TIME FOR AN UPDATE. No, Wait! Don’t turn off your screen. Resist the temptation to swat flies with the newspaper you’re reading. This is an experiment in crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing is when someone like me enlists lots of people to come up with ideas to solve a problem. I don’t have time for that. You probably feel the same way. But if I can’t come up with new ideas, this paper is in jeopardy, again.
This sounds depressingly familiar, so let me clear the air: We’re not pleading for more individual contributions. Many of you recently gave us money—we raised over $20,000 in just a few weeks this spring after we suspended publication of the print edition as the pandemic exploded. Your generosity made it possible for us to resume publication in print June 11.
This is the 11th issue since our print lockdown ended. We have billed our print edition display advertisers for ads they ran in June and July. Many of them have paid us, so we have cash coming in. But advertising revenue has fallen short every week compared to previous years.
Covid-19 is responsible for much of this downturn. We’re not alone, either. Covid-19 has accelerated the closing of many small businesses that are exactly the types of enterprises likely to benefit from advertising in community newspapers like The Columbia Paper.
But for newspapers, this change began long before the virus appeared. For years, editorials here have repeated the demographic challenges of the Columbia County market: people who read newspapers are older. Younger readers are wedded to their mobile devices—we ancient ones call them “phones.” Research says that younger readers spend more money. They certainly consume more hours of digital information and entertainment than their elders; ink on paper doesn’t do it for many people under 40. Even websites are so… boring.
We don’t ask our readers how old they are. Instead, they tell us over and over that they love The Columbia Paper. So somehow we should be able to leverage that love into a paper that’s self supporting, right?
Maybe not. The Poynter Institute recently reported on the research done by Prof. Penny Abernathy: “Since 2004, about 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States…. 1,700 are weeklies.” And the pace of newspaper closures is picking up. It may start with a merger (remember The Chatham Courier?). Or the paper becomes a news website. We did that for 10 weeks. Or they lay off workers. We did that too. And at the end we would have been broke except for your contributions.
We’re not broke yet. But we’re teetering on the edge. And around the country small businesses, and small newspapers in particular, lack the emergency funds that bigger firms use to survive economic disruptions.
The fate of newspapers isn’t determined by some law of physics. What if there was a new business model perfectly suited to a Columbia County weekly newspaper. Maybe the pundits and academics just never thought of it. And neither did we.
Think of this crowdsource challenge as a 3D jigsaw puzzle with lots of moving parts. Or just consider how you would answer the question: What would I do if I owned The Columbia Paper?
If your idea is scribbled on a napkin, please be sure it’s a clean one. And be sure to include your daytime phone number.
There are no dumb suggestions. There won’t be limits on how many ideas you submit unless my already overburdened email mailbox gives up. But our fate will be decided in a matter of weeks. So don’t wait too long.
This is a serious request not a demand or some sort of threat. It’s not your job as a reader to pull us out of the economic hole we’re in. Under less extreme circumstances we would not have reached out in this way. It’s our responsibility to come up with a plan to assure that The Columbia Paper survives these times, just as we have met previous crises. But if you have an idea, please share it with us. If not, ignore this request. Either way, we’ll do our best to keep the paper afloat as long as possible.