Enough News, Too Little Cash

— In November 1999, the Daily Californian, a 108-year-old newspaper serving East County, shifted from daily printing to a twice-weekly format. Thus ended a run of 36 years in which East County had its own daily paper. The Californian, which in the '70s had boasted a circulation of 30,000, was down to 5000 paying readers. Two months later its owner, Central Valley Publishing, out of Merced, California, sold it to Jay and Teresa Harn, owners of the weekly Alpine Sun and a group of community papers in Lakeside, Santee, El Cajon, Spring Valley, La Mesa, and Lemon Grove known collectively as the East County Community Newspapers. Harn would not disclose the amount he paid for the paper, saying only, "I'm a private company, and I'm not releasing the figures. It was purchased by me and my wife. We personally paid for it through a bank loan."

Harn says the once-proud regional paper was in a shambles when he bought it. "I had competed against the Californian for its last eight years," he explains. "And I think one of the problems it was having was it lost sight of its customer. I know that they were doing well at the beginning of the '90s. At one point in '93, I think they were at 27,000 paid circulation; it was pretty visible, and they had a significant advertising base. And for it to drop that fast, there must have been some management decisions that were tried but didn't really work. It got caught up in trying to be a daily, and they concentrated on wire news over local news. But I don't think that killed them as much as advertising. They went through a lot of staff changes in their advertising sales base. I've heard this from the advertisers that I've regained, that I've had to work to get back, that billings didn't take place correctly and things like that. That, added onto the other things, kind of hurt them."

After purchasing the troubled periodical, Harn began publishing his community papers together in a tabloid-size publication called the East County Californian. The paper was issued on Wednesdays and Saturdays and placed in stores and businesses throughout East County for free pickup -- 20,000 on Wednesday, 15,000 on Saturday. The transformation to a free, 12- to 15-page pick-up paper seemed to be the final shovel full of dirt on the grave of East County's daily-paper days. Yet Harn, in a January 26, 2000, Associated Press report, expressed optimism that the Daily Cal would one day rise again. "We'd love to see that happen again," he said. "East County is growing and a lot depends on the market. The community would have to support us, and the finances would have to be there."

Fourteen months later, East County is still without a daily. And the January 10 shift in the East County Californian from a twice-weekly tabloid to a 16-page weekly broadsheet -- the same format as the Union-Tribune -- could be interpreted as another step in the other direction. Harn doesn't see it that way. A tall, big-featured man of 40 with a booming voice, he explains, "Since we're free and we're picked up, there's not a lot of time to pick one up on two different days. Until we get really high numbers of readership, our best efforts are put into making a thick Thursday paper."

He adds, "We were doing 20,000 and 15,000, but we weren't doing as well as we could have. We were getting too many returns. Advertisers want to see low return numbers, and going to once-weekly is really helping that because we're not competing with ourselves now. It's a free publication, and if you put it out Wednesday and then Saturday, you're competing with yourself."

Since Thursday, January 11, 20,000 Californians have been spread around East County weekly. Harn says the move is already paying off, and he guarantees that the number will go up to 25,000 before the end of March. Thursday was the day he selected for the weekly release because "It's enough time for people to pick it up and then make plans for the weekend, but it's still midweek," Harn explains. "Grocery advertisers and auto dealerships like the Thursday time period because most of their business comes over the weekend. And all the entertainment ads, movie ads, they want to be in people's homes for the weekend."

Harn describes his advertising base as "mainly local business. Our core, as with most newspapers, is retail. We don't have any car dealerships; we're working on those and they're coming along. But we do have the casinos in regularly. And we have some of the other majors: Toys R Us, KB Toys, Parkway Plaza. It just takes time. The paper, when we purchased it, had lost a lot of credibility in East County, and we've had to slowly build it back up."

Credibility with advertisers Harn pinpoints as a crucial step on the road back to daily status. "The way a paper goes daily," he explains, "is not for any news reason. It has to be able to make money. The advertising has to be there to pay for it."

"If it's a question of news," he adds, "this community could support a daily."

Growth, traffic, local government, land use, the future of the backcountry, border issues, and East County high school sports provide more than enough stories to fill a daily paper, Harn says, and he points to the Californian's past to support the claim. "At one point in the '70s, the Daily Cal was a 30,000 paid-circulation daily. And that's when East County had 50,000 people."

Harn concedes that daily newspapers had less competition in the '70s than they have now but still insists that a daily is possible in a region East County's size. He points to the North County Times as an example. "That's a dynamite paper," he says.

But North County has a larger and more affluent population than East County. "If you take the demographics of our readers," says Dick High, publisher of the 95,000-circulation North County Times, "and the demographics of the Union-Tribune readers, they'll be about equal. That's really unusual for a second paper in a market. Usually a second paper has much lower demographics."

High says another advantage his paper would have over a daily in East County is distance from the Union-Tribune. The North County Times -- owned by South Coast publishing, which is owned by the Richard Howard family of Rancho Santa Fe -- has its headquarters in Escondido. Its local market, according to High, "is the 78 corridor," 35 miles from downtown San Diego, the U-T's stomping ground. El Cajon, the former headquarters of the Daily Californian, is only 17 miles from downtown.

But High speculates the decline and fall of the Daily Californian had "more to do with their own internal operations than it did with Union-Tribune competition. To a certain extent, you control your own fate. But that paper was in rapid decline when it was sold. There's a point at which a paper moves into rapid decline, and it's very difficult to turn around. [Harn] entered that process too late to stop the decline."

Still, Harn insists East County has all the ingredients to cook up another daily, but he refuses to make any predictions. "My feelings right now are we're going to get there," he says, "but it's one step at a time. Right now, it's not even in our business plan. Back in the '80s, when I was working as city editor at the Santa Clarita Signal up in L.A. County, we were a three-times-a-week publication, and it took until we were a 45,000 paid-circulation paper before we went daily."

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