Jackie Bryant Builds a Platform: The News Will Never Be the Same Print E-mail

20220126(San Diego Reader January 26, 2022)

It’s been a couple years since City Beat, a Reader-like junior of local news, irreverent columns, and cultural coverage went silent. The rag disappeared after a cascade of events: Times Media Group in Arizona purchased the publication, fired the editor, reset the weekly to a monthly, cut an Uber-load of writers, shrunk the pages and the ad space, and eventually “paused” the enterprise as Covid roared to life. A death by many front-office cuts. Their erstwhile marijuana columnist, Jackie Bryant, known in weed world as the Cannabitch, told me that the suits who took over struck her as a lot of “visionless losers who couldn’t put out a good paper to save their lives.”

Bryant is an acerbically talented writer and long-time San Diego freelancer. She’s published in San Diego Magazine, Voice of San Diego, Modern Luxury San Diego as well as Harper’s BAZAAR and Forbes. In the rubble of City Beat, she retooled her Cannabitch identity as a blog on Substack, a subscription-based newsletter that takes ten percent of the kitty. Bryant has built a career as a cannabis reporter—“product reviews, stoner culture, marijuana lifestyle, even criminal justice around weed”—writing with fact and flair and getting paid about a subject she loves. With legalization and booming sales, discerning pot consumers love her back.

Welcome to the new world of niche journalism where self-publishing and sponsorships, experts and advertisers, journalists and citizens are birthing new forms of reportage. As your faithful Reader newshound since the late 1990s, I’ve been monitoring these changes from the inside out, wondering where the bouncing ball of a writer’s audience is going. Bryant’s combo of intense reporting and personal narrative provide abundant clues. Her work fuses the playful with the serious. She features her try-anything credo with cannabis (check out her piece, “Bottoms up!” on CBD suppositories), interviews with the best-known extractors and smokers, and sharp analysis of the $50 billion business and oversubscribed highlife of marijuana: You may be shocked: lots of dopers read.

For Bryant, the community pub, the weekly rag, the lifestyle mag, many of whom she’s regularly gigged on “drug culture,” food, travel, whatnot, all but ceased publication in 2020, (no) thanks to the pandemic. So she got busy platforming her clever reads and cleverer placement, which, in turn, told paying outlets they should hire her and her “expert” perspective. Of late, Bryant is cashing in on her cred.

I’m fascinated by this cash cow. I’m also drawn to the fast-shifting technology between information and who decides how it gets presented—once the domain of publisher/editor increasingly now relinquishing some control to the writer/customer. (More shortly on the customer’s role.) As every screen-scroller knows, digital space features glitzy animation and mendacious lures for individuals and news groups to shape content, a word that now ensnares anything from the novel-in-tweets to YouTube wormholes to Bitcoin bets, their virality their reason for their (continued) being. Content is not about what you get but how more of the what you get keeps you coming back to get more of what you just got like breakfast at the Golden Corral.

These addictive content loops are convulsing traditional outlets like community papers and smartly entrepreneurial ventures; they are moving at bullet-train speed, fraught with as many opportunities as problems. In Jackie Bryant’s case, her rubbery range and effervescent style has proven to draw readers and advertisers. “I’m very not shy,” she says of her self-promotion, “very aggressive in fact.” But the cracks have already appeared. Her work schedule, many offers to write, disrupts her sleep: “My mental health is not 100 percent.” She spends days, evenings, and whatever’s left over, blustering on Instagram and Twitter, building her brand, to coin a phrase.

“This”—working all the time—“could be the future of local news,” she notes, “but I don’t think it should be. It gives me freedom but it’s very exploitative; journalism is a sick place to be right now. Who has more job security, a staffer or a freelancer? I don’t have the editorial support other journalists, on staff, have. I don’t have the legal protections.”

Endless self-marketing of one’s work and platform is “not good long term,” Bryant goes on. “We need newsrooms; we need good structures. Ad-based models must play their part.” And yet these days a writer’s self-publicizing and niche appeal has become as important as tracking—and trusting—who publishes her, especially if much of that has devolved to herself.

News and Its Public Calling

It’s generally assumed that “the news” should be informative, objective, and, in the internet age, freely available. Another pillar: reporting is a calling—“to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Maybe this was true in the days of Ida Tarbell, who took on Standard Oil and kneecapped its monopoly. But today, most all news (throw in opinion and press releases) is need-driven, that is, stuff readers want (or writers/publishers feed them as want). Online, with news and ads, the goal is to boost a site’s SEO or search engine optimization on Google. More cynically, reporters, as movie directors cast us, are lowlifes who gather in a frenzied mob to confront celebrities outside courtrooms and yell scandalous charges. However, a worsening trend than the sleazy reporter or the site that traffics in “You News” is when the business becomes a commodity to be bought and sold in ways the no-attention attention economy demands.

