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Reflecting on the IJ's Impending Move to San Rafael

Novato will miss the county's daily paper and its staff after 30 years in Pacheco Valle.

After 30 years in Novato, the Marin Independent Journal newspaper appears poised to move back to its original home of San Rafael. I was sorry to hear that, but wasn’t surprised at all.

According to several sources, the IJ is planning to uproot from its Pacheco Valle headquarters and move a few miles south now that daily and weekly publications that ran off the press are being made elsewhere. I’ve heard nothing about what will happen to the complex on Alameda del Prado, but no doubt it will be put up for sale.

A new location for the paper’s staff has not been named, but an announcement is expected in the coming weeks because the move is anticipated during the summer months, sources say.

I worked in the IJ newsroom from 1996 to 2010 with a one-year hiatus in 2000 (lots of journalists left for a “dot-com year” and boomeranged right back). I have lot of friends there and still enjoy their work every day. I feel indebted to the company for hiring me twice.

As a Novato resident, I’m just sad to see county’s daily newspaper head out of town, and I wonder about Ignacio and Hamilton businesses that might be affected by the departure.

“Obviously it is not good to have any company with 70 employees leave Novato – at any time,” said Coy Smith, CEO of the Novato Chamber of Commerce. “Anytime that occurs there is an adverse and potentially negative impact on the local economy.”

The newspaper, owned by Denver-based MediaNews Group, is celebrating its 150-year anniversary in 2011 and recently distributed a stellar tabloid section triumphing Marin’s history and the IJ’s legacy covering it all back to 1861. According to a timeline in that commemorative section, the newspaper moved its office and plant to Novato in January 1981 and about two years later started printing USA Today at the plant.

The paper, once with a staff of nearly 300 people overall, was down to about 100 employees in 2010 when USA Today announced it was ending its contract with the IJ and finding a new place to print the colorful nationwide paper. In October, MediaNews stopped the presses, laid off about two dozen employees and contracted to have the IJ printed at a plant in Concord.

I went to an outdoor ceremony at the IJ last fall to say goodbye to some longtime employees from the press building who were losing their jobs. I once had the responsibility of yelling “stop the presses!” if I saw a glaring error on a high-profile page during a final inspection. A couple of times I gave the universal “finger across the neck” sign to shut down.

Now, two of the three buildings at the IJ site are idle, and the larger office building next to Highway 101 is about half empty. Personnel cutbacks have not escaped in the IJ over the past decade despite that the paper performed much better financially than its sister publications and has been an online success from an editorial standpoint. A newsroom staff that once had more than 75 full-time positions is now under 30 because of declining revenue, and there is no editorial online editor.

“We have all been watching the newspaper industry be severely affected the explosive growth of the Internet in the past 10 years, and then by the two-year recession,” Smith said. “The Marin IJ has been a great partner in Novato for the entire community and we hope that the move to San Rafael is only a physical move and that their roots and support of Novato will continue.”

The IJ, with a paid circulation of about 28,000, has thousands of loyal readers in Novato. But those who say they can’t eat breakfast unless they have a newspaper spread out in front of them are getting older and older, and I’ve found a significant portion of those older readers don’t understand why their daily paper is getting thinner. They figure a newspaper is a critical part of a democracy, part of the sacred Fourth Estate, watchdog for the First Amendment.

Those people forget that it’s a business, too. Revenue needs to be higher than expenses for any business to survive. Giving the product away on the Internet while still making an expensive print product is not a solid business model. I have countless friends who say they read stories on www.marinij.com but don’t buy the paper.

Look at the bigger picture. Shrinking advertising sales and a slow decline in paid subscribers have led to tens of thousands of layoffs in the U.S. newspaper industry and closures at century-old dailies. Fewer businesses are buying ads in print products. More and more they’re building their own websites to promote themselves, considering ads with online media or trying direct mail ads.

It’s fair to describe the IJ move as a downsizing for MediaNews in the wake of its parent company’s bankruptcy filing in January 2010. That filing, which reduced company debt from about $930 million to $165 million, was at least the 13th bankruptcy filing by a U.S. newspaper publisher in the 13 months prior to that date, according to the Huffington Post.

In the Bay Area, the MediaNews-owned San Jose Mercury News — where I started my journalism career as a San Jose State University student — has cut more than half its staff in recent years. The San Francisco Chronicle was only weeks away from being shuttered by Hearst two years ago before heavy cost cuts spared its life, according to the website Newspaper Death Watch. The San Francisco Business Times reported that a non-scientific census of San Francisco Peninsula Press Club members found that 45 percent of the 700 journalists accepted a buyout or voluntarily left their jobs in the past 10 years.

Even though the IJ is still one of the most respected small dailies in California and continues to win awards, its impending move to San Rafael has to be considered a serious blow. It’s not fun to be part of a downsizing effort. I remember how devastated the Santa Cruz Sentinel staff was when MediaNews sold its downtown building four years ago and moved the staff into an office park in nearby Scotts Valley. Strangely enough, that move happened on the Sentinel’s 150th anniversary, too.

Novato City Councilwoman Jeanne MacLeamy, who lives in Pacheco Valle, commended the IJ for being “a great neighbor” and for contributing to many community events through the years.

“I’d definitely be sorry to see them move out of Novato, but they have to do what they have to do to survive,” she said. “It’s not personal. It’s business. In these changing times, nothing surprises me anymore. It’s been very tough for the printed word in particular. Us old school folks like to hold a paper in our hands, but times are changing.”

A a handful of IJ employees worked at the paper's former headquarters in downtown San Rafael, and this will be a homecoming for them. I hope San Rafael rolls out the red carpet.

Lynn Gleason April 27, 2011 at 02:10 PM
I also remember going to school across the street when the IJ was on 5th and B in San Rafael and watching the machinery thru the street level windows. Times have changed, I still read the IJ but look forward to my Novato Patch every morning!
Baxter April 27, 2011 at 02:59 PM
Who needs the I.J. when we have the Novato Patch!!! Just kidding. I am one of those "oldies" who needs a good cup of coffee in the morning along with the I.J. between my finger tips. If our paper boy stop delivering the I.J. to my door, I will be going through some major withdrawal. Thank goodness for the I.J. newspaper and the Novato Patch. Both news sources keep me educated and my old brain functioning!
Abe April 27, 2011 at 03:24 PM
Is the building big enough for Marin County to consider as the emergency operations building, as they are considering with the Marin Commons?
Jerry April 27, 2011 at 04:02 PM
Very sad to see them move from Novato. I recall selling them a newsphoto back in the 1960's when it was the San Rafael Independent Journal located in San Rafael. What a small dark place they lived in back then. Later I moved to Novato, and soon after found out they were too. Sorry to see them move, but I still enjoy the paper everyday and use the website from time to time as well. They'll be good for another 150 years.
Zuri April 28, 2011 at 03:27 AM
From my short time at the Marin IJ, I remember Novato as really nice place to be for a plant and for an office. But my thinking then -- almost four years ago -- was that it wasn't centrally located. I don't know why, but I tend to think newspapers should be in the thick of things and Novato was only a piece of the IJ's coverage area. I'm assuming that a move to San Rafael would mean that they are better located for the entire county. However, there is a lot of sentiment that goes into having your own building. To lose that is akin to losing a house. I'm sure every member of the IJ family feels this way. But I'm also sure that MNG does not.

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