The Anderson Valley Advertiser and the Future of Journalism

I’ve been following with time-sucking intensity the debate on the future of journalism now playing in locales as disparate as the New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review, various technology blogs and back-and-forth ripostes between individuals with skin in the game on twitter.

The bare bones of the issue is that traditional advertising-based models of media financing are collapsing.  People still want high-quality news content, only they would rather just grab it online — and they’re not fussy about who serves it to them, be they the content’s owners or not.

So how to offer expensive-to-create material in a marketplace where people won’t pay for it and still make money?  No-one’s yet worked out the trick.  In the meantime, old media outfits are slashing jobs, leaving old-guard journalists to lament the passing of the good old days.  And many successful new media sites are building their success on directing people, ultimately, to content created back in the old (and ever more fragile) system.

Who knows where we’re headed.  Maybe to a world of crowd-funded content, or micro-niche journalism written by poorly-paid writers who may or may not care about facts, ethics, or the art of a good lede (not to mention reporting on days when they feel like doing something else or on subjects that happen not to interest them).

While we’re wondering, though, here’s a very old-world example to throw into the mix: the Anderson Valley Advertiser.

This rural print weekly serves an inland chunk of Mendocino County, CA.  It does the job of informing area citizens of local events, news, sports results, legal notices and, as the name suggests, of shopping opportunities in local retail establishments.

It also bears the clear imprint of its editor and main reporter, Bruce Anderson, who’s owned the paper for most of the last twenty years.  The paper, like Anderson, is passionate, pugnacious,and politically engaged, and, thanks to Anderson, the Advertiser is frequently a delight to read.  Take his lead article in the most recent issue about cult-leader Jim Jones’ early years in Mendocino.  It’s blockbuster piece of non-fiction prose — too bad he’s not chosen to put it online yet, otherwise I’d link to it.  Maybe he needs us to buy his paper (as I did at City Lights in San Francisco last weekend) to keep him writing, heaven forefend.

Anderson’s own work is not exactly classic, quote-both-sides-of-the-issue reporting.  But neither is it pure editorializing or unsourced blather.  Anderson knows his stuff.  As an editor, too, he gets the basics of the job down, but leaves plenty of room for character to shine through.  Beyond showing us how enjoyable a local news weekly can be when it’s well run, though, could Anderson also exemplify what a seriously good ‘citizen journalist’ of the future might look like?

“Many newspapers are dead men walking. They’re going to be replaced by smaller, nimbler, multiple Internet-centric kinds of things such as what I’m pioneering,” news publisher James Macpherson of Pasadena tells Maureen Dowd in the New York Times.  Macpherson outsources the writing of his local stories to Bangalore, where he can get writers to give him 1,000 words for $7.50.

Maybe that’s the future.  But what Macpherson offers is a bastardized product.  It’s serviceable, perhaps, but not better than what it’s replacing.  There’s only so much reporting you can do about Pasadena on the phone or online from India.  We need another solution.

Expecting your readers be your writers is no solution, either.  It’s simply a gift to community blowhards, egoists, conspiracy theorists and axe-grinders.  Check out online reader-generated posts and discussions of local issues — they generate so much more heat than light that they become an undue burden to read.

We need good journalism like we need a good judiciary or honest elections.  We need deeply knowledgeable writers and editors covering news that matters to us (and very much to them) in clear, punchy prose.   And we need them to get paid for doing it – for years and years and years.

If news keeps migrating online, there’s still the huge issue of money to resolve.  But if journalists, editors and proprietors are looking for a role model of the kind of personality most likely to thrive in the brave new years ahead, maybe they’ll find it already exists in that most venerable of American print media — the writer/owner/editor of small-town local weekly news.

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3 Comments

Filed under Blogging, commentary, journalism

3 responses to “The Anderson Valley Advertiser and the Future of Journalism

  1. hey simon,
    this is unrelated but i read your comment on battelle’s search blog post about pc vs mac. you will be pleased to know that macs now offer full native support of Netflix’s watch instantly feature… and it looks great!

  2. Charlie Hoover

    It’s ludicrous to cite Bruce Anderson’s Anderson Valley Advertiser as a model newspaper. Anderson is the poster boy of irresponsible journalism. He has admitted in sworn court papers that he doesn’t fact check what he publishes, claiming he doesn’t have the staff or the time to do so. He doesn’t care a fig about ruining people’s reputation or invading their privacy by publishing malicious rumors as fact. He scoffs at the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics while claiming he’s never even read it, though he manages to violate at least half of the code’s enumerated principles. He has several times published outright hoaxes of his own composition, based on real people and events, later claiming they were satire. His only qualification for owning and publishing a newspaper is that he had the money to buy one. He has never worked as a paid journalist or editor for any other publication but his own. If he’s a model for anything it’s for being a community blowhard, egoist, bully and axe-grinder. Despite its name, the AVA carries almost no advertising, but is supported mainly by the suckers who subscribe to the paper. Some people are amused by cheap, unprincipled personal attacks on people they don’t know living in places they know nothing about.

    A former AVA reader

  3. Debra Keipp

    MENDOCINO COUNTY DESERVES ANDERSON VALLEY ADVERTISER, SAYS GRAND JURY!!!!!

    In this day of administrative malpractice in business, investment banking, government large and small, and almost anything else having an opinionated, legal or financial dominance over humanity, the AVA is refreshingly humorous and outrageously satirical to the point of blowing the bullshit of all named above right over the proverbial cliffedge smack-dab into the Pacific! And, good for the AVA. I’m sick of the SF Chron and Santa Rosa PD’s non-informational papers run by bigger, more dominant news agencies dominated and owned by whatever faction is “in control” at that moment in history. That’s not the truth, either! The AVA ruffles feathers, and in a county like Mendocino California, that’s a good thing. Lots of big fish in small ponds here that need to be shaken off and up cuz they’re sucking up all the oxygen! The AVA covers more than the surface scum. Investigation? Acid wit and cut-throat opinion is OK to feed a County made up of pirate pot growers, wine pimps and eco-liberal fascists who take themselves all too seriously. It may even get readers involved in trying to find out the “absolute” truth for themselves instead of relying on truth from local mainstream newspapers. Then, with their morning coffee, waking up to smoke two joints each morning; drink that bottle of wine in the afternoon; before attending that Shitty Council Meeting at dinnertime. Ahhhh citizenry in Spendocino! The AVA’s a goddamn freedom hoot!

    Reader, occasional contributor when the bile rises!

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