoot: thanks to the advent of digital content, print advertising doesn’t carry the weight among local businesses that it once did. At the same time, it’s tough for newspapers to ramp up online revenue, given that most of the revenue from ad sales online goes to either Google or Facebook.

Boland’s got a vision for the industry and sees a way out—or through—with the advent of journalism outlets that don’t rely on advertising.

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“The future,” he says, “may be nonprofit, with voluntary support from people in the community.” He notes that the daily Philadelphia Enquirer has entered the nonprofit breach, and New York magazine recently announced a partnership with a nonprofit in New York called the City. ProPublica is the big daddy among nonprofit news outlets and will partner with established outlets to pump out top-tier investigative reporting.

“The digital transition has been really difficult for all print media,” Boland says, “and largely because we depended on advertising to support the journalism. And that model started breaking down many years ago because, as we all know, digital doesn’t give the revenue that ads give.”

The transition, Boland notes, has been especially tough on regional dailies like the Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle—”the worst place to be is the regional level,” he says—who have seen their newsroom staffs plummet in recent years.

For papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times, “they may have minimal advertising but have the whole nation to look to for subscribers, and can convert to a model where the people who use it, who consume it, are the people who support it. That could be subscriptions for a large national paper. But for regional, local papers, it’s harder.” He notes that the business model problem is the same as the problem with the public’s attitude about news: everyone believes it should be free.

A key indicator for survivors of the industry’s shrinkage is the extent to which they foresaw the digital future. The Mercury News and Chronicle, Boland says, “did not react quickly enough to digital and to the changes in the business model, and revenue declined rapidly.”

Then there’s the greed factor of the owners. “They just kept slashing expenses and staff.”

Boland gives the local Press Democrat props for its understanding of the digital transition, noting that they’ve tried to spread editorial costs across many media outlets while offering more regional and countywide journalism than any other paper in the Bay Area. “There are more reporters at the PD than at the San Jose [Mercury],” he says. “Something is working there.”

He also points to the thriving business model at KQED as another example of where the path forward for media must embrace digital interactivity and emphasize hard-hitting regional reporting that’s available free for everybody, “and asking people to voluntarily support us.” The radio station pumped millions of dollars into its budget to add a hundred people to its staff, “and really pump out much more regional journalism.”

“It’s almost like the PD,” Boland says. “We had to go to high-net-worth individuals in the Bay Area and say, ‘We really need to change and we really need your support.’ We raised $45 million.” (Almost like the PD, but not quite: the Press Democrat is owned by Sonoma lobbyist-developer Darius Anderson.)

“You can never have enough editorial people,” Boland says. “That seems to be the first place that they cut. . . . People are really stretched in content jobs right now. And it’s not just that they have a lot to cover and there’s not enough of their colleagues,” but that the demands of digital require journalists to learn new skills and apply them across multiple platforms, “and everybody has to engage with the audience and deliver content to them.”

Boland got his start in the industry as a cub reporter at the Daily Record in Morristown, N.J. He turns 70 next year and is coming to the end of his contract at KQED. He says he’s thinking of his next move. “I haven’t planned what I’m doing next, but one thing I’m thinking of is actually practicing journalism again.”

His first job in Jersey was in 1968, a time of great upheaval in this country, which also saw the rise of the alternative press and New Journalism as practiced by the likes of Tom Wolfe. He sees some parallels between then and now, and says, “I definitely think it is a very dangerous time, and it’s appalling that the media is under attack for doing our job.”

Still, he adds, “I’ve seen some positive effect, the level of civil engagement—I have not seen that [since 1968].”

But perspective is needed, Boland cautions: “I know we are in an incredibly challenging time, [but] we haven’t had 2,500 bombings, we don’t have post offices being blown up. . . . Things are bad now, but we’ve had divisive times in the past.”

He’s hopeful that, just as the roiling era of the late ’60s gave rise to a vibrant new crop of American media outlets, so might our times.

But whatever’s next for journalism, Boland stresses, “we’ve all got to become more digital first.”

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