WHAT WERE YOU DOING nine years ago today? It was a difficult time. The national unemployment rate was 8.9%, almost twice what it is today. The recession wasn’t as grim here as it was in places like Michigan, but that was small comfort to people who lost their jobs or homes or both. So naturally the thing was to do back then was start a new newspaper.
It wasn’t hard to find people here familiar with producing a weekly paper. The biggest weekly in the county, a paper called The Independent, had shut down without warning two months earlier. Its large corporate owner had thrown more than 20 people out of work, including me.
I consulted newspaper experts and to a person they advised me to wait. Plan cautiously, they said. Go slow. Sure, sure. And just as they predicted, heeding their advice would have saved a lot of money, frustration, money, anxiety and did I say money? But it was too late.
Within a week after we were laid off we had a local news website online, columbiapaper.com and two months later about a dozen of us, mostly veterans of The Independent, were busy assembling the first issue of The Columbia Paper, a 16-page tabloid about what was happening in Columbia County, or as much of it as would fit in 16 pages. And from there, the rest is… well, what is it?
We still produce a paper weekly except for a short break around the New Year. The paper has almost twice as many pages each week as when it started and carries more advertising. We see slight annual gains in circulation, mostly from more paid subscriptions. And many of you, our readers, still tell us you like The Columbia Paper. Actually, most often readers who express an opinion about the print edition say, “I love your newspaper.” That is really nice. Thank you.
Now, if we could just figure out how to translate that bond between you and the paper into the money we need to do an even better job of reporting on Columbia County. In other words, what’s the best way to make sure the residents of this county can continue to count on us as a source of timely, accurate local news?
We have seen digital edition grow. We post major parts of the paper on our website for free. We post links on Facebook too. And we know that despite the dreadfully slow internet service in parts of the county, people here are embracing newer technologies for digital information. More than a third of our online readers access our site with mobile devices. When you add the people who read us on a tablet, that comes to over half the 10,000 monthly “users” of our site.
But digital revenue makes only a modest contribution to our bottom line. Perhaps we should try to squeeze more money out of our website ads. But the big bucks are sucked up by giants like Facebook and Google. And by now, everybody knows those companies sell data about you, your friends and your online habits to all kinds of advertisers.
We have never consciously done that. But what the Facebook scandal shows is that digital mega-companies track our online behavior whether we want them to or not. That means we can’t offer our visitors absolute online privacy protections; only the federal government can do that and it’s time for Congress to adopt regulations that make everybody’s data more secure. But no matter what regulations emerge, social media is not the same as news.
Here’s another point worth repeating: when you buy a copy of The Columbia Paper, nobody but you knows what you read–not Mark Zuckerberg or the Russians or the FBI or sketchy groups like Cambridge Analytica, not even the president. Think about it.
What we tell our local advertisers is that we sell newspapers by subscription and at newsstands everywhere in the county. We tell them we believe that our readers actually do read the paper they buy because they’ve paid for their copy expecting we’ll provide them with something worth reading.
Logically, that means if you provide products or services or promote events or candidates for public office, you’ll know your message in print and online will be seen by smart people who care about this county. And assuming that your product or service, event or candidate is any good, what that tells you about our readers might be the best data you can get.