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Print In The Digital Era – An Interview with Seth Combs from San Diego CityBeat

We live in a digital era where the future is online and available to us in an instant. The majority of our news today comes with the glow of a screen at the convenience of our fingertips, but with that said, where can we find the future of print? Newspapers, magazines and publishing companies all over the world are constantly being challenged by the latest technology; which presents the question, “is the future paperless?”

San Diego CityBeat is one of our city’s most iconic print publications, and has a strong and present voice in the community. Inside their pages, you can find a surplus of locally centered content and happenings, from art galleries, restaurants, concert reviews and current events.

Seth Combs, the editor of CityBeat, has been living in San Diego for eighteen years. His career in the company first began in 2004, at that point CityBeat had only been around for a year or two by the name we know today. It was previously called ‘Slamm,’ but when the magazine was bought by another company, it was re-branded on August 21, 2002 as ‘San Diego CityBeat.’

“I remember picking up early issues and being like, ‘oh I love this, it really speaks to me,’” says Combs. “I especially liked the music section, that’s what I wanted to write about a lot at the time, was music.” Presently, he’s now had a part in almost every editorial role that CityBeat has to offer, music, arts and culture, and now as the editor, politics. “My background isn’t in news writing so I’m having to play catch-up and immerse myself in local politics,” he explains. “That’s a beat that I haven’t historically been a part of. I don’t have all the contacts that someone at the Union Tribune who’s been working the political desk for 20 years has, so it’s been tough.”

Regardless, Seth seems to have a good handle on things currently, or at least from what I’ve observed. How did he first get his foot in the door initially? We all have to start somewhere, sometimes with the most unexpected methods.

“You have to remember that this is like, pre-social media, there wasn’t a particularly easy way of contacting them, it wasn’t like you could follow them on Twitter and respond to their articles and things like that. Basically I had an email, but I was sort of keeping tabs on the music editor, and he also had this local television show. He would recommend shows, and so what I would do… This could potentially sound creepy, but I would plan to be at shows that he would recommend in hopes of running into him. Sure enough, I went to this show at the Casbah, and he was there.” He goes on to explain how he began a conversation with the music editor at the time, presenting himself as interested in contributing to the publication, as a journalism student himself. Just like that, Seth was writing for their local music issue, which still continues to run every March. “My whole agenda was to really impress him and come out of the gate really strong, I guess I could say I did that. From then I was just a regular contributor, I would do music features and music reviews, I branched out a little every now and then.”

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Entrance to the CityBeat office

Technology has come a long way since, when you had to actually seek someone out rather than typing their name into Google and having a multitude of contact options. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, it seems as if there there’s no slowing down with this digital takeover. Technology is always evolving and finding new ways to become bigger and better. The faster we can get information, pay a bill, listen to music, that’s what this evolution is based around. There’s an appeal to the instant gratification that we receive through it, and the limitless ways to interact with what we find. Technology connects us in new ways socially, broadcasting each comment or moment we publish for the world, or at least our followers.

“It’s all about accessibility,” Seth explains. “I’m just going to use music as an analogy, but I remember when the iPod first came out, that was such a groundbreaking invention when it came to the consumption of music. Before that you had disks, and before that you had bigger disks, or you had a tape, which were like disks sort of spinning. Up until that point you had to take something, put it in or on something, and then perform a function in order to consume and or play that thing.”

“Print works much in the same way, you have to pick it up, you have to open it, you have to turn the pages, and in the case of newsprint, sometimes your fingers are getting dirty in the process, like literally! I think that nothing beats the accessibility of the digital media, but there’s also something to be said for having it all right in front of you.”

Today’s Millennials have begun to realize this too , that just because it’s convenient does not mean something is better. If you look around, you can see the growing popularity in nostalgia, vinyl records and VHS cameras are back, who’s to say what’s next? If history repeats itself, as Seth believes, there may be a revival of the print form soon to come. “I always had this theory that I like to tell people about, anyone who will listen,” he explains. “I think that there will come a day, when it comes to print media, where it will be a lot like vinyl records, people will want to consume it again.” This is something that had never really crossed my mind before, it was like a light bulb went off. I do see a platform being built for the resurgence of print, zine culture and small independent publications are being created left and right, my own included. This may only be the first step, but it’s a step nonetheless.

