Alameda Journal deliveries to shift from free to fee

Alameda Journal deliveries to shift from free to fee

Michele Ellson
Alameda Journal

Updated at 10:04 a.m. Sunday, February 9

This Friday may be the last time local newspaper readers hear the familiar thwap of the Alameda Journal hitting their porches.

As of January 31, fewer copies of the newspaper will be distributed locally, the Journal's editor has said. Guaranteed delivery for the Journal and four other newspapers will only be provided to people who have paid for subscriptions to the Oakland Tribune or West County Times newspapers. The change was announced in a flyer distributed inside the Journal’s January 10 edition. The paper’s current circulation is 22,900 (the Island has roughly 30,000 households).

"Going forward, Alameda readers who want to receive the Journal every week will need to subscribe to the Oakland Tribune," Journal editor Jon Kawamoto said in a February 7 comment posted on this story. "Those who choose not to subscribe will receive the Journal occasionally, and we hope its appearances will convince them that strong local news is worth having every week, at a reasonable cost."

Kawamoto did not say how many free papers would be delivered each week, or to whom. He did not respond to questions in a follow-up comment posted by The Alamedan.

The changes are part of a new subscription program that the papers’ management company, Digital First Media, rolled out in December – a program aimed at driving more traffic onto the company’s websites. A website offering all-access subscriptions to the company’s 38 Bay Area newspapers – 11 dailies and 27 weeklies – says non-subscribers will have “limited access” to the papers’ content online, though it isn’t totally clear what those limits will be. A Digital First spokesman did not return a call or an e-mail seeking comment.

Digital First Media chief John Paton announced the pending rollout of the subscription program in a November 18 blog post that talked about the company’s need to cut costs and build traffic and revenue online. In addition to eliminating free delivery of the weekly East Bay newspapers, he said the company will expand its use of online paywalls from the 23 newspapers where they are already in place to all 75 of the daily newspapers the company operates – though he acknowledged that they haven’t generated much revenue at the papers where they are now in use.

“Let’s be clear, paid digital subscriptions are not a long-term strategy,” Paton wrote. “At best, they are a short-term tactic. But it’s a tactic that will help us now.”

Journal founder John Crittenden was equivocal about the company’s decision to halt the free newspaper deliveries. He said delivery to nearly every Island home was one of the things that helped the paper get off the ground.

“I assume they’re making a reasonable business decision,” Crittenden said Wednesday. “But I’m sorry to see it come to that.”

The impact on advertisers who have relied on the print newspaper to reach potential customers – and whose contracts may be based on print circulation – is also to be determined.

“At this point it’s too early to tell,” said Dennis Pagones, a real estate broker and president of Harbor Bay Realty. Pagones said he was informed the changes were happening but that he hasn’t yet had the chance to talk with the company about specific impacts.

Readers who responded to a request for comments on The Alamedan’s Facebook page said they haven’t been receiving the newspaper deliveries or that they don’t read it when they get it, though one reader said they enjoy the paper.

“I used to enjoy the Journal when it HAD Alameda news,” Anne Pimental wrote. “Delivery has been shoddy for years. Now where I live, don't even get it.”

The decision to cease free delivery of the Journal and other weekly papers isn’t the first by a legacy news operation – or even the paper’s owners – to trim or eliminate delivery of printed newspapers in the face of high costs and sharply declining readership and ad revenue.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer eliminated its print newspaper entirely and became online-only in 2009, while other papers, including the New Orleans Times-Picayune, have scaled back their home deliveries to a few days a week. In late 2011, Digital First announced it would eliminate Monday home deliveries for the Oakland Tribune, Hayward Daily Review and Fremont Argus newspapers.

Jettisoning print newspapers is just one of several cost-cutting moves media companies have made over the course of more than a decade of attempts to regain profitability as readership plummeted and advertising dollars migrated onto the Web. The industry has been beset by mass layoffs, consolidation, sales and bankruptcies as newspapers struggle to transform themselves into profitable digital businesses.