Both Bryant and Dean Nelson, long-time journalism professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, echo the David Byrne song, “Same As It Ever Was.” The news is first and last a business, a capitalist enterprise that cannot be uncoupled from a paying audience. Nelson says nothing’s new; there’s always been stories about “two-headed aliens. The people who produce [such trash] realize there’s more money in that. But, remember, they aren’t committing journalism. They’re committing capitalism.” Proof of the competitive purge is commonly known: Since 2008, U.S. newspapers have lost two-thirds of their revenue and laid off half of their staffs.

Among the new news operations locally is Times of San Diego whose independent coverage runs on a shoestring. Editor Chris Jennewein tells me that he can’t pay for opinion pieces (I know; I’ve written more than a few). With a small paid staff, his layout for constantly jiggling ads is pleasingly nonoperational. The same is true at Voice of San Diego and inewsource, the latter an investigative site that is wholly donor-supported. Editor Mark Robertson says in an email, “We don’t engage with sponsored- or reader-generated content. Everything we publish is staff-researched, vetted and fact-checked, which is why we can guarantee readers our stories are free of bias or partisan viewpoint.”

And then there’s the San Diego Union-Tribune, struggling with annual drops of 14 percent in their print subscription base. Last October, editor Jeff Light said the business was stable, and that 2020 digital-only subscriptions bounced up by 40,000. But take a look at the price of print vs. digital subscriptions: print costs $260 a year, which includes “unlimited digital access,” while unlimited digital access goes on sale, periodically, for $116. Reading online will be the new normal. But digital sales, to sustain print’s revenue, must grow 50 percent or more per year. This is a good example of how a news site, just to stay profitable, may migrate from staff-paid to user-paid.

Any wonder when daily newspapers cannot make it on advertising and readership that city dailies like the UT seek free content with contests and calls for submissions? During the recent holiday season, the UT filled some of its editorial pages with reader-sent “essays,” 500 words or less, on subjects like “Holiday Movies” and “Best Books of 2021.” About this I queried Laura Castaneda, community opinion editor at the UT. She says the paper doesn’t pay for photos, commentary, citizen journalism, cartoon-caption winners, or recipes. For writers to be published in the UT, she explains in an email, that when UT publication is “good for clips.” Writers who submit work elsewhere show their chops with previous pubs: a major daily newspaper is a feather in your cap.

But this no-pay trend—Welcome Interns!—is more than a bit elicit. Not only is the news subscriber helping keep print and digital papers alive, but the aspiring writer among those subscribers is also summoned to add meaningful content under the banner of “community voices.” It’s a weird consumer-centric sponsorship of what’s published, a double dip into their pocket and their unpaid time.

Whose Content Are We Reading?

Covid is the mother of self-enterprising content. Newspeople I spoke with (several off the record) noted that the pandemic roughed up staffs who were on thinly paid ice anyway. First, some sponsors paused or jumped ship, fewer stories and pages were published, and writers, many of whom were not on staff, got laid off. Second, those businesses who continued to buy ads kept a good many presses from going under.

As a result, some loyal ad-buyers got special treatment either in a story or, more likely, in an ad’s placement. That pattern was there pre-Covid in the ubiquitous “Best Of” issues: best music venues, best food trucks, best surf spots. We see these reader-favored issues annually, consult them to make choices. (Except in Esquire have I seen a “Worst Of” feature. The five worst Mexican restaurants in San Diego would be a news outlet’s suicide.)

Dwindling ad revenue has meant old and new publishers must, to survive, become donor-supported or create news-like sections that draw advertisers to special digital layouts of the new internet manna: “sponsored content” and “paid posts.”

Julie Main publishers eight local newspapers (print and digital) and knows the deadline pressures of the business. Her San Diego Community Newspaper Group, independently-owned sites in coastal and inland communities, from Pacific Beach to La Mesa, share what she describes as “mixed zones” of coverage and sales. There is timely news published on her sites, some enterprising stories. But Covid flat-tired that ride. “My team’s hours were cut during the pandemic,” Main tells me, “and a lot of my freelancers volunteered their work; everybody was very forgiving.” She’s rehired most of the staff, writers and sellers, and is paying them again.

