“After 25 years in Northern Nevada, the Reno News & Review is suspending publication indefinitely.”
With those words, on the eve of coronavirus lockdown, the RN&R began its article announcing that they were stopping the presses.
I was hit hard by the news that the weekly was going offline. When I started Moonshine 18 years ago, the paper was a model for us. Its writing had flair, its stories took local government to task, its format was tabloid, and its heart focused on the importance of arts and culture in a community. In fact, I’d argue that the RN&R played a sizable role in Reno’s metamorphosis into a known arts community.
The staff offered a “glimmer of hope that the small regional chain will be able to return, probably in a drastically different incarnation, after the current coronavirus-driven economic crisis” in the March 19 piece. So I thought, for this month’s Moonshine Membership update, I would check in, see how bright this glimmer had gotten.
Glad I did. In a frank conversation with the publisher, I was intrigued by the backstory of News & Review, was inspired again by the paper — this time with its visionary approach to returning, and I got to know the guy who started it all.
Jeff vonKaenel, president, CEO, and majority owner of the News & Review, has been doing newspapers for a “very long time.” It all started in 1973 when the country was fresh off the civil rights movement, still ensnared in the Vietnam War, and experiencing a growing environmental crisis. He and a group of activists in Santa Barbara, who had been doing anti-war and environmental work, started writing and publishing.
“What we experienced there was the impact of a small group of basically hippies, who were able to win city council elections, and through speaking the truth and connecting people, able to get the (district attorney) indicted,” he said. “We thought, ‘Wow, this sure beats demonstrating.’ So then we just formed this rag tag paper, with low-paying salaries, etc. It gave the sense of controlling the narrative and the power to make great social change.”
In 1980, vonKaenel got wind of a Chico student paper that had gotten kicked off campus. He made a deal: if he could turn it around, he could have the stock. He borrowed $13,000 from his mom and the Chico News & Review was born. He and his wife, Deborah Redmond, started the Sacramento News & Review in 1989, then bought another paper to make the Reno News & Review in ‘94. The three have a combined circulation of 600,000.
“To see the impact of journalism and the change we could make in all the communities to date,” vonKaenel said. “That’s a real accomplishment.”
When the states of Nevada and California went into lockdown in response to the novel virus, the three papers lost their main sources of advertising revenue as well as their distribution avenues, so they made the call to suspend printing. It was the final nail in the coffin. As vonKaenel wrote in a column in the March 19 edition:
“Over the years, we have experienced numerous crises. We were able to use our financial reserves to pull us through those times when advertising revenues were less than expenses. We were able to keep the paper going and to continue to provide local coverage. But over the last 10 years, as more and more businesses have moved their advertising dollars to Facebook and Google, the foundation of the media business model has crumbled. These large internet companies collected revenues without having to generate expensive local coverage. This has caused a crisis for most media companies, including the News & Review.”
But the company is far from sitting idle. The newspapers continue in limited form, with all content online. A side division that does journalistically based publications for government agencies primarily, continues to do really well, vonKaenel says. Moreover, the company is exploring many options for how to continue to do the community journalism from which they started.
“I feel the whole landscape has shuffled,” he said. “And we have with our companies a long tradition of adjusting and adapting to these situations.”
True to form, the company is exploring new investors or partnerships, considering conversion to a nonprofit, which was made easier by the recent court rulings such as in Salt Lake City, and as we are at Moonshine, delving into the reader-supported model. He spoke to a concept where social change organizations make donations to support coverage of an issue important to them, citing an example where his company was awarded a small $10,000 grant to write about food stamps and ended up prompting a $28 million county government investment into a farm fresh program.
There is potential in the upheaval of the entire industry. “The Sacramento Bee is bankrupt, the Reno Gazette-Journal is down to I think 11,000 circulation, so there may be opportunities there if those papers shift,” he said. “Things could change. We are basically trying to be open to what’s possible.”
Will all of these options counter the duopoly of Facebook and Google?
“I’d like to pretend that I’m that powerful that I could change that,” he wise-cracked. But he is hoping that in requiring the online giants at a minimum to share the revenue they get from content created by other people, as Australia and France are currently working toward, and also to incur some costs in printing inaccuracies, “that may change the economics.”
That said, he is “really afraid” of a future where Facebook and Google inform people. “It’s critical for communities to have local papers, covering city council and the board of supervisors, to have reliable vetted information that people can depend upon,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a disaster if we don’t have that.”
What keeps him going?
“Running newspapers is really fun, you get to ask embarrassing questions to people and get paid for it. It doesn’t get better than that,” he joked. But seriously? “I feel really honored to have a career where I get to [do] work that really matters and makes a difference. It’s really rewarding.”