A local newspaper ends a decades-long run, thinning community news

On Friday morning, Deanna Spehn opened her MacBook Pro.

The screen showed 677 words about upcoming events at an elementary school.

She brought her hands to the keyboard. It was likely the last story she’d edit for her newspaper’s final issue.

Spehn is editor and co-publisher of the Tierra Times, which has covered Tierrasanta virtually since the neighborhood’s inception in the early 1970s, in eastern San Diego.

The paper has reported on some of the area’s biggest events, like an artillery shell explosion that killed two 8-year-old boys in 1983, as well as an endless stream of parades, business openings and youth soccer scores.

“I think it’s made us a stronger community,” Spehn said in an interview.

Earlier this year, Spehn, 74, announced she was shuttering the paper.

The last issue is slated to hit mailboxes Sept. 29.

“I would read each publication I received cover to cover because it was so helpful,” Raul Campillo, Tierrasanta’s representative on the San Diego City Council, wrote in an email. “We owe a great debt … to Deanna Spehn.”

The decision was partially driven by a loss of advertising revenue, part of a broader trend.

Nationwide, the number of people reading locally focused newspapers has dropped.

In 2015, the average weekday circulation for both print and digital editions was almost 14 million, according to the Pew Research Center.

By 2020, it was down to 8.3 million, which was actually an improvement from the previous year. (Sundays saw higher numbers, and the analysis did not include national publications like USA Today.)

Some of the lost coverage can be filled by websites like Facebook and Nextdoor. But fact checking there may be lacking, and online stories can be difficult to archive.

In contrast, decades-worth of Tierra Times issues can be found at the Tierrasanta library.

“I have seen our newspaper archives accessed by a broad section of the public,” Matthew Nye, the San Diego Public Library’s special collections manager, wrote in an email. “In providing access to these early editions of newspapers, we are providing access to history.”

Spehn moved to Tierrasanta in early 1972, and soon started writing for the Tierrasanta Bulletin, the newspaper’s predecessor.

Some early coverage focused on a plan to build a federal prison near the neighborhood.

Spehn and the Bulletin helped drum up opposition, and a 1975 photo in the San Diego Union showed “about 100 Tierrasanta residents” celebrating President Gerald Ford’s decision to scrap the plan.

It was one of Spehn’s proudest moments. (The prison was eventually built downtown.)

Spehn launched the Tierra Times in 1977 with three friends from the Bulletin: Regina Olson, Norma McNerney and Celeste Weinsheim.

The group relied on dozens of volunteer writers. The paper may be the only place where you can learn, for example, that Minnesota Twins hitting coach David Popkins grew up in Tierrasanta, or that an owl nesting box in a nearby canyon was built by Girl Scout Troop 4362.

At its height, the Tierra Times came out monthly. It only appears in print, and free copies are mailed to more than 10,000 homes, including the sprawling Murphy Canyon military housing complex.

All pages have appeared in black-and-white, with one exception: A map in 2006 showed where commercial planes would fly if San Diego’s airport moved to the neighboring Marine Corps Air Station.

“That was very expensive,” Spehn said about color ink. (The airport plan also floundered.)

Each issue takes about 50 hours of work, not counting the time Spehn’s husband, Richard, puts in editing photos. For a long time, Spehn squeezed a phototypesetting machine in her garage, and her current keyboard is so worn that the “E,” “R,” “T” and “D” keys are completely rubbed out.

The job generally must be done at night and on weekends because Spehn remains deeply involved in local politics. She is policy director for state Sen. Toni Atkins, and Spehn’s living room includes proclamations of thanks from Tierrasanta’s community council, city officials, county leaders and a U.S. congressman.

As time has gone on, the burden of running a paper has become too much.

Among the founders, Olson left the state and both McNerney and Weinsheim died.

While the Tierra Times used to pull in an extra few thousand dollars a year, the Spehns estimate they’ve lately put in about $2,000 of their own money to keep each issue afloat.

A handful of people have reached out to Spehn about continuing the newspaper, perhaps online. Spehn plans to meet with them after the last issue comes out.

“I believe in newspapers,” Spehn said. “Communities don’t always have a way to keep everybody informed.”

Once they’re free from deadlines, the Spehns hope to spend more time with their grandchildren, son-in-law and daughter.

That family lives in Silver Spring, Md. — where Spehn’s daughter runs her neighborhood’s News & Views community bulletin.

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