Publishers run the business and hire newspeople to operate the news or editorial side. Her aggregate of publications is expanding via another larger news group, the Southern California Community Media Network, a collective of nineteen newspapers from Newport Beach to Point Loma. Some in this cohort follow the luxury travel beat and the high-end home market, lifestyle ad parks for the glossy freebie. Main’s papers share layout, printing, and delivery costs as well as regional advertisers. Her push to grow coupled with the loss of print subscriptions at the UT is, she believes, making her corner of the news biz more competitive. A bit of a paradox. The UT reflects a shrinking news community while neighborhood papers and platforms, news groups and bloggers, speak to the region’s ethnic and cultural diversity.

At sdnews.com, a catchall for Main’s publications, advertising content seems to outpace the reporting. Under “expert advice,” for instance, I find the listicle, “John Gomez at Gomez trial attorneys answers top questions about collision.” The title is lathered with self-puffery: Who but John Gomez is asking John Gomez what John Gomez thinks are the “top questions” people who, post-collision, need a “trial attorney.” Is it news? Of a John-Gomez sort. But it’s the sort that unabashedly burnishes its author’s repute: He and his team “have secured millions” for clients; he got the family of CTE-ravaged Junior Seau a huge award from the NFL; he specializes in “traumatic brain injuries”; and more chest medals for the Gomez’s victories.

His column epitomizes content sdnews.com is paid to run by self-qualifying experts who also produce the copy. Absent is a reporter’s filter or a fact-checker; the hype is printed as delivered, laissez-faire, buyer-beware, pay-to-play. Such variants of the me-my-mine kind are viralizing news/ad-frantic websites everywhere.

Main’s response to the ad/article overlap is squishy. She says her news group has been “inundated” with requests from potential advertisers who troll for a quid pro quo, far more than, despite the income, she’s willing to use. “We say no to any adult content, alcohol, clubbing, gambling posts. We do try to clarify that it’s not submitted by us, the newspaper.” But name brands, even locally, will pay well to populate your site with their videos and matching articles once you demonstrate that your site has a geographic reach and a substantive click-rate.

I ask Main if she thinks readers may be led astray by what passes for news-like dumps of self-promotion. She says, “Readers of community papers are sophisticated enough to know it is what it is. But not everybody will.” An article appearing online doesn’t mean “it’s one hundred percent the truth,” she adds. I don’t think sponsored content has to be misleading. But it seems ethically mired in the rapaciousness with which it comes at us, a big dog on a short chain. It puts a greater onus than ever on consumers who must size up the source of their news, who already see the business as easy to game, and who feel editors have abandoned their titular role.

Creating a Health and Wellness Beat

The advertorial or product-oriented news article is a necessary survival tool in the digital news space or a deceptive mix of ad and article most editors and reporters disdain. Publishers have transformed the once-modest self-plug into a major source of income, obviously for many papers, badly needed. The word’s slippery usage initiated a discussion I had with Chris Kydd, associate publisher at Coast News, whose father began the weekly paper in his Encinitas garage in 1987.

Recently, Kydd started a “Health and Wellness” section. Its pitch intends “to contribute to public health in North county.” Appearing monthly, it’s bracketed by an informercial disclaimer: “. . . articles, posts, columns, graphics, and advertisements are provided ‘as is’ and for general information only. The Coast News is not a medical organization and our staff and contributors cannot give you medical advice or diagnosis.”

Kydd says that after health-focused publications like The Light Connection went under, he hunted up their advertisers. His idea was “to curate content to anchor the health section, so we could sell ads into it.” The spots he sought from businesses emphasized the feelgood, the positive, “news you can use,” medical advice from established practitioners who provide the copy and the check. Dr. Kern Brar, a Tri-City hospital internal medicine physician, paid Coast News $400 for his December homily, “Holiday weight-loss tips.”

Exploring the site, I find the column, “Tri-City Hospital is a beacon for community health,” written by Steve Dietlin, the president of Tri-City Medical Center. Next to it is an ad for Tri-City, a masked surgeon, the intensity of his skill labored in his eyes. I suggest to Kydd this seems like a quid pro quo. But Kydd says I’m wrong. The Tri-City ad pops up everywhere on the site—and why not: The hospital is one the biggest employers and advertisers in North County. The two are joined at the hip. Still, I’m not sure readers can distinguish a column, as it’s labeled, from a news article, a puff piece, a press release, interchangeable bylines, whether authored by “coast news staff,” “advertising,” or “Dr. ____.”

