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AB 323 becomes law; newspapers win time, not a victory over the forces of change

AB 323 becomes law; newspapers win time, not a victory over the forces of change

By Charles Ford Champion II
President and Chief Executive Officer
California News Publishers Association

With AB 323 becoming law this week, there are many people to thank for helping to get an industry-saving piece of legislation over the finish line. The CNPA team and the members of the AB 5 Working Group were instrumental in the success. So were the many CNPA members who stepped up to deliver support the old-fashioned way with editorials and phone calls to legislators. It was grand effort, a must-win for the industry.

But let’s be clear. This wasn’t a victory over the forces that plague our industry.

The bill does not erase the digital challenge to our traditional print business models. It does not exempt us from the effects of AB 5. It will not overcome declining ad revenue. Those challenges remain.

The reality is that a year from now, barring an unlikely change in the political environment, the state’s news publishing industry could face the same kind of existential threat it endured this year.

So, what did we “win?” The answer is time. 

Time to adjust to readers that increasingly rely on digital sources for news. Time to rethink delivery models and reshape the expectations of traditional news consumers. Time to develop subscription and other revenue schemes that advance journalism and a free press. 

The struggle of the past six months accelerated the arrival of an inflection point for the industry, the one where change is inevitable, and growth is optional. The transformation it entails has been slow to evolve in many – perhaps too many – cases. But now the pace has to pick up.

For its part, CNPA is going to point its sails into the winds of change and engage to the fullest in programs and alliances that go beyond survival and reach for prosperity. We have readers on our side. Almost every survey shows that their reliance on local news sources has grown in this year of uncertainty. We are their most trusted resource.

We have their attention, too. Readership and subscriptions are on the rise. Ask almost any civic-minded resident of the communities that we serve, and they will exalt the necessity of our news reporting and editorial services.

Where we have to go to work is to establish a value proposition for those services that is big enough to support the cost of delivering them. It is a delicate balancing act. For at its heart, journalism is as much a public service as it is a commercial product. 

As one researcher put it at the 2019 World Economic Forum:

“Print and online newspapers are the guardians of democracy and the rule of law. They provide information to citizens, mobilize groups around issues, and serve as a watchdog against wrongdoings or excesses of power. 

“The current jumble of available information does not belittle the value of newspapers – quite the contrary. In fact, researchers have established a link between the decline of local news and reduced citizen engagement in politics.”

So, for CNPA going forward, the question is not whether newspapers will survive in California. It is rather what form survival will take. Local content will be key, but so will connectiveness, i.e., how we relate to our audiences and how well we commercialize based on geography and proximate common interests.

The paper may only get delivered three or four times a week, or maybe only on Sundays. There may not be as many pages and the print edition may become a driver for online engagement. We may be event and conference providers, or even original content streamers. Our digital presentations – full of context and feature journalism – will grow as the lines between print, audio and video news blur, even vanish.

But make no mistake. Newspaper-style journalism will prevail because we will have adapted to the mediums for delivering the stories our readers need to know.

And that is what we have won with the enactment of AB 323. 

A chance to sustain and enhance the value proposition for the business of journalism so that we can continue to do the job of a free press in a free society.

More to come.

Charles Ford Champion II
President and Chief Executive Officer
California News Publishers Association