EDITORIAL: Are we successful yet?

WHAT DO WE HAVE to celebrate as we begin our ninth year with this week’s paper? Just imagine the things experts would tell you won’t work in the 21st century. Publishing a newspaper has to be near the top of the list, up there with repairing typewriters or video cassette machines… repairing anything.

Back in 2009 when we started, people advised us: Don’t do it! They said, Wait till things settle down. Like what, the economy? The nation was losing over 700,000 jobs a month. The folks at the unemployment office couldn’t keep up with the demand. Can you think of a better time to open a new business with an old business model?

Why didn’t everyone think of that? Probably because they’re better at business than I am. It wouldn’t take much. And yet here we are nearly a decade later and our big problem this week was whether to add pages to this issue because we have more advertising than anticipated. We should be so lucky to have this problem every week.

Truth in advertising requires disclosing that The Columbia Paper and our website columbiapaper.com don’t fit a business school definition of success. For instance, part of our need for more space is driven by a sudden increase in the number of public notices we now publish. That uptick in business happened when the only other paid circulation weekly newspaper in the county, the Chatham Courier, closed at the end of last year. State law requires that certain types of notices must be published in both a daily and a weekly local paper. We’re the only weekly left.

I’d like to report that we earned that business by luring filers away from a competitor. The hard truth is that we earned that business by surviving. On the other hand our display advertising–the revenue that sustains us–is growing. We worked for that.

Our ability to survive also owes a lot to our decision not to function like a traditional media business. We have never owned real estate or a printing press. We operate in the cloud. We’re rely on the “gig economy,” with all its flexibility and all its drawbacks.

Survival is relative, too. Depending on where you draw the line for “old,” Columbia County is the oldest or one of the oldest counties in the state based on the average age of county residents. Most, though not all the people who contribute to this paper fit the county’s demographic profile. All of us are local. No corporate masters. Nobody to praise or blame but us.

Our print circulation nudges up slightly most years. But over the last few years our online audience has more than doubled and analytical data support the conventional wisdom that our digital readers skew younger than the people who pick up a physical newspaper. We have a broad reach in a county of 63,000 people and after eight years and counting we still have room and reason to grow.

National politics are playing out here at least as much as anywhere else in the country. The polarization is clear from the letters we get. We publish them if they’re from local people and steer clear of personal attacks or a libelous statements. We see letters as a way to measure how much readers care about what we publish.

This space is for my ‘letter’ and I do not hide my opinions. Masking the editorial beliefs of a newspaper’s publisher would do readers a disservice. It’s dishonest.

Likewise, requiring the contents of the paper to reflect only the owner’s opinions is foolish. It insults the intelligence of readers. It destroys a paper’s credibility. Insisting that everything reflect one person’s views might work for some mass circulation publications, but it turns a local newspaper into a bad business proposition. There aren’t enough people here to fill up a profitable bubble with readers eager for bias masquerading as news.

Each week a couple of dozen talented residents of Columbia County create and distribute another issue of The Columbia Paper. Many of them have been part of this non-traditional business from the beginning. You’d have to ask them individually why they do it. All I can do is tell them how grateful I am that they continue to make this happen.

Will year nine yield great success? I hope so by a traditional definition. But in the larger sense of accomplishing something worthwhile, the people who share in producing this paper are already achieving that goal week after week.

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