I asked Tri-City’s Aaron Byzak, chief external affairs officer, what the hospital hopes to gain by using Coast News for its paid post. He replied, “Tri-City Medical Center advertises and places advertorials in both print and digital form in a variety of magazines, newspapers, newsletters and websites to elevate awareness about our high-quality clinical programs and services. The location of paid ads and advertorials is agreed upon with the publication. We also periodically submit non-advertising content authored by our clinicians and administrative leaders for opinion/editorial sections and other special columns to educate readers/viewers about matters related to health, wellness and community partnerships, including the recent piece authored by our CEO. Under these circumstances, we do not arrange for or control where content is placed as it is at the discretion of the publication.”

I quote the whole text because it’s careful and capacious wording points to multiple ways Tri-City is given exposure in the paper on its terms—the expertise of its doctor corps. Tri-City’s advertorials laud their “high-quality clinical programs and services” as well as create “non-advertising content” for educational ends. Is this wise for a newspaper to sell the critical and educational function to its readers with Coast News’ circulation topping 100,000? Kydd says he’s aware just how contentious the news and the ad sides of a paper can get. “I care deeply about getting this right,” he says. He’s known reporters who’ve quit because news and advertising have been caught too often in the same bed. Of the “Health and Wellness” rollout, he admits, “It was a bit sloppy.” He wants to clean up the section so “what’s inappropriately placed should be explicitly labeled as such.” He’s told his team to correctly label all paid content paid as the new year turns.

Another long-time Coast News’ feature is “Marketplace News (Sponsored Content).” This page churns with lifestyles stories and cultural events, authored by Kydd or by “advertising.” Again, at first glance, I can’t tell what’s news and what’s an ad. He says the print version of “Marketplace News” states on the headers, “advertisement.” A print layout doesn’t buzz; text is readable since it’s separate from display ads.

But the online shared ad space is chaotic: ads flash on the sides, ads creep up from the bottom, ads drop down from the top, as if the text we read is, counterproductively, destabilizing itself. Advertorials hit a tipping point of profusion, perhaps taking advantage of readers’ isolation during Covid. The result is, their busyness compromises their attentional lure. How is that which stupefies the reader good, in equal measure, for ad buyers and papers?

Advertorial Avoidant

Seeking local journalists with a passion for their subject and an income-generating platform to boot, I come upon Beth Demmon. In 2008, Demmon, who began her career with a local food blog, a hobby, “just for fun,” signed on with the Wild-West drive into craft beer. She became a beer writer with City Beat, along with Andrew Dyer, now at the Union-Tribune.

Growing her writerly brand, she began her own Substack, reminiscent of Cannabitch. Demmon’s is Prohibitchin’, which I’ll discuss in a moment. “If you’re a beer writer,” I ask her, “you gotta imbibe, correct?” I ask. Yes, she imbibes, but it’s with discernment. She’s built her “palette credibility” over the past two years by graduating from the Beer Judging Certification Program—a license to sip and write as it were. “I got a high enough score on my tasting exam to apply for a national ranking. I’m also a Certified Cider Professional.”

She eschews product reviews and brewery openings and instead covers the culture, the lifestyle, and the fraught glamour of brewery work. She likes to cover “how concepts like diversity, equity, and inclusion are being implemented within the craft beer space—and how they’re not.” An example is a very smart piece, published at Goodbeerhunting.com, “Work, Worth, and Wreckage—When Your Job Is Your Life, What Happens When You Lose It?”

The article probes the subtlety with which beer work controls one’s life and often requires an exit strategy. Demmon writes of the existential dead end some brewers wake up to one day, their beer career gone flat. She calls the life “a very community- and social-driven culture.” How do individuals stay sane in the nightlife go-round of brands, affability, and carefully regulated quaffing? The 3000-word piece quotes several “rudderless” people who are locked into a lifestyle-become-a-crutch, if not a religion. It’s Camus-like in its institutional choicelessness: If you too long, you will over-party. What good are you and your writing tomorrow? The coolness apparently quite seductive in beer jobs overtakes a lot of the unsuspecting.

Some 8000 breweries comprise the American craft beer industry, 150 of them in San Diego county. Though she could, Demmon refuses to speak for any of them. Instead, she emphasizes her concerns—“social justice” issues, women, and “nonbinary and gender nonconforming person(s).” At her Substack Prohibitchin’ site, she profiles those who’ve been left behind, left underpaid, kept back by the “flannel-wearing, bearded guys [drinking] in the heart of North Park,” a white-male establishment as buddy-buddy as a fraternity. In the beer demographic, women have clout, pinched to be sure, only in the “nonmanagerial, front-of-house staffs, that is, beer tenders.” Three of four owners are men. One percent are Black. Rarer still is an LGBTQ brewer.

