When I began my photojournalism career, newspapers had been organized much the same way for generations.
Revenue came from classified ads, display advertising, subscriptions and custom print orders.
The personal computer and internet changed this model.
I no longer develop film or make black-and-white prints in a darkroom. The paper is no longer printed in the afternoon six days a week, taking Sunday off.
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The website publishes breaking news 24/7, transmitted wirelessly from the field to the newsroom and on to you. Video, sometimes shot from a drone, is regularly featured. Printing revenue from secondary jobs like business cards or TV guides is no longer part of the revenue mix.
My imagination in the 1980s clearly wasn’t big enough to anticipate the changes.
The newspaper industry is not alone. All advertising-supported media have experienced a shift in how they deliver information and how operations are funded.
Take one example: The Yellow Pages used to be a thick book tall enough to serve as a makeshift booster seat.
Now there are dozens of listing sites on the internet, many with incomplete and inaccurate information.
The phrase “you get what you pay for” springs to mind.
Which brings me to the subject of subscriptions.
Lowering the cost of publishing has opened the marketplace to new voices. A printing press is no longer required.
Some bring new perspectives and specialized insight. John Lindsey with PG&E regularly explains weather phenomena in a way that is engaging and understandable.
Some are opinion sites reflecting a single point of view, part-time operations with little background research or developed sources.
Two things haven’t changed. People are still deeply interested in the true stories around them.
The Tribune newsroom, now entering its 150th year, is committed to telling those stories.
Founded in 1869
The Tribune was founded in response to the county’s first newspaper, the San Luis Obispo Pioneer, which carried the standing phrase:
“Subscription $5 per Annum, Invariably in Advance.”
The Tribune was more flexible with three-month subscriptions starting at $2 and the full year for $5.
For many years, San Luis Obispo newspapers did not even print a single-copy price.
California was a transient place in the late 1800s, and a publisher couldn’t count on his audience to stick around town if something better surfaced down the trail. They wanted subscribers to commit for a few months at least.
The Pioneer’s editor Rome G. Vickers printed a bit of poetic doggerel likely copied from another newspaper, “An Editor.”
The poem described how Vickers saw the role of a rural editor, getting gifts of vegetables or a slice of prize cheese from local producers in exchange for a favorable puff article.
“The biggest bug will speak to them,
No matter how they dress —
A shabby coat is nothing, if
You own a printing press”
The poems finishes:
“The only drawback in the trade
Of publishing the news,
Is that there’s a certain class
Who never pay their dues.”
Newspaper battle in SLO
Vickers had an abusive, ungrateful editorial voice that offended both friend and foe, and after two years he lost the circulation battle with The Tribune, founded by Walter Murray.
Murray wrote hopefully on Aug. 6, 1870, after the Tribune’s first year of operation: “Our paper is now fairly established, and is bound to succeed. Although it has been of no emolument to ourself, personally, yet we have been enabled by the legitimate earnings of the office to pay for all our labor and other current expenses.”
Murray was a lawyer, had been district attorney, and was hoping to be elected judge. Running a newspaper took time away from those ambitions. The Tribune existed only because of the “hard crowding” that Murray had made in his schedule to publish the weekly with the assistance of printer H.S. Rembaugh.
Murray made the sacrifice because he thought the community needed a better, open-minded newspaper. The Pioneer had started as politically neutral then shifted voice, becoming shrill and partisan, endorsing only Democrats.
Murray offered a more balanced report, focused on news of interest to the community beyond politics and had a calm reasoned tone, unlike Vickers’ hectoring. He favored Republicans, but if a Democrat was the more worthy candidate, he would occasionally break party rank.
Murray wrote: “… We now call upon all our friends and those who desire to continue the existence of such a paper as the “TRIBUNE,” to come to our assistance, by the procurement of subscriptions and advertisements. …”
If you have read this far, you probably know what is coming next.
Subscriptions help us keep delivering stories. A monthly digital subscription is equal to about 6 cups of premium coffee a month or two of those fancy drinks.
To sign up, visit sanluisobispo.com and click “Subscribe” in the upper right corner. It’s only $1.99 for the first month, then $12.99 after.