“If you look at music especially, and that medium, there was this very clear transition from physical media to digital. That can be applied pretty much across the board, maybe with the exception of books, books are still books. But when it comes to music, especially over the last three or four years, there’s been this kind of resurgence of the vinyl industry and the physical medium industry. For younger people especially, there’s this… it has something somewhat to do with nostalgia. There’s something to be said for holding something. As sort of, you know… emo as that sounds, I really do believe.” As a “younger person,” I can one hundred percent confirm that statement, at least personally. Having something from a different era in time, being able to be a part of that, it’s different than what digital can offer. Although technology does connect us on a different level than physical medium can, it’s also distant in other ways, sort of impersonal.

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Stack of old CityBeat issues, inside the office

“There’s still something to be said for tangibility, for having something in your hands and looking at the pictures that are included within the liner notes and things like that. I’d like to believe, I mean who’s to say I could be completely wrong, but I think that there is still something to be said for newsprint and for physical media in general, magazines, whatever. The market will dwindle, for sure, but I do think that there’s a day coming, and hopefully soon, where your generation, and the generation after your generation will be like, ‘oh yeah, I still consume most things this way. I still get most of my news from my phone, I still get most of my music from Spotify’ or whatever the case is, but there’s also this appreciation for physical media.”

If you look around at the current trends today, bell bottoms and high-waisted jeans, velvet, tapes, film photograph, these are just a few examples of nostalgia that’s been revived by today’s youth, myself included. What’s popular today isn’t new, although it may be new to us, and if Seth’s theory carries out, print media will soon be added to that ever-growing list.

With the advances in technology and our progressing society, the environmental standpoint of print media may not be as impactful as you may think. I always felt a slight guilt for buying paper products that weren’t essential or necessary, but there’s a lot of I wasn’t aware of regarding that front. “I don’t think that that’s really an issue anymore,” he states, “don’t get me wrong, I’m not an expert by any means. I’m probably misquoting it, but the way I was reading about it the other day, from legitimate publications, is that the paper industry is self sustaining now. They cut a certain amount [of trees] down, there’s replacements essentially. That’s not a really good way of putting it, but the industry is so regulated now, and who’s to say that will remain.”

In addition to this, there are some strange materials that may be replacing the need for trees as paper products. “As I wrote about in my editorial a few weeks ago, think that the legalization of cannabis has the potential to also change the print industry significantly. It’s a much more sustainable and much more prudent way of doing print publications. To use hemp rather than trees, it’s more environmentally friendly, it’s cheaper, by all accounts it’s much easier to manufacture so I hope that that becomes a thing. There are some popping up, but it’s still few and far between. There’s industrial hemp farms now, and they don’t just use it for paper, they use it for ropes, oil, and this is the non-THC version of marijuana essentially.”

This was something that definitely took me by surprise, I wasn’t expecting the new marijuana laws in California to have a large impact on print, and the way we use paper in general. Using hemp instead of trees would be both cheaper, and more environmentally friendly, benefiting both the producers and the consumers, who knew?

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There’s a lot more that goes on behind the scenes of print than I had previously known, but one thing that always puzzled me was the monetary aspect of things. CityBeat is a free weekly magazine and newspaper that can be found around the city, but if they’re not making a profit from the print itself, then how do they stay afloat? From interning here over the past month, I’ve realized that the vast majority of their funds comes from the ads that are run in both the paper and on their website. I inquired about this in the interview, but quickly realized that Seth knew about as much as I did on the topic.

“That is not my department and I wouldn’t want to speak on that, I know that with publications like this you’re oftentimes a lot, you know what they say, ‘in the red.’ You make a profit during one quarter and then you don’t at all in the next quarter. I get little to nothing from the publishers as far as like, he lets me know when we’re doing bad, but doesn’t really let me know when we’re doing good, so I would assume that sometimes we’re doing good.” He goes on to describe the dynamic of both the publishing team, and the editorial team a little more in depth. “The departments here are very separate, there’s an editorial team who’s in charge of content and then there’s a publishing advertorial team over there who’s in charge of making the money to put the paper out. They’re very separate, and a lot of journalists call it ‘the separation between church and state,’ it’s like that. They don’t tell us what to write about, we don’t tell them how to sell ads.”

