This week will mark my third anniversary as editor here at the Register. If you’d showed me then the job I’m doing today, I’d have hardly believed it. It’s like we’ve compressed a decade or more of change into just a couple of years.
Some of the change is fairly technical – how the pages are designed and produced, for example, has changed completely in ways that are mostly invisible to readers (though it has resulted in some interesting improvements in the appearance of the paper, which some sharp-eyed readers have noticed).
But some is quite obvious.
The big one is our office. Anyone who has visited our new office will know that it is clean, modern, and almost entirely unlike the industrial building we formerly occupied. Without a press in the building (remember that we’re printing now at the press owned by the Press Democrat in Sonoma County), the last vestige of the mechanical, blue-collar nature of newspapers is gone.
Along with that is our website. When I started it was a fairly static, old-fashioned affair. We reorganized it, brought in more national content that formerly was confined only to the printed page. It’s more dynamic now, photo-oriented and nimble. And we’re getting ready for some more changes this year that will make it even more friendly to smartphones and tablets, which are increasingly the dominant way people look at news sites.
Our staff has changed too. We’re a smaller group now than ever before, but we’re doing more. About a third of staff have come on board in the last three years, creating an interesting mix of Napa natives, newcomers, promising up-and-coming journalists and experienced veterans. It’s a team I am proud to work with in the face of the many challenges journalism faces.
The kinds of things we cover have changed as well. We’ve added a reporter to cover wine as a business and a feature of county life. We’ve changed the way we look at crime and public safety, moving away from the minor arrest-of-the-day and toward some more substantive stories about the way we keep our community safe. We’ve kept a strong focus on local sports and raised the profile of stories about local businesses and restaurants (our web traffic proves that you like those kinds of stories a lot).
A lot of the speed of this change was the result of the 2014 earthquake, which forced us out of our old quarters and pretty much blew up any notion of “the way we’ve always done it.” The things we have done are things we would have done anyway eventually, but the earthquake forced us to shed a lot of physical and psychic baggage that would have made the process slower.
Our Publisher Brenda Speth likes to say that the new Napa Valley Register that has emerged in the last 12 to 18 months offers a glimpse at what newsrooms of the future will look like: sleek, digital, focused tightly on local news.
This is not to say it has been easy or perfect. We’re still struggling with the long-term changes in the way news organizations pay for themselves (and news gathering is fantastically expensive), so it means our staff is smaller and tighter than ever, which makes it hard to be as comprehensive and nimble as we’d like.
Meanwhile, the technology of news is changing so fast that it is hard to keep up. Social media platforms come, go, and evolve at lighting speed. Consumer tastes change rapidly, meaning a major web redesign we did a year ago is already ripe for an update.
So it’s a work in progress. I can’t predict what the Register will look like on my sixth anniversary any more than I could predict what today would look like when I walked in the door in April of 2014.
I do, however, have a good feeling about how this place will look on this day in three years. It seems like the worst is over for newspapers economically. Our revenue is good and people, readers and advertisers alike, are excited about both the printed paper and the website.
Our brave little staff team is happy and productive and we’re hearing good feedback from readers. Year-over-year readership is up in print, online and mobile.
I am excited about the future, whatever it may be.