WHEN YOU’RE SEVEN YEARS OLD numbers start to mean something. At seven you can truthfully say that you’re entering your eighth year. Saying it that way makes you sound so much older.
This week marks the beginning of year number eight for the print edition of The Columbia Paper. And everybody who works on getting this paper out to a few thousand people every week has reason to be proud of how tough they’ve proved to be. It hasn’t been easy.
This isn’t what any of us who produce the paper expected to be doing back in early 2009 as the economy tumbled into a deep recession. Some of us had decent jobs at a twice weekly newspaper called The Independent, which, despite its name and local roots, was owned by a newspaper chain headquartered in Pennsylvania. Turns out the chain was not too big to fail and the newspaper geniuses in Pennsylvania shut down the paper where we worked just before the chain declared bankruptcy.
The chain executives told us to finish the issue we were working on and lock the door behind us on our way out. That night we joined the millions of Americans who’d already lost their jobs in the recession. But within a week we had created and were regularly updating a brand new, local news website, www.columbiapaper.com. And on April 16, 2009, we published our first print issue of The Columbia Paper, which is now distributed through the mail to paying subscribers in every ZIP Code in the county; and the paper’s sold at about 80 local newsstands countywide.
Additionally we have over 7,500 users a month on our website and more than 32,000 monthly pageviews, with almost half our digital traffic originating on mobile devices and tablets.
Technologically, this isn’t the same county it was seven years ago, despite the crummy, outdated Internet service that keeps many of us in a digital dungeon.
Friends have remarked recently that they see more advertisers in the newspaper. They’re right. The publisher–I refer to myself here in the third person because this is embarrassing–was remiss. He failed to focus on ad sales, which is one of our major sources of revenue. (The other big one is the sale of newspapers, which could use some more attention, too).
To the publisher’s surprise, the problem was not that local businesses didn’t want to advertise in The Columbia Paper. The problem was that no one had asked them to advertise with us. Perhaps this is a trade secret the publisher should not reveal, but I’ve been amazed by the good reaction we’ve had as we’ve increased our outreach to the business community. There’s still a lot the publisher has to learn.
We’ve been building this community newspaper for seven years and it still feels like a start-up. We remain scrappy and eager to adapt. We listen to readers and try to respond. Sometimes we disappoint our audience, but usually that’s because of what we haven’t been able to report rather than something we’ve published. We know there are more stories around the county that should be told. All we need is more people to report and the money to pay them.
That’s the goal of our business: to tell our neighbors what’s happening around here and make a living doing it. So, how profitable an idea is that? You can hear the hedge fund managers scrambling out the door.
Maybe they’re right and local newspapers are the modern equivalent of buggy whip makers trying to adjust their business model as automobiles began to clog the roadways. But the last seven years of growth at The Columbia Paper and www.columbiapaper.com suggest a different reality. Our experience is that people who live here and purchase goods and services from businesses operating in the county are willing to pay for trustworthy sources of local information that fit their lifestyle. One of those sources is a weekly newspaper.
Yes, this is self promotion. Publishers do that kind of thing. But all of us at the paper have reason to celebrate a little. We just won a handful of journalism awards in a statewide competition (see Page 9), our subscriptions are increasing and we are seeing more advertisers using our paper to reach consumers around the county. But the best reason of all to mark the paper’s birthday is this: here we are working on yet another issue of The Columbia Paper at the beginning of our eighth year.