WITH ALL DUE RESPECT to our good friend Alan Chartock, it is not true that The Columbia Paper “bit the dust.” Not yet, anyway.
Alan, the founder and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio, was making a point last week on WAMC’s The Media Project show about the number of newspapers that have shut down. I tuned in just as he called The Columbia Paper a “great newspaper.” But I had no time to savor that praise before he pronounced this paper dead and lamented our passing.
If the Paper is Dead then Long Live the Paper. Put another way, there’s life left in us as a source of news about Columbia County. But Dr. Chartock is technically correct. I did “suspended publication” of the print edition after the March 26 issue. It was too risky for the delivery drivers. It was financially risky too. We lost almost all our revenue, which came from advertising and from subscriptions to the printed paper.
All of this is old news. What we need to show readers now is that we can find a way for this business to survive. We haven’t received government loans or private grants to tide us over until… what? Until the “new normal” takes shape? All I know is that survival depends on action not complaints. So I borrowed the approach used by my favorite radio station, WAMC. I asked readers to contribute to The Columbia Paper.
Many of you have responded. We understand if you can’t. You sent large contributions and small and everything in between. Several thousand dollars—I haven’t yet added up what we have received (and it isn’t deductible), but it will be used to keep local news and community information flowing in this county. Your generosity was unexpected and overwhelming. We will do our best to live up to your faith in us.
Online readership has increased lately and along with that growth has come more digital advertising. Combining contributions with web ad revenues and reductions in expenses (including, sadly, job cuts), we have enough to keep going for a couple of months. We can stretch that out longer if we are able to collect money owed for display advertising that ran in the print edition. But that means sometime in the summer or fall we’ll face the next hurdle, which will probably be a transition to a paid online news site. Whether that will sustain us remains to be seen.
What happens to the print edition? We’d love to bring it back. I remind myself and you endlessly that this is one of the oldest counties in the state by average age. The older you are the more likely it is you grew up reading printed newspapers and the less likely you are to have an internet connection. Also, in this county if you live east of the Taconic State Parkway, you may not have access to affordable high speed internet service even if you want it. Our subscriber list verifies that these demographics make a strong case for a print newspaper.
The economics? Not so much. It costs roughly $1,000 per week to print The Columbia Paper, a figure that does not account for the cost of drivers who take the paper to 30 post offices and about 80 newsstands throughout the county each week. It takes people to create a print issue too. We could do it if we have enough display advertising to make the paper sustainable. As the state reopens we will learn how many former customers still have ad budgets.
Did we bite the dust or did the threat of Covid-19 and pandemic economics just rough us up and force us to rethink how we inform readers of what’s happening in Columbia County? Call it optimism or magical thinking, I believe we know more now about how the news business has changed and how fragile it is.
Either way, don’t blame Alan Chartock. His fundraising genius for WAMC Northeast Public Radio inspired me to reach out to our readers; we’re an underwriter of WAMC and count WAMC as one of our regular advertisers online and in print. He’s been a supporter of The Columbia Paper from its inception. In early 2009, WAMC regularly put me on air as editor of a new website news service www.columbiapaper.com that quickly became The Columbia Paper. It was tremendous visibility for the website and this paper.
Alan may be right that we’re finished. Me? I’m biting my tongue and quietly thanking him for one more bit of publicity.