EDITORIAL: Better take this call

WE LIKE TO THINK of this moment as “entering our 5th year.” This issue is our 208th; we’ve been in print and online every week for a full four years, Gee, we’ll soon we’ll be old enough to attend newspaper kindergarten.

The editorial last year at this time (actually it came out a week later last year, but who’s counting?) looked back. So to avoid repetition, what follows are some thoughts on what may lie ahead, even though no one, not even the giants of the newspaper industry, has a clear idea where the news business is headed. We’re making this up as we go along.

I’m surprised at the number of people who follow us online at our website, www.columbiapaper.com and on Facebook. In the last week, we’ve had 10,203 visits, according to the web tracking service Google Analytics. That includes 4,429 “unique visitors” over the last month, who accounted for 22,401 “pageviews.” We connect with over a thousand people a week through Facebook.

Anybody familiar with brand name websites will chuckle at our web traffic, as the number of online visitors is called. Some sites have many times our total visits every few seconds. But we only offer information about Columbia County, NY. Yes, we did have 10 visits from Costa Rica, 5 from Greece and 1 from Ethiopia last week (Hi, Ethiopia!), among a handful of other countries around the globe, and maybe some were mistakes. But 98% of our visitors are from the USA. Considering that the county has just over 63,000 residents, a lot of people seem to be interested in what we report.

If you add our online visits to the paid circulation of our weekly printed paper, we have a weekly reach of over 12,000 people…. Kind of. Readers of our print edition are either subscribers, who pay in advance to receive the paper by mail, or people who buy the paper at newsstands all over the county, pretty much wherever newspapers are sold. The money you pay for the paper tells us where you are. (We don’t share that information except in general terms, as when we compare the percentage of the papers sold in the northern part of the county versus sales in the Roe Jan areea, for example).

By contrast, the people who visit us online don’t pay, and while Google supplies data on the digital origins of our visitors, it’s not as specific as a paper sale. It might be if we charged for online subscriptions, and someday we may decide to do that. But so far we’ve resisted putting up a “pay wall.”

Fans of The Columbia Paper occasionally ask us to offer the whole publication online, including columns, ads, news briefs, photos and other features we don’t automatically post on the website. That’s technically possible, but it’s an expensive option for an operation our size. Forcing people to buy a digital subscription right now might also backfire by diminishing our ability to reach the community at a time when we want more people to get to know and trust us as the best source of information about the county.

If you live east of the Taconic State Parkway all this talk about digital communications may sound kind of silly, because many of you have horse-and-buggy-era Internet connections and you won’t see improved service through phone lines anytime soon; there simply aren’t enough of you to make better service economical. But major telecommunications companies are steadily, if slowly, building wireless services that replace cables, and soon you’ll have the option of buying the paper or reading it on what we used to call your “phone.”

That, in the short-term, is where we’re headed too–an app puts local headlines in your hand along with maps to events you see in the calendar and a host of other services none of us knew we needed until our smart phones and pads taught us we couldn’t live without them. We believe you’ll pay for those services if we make them useful and relevant. We don’t have a choice. Two years ago Google Analytics showed that about 2% of our online visitors were viewing our website with a mobile device. The figure this week was 22%.

That’s the annual report. I’m delighted to have you with us as the paper starts its 5th year of growth and change. All of us here hope you’ll stick around. It looks as if the party’s about to get a whole lot livelier.

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