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Still here: New Times publishers talk about how the news business has changed in 35 years and weathering the pandemic 

click to enlarge OLD SCHOOL The first New Times ever published came together with the help of this Mac from 1986, which still hangs around the office.

Photo By Jayson Mellom; Illustration By Alex Zuniga

OLD SCHOOL The first New Times ever published came together with the help of this Mac from 1986, which still hangs around the office.

During the darkest days of COVID-19 in 2020, New Times publisher Alex Zuniga was often one of the only staff members in the paper's downtown office in San Luis Obispo, putting the finishing touches on another lean pandemic issue.

In an odd way, the scene looked a bit like Zuniga's first days and weeks at New Times back in the summer of 1986, when founder Steve Moss invited the new Cal Poly grad to help him produce the paper's inaugural issue out of Moss' apartment.

"I came in semi last-minute," said Zuniga, who would quickly take the helm as the paper's art director and keep that title for good. "We had one of the original Macintoshes and we had one printer. He [Moss] would write the stories and print them out. And then I would typeset. We'd print, wax, cut, and build on boards."

click to enlarge STARTING A CAREER Alex Zuniga (pictured), fresh out of Cal Poly, served as the original art director for New Times when it started in 1986. Today, he's the paper's co-owner and publisher. - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF ALEX ZUNIGA
  • File Photo Courtesy Of Alex Zuniga
  • STARTING A CAREER Alex Zuniga (pictured), fresh out of Cal Poly, served as the original art director for New Times when it started in 1986. Today, he's the paper's co-owner and publisher.

Thirty-five years ago, it took a handful of scrappy, stubborn dreamers to bring New Times into existence. Last year, it took the same to keep New Times publishing through a once-a-century pandemic, which put many alternative local newspapers just like this one out of business.

In the low moments of 2020, when advertising revenue dropped by as much as 70 percent, Zuniga would think about conversations he had last year with friends and community members that made him "believe people really did want us out there."

"That's one of the things that helped me kind of get over sometimes the depression of 2020, being in this office with only two or three other people, and it's just total darkness and we're putting the paper out," Zuniga said. "We would run into people who would ask, 'How are things going?' And they'd just assume we would be around. [They'd say] 'You guys are a mainstay. You'll be around. You'll be fine.' They just couldn't envision not having New Times, basically. People would just have this confidence. You're going to do it. We need you guys."

While that sentiment certainly came as a morale boost, the fact remained that New Times is just another small business—a small media business, at that—as vulnerable as any. Despite COVID-19 pushing New Times and its sister paper, the Santa Maria Sun, to their limits, co-publisher Bob Rucker said he never felt like the 35-year run was coming to an end.

"I never thought this was it," said Rucker, who joined New Times as a salesman in the '90s and took over as a publisher in 2005 following Moss' death. "My biggest stress points were when we were applying for PPP loans and just ... were they coming? It's all brand new."

The PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans did come through for New Times. So did a few grants and donations. Now, on the paper's 35th birthday, New Times is on a much steadier course than it was a year ago, according to its owners. While the paper's size and circulation are still down by about one-third and staffing is not back to full strength yet, the trends are pointing up.

"We're getting there slowly," Rucker said. "Everybody's trying to dig out of this hole, and it still doesn't translate back to the normal advertising schedule. We have to wait until businesses level out a little bit."

Non-avid readers of New Times may not have even noticed the economic hit that the pandemic levied, and that's likely because despite taking 10,000 papers off the streets of SLO County last year, New Times is still the highest circulating print publication in the county, at 25,000 copies per week.

"We're three times bigger than any print product out there," Rucker said.

That fact points directly back to Rucker and Zuniga's philosophy on print. In an age when news and media are rapidly moving onto digital and web-based platforms, Rucker and Zuniga have doubled down on a print bet.

click to enlarge THE FIRST COVER New Times' cover design has changed over the years, but its content has remained dedicated to local news and arts. - PHOTO BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • Photo By Alex Zuniga
  • THE FIRST COVER New Times' cover design has changed over the years, but its content has remained dedicated to local news and arts.

Both publishers spoke about how they believe a "tangible" New Times out on street corners, in cafes, and at people's fingertips is the best and most intimate way to connect with the community, especially when the community has grown accustomed to that model.

"We do what we do best, which is print," Zuniga said. "Even when we did other ventures, it's always been, well, we're not going to mess with the print product.

"Our advantage has always been because our market is unique, we're in a position to be hyper local," he added. "And nobody can get that information around [elsewhere]."

A talented graphic designer, Zuniga is passionate about elevating the paper's look and holding it to a high design standard, for the benefit of both the reader and the advertiser.

"That's one of the things that's different from when we started," Zuniga noted, "is not only did I want to design and create editorial things, but elevate the ad design too. We're basically an ad agency for these advertisers, giving them free ad design."

For Rucker, the decision to stick with print is also somewhat personal. Print sales are what he's done and thrived on his whole career, starting at the Santa Barbara Independent.

"For me, that's what I've done forever. That's what I know, that's what I like," Rucker said. "I don't want to be in a little [computer] box sending news out as my core product. I couldn't feel it. For me, it just wouldn't work."

That's not to say the company hasn't stepped into the digital world. New Times revamped its website in 2017 and sends out an email newsletter to subscribers each Thursday. Last year, it introduced daily online COVID-19 news stories and in 2018 launched My805Tix, an online ticketing platform for local event venues.

The My805Tix service has been particularly successful, and it's at a peak in popularity right now, according to Rucker.

"The crazy thing is our ticketing is bigger than it was pre [COVID]," he said. "We've got all this growth in front of us on the ticketing side."

Despite the changing times and the evolution of New Times, the paper's mission is largely the same as it was 35 years ago, the publishers said.

"It's always been the phrase that we use ... a town center in your hand," Zuniga said. "We're shining light on those shadows and calling people out. We've always tried to do a very complete events calendar for our community. That's what our paper started on."

As New Times works to rebound out of the pandemic, it needs the community's continued support to celebrate future milestones like this. Whether that means hitting the "donate" button on the website, becoming an advertiser, or continuing to make New Times part of your Thursday morning coffee run, it all helps.

"It ties together," Rucker said. "The only thing we have for our advertisers is our readers. Read it, pass it on, share the articles, let your neighbor know, read the paper. The focus isn't really which side of the table [sales or readers], it's just to make sure we have a good editorial product. And everybody will be happy." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson is a six-year member of the scrappy New Times dream team. He can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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