FIFTY YEARS AGO this week I was racing around a makeshift TV studio on the fifth floor of a loft in lower Manhattan. A small group of us had caught the attention of a CBS TV executive. He thought there might be an TV audience for the music and politics of baby boomers. We thought we’d break the mold of timid TV.
It didn’t work out that way. Three network big shots showed up to observe our pre-pilot show—live musicians, brief documentaries and no host. They sat by themselves in an adjacent loft, watching it like it was a traditional TV show. It wasn’t. It was a messy, confusing, mostly joyful glimpse of The Sixties.
What kind of advertiser would be crazy enough to buy ads on a program like this? It didn’t matter. CBS and our group were done with each other.
TV did change, not as a direct result of our encounter but because new technology made it possible for lots of people to create their own TV shows and play them on cable TV. And then the Internet arrived and YouTube, and instead of three networks dominating what we watch, a handful of new companies give the public too much programming to absorb, even if we could afford to stream it all.
Newspapers used be where businesses placed their display advertising. Even small, local papers could sometimes provide a tidy living for some entrepreneurs as well as jobs in a labor-intensive industry. Then, about a century ago, commercial radio blossomed and radios became cheap enough for most families to own one. Radio ate into newspapers profits and, after World War II, TV grabbed the big ad dollars. Today, conventional television is being elbowed aside. Ad revenue for Google and Facebook advertising worldwide last year was reportedly $170 billion.
That doesn’t leave much left over for those of us at the bottom of the media food chain. Our readers tell us they love this newspaper, but advertisers want value; they want to reach people likely to purchase their goods or services. So if Google or Facebook offer exposure to huge numbers of people for less than what we have to charge for an ad, it sounds like a deal too good to ignore.
Skeptics say that advertising offered by the digital heavyweights like Google doesn’t produce the kind of results advertisers are led to expect. But there’s no doubt that digital ads can flicker by huge numbers of people, even here in the digital deserts of Columbia County. The challenge for us is to attract new readers and continue giving them and you local news worth paying for.
One route we have to go is increasing our subscription price. That will happen in late February. If you want to renew early, you can do it at the old price.
We’re also exploring how best to serve online readers at our website, www.columbiapaper.com.
Many readers have told us they would like to see more of the newspaper online. But that’s expensive and to cover the cost will require us to put the online version behind a paywall. In other words readers would have to pay to read the whole newspaper just like the people who subscribe to the paper through the mail or buy issues at a newsstand. Right now only a few parts of the paper are available digitally.
We don’t take these steps lightly. But competition from the online giants as well as the costs of operating the newspaper week to week leave us little choice but to pursue what our industry calls “new revenue models.”
Publishing display advertisements will remain a big part of our business. That’s because advertisers tell us it works and because we know ads are an effective way for local businesses and organizations to communicate with our readers.
We have more readers now than at any time since The Columbia Paper was launched in April 2009. We hope that trend continues. Thank you. We couldn’t do this without your support.
A year or two after the event that so underwhelmed the CBS TV execs, we moved out of New York City, settled in the Catskills and set up a tiny TV station in the Greene County hamlet of Lanesville. It was an experiment. Skills we’d first honed with the network presentation helped us create new approaches to local media. The media landscape has changed tremendously since then, but the need for community news remains constant.
From all of us here, Happy New Year 2020.