Column: Orange County was once a battleground for an epic newspaper war. Now, journalism is fading fast
Gabriel San Roman was driving in Anaheim when his phone pinged with a text message just after 6 p.m. two Sundays ago.
It was from his editor at the OC Weekly, where San Roman had freelanced since 2006 and been a staff writer for the last three-and-a-half years.
“Mandatory meeting 9 a.m. Monday in the fish bowl,” it said, referenced a nickname for the conference room in their Fountain Valley offices.
The text had been sent to the whole staff. No one expected good news from the all-hands meeting, especially following the last round of cuts at the alt weekly in October, and the general climate in an industry wracked by existential questions about profit and survival. Still, San Roman wasn’t expecting an immediate end for the outlet, which had been raising hell and breaking news in Orange County for nearly a quarter-century.
But that’s exactly what happened when the editorial, production and sales staff gathered in the conference room that Monday morning.
The group received layoff packets with information about applying for unemployment and learned that they wouldn’t be receiving a severance.
“We headed into the holiday weekend unemployed,” he said.
In keeping with the broader narrative (read: slow demise) of alternative newspapers around the country, OC Weekly’s story had been far from rosy for a while now.
The newsweekly, which was founded in 1995, had been offloaded from Voice Media Group to local publisher Duncan McIntosh in 2016. The next year, OC Weekly’s editor Gustavo Arellano, who is now a features writer for The Times, very publicly resigned.
Arellano, who had long served as the public face of the outlet, said that he had quit rather cut half the paper’s staff, which he said he had been asked to do. But even in its reduced form, OC Weekly remained the leading alternative voice in the region. And the digging that previously exposed misconduct at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office continued.
More than anything, it held a mirror to the culture, chaos and complexities of a metropolitan area that is home to more than 3 million people and has been majority-minority since 2004. Theirs was not the Orange County of Nixon or Newport, or even the place reflected in the Orange County Register.
“The OC Register was always a chronicler of the official Orange County: White, rich, Republican, suburban,” said Arellano, who is himself an Orange County native. “The OC Weekly was a chronicler of everything else. And really, the freaks and geeks, which in this case is the Mexicans, the Muslims, the Vietnamese, the young people, the LGBT folks — all of these communities that did not ‘belong’ in Orange County according to its lords — found a home in the pages of the OC Weekly.”
The OC Weekly detailed an Orange County far from the mainstream. But to fully understand why the Weekly closing is such a tragedy, one also has to understand something about Orange County from the early 1990s.
When the Weekly was founded, Orange County was one of the most covered places in America. Not only was the Register thriving, but The Times also had a massive Orange County bureau led by Marty Baron, who now helms the Washington Post and is one of the few newspaper editors to have become a more or less household name in the decades that followed.
There was an intense newspaper war being waged between the Register and Times. Both papers had hundreds of staffers covering Orange County communities and fighting for scoops. The Register prided itself on having at least one story from every Orange County community in each day’s paper. The Times tried to connect O.C. to the rest of the world with in-depth stories. Both scored big scoops.
The rivalry was so heated that it once actually turned physical, or what one Times staffer called “bare-knuckles” tactics, as covered in the national press.
OC Weekly came to be during a golden age of newspapers, in a community that could support not one but two huge papers, plus a blooming alternative weekly.
But you already know how this story goes. The fortunes of newspapers turned dark, and the institutions that once brawled for competing scoops have crumbled into shadows of their former selves.
In that 1990s era of thriving coverage, reporters were keeping an eye of dozens of cities, school districts, planning boards and other government agencies. Today, the Register is a fraction of what it once was, and the Times has slashed its Orange County coverage even more dramatically.
When Baron took over the Orange County Edition of the Times in 1993, two years before the founding of OC Weekly, the Times Orange County edition had a staff of 200 reporters, editors, artists and photographers. Now, most of the coverage is provided by The Times’ small community news arm.
There is still some great journalism coming out of Orange County, such as the Register’s groundbreaking expose of abuse in USA Swimming, dogged muckraking from OC Weekly and nonprofit newsroom the Voice of OC, and Times narratives blockbusters including Framed, Dirty John and Detective Trapp.
But there is simply less and less of it. Even as the region as continued to soar in size, the number of reporters there has plummeted. And it’s hard to imagine what important stories are not being told, both in Orange County and elsewhere, with far fewer reporters blanketing city halls and out in communities.
This is, of course, a national problem. The U.S. has lost nearly 1,800 papers since 2004, including more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies, according to a 2018 study published by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism. An increasing number of communities, including the 3 million person metropolis of Orange County, are at risk of becoming news deserts.
And the problem is actually worse than it seems at first glance. As newspaper chains consolidate resources and private equity vultures circle, an increasing number of papers remain in name only, as community coverage disappears and content is circulated from paper to paper across a wider network of titles. (The UNC study calls these shells “ghost” newspapers.)
In a depressingly rich bout of irony, this year Facebook — which, along with Google accounts for half of the advertising duopoly that helped vacuum away profits from many local papers — released its own research on news deserts. The tech giant announced that, in many places across the country, it was having trouble finding enough local news to populate an aggregation tool it was launching.
With fewer overall reporters, there is also inherently less coverage of diverse communities, which is one of the areas where OC Weekly excelled. Arellano said that diversity wasn’t just reflected in the stories OC Weekly told, but, increasingly over the years, in the people doing the writing — telling the stories of their own communities through the Weekly’s pages.
The loss of OC Weekly’s irreverent, aggressive, original coverage is a tragedy in its own right.
But the loss is that much starker when it’s seen in the broader context of what used to be, both in Orange County and across the nation.
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