Marc Ethier ambles through the Benicia Herald’s office toward his desk, stopping at the former darkroom. “This is my favorite room here,” he says. “It’s now where we keep bound papers. We have them going back to 1906, but those early years are in bad shape. But you look at those from a few years later and you find great things. I study the old papers. I love this stuff.”
Marc became the editor of the Benicia Herald four years ago after newspaper stints in Washington state, Wyoming, Maryland and Contra Costa County. During his time here, the 114-year-old paper has moved into the 21st century by establishing an online presence in the form of a blog and a Facebook page. “We even have 50 or so Twitter followers,” Marc says.
He was raised in Detroit and earned his journalism degree at the University of Wyoming, where he met his wife. She works at a nonprofit agency in San Francisco, and their daughter was born in November last year. Marc turns 37 this month.
At the Herald, Marc oversees three full-time staff members and many unpaid contributors who write and take photos for the five-day-a-week paper. The walls of his office are lined with front pages from past issues, and he jokes that he put them up just to ward off the cold during the winter. In reality, the papers help him focus on his goal to keep improving the local publication.
“I’m always looking for ways to improve it. If anyone has some non-sarcastic ideas that don’t cost any money, I’m interested in listening,” he says wryly as he peers over his black-rimmed glasses. “I’m always interested in feedback. After all, it’s not my paper, it’s Benicia’s paper.”
How did you end up working at newspapers? I was the editor of my high school paper. I’ve never done anything else. Well, I worked for a restaurant for two years, also in high school, so I know the plight of the working man. … I also spent one summer in Michigan on a road crew, shoveling asphalt.
But I’ve always been a writer. I’ve been implored to write more op-ed pieces here, but I’m not planning on doing that. I like being somewhat of a mystery. I don’t want my opinions to get in the way of someone talking to me. I want to listen to everyone.
How did you wind up working in Benicia? We were living and working in the D.C. area, but the climate—well, it’s a swamp and I don’t do well in humid conditions. So we weren’t sorry to go.
This is where things got fun. We sold our house at the height of the bubble and went around the world for a year. We went to Asia, Australia, New Zealand, India. Then we thought, “Where do we want to live?” And we picked the Bay Area.
My wife immediately got a job, and I went to work for the Contra Costa Times. I was there about six or seven months before they started letting people go. They laid off more than 20 people the day I was let go. A mere four weeks later, I landed here. That was four years ago.
How did you get to know Benicia when you first arrived? The first month or so, I ate at a different restaurant every day. I met Dennis Lund (frequent Herald contributor) that way. I met a friend of Jerry Page (another regular contributor) and that’s how I met Jerry. …
The best way I’ve met people has been through the paper. Once we improved the look of the paper, people started dropping by and saying, “Let’s meet the editor.” People responded to the professionalism.
Given the dire predictions about the future of newspapers, why do you continue in this field? I am worried about the industry, but I feel the future of the industry is at the community level. I don’t necessarily believe the community paper will always be in print, but there will always be a need for news about your own community.
How do you compete with the other print and online news sources? They might get it first, but not always. But if they get it first, we do it best.
What we have to provide is what you can’t find online or in big newspapers. The Vallejo Times-Herald doesn’t have the staff to cover Benicia regularly, they don’t send reporters regularly. For stories that don’t come accompanied by a press release, you have to come (to the Benicia Herald). If you want the most complete, accurate picture of Benicia, this is where you have to be.
I read the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chronicle. I love all those papers, but they don’t tell you want’s going on in your backyard. We do. We go to where people are.
We’re the paper of record. If you want (your story) treated well and completely, you need to come to us.
What are the challenges you face in getting the paper out five times a week? It’s spit and baling wire and whatever it takes to get it done. When we had the back-to-back power outages (in mid-August), the first thing I thought was that we finally burned out. The second time I’d saved everything, but the first time I lost a lot and had to redo it. …
Our biggest challenge is that we are continuously working to overcome impressions of the paper that were formed years before I arrived, that impression that we’re a fly-by-night paper. This is now a source for news and there was not that feeling when I got here.
What changes would you like to see in the Herald in the coming years? I would like to have color. I would like if we didn’t use pink (for the paper’s name on the front page). I would like for the press to not destroy the photos. I’d like the paper to be around for another 114 years. …
I’d love to get more photos. Herman (Bustamante) is a former photographer for the Contra Costa Times and he gives us a couple of photos a week, and we take our photos. Sometimes people take photos and send them in. When people do that, it makes my day, perhaps even my week. The real secret is that if I’ve got good photos, I can do a lot. With more and better photos, this paper could look like the New York Times.
You know, I get tired of everything. I’m going to redesign the front page someday. I redesigned it after I got here, but it’s been a while so it might be time for an overhaul.
What’s a typical day like? There isn’t one. There’s a certain routine but there’s something different every day. Essentially you have to remain as flexible as possible for that breaking news story.
What types of stories do you like? I’m interested in lots of things. If you see something on the front page that you might think is filler, it’s there because it was something that I was interested in. I’m always on the lookout for a good story, well told.
How do you manage the print version and online blog for the paper? With great difficulty. Just a matter of how many hours are in a day. … It really just requires staying on top of it. I have an iPhone, so I can post stories online wherever I am.
I probably work 10 hours a day, but that’s not counting when I’m home and checking the blog.
What do you do to relax? I read a lot … I love history. I’m wading through Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). Language has never been better than with Gibbon. The richness of language is very rewarding. I also like fun stuff. I just started reading The Three Musketeers, I like The Count of Monte Cristo.
I also spend a lot of time with my beautiful little baby girl.
What’s next for you? I’m going to finish today’s paper and I’m going to go home (grinning). …
I don’t know what’s next for me. Hopefully it will involve more writing—that muscle has atrophied. I’ve always fancied myself as a travel writer. I’d like to write about how great my life is—that’s the life I want to lead. I want to travel and write about it and make money.