One of the main contributing factors to the success and stability of publications like CityBeat is the support it gains from the community. The more people who read their content, whether it be scrolling through the website or picking up a paper, the longer they can continue printing and the more they can support us right back. CityBeat has a strong influence and presence surrounding all the local happenings and personalities in San Diego. “People respect us for covering progressive issues,” Combs expresses.

If there’s news, they know about it, and are making sure you do too. They are huge advocates for local music in San Diego, “we’re the only publication in town that puts local musicians and local bands on the cover regularly.”

They do so much to make sure that we are aware of what’s going on around us, the least we can do is show them how much we appreciate all that they do. He comments on the future of San Diego CityBeat, simply stating, “as much as I’d love to believe that we’re always going to be around in a physical sense, I’m also a very realistic person.” What can we do, as a community, to support them the way that they support us? This was my final question of the conversation.

“It’s so funny you asked that,” he says. “I’ve thought about that a lot lately, and it’s difficult to answer because you can’t essentially tell people or tell readers how to do that without making it sound like you’re begging or trying to sell them something.” Seth paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. “I don’t need reader to adapt, I need the industry to adapt. How to do that, it’s way above my pay grade, I don’t know and I’ve thought about it so much. It’s kind of one of those, where you’re trying to go to bed and your brain is like ‘nope nope, we have some stuff we have to figure out,’ even though, you know, it’s three in the morning.”

I think I speak for all of us when I say that this is genuinely the most frustrating feeling, late night thoughts. It’s like our brains are so exhausted, they mistake the level of our own I.Q. for much higher than they actually are. I don’t know what the secret of life is, I couldn’t even tell you what’s in a McDonalds chicken nugget! (But it’s definitely not chicken that’s for sure.)

He continues, saying “pick it up, play around on the website, if you’re on an article and it says here’s a related article, click on that. The more clicks we have, the better it is to get ads up on the website. The more people who pick up the paper, the more we can tell people that ‘hey, we have a pickup rate of this many thousand.’ To business owners and to people who want to advertise, it’s kind of one of those things where there are a lot of publications in town, but there are a lot of publications whose values don’t align with a lot of entrepreneurs and small business owners.” Upon hearing this, I asked him if he could possibly elaborate on that last statement, and this was another moment that caught my by surprise.

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Painting inside the CityBeat office

“I’m not going to name names,” he says, ”I could, but they [businesses] choose to advertise with those people rather than whose values align more with theirs. That bothers me, because there’s a lot of people who choose to advertise with the other weekly in town, but don’t know that their publisher [and now editor as well] is a right-wing nutjob who uses a lot of his personal money and his personal wealth to fund anti-abortion organizations…. He’s funded initiatives, ballot initiatives that would make it illegal for teenagers to have abortions and things like that. That’s who you’re choosing to advertise with? You’re giving your money to have an ad in that paper? I’ve been on record saying this, the previous editor of this paper, he did a whole editorial on it. He’s very under the radar, the publisher [and editor], he doesn’t advertise it, but it’s documented, it’s there, if you just google his name a lot of disturbing [things] comes up. Not just hearsay or rumors, like well documented financial records of him contributing to these types of things while they try to market themselves as a progressive paper. And I have friends who write for them, no offence to them, they’re good people and good writers.”

I think it’s safe to say I was at a loss for words at that point, having a good idea as to who he was implying. I had grown up seeing both that paper and CityBeat all around San Diego and never knew, which makes me think about all the other people who aren’t aware of this either. It’s definitely something to think about.

San Diego CityBeat is not only a voice for San Diego, but for all of the people that reside in the city. Interning here has opened my eyes to things I had never even realized. It’s print publications like this who speak up for those who can’t, or don’t know that they should. With the progression of technology, this is something that needs to stay apparent in our world. It won’t happen overnight, and as the demand for print declines, we need to support those who are actively trying to keep it alive. We need to be aware of the consequences of our actions, aware of the differences between both print and digital, and realize that this is something that should not be left behind.

“There’s still something to be said for tangibility.”

Article by Kyla Wyllie

 

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2 Comments

  1. Abby Strangward says

    This was SUCH an amazing interview and so perfectly written and put together! What an interesting man and life lived.

    • Kyla Rain says

      Thank you so so much!! Yes haha Seth is a really cool and interesting dude, I hope to have as many stories as he does one day for sure

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