If you check the About page of this website you’ll see that for a period of time in the mid-1990s I worked as a sportswriter for the Modesto Bee. It was a two-story building with the newsroom on the second floor, covering the whole of the eastern side of the structure.
For the most part, it was a fun three years. At the time of my departure, the sports desk carried a Sports Editor, four copy editors, two columnists and several writers and agate clerks. If memory serves it was usually between 12-16 people in the department alone. I imagine when you included the other departments there had to be at least 70 writers and editors in the building and likely more. (Hey, cut me some slack, its been nearly a quarter of a century.)
I had occasion on Sunday to call up the Contact Us page for the Modesto Bee as I noticed an error in its preview story of the upcoming Turlock High School football season. I kind of am the official historian of high school football in the city where I was born. Kind of wrote the book on the subject: From The Fields.
The young writer for the Bee, he seems to be relatively new to the area, had stated that Turlock High was playing its 99th season of football this year. Turlock’s first season was in 1920. They have played football every year since. Do the math.
NARRATOR: THE ANSWER ISN’T 99…
So I was writing to the sports department to let them know so they could correct it on their website on Sunday and in the paper on Monday. This was when I was hit by a surprise.
If their Newsroom contact list is complete, including ALL of the editors (which I did not include in my count above) there are only 16 people working in the Modesto Bee newsroom. Total. That is nearly an 80% reduction, possibly more, in staffing from when I worked there.
And out of those 16, it seems there is only one sports reporter and no sports editor. At least not one that is listed. I have no idea how they are planning on covering high school sports. Even with stringers and freelancers I can’t see how they plan to do it any justice.
But here’s the thing that struck me as odd. The Bee claims they still have “tens of thousands” of subscribers and it looks that they are still trying to cover a wide area in the San Joaquin Valley despite being woefully understaffed.
Yet, when I checked the first paper I ever worked at, The Gallup Independent, they are running with two reporters and one Sports Editor. When I was there it was three reporters and the Editor. And they cover an area three times as large as the ModBee with circulation numbers that are nowhere near what the Bee is claiming.
The only conclusion I can draw is that the Bee is dying and maybe so is the parent company that owns it. The Merced Sun-Star, also a McClatchy newspaper, was similarly gutted a few years ago (and not long after it became a McClatchy paper) and seems to be declining too.
Is this happening to newspapers across the country? Yes. Especially with the larger papers. They are too top-heavy and always seem to make cuts in the production areas instead of cutting the non-producing, dead weight at the top of the companies.
Smaller papers, in smaller towns seem to be fairing better. My friend Louis Antonelli bought his local newspaper in Texas and seems to have turned it around. A recent summer trip through the northern border states brought me through Steele, North Dakota, a town I lived in for four years in the mid-1970s. The local paper, Steele Ozona, is still in publication and also seems to be doing fine.
In both cases, they don’t have money-sucking vortexes in the form of non-producing management leeching off the paper’s income stream.
Will McClatchy and the other “Big” media companies figure out what they need to do in time? I doubt it.
So, if you are looking to get into the business, maybe think small. Maybe even try launching your own online publication covering local news? It won’t be easy. But you might last longer.
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