EDITORIAL: Farewell to print? Not yet

WHAT I RECALL most from the March 19, 2020 issue of The Columbia Paper was the silence. An occasional truck on Route 66 downshifted passing the office. Now and then a car. Nothing audible from the sky.

Our four drivers carry the paper to every post office and most newsstands in the county. After they left it was too quiet to think straight.

Newspapers count the number of pages in each issue as one measure of the health of the business. The first paper in March was 32 pages, a reassuring sign that the economy would be stronger than the previous year. The second paper in March slipped to 28 pages, but okay, that’s still good for March. The third paper of the month was 24 pages.

Could you get Covid-19 by handling a newspaper? It was a reasonable question given how little was known at the time about a virus that was killing people in New York City. Now we know that isn’t the way this illness spreads. We also know this virus has not yielded all its secrets.

By the third issue we knew that the fourth paper of the month would lose another 4 pages—that’s how it comes off the press: four pages at a time. A 20-page issue was a loss of nearly 40% of our pages in one month.

These bad signs would not necessarily have caused the “temporary suspension” of the printed edition of the paper that followed. It was the possibility that delivering the papers put the health and lives of our drivers at risk. They all had to spend time at stores big and small, collecting our share of last week’s paper sales. Each driver wore a mask. Was that enough?

I spoke with a doctor and with an epidemiologist (both are family members) and the deputy publisher (also family). Opinions differed but there was no good choice. Sending the drivers on their routes felt like rolling the dice with our neighbors’ lives.

The March 26, 2020 issue carried a notice on Page 1 and an editorial that we were suspending the print edition. The notice offered no date for resuming publication. I promised that in the meantime we would “expand the content” of our website, which we did, as far as we were able. As for the promise that the suspension was temporary? I didn’t know how we’d ever get back in print.

It wasn’t just the shrinking page count. Having no printed paper meant losing more than 95% of our revenue stream. Thousands of businesses have folded because of the pandemic; what happened to us is far from the most dramatic. But it was unexpected.

It started with a few unsolicited donations, mostly through the mail. We posted an annoying drop-down menu on the website asking visitors to donate. The Columbia Paper was not eligible for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) federal loan. So we applied to the Google Journalism Emergency Relief Fund program. Of the more than 12,000 applicants we were one of the news sources chosen. We received $5,000. We received over $20,000 in local contributions. Readers were telling us it was time to publish a paper again.

Seventy days after halting paper publication we came back with… a 16-page issue. We went to 20 pages soon after and then stopped growing. Has the pandemic market determined that only a downsized paper can scrape by on the advertising revenue the big digital firms leave behind? We don’t know yet.

The last year has been emotionally draining or worse. All of us have stories. In the darkest days I consulted people who know about investing. I pondered selling the paper if only I could have found a local successor who didn’t carry a hedge fund cudgel.

These days it can be quiet here at the office except for rush hours or when the ATVs whine by. We bill our newsstand customers by mail. There’s a buzz inside each Thursday morning as our team of drivers pick up their bundles of the print edition.

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