The Newspaper Business

From just a year or 2 from the 1849 gold rush, Sacramento was a 2 newspaper town. Well, 2 that I know of that survived.

Actually there were up to 60 newspapers but only 2 survived.

Mark Twain, in his classic book Roughing It, honed his writing craft first at Virginia City NV, working for the Territorial Enterprise, then at Sacramento, working for the Sacramento Union.

In that book, he is known for his quip about San Francisco weather, writing that “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco“.  Less remembered was his observation of Sacramento weather:

“In Sacramento it is fiery summer always, and you can gather roses, and eat strawberries and ice cream, and wear white linen clothes, and pant and perspire, at eight or nine o’clock in the morning, and then take the cars, and at noon put on your furs and your skates, and go skimming over frozen Donner Lake…There is transition for you! Where will you find another like it in the western hemisphere?”  

He also compared Sacramento summers to Hades.

He was not wrong. Although some, when comparing our summers to, say, Houston, will say that it is a “dry heat”. And some wag retorted, “so is an oven”.

Anyway, the Sacramento Union started in 1851, 2 years after James Marshall discovered gold at Coloma just “up the hill”.

Founded in 1851, “The Sacramento Union” was the oldest daily newspaper west of the Mississippi, and ran for 143 years until it closed its doors in 1994. Since then, there have been multiple attempts to revive the brand, with varying degrees of success. In 2000, the surviving company archives were donated to the library at UC Davis. The publication is notable because of its historical significance and its many famous contributors.

Six years later, in 1857, the Sacramento Bee started.

The Union was the conservative paper, while the Bee was (and is) more towards the left.

The reason that the Union disappeared was because of the Bee. The Bee was traditionally an evening paper, while the Union was the morning paper. There used to be a number of evening papers in the country; I believe they are pretty much extinct.

Some years ago the Bee became a morning paper, and there wasn’t room for 2 morning papers.

Anyway, now the Bee may be on the way out.

McClatchy Co., the second-largest U.S. newspaper group by circulation, filed for bankruptcy protection, a move that comes as the nation’s newspaper industry is struggling to cope with a sharp decline in print advertising and the challenges of building a robust digital business.

The move is expected to put an end to the McClatchy family’s 163-yearlong control over the publisher, and turn the hedge fund behind the current owner of the National Enquirer into its top shareholder.

McClatchy, the publisher of the Miami Herald, Sacramento Bee, Kansas City Star and other well-known newspapers, has struggled under a heavy debt load since its ill-timed $4.5 billion acquisition of Knight Ridder in 2006—a stretch during which its stock price plunged from $496 to 75 cents.

McClatchy on Thursday said it initiated a chapter 11 restructuring in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York. If a tentative agreement with creditors is approved by the court, the McClatchy family would lose control of the business it founded in 1857, while its main debtholder, Chatham Asset Management LLC, would become its primary shareholder.

Certainly advertising loss has hit all newspapers. Don’t know the truth of it, but I remember reading that classifieds were a paper’s biggest moneymaker.

Remember how expensive it was just to have 3 lines of an ad, and how careful you’d be in wording and abbreviations just to eliminate extra lines?

Now there’s Craigslist.

But I think the Bee’s biggest mistake was purchasing Knight-Ritter.  They took on billions in debt, then had to sell off the “crown jewels”, such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, to service the debt.

I have a good friend who worked there for many years, and he told me of a time when years ago, the then editor, Eleanor McClatchy, would “hold court” during lunch at the company cafeteria, and if you had a problem or an issue, you sat down with her and had lunch together.

Those days are long gone.

The Bee has been physically shrinking in number of pages and local coverage over the last few years, but I will lament its passing if that comes.

We need newspapers.

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