Volume 8, Issue 77  |  September 26, 2023SubscribeAdvertise

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Local news leaders reminisce about past stories, share outlook on future of community journalism


A few longtime local news leaders spoke during a community forum this week, both reminiscing about the “good old days” and sharing their outlook on the future of community journalism.

Stu News Newport (and Laguna) publisher Tom Johnson, City of Costa Mesa Public Information Officer/Public Affairs Manager Tony Dodero and historical podcast Newport Beach in the Rearview Mirror producer and host Bill Lobdell all spoke about hyperlocal news coverage at the Speak Up Newport meeting held on Wednesday (Sept. 13). About 70 people filled the community room at the Newport Beach city hall and more watched the livestream on Zoom.

Local news leaders panel of three

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Photos by Lana Johnson

Local news leaders panel: (L-R) Tony Dodero, Tom Johnson and Bill Lobdell

The focus of the discussion was the future of local news coverage in Newport Beach related to the decline of print media in an ever-increasing digital world.

“If you’re going to be in this business, you can’t just do it the same way as always: Print the newspaper on a printing press, roll it up, put a rubber band around it, drive down the street and throw it. (Because now), by the time it lands it’s old news,” Johnson said.

He recalled a similar discussion he had with other local editors and publishers in 2009 about the future of newspapers. He warned people at the time that the traditional newspaper model won’t continue to work in the future.

“(I) said ‘This is going to be broken, if you’re a newspaper person, you’ve got to figure some other way to get news (out),’” Johnson said.

Although others at the time resisted, insisting they were on solid ground and would stay in the community, both those newspapers have since filed for bankruptcy or spread out coverage to several other cities, Johnson recalled.

This week, he asked his fellow panelists the obvious question: So what happened?

“The internet happened,” Lobdell answered.

Since 2008, the number of journalists has been cut by more than half. During the pandemic, about 350 newspapers went under and those that are left are only limping along, he commented. There needs to be a new model and very few have appropriately adjusted for the digital age.

“Readers have found an easier way to consume the news and that’s just progress,” Lobdell said.

And the advertisers are going to follow the eyeballs, he added. As time goes on, the younger generation will be taking over as business owners and advertisers, Lobdell noted, and they’re more inclined to pay for digital ads, which can be tracked with much more precision than newspaper ads.

“If you if you provide good news (coverage), if you engage the community, the advertisers will follow,” Lobdell said.

To be successful in news, in any way, you also have to include social media, Dodero emphasized.

“I think there is, definitely, a market for digital,” Dodero said. “I’m pessimistic when it comes to print, but I’m optimistic when I think about digital publications.”

But it takes a lot of work and passion, all three agreed.

It also takes money to hire enough writers to thoroughly cover a city. Small, digital operations can’t pay the salaries that would fill out a robust newsroom, Dodero noted, so a lot of local journalists take on multiple roles and do the work themselves. If they believe in their mission and the community, those organizations will make it, he predicted. Bigger digital publications with specific niche audiences will also continue to survive, he added. But the days of the far-reaching print newspapers are gone, Dodero said.

“They’re too big and they have too much overhead and they can’t afford to cover what people really want, which is local news,” Dodero said.

Johnson shared an example work schedule of a week publishing Stu News and the kind of commitment it takes: Late nights, 11th-hour changes, coverage of big and small community events, re-writes, and a lot of back and forth between everyone putting the paper together.

“You do it because you love it,” he confirmed.

His concern is what happens when he or the other passionate few aren’t around anymore. They need people who can adopt this type of business model for local news, whether it’s Stu News or something else, he said.

“I want to try to create a business model that somebody else can move into and care about,” Johnson said. “We need local community news going forward or this community, over time, will suffer.”

Local news leaders Ed Selich

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Ed Selich (at podium), president of Speak Up Newport, addressing the panel

On the other side of the story, as news coverage is spread thin and reporters focus on certain leads – and often the negative stories get the most attention from the press and the public – businesses, organizations and government agencies have to come up with different ways to get their own message out, Dodero said. He pointed out Costa Mesa’s weekly newsletter, news blog, City TV and social media. He’s also emphasized to city department heads the value of getting the news out to the public.

Dodero cut his teeth at the Daily Pilot covering Newport Beach. At the time, newspapers would send reporters to city hall to track down stories and attend meetings, he recalled.

“Back in the day when I was covering Newport Beach, I remember walking around getting stories,” and even got kicked out of a meeting for eavesdropping, Dodero said. “It’s completely different than it is today.”

Now, based on his experience as the current PIO for the City of Costa Mesa, he said reporters don’t show up to city council meetings. Many do all of their reporting remotely and have never even been to city hall, Dodero said.

What local news media also did back in the day that’s missing now is their contribution to the sense of community, Lobdell added.

It’s important for local news organizations to create new events or ways to get involved with the community, Johnson agreed. In past years at the Daily Pilot, they developed the DP 103, a list of the top influential people in the Newport/Mesa community, and then held a dinner to celebrate everyone on it. They formed the Pilot Cup, now called Newport Mesa Soccer Classic, which brought young athletes in the community together.

Lobdell is an example of that, Johnson commented, by starting Newport Beach in the Rearview Mirror. Lobdell said he started what he thought would be a small podcast and was unsure about the potential interest. It was more about getting some of the local historical events that had been forgotten on record, he said. As people share stories, photos and memories, the popular podcast has continued to grow and just passed 30,000 downloads.

“It shows that people want community, people want to be involved,” Lobdell said.

The three former Daily Pilot staffers also shared memories about stories they broke, influential people who made headlines and the beats they covered. Those were the “glory days of news” in Newport Beach, Lobdell said.

The Daily Pilot was in shambles when they came on board, Lobdell said. They had a motley crew of writers and the financial situation was precarious. After they took over, they focused on four key pillars of local journalism: Being a watchdog, a forum, cheerleader and a reservoir of information including the public record (births, deaths, DUIs, etc.) for the community. Together, they turned things around at the Pilot.

Johnson added a fifth pillar that’s also necessary: Support from the community, by subscribing and/or buying ads. It’s important for residents to support local journalism to help hold officials accountable, he noted, pointing to the City of Bell scandal as an example.

Local news leaders crowd

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The audience filled the Civic Center Community Room

“I think we’re in a lull now and I think we need some leadership to get to the other side of this and to learn new ways to deliver the news, new ways to make community through media,” Lobdell said.


Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.

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