A 2012 Pew study found that half of Americans got their news online, compared with 23 percent who read newspapers; online advertising revenues grew to $20.1 billion in the first half of 2013, the Interactive Advertising Bureau reported in October – nearly double what they were three years earlier. Much of that revenue has accrued to Web giants like Google and Facebook, rather than traditional media outlets.

Newspapers have experimented with a dizzying array of technologies and approaches aimed at improving their digital presence and balancing their budgets, from relying on readers to fill websites for free to integrating data, social media and video and test-driving a range of next-big-thing widgets designed to drive advertising. Most have been reluctant to completely abandon their print papers because their advertising and subscriptions have been more lucrative than their online counterparts.

The Journal’s tale embodies these larger industry trends. The paper was founded locally and purchased by Hills Newspapers, a string of East Bay weeklies that was later purchased by the Contra Costa Times. Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group – which already owned the Alameda Times-Star, along with the Oakland Tribune and other East Bay dailies – bought the Times and all the weeklies it had owned – including the Journal – in 2006.

MediaNews laid off one of the Journal’s two reporters in 2008; its circulation was later reduced to weekly from two days per week. The Denver-based MediaNews chain – with nearly $1 billion in debt – announced plans to declare bankruptcy in 2010 and was purchased by a hedge fund, which handed over control to Digital First.

Under Paton’s leadership, the management firm’s thrust has been to guide readers and build revenue online while cutting costs – an effort that Paton has characterized on his blog as “a long one. And all uphill.” Like other newspaper companies, Digital First has conducted layoffs, experimented with paywalls, reached out to its employees for suggestions about possible online innovations and to the communities it serves for volunteer help filling its web pages.

Most recently it has partnered with other firms, including AdTaxi and TapClassifieds Auto, to drive advertising onto its websites.

The company has seen its online revenues grow, but those are still being outpaced by its costs, Paton said in a June presentation reprinted on his blog. He said profits at the newspapers he manages rose 40 percent between 2009 and 2012, but were still 60 percent below their 2006 peak.

All the more reason, Paton has argued, to speed newspapers’ journey toward the digital now.

“We can no longer treat digital as a bolt-on to our strategy and protect the legacy business,” Paton wrote. “The past doesn’t buy our future.”


Submitted by G Johnson (not verified) on Thu, Jan 23, 2014

The Journal seems to have become less and less "Alameda" and more and more "East Bay" over the years. This is especially true in the Sports section. I find it a total turn-off to see highlights of games between Berkeley and Tennyson or how the athletes of the week are from El Cerrito and Richmond. I still read the Alameda Sun, but have cooled off on the Journal.

Submitted by Jon Kawamoto (not verified) on Fri, Feb 7, 2014

Hi Michele:

Unfortunately, your January 23 article about changes to the Alameda Journal's delivery model got it wrong: The paper is not halting free deliveries. It is, however, scaling back free deliveries as it seeks to place its newspapers on a financial footing that will ensure they can inform Alameda readers of the news in their community for many years to come.
Going forward, Alameda readers who want to receive the Journal every week will need to subscribe to the Oakland Tribune.Those who choose not to subscribe will receive the Journal occasionally, and we hope its appearances will convince them that strong local news is worth having every week, at a reasonable cost.

Jon Kawamoto
Alameda Journal

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Fri, Feb 7, 2014

Hi Jon: Thanks for the clarification. The flyer sent home in the Journal a few weeks ago seemed to indicate otherwise, and the corporate rep I called and e-mailed did not respond to my request for additional details. (We even spoke before this story ran and I don't believe you shared this information at that time either.)

So how many papers will the Journal deliver each week, and to whom? Will the papers go only to specific neighborhoods, or will you be rotating who gets them? How often is "occasionally"? I'm also wondering what the game plan is - will the paper be paid-only at some point, or ?

Thanks in advance for your responses.