The check please: Hopsbauer, “a woman-owned hops brokerage company” in North County, pays Demmon to write about the under-covered female part of beer culture. She notes that her Prohibitchin’ columns have “no advertorial strings-attached.” Liz Bauer, her sponsor, “has no say in what I write, no say in who I talk to; I write my piece and she sends me an invoice. Does that make me feel less credible? Absolutely not.” Demmon says Bauer recognizes her tart voice and her trenchant viewpoints, which, taken together, garner readers’ trust. Such will be the kind of alternative journalism we need (and I prefer) once print finally dies. That model must live via donor- or sponsor-supported. Sad to say that writers will always write for free but they’re liable to produce drivel.

From Self-Enterprising to Citizen Journalist

In the 1970s, Frank Gormlie edited the radical O.B. Rag for seven years, a decent press-run of 10,000 copies every two weeks. A generation-skipping lag passed until 2007 when he and his wife, Patty Jones, resurrected the Rag as a digital blog. Gormlie tells me that in the interim between the pubs people told him, time and again, they “craved” the hyperlocal brew of “grassroots and progressive” perspectives in Ocean Beach he was semi-famous for. He got busy and brought the Rag back. Indeed, the hunger for O.B. news seems biblically endowed as the town is forever fighting to retain its funk against the predators from downtown.

Of late, the Rag’s record as an effective news group includes saving the O.B. library and the iconic beach firepits as well as reviving, briefly, the San Diego Free Press. Does his staff of five earn a living? Gormlie laughs, and says, “Yeah, we pay them—a pittance,” a term the OED defines as a “pious donation to a religious order.” Still, the Rag, he says, retains one reporter who covers the O.B. planning committee where, voter approval or not, the 2020 Sports Arena redevelopment project is undergoing serious birth pangs.

Gormlie sees the Rag inspiring more investigate reporting of this kind from its competitors. He names the Peninsula Beacon, part of Julie Main’s publishing group, and the Point Loma-OB Monthly. He wishes they’d reciprocate the Rag’s local bias. But they don’t or won’t. One recent story that lit up O.B. was Geoff Page’s video interviews about the pier, its rot and accelerating droop. A City of San Diego report highlighting the pier’s deterioration, done in 2004 under Mayor Sanders, was shelved but now, with the Rag’s due diligence, is finally scheduled for repairs. This is an “emergency” temporary fix that includes neither the $8.6 million designated by the state for repairs or the estimated $30 to $60 million to adequately rebuild the structure.

Most of the flood of requests he gets for sponsored content Gormlie deletes. Little is legit or has anything to do with O.B. But they do pay, I remind him. He’s not interested in bargaining with the advertorial devil. He’s blog-centric, encouraging the citizen journalist, people with cellphones, tape recorders, and notepads to report what they see and hear. An informed citizenry who cares what happens block by block appeals to Gormlie as it does to Dean Nelson.

Nelson tells me that the citizen journalist (neither of us is sure about the name) “is necessary. We wouldn’t know as much as we do about the stampede at Astro World,” in which ten people died, “if there weren’t cellphones. Or Tahir Square, if there weren’t these nontrained folks, watching and recording.” Nelson says that its usefulness comes only when it’s sufficiently “crowd-sourced,” that there’s a quantity of gathered coverage and a news organization canny enough to establish a “trustworthy narrative.”

Gormlie also likes this model—a collaboration between news collectors and synthesizers, the reporter/witness and the writer/editor. As such this raises another link between community news and its readers, which is vital to promoting confidence in user-generated digital media. “A story,” Gormlie says, “is not finished until it’s commented on.” Readers’ distillation of news—and not just their consumption—is key. “We rely on our readers to fill in the gaps, correct us, or, God forbid, criticize us, ultimately, to help us understand our role.”

He also notes that the Rag, with little ad revenue, cannot survive without an activist audience. It’s a good thing, he notes, that “we don’t have advertisers who’d be upset” about a particular civic position and withdraw their support. Case in point, the site led the charge to get rid of the business-friendly Lorie Zapf in O.B.’s council district, replacing her with the putative labor-supporter Jen Campbell who turned out to be “just as bad” and whom the Rag and others tried and failed to get recalled. Gormlie laughs heartily at the irony.

Backing candidates online is a version of careful what you wish for: the community your community newspaper may seek to reflect may not always be the community you think it is or should be. The kind of authentic local news groups that needs support are those whose back-and-forth between producers and consumers help clarify the intentions of both and, if possible, cast out the self-interested trolls. I don’t see where else such integrity will come from except in the hand-to-mouth, ad-avoidant, ethically-conscious alternative media.