THE TIME DIDN’T so much fly by. It simply disappeared. The Journal Register Company shut down a local newspaper called The Independent one morning in February 2009. A week later some of us who had worked at The Independent and lost our jobs launched a new community news website, www.columbiapaper.com. About five weeks after that, we published the first edition of The Columbia Paper. Looking back it feels like a movie where a title appears on screen saying: “Three years later….”
But here we are, beginning our 4th year in print. You might wonder what this says about our mental health. After all, the big newspaper chains that recently released quarterly earnings have once again reported declines in print advertising revenue, the lifeblood of this industry. The chains have seen more money from the sale of online ads, but it’s not nearly enough to make up for the amount they’ve lost as big advertisers move to the web and mobile devices. And what’s happening to the big guys could happen to us too.
So how do we explain that while large papers have gone into an economic tailspin we have grown? I like to tell people that The Columbia Paper is now the second largest paid circulation newspaper published in Columbia County. It’s true. Yeah, it’s also true that there are only three paid circulation newspapers published in the county. But hey, we started out in last place.
The week we began publication, we ordered 4,000 papers. The Independent circulated half again as many papers as that, but I was such a clever fellow, I was sure people would jump at the chance to buy a new local newspaper that looked kind of like the old Independent, never mind that plenty of folks felt burned when The Independent folded. A lot of trees were sacrificed to teach me an expensive lesson about the Columbia County media market. Thousands of copies of that first edition went straight into the recycle bin. Ouch!
Turns out county residents won’t settle for just any source of local news. You insist on value for the money you pay, whether you buy the paper on the newsstand or subscribe. We had to earn your trust one by one, proving that we can deliver news and information (ads, calendar items, obituaries, etc.) that you can’t easily get some other way every week. And in the process of trying our best to meet your expectations, a funny thing happened; while the circulation of bigger papers was going down, ours has gone up… big time. We have more than doubled our circulation from the time we started.
Just as important to our advertisers, we now have more subscribers than newsstand sales. Advertisers appreciate subscribers because advertisers know subscribers have demonstrated that they want the paper in their home and thus, they’re going to read it and see the ads. And let’s be brutally frank, if you have the money to pay for a subscription–in effect paying in advance for a product you haven’t yet seen–then by definition you’re a consumer. Advertisers want to meet you.
Maybe that’s why our ad sales have risen substantially since we began. Here’s a measure of that: The number of pages in a newspaper is determined by the amount of advertising; our first edition in 2009 had 16 pages, this edition has 28. That’s a 75% growth in pages and each page has more ads.
I’d like to claim we’ve found a magic formula, but our growth is not all that unusual for small papers. You could argue that since we started with nothing, we had nowhere to go but up. That’s that not precisely true. We could have gone out of business. Instead, we’re still around and stronger for it, though I don’t know anybody who expects to get rich publishing a community newspaper. And don’t wait for us to declare the newspaper a proven success, either. There’s no finish line I know of marking that goal, except maybe publishing next week’s newspaper.
What I can say is that each new issue of The Columbia Paper leaves me feeling exhilarated and sure that we can do an even better job next week. That sensation hasn’t diminished with the beginning of our 4th year as an independently owned local newspaper. It’s grown like the paper itself. For that I’m grateful to my colleagues and to you, our readers and advertisers. Thank you.