EDITORIAL: Was it something I said?

“YOUR EDITORIAL PAGE IS OFFENSIVE.” The person who wrote this to us recently directed us to cancel his subscription. We acted on his request immediately. If I’m going to offend readers (…If?…), then I want exposure to my offensiveness to be voluntary.

The note and the cancellation request left me wanting to know more, in particular, what was it that provoked the former reader? If it’s only the editorial page he finds offensive, that’s reassuring. But does that mean the former reader is punishing himself for my allegedly bad behavior? Editorials are quarantined in the back of each issue and are clearly marked to distinguish them from news stories and features. Did he go looking for trouble?

Before the arrival of the fact-free universe and its Fake News handmaiden, people challenged editorial opinions by writing letters to the editor. Not so much, now. It’s more tempting than ever these days to retreat inside the media comfort zones that affirm our personal biases.

A few years back we had another, similar cancellation from a reader who wrote across her renewal form: “Your editorials are too opinionated!” That’s like catnip for editors. I was thinking of having her words made into a button I could pin on my shirt.

Despite that small reward, it’s painful to lose a subscriber, regardless of the reason. Subscribers account for well over half our total circulation and there is always some variation in the headcount from year to year. It’s referred to in the newspaper business as “churn.” Now and then a subscriber or a family member tells us that the subscriber has moved away or no longer sees well enough to read the paper. Occasionally we publish the obituary of a long-time reader.

We also have a steady stream of new subscribers that provides us with a small but measurable net gain in circulation. The newspaper industry is still ailing financially, but there are bright spots, including recent growth surges in subscribers seen by major papers like The New York Times and the Washington Post, and at many small newspapers too. We’re happy to tag along. We grew last year compared to the year before even though we didn’t do as much outreach as we could have to boost circulation.

But we still run across people in the county who tell us, “I didn’t know about your paper.” After nearly eight years in print and online, we continue to work on that one.

A New York Times columnist this week wrote at length about how the verbal and Twitter attacks by President-elect Donald Trump against the press in general and certain outlets in particular–the latest was Vanity Fair magazine–is helping boost circulation at the very publications Mr. Trump dislikes. My editorials have raised concerns about Mr. Trump’s statements and appointments as they relate to local issues and I’ll mention others if and when they arise, but I don’t expect whatever I have to say will produce a flood of new readers let alone attract the attention of Mr. Trump.

There are plenty of issues in this county and the surrounding region to keep us busy. Others are better qualified to cover national and international issues. As publisher of Columbia County’s weekly community newspaper, I don’t believe anyone is better at collecting and sharing local news than the people who put together this paper.

Cancelled subscriptions from dissatisfied readers are rare but we do hear complaints. Most are from readers who want us to do more. We take those concerns seriously and try to figure out how to match the stories we want to cover with the money it takes to write, edit and distribute them. Our only source of funding is the operating revenue from paper sales and advertising.

It isn’t just a matter of the money. We have to be willing to risk offending people now and then if we want to tell the stories that keep the public–our neighbors–informed. But for every person who thinks we’ve gone too far, there are more who tell us we need to go further. Knowing that keeps us going.

The occasional cancellations have unintended consequences. They are rare enough to remind us how much support The Columbia Paper has received over the years from you, our readers, how generous you have been and how much we appreciate having you welcome us into your homes and businesses every week. Those are your gifts to us and we are deeply grateful for them.

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