No Way to Turn Back Time as Local Newspapers Disappear

(Associated Press) The cities and suburbs on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay are home to 2.7 million people, a world-class University of California campus and bedroom communities for Silicon Valley that produce median incomes 50 percent higher than the national average.

What they no longer have is a thriving landscape of local daily newspapers.

Gone is the Oakland Tribune, the Contra Costa Times, The Daily Review of Hayward, The Argus of Fremont and the Tri-Valley Herald, among others. All had tens of thousands of readers during their heyday and served communities populous enough to be among the largest cities in many other states.

Ownership changes and consolidations have left the region known as the East Bay with just a single daily newspaper. The East Bay Times, based in Walnut Creek, attempts to cover a region nearly the size of Delaware with a fraction of the staff of the former dailies.

The growing number of places across the country with dwindling or no local news options has been associated with mostly rural and lower-income areas, places that have little resilience to counter the trend among readers and advertisers to go online. But the East Bay — among the wealthiest and highest educated regions in the country — shows that no place is immune to the struggles of the traditional news industry.

“It is really shocking that the place with the demographics and the business and the universities and the progressiveness, that this is a news desert … ” said U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, a Democrat who represents a significant part of the East Bay.

The former small business owner started his political career on the Concord City Council nearly three decades ago, where he recalls seeing at least one reporter in the front row of every meeting. DeSaulnier is so concerned about the state of local news that he has backed legislative action in Congress to support it.

One of those bills targets what he and others believe is a main culprit of the industry’s woes — the big tech and social media companies that profit from the content news outlets produce without adequately sharing the profits.

Facebook and Google, among the most prominent of those targets, say they are not to blame for the news industry’s downfall and have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to boost local news and help develop new business strategies. That includes backing for news sites in the East Bay, where many of the tech giants’ employees live.

But some wonder if that philanthropy is too little, too late. In Fremont, Dan Smith used to have two copies of The Argus delivered daily, one to his family’s funeral home for the obituaries placed on behalf of clients and the other to his home, where he turned to sports and comics.

But Smith, 60, no longer subscribes to a daily newspaper, after The Argus turned into a weekly insert to cover a community of nearly 240,000 people, where one of the local employers is electric car maker Tesla.

“Where does one go for local coverage, high school sports? What’s going on with the city and the politics, and what’s happening around the community?” he said. “How can I be part of my community if I don’t know what’s going on?”

Digital First has a record of consolidating newspapers and trimming staff, but it also has said that its business model keeps local journalism alive. The company staffs reporters throughout the region and has separate regional sections on the East Bay Times’ website.

The East Bay Times won its own Pulitzer in 2017 for its coverage of a fatal warehouse fire in Oakland. Even then, it wasn’t long before cutbacks resumed.

Bay Area News Group Executive Editor Frank Pine said he understands the loyalty people have for the newspapers they grew up with, but said there is no way to turn back time.