EDITORIAL: Rebirthday wishes?

DON’T CALL IT A REBIRTHDAY. Technically speaking, the paper wasn’t dead. We were taking a Covid-19 break until we could be reasonably sure the people who deliver the print edition were not putting themselves and others at an excess risk of contracting the illness.

At the end of March 2020 we suspended publication of the print edition of The Columbia Paper. That’s a fancy way of saying we went into lockdown as far as the newspaper was concerned. We didn’t have to, because Governor Cuomo had declared that the press was an “essential service.” It seemed prudent at the time.

This week’s issue marks a year since The Columbia Paper emerged from our self imposed lockdown. It took 10 weeks of no papers to return to publishing on our old weekly schedule.

Our decision to suspend publishing the print edition meant no income from newsstand paper sales. But those sales had already shrunk as the pandