This is CityBeat's 500th issue. It's a remarkable milestone, considering the environment in which we launched and have attempted to grow this plucky little newsweekly.
Our first issue was published less than a year after 9/11 and in the wake of the dot-com bubble burst. Starting as an unknown entity in a large market that was already home to the Reader, the most financially successful newsweekly in the country, we struggled for several years to gain a foothold and the recognition of readers, civic leaders and advertisers. Around the middle of the last decade, CityBeat started cooking.
In 2007—the halfway point of our life so far—we were cruisin' along with 52-page issues, and our content was getting better. Despite the fact that the Reader wasn't giving any ground, business-wise, and despite the existence of the internet as formidable competition for advertising dollars and our audience's attention, things were looking up.
You know what happened next. The big housing bubble burst and the economy nosedived. In August 2008, we were 48 pages. In August 2009, we were 44 pages. In August 2010, we were 40 pages. Throughout much of last year, we were publishing 36-pagers, with our monthly special issues keeping our engine running. There's no way to sugarcoat it: It's been a monumental struggle.
Still, through the hardship, our content—crammed tighter and tighter in these thin issues—is better than it's ever been. In 2011, we won three national awards for news and arts writing and took Best in Show at the San Diego Press Club Awards. We're making a difference—from landmark local issues (our reporting is one of the key pieces of evidence in a pending court case against a controversial pension-reform ballot measure) to the personal (our reporting compelled county officials to reach into their own pockets to help a homeless man). Our coverage introduces San Diegans to artists and musicians they'd otherwise never encounter.
Ironically, thanks to a declining print-publishing industry in general and the worst economic downturn since the Depression, the better we've become, the more we've flailed financially. Yet, unlike many, many other organizations in our industry, we haven't laid off any staff, and we haven't lowered our (admittedly low-to-begin-with) freelance pay. We've spent more of our revenue on content than the industry standard.
As we inch toward another milestone—our big 10th anniversary in August—CityBeat is at a crossroads. We have to get our spending closer in line with our income. Not long ago, print ads were all that newsweeklies needed to thrive. It's just not the case anymore. While it's still the lifeblood, papers like ours across the country are forced to find new ways to pay for their news coverage. The Reader, which has lost roughly 100 pages to the crappy economy, has outsourced its production department to a foreign country to save money and offers to run rejected free event listings for $50 a pop. Many publishers have become event planners, making money through ticket sales and program advertising.
We're looking to do more of that. We're considering a wide range of options—from the traditional (selling T-shirts and other merch) to the wildly unconventional (selling “bricks” of space in our paper to individual readers, sort of like selling actual bricks of a new building to donors). The alternative to coming up with innovative fundraising ideas is to hack away at our content. San Diego needs more high-quality journalism, not less. For heaven's sake, the daily newspaper is owned by a local developer whose stated No. 1 priority is getting a football stadium built on the waterfront.
So, how can you help? What would you be willing to buy? What do you need in exchange for your money? Journalism training? Clothing, gadgets or small appliances? A good time? Your name emblazoned where everyone can behold your awesomeness? Our undying gratitude? The only thing that's not on the table is influence over our stories. You can't have that; it's not for sale. That, we'll take to the grave.
The economy's starting to improve, and we believe advertising will pick up. But the industry will likely never be the same as it was a decade ago; finding ways to pay for reporting will remain a fact of life.
This is our 500th issue. We're proud of what we've done. We want to do more. We need your help.
Update: We have set up a donate page if you'd like to help us. Thanks!