EDITORIAL: Not many choices

THE LAND OF LOCKDOWN encourages too much thinking about too few topics. So what about something different like, say, a birthday. And wouldn’t you know it, I just happen to have one in mind: Ours.

“Ours” in this case refers to the print edition of The Columbia Paper. The first issue was published April 16, 2009. Two months earlier The Independent, a twice-weekly local newspaper, had been closed by the newspaper chain that owned it. Nearly 30 people lost their jobs. I was among them.

What we now call the Great Recession shed about 500,000 jobs nationwide that month alone. It was the greatest economic downturn since the end of World War II. Not a great time to start a new business.

Here we are exactly 11 years later and we had over 5.2 million jobless workers in the previous week. You don’t need the numbers. Most small businesses like ours are trapped by a sickness we can only stop by closing our doors or reducing what we offer so much that it amounts to the same thing. Sound like a terrible dilemma? Not really. Locking the doors saves lives. And when we faced that choice at the end of last month, I chose to keep our drivers and the public safe.

We “suspended” the print edition because we deliver papers to retail stores as well as post offices. We know the virus is here. We are reporting news and features on our website, but what we report reaches us by email, phone or web browser. The risks associated with deliveries persist. As this was written, there were 100 “positive cases” of Covid-19 and 10 deaths in the county.

Twelve years ago I convinced colleagues from the defunct Independent to believe that together we could start a new newspaper that people in Columbia County would pay for. It took longer than I expected, but by last year they did it. The Columbia Paper became the most widely-distributed local paid-circulation paper in the county.

But when I suspended our printed edition that decision also suspended 97% of our revenue stream as well. Print advertising and the sale of newspapers = $0. What’s left is web advertising; it amounts to 3% of what we used to make.

Traffic on our website has risen over 50% compared to the previous month. We’re drawing 14,000 users a month, and it looks like most of those visitors live in or around Columbia County, which means we are reaching about half the households in the county. Those types of numbers have led to more ads on our website and a little more revenue. But it’s not enough money to keep this operation going much longer.

It takes the labor of nearly 30 people to produce and distribute this paper. We have already “laid off” some people, although that term isn’t accurate. They are independent contractors and the only benefit they received (not counting the fees they charged) was workers compensation insurance coverage. The state Labor Department acknowledged that we abide by the rules, but we learned last week that businesses which hire independent contractors aren’t eligible for any of the recent $2 trillion in the federal Covid-19 relief law called the Cares Act. We were denied a loan backed by the Small Business Administration.

We’ve also applied for a local grant and are looking into a grant sponsored by Google. I can only hope Google doesn’t read what I’ve already written about how the company gobbles up all the local advertising on the web. But it’s Google, so of course it knows.

Governor Cuomo has said that the Pause in normal business operations in this state won’t be lifted in any significant way until at least a month from now. That’s not a promise, it’s a target. I don’t know whether we’ll be functioning by then and, if we are, whether we could afford to get the print edition up and running.

We’re not a tax-exempt charity that can plead for funds and we’re not aware of any small paper that’s succeeded with that approach.

So the other options are:

• Accept that a printed weekly newspaper might be a luxury that many can’t afford and double the cover price to $3 or more. (I dislike this.)

• Install a paywall on the website and charge for access

• Find an investor willing to share the risk and the benefits of The Columbia Paper in what let’s hope is a better post Covid-19 world.

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