Year of publishing dangerously

SO WE’RE DROPPING OFF copies of the newspaper and the guy behind the counter calls out: “Hey. You wanna sell more papers?”

He’s got our attention.

“What you do is you beef it up. People want more.”

“Problem is, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” we say.

The answer doesn’t require explanation. He frowns and nods. “I hear ya,” he says. “I hear ya.”

Exactly a year after publishing the first print edition of The Columbia Paper, we’re still trying to do what this guy advised. We could use your advice and ideas too.

The first issue was a mere 16 pages, but it carried some popular features from the late, widely lamented twice-weekly county newspaper, The Independent. A lot of us used to work there until the corporate owner closed that paper in February 2009.

*What do you miss that we haven’t provided?

One of the earliest and most persistent criticisms we’ve heard is how small this paper is. For the record, the number of pages each week has grown by 50% since we started. Now we publish 24 pages, which gives us more room for news, coverage of the arts and community events, and, by popular demand, a crossword puzzle. (We’re still trying to figure out how we can increase the size of the print used for the clues.)

*As we expand, how many pages are enough? Is there a limit on how fat a paper you’d buy? (Nice to think about a “problem” like this.)

Our chicken/egg dilemma is no different from what any other business faces these days: You can’t expand without money for growth, but you can’t expect to earn more unless you expand in ways that please your customers. It’s no trade secret that one of the quickest routes to growth is to improve circulation, and the most desirable sales for any publication are subscriptions. Think about it. Subscribers give us money for a product they haven’t seen. That so many of our neighbors have shown so much trust in us is, quite frankly, humbling.

Our advertisers covet subscribers because they know people who pay for the paper to be delivered will glance at the pages every week. Paper sales to subscribers don’t hinge on consumer impulses driven by which celebrity’s face is on the front page.

*We’re looking for ways to grow our subscriber base and paper sales in general–do you have any suggestions?

True, every newspaper wants to increase circulation, and very few have figured out how to do it. So in one sense, our subscribers have helped us achieve something little short of miraculous. It was only late last fall that we finally threaded the U.S. Postal Service maze and started offering subscriptions through the mail. Now a significant proportion of our readers get their paper that way. Does that make this place a time warp locked into old ways of communicating?

Maybe, but research shows that community papers like ours have held their own or grown even as bigger papers have faltered. It may be traditional, but where else other than the community paper are people supposed to get accurate information about the place they live?

And for all the talk about improving cell phone service and Internet access so people will have a variety of digital sources for local information, lots of homes still can’t get an affordable high-speed connection, and the county has plenty of dead zones, where mobile phones work best as paperweights.

Despite the local obstacles to online communication, this printed newspaper started as a website, It went live a week after The Independent was closed and continues to attract a steady stream of visitors. Sometime in the near future data will probably replace newsprint as the primary source of Columbia Paper news. Paper editions will cost too much and make too little money. By then we sure hope somebody knows a workable way to pay for local news online.

*In that case, what would you pay for online local news?

*How would you prefer paying for it? (A flat fee for access? A pay-for-what-you-read system?)

Whenever friends or strangers ask: How’s it going? we reply: One of the options appears to be success.

Success means beefing up, publishing more pages with more news from Columbia County. We’re not there yet. But you’ve contributed to that goal if you purchased a subscription or an ad, if you bought a copy of the paper or even if you’ve visited us online. For all or part of 52 weeks you’ve been there for us. Thank you. We’ll be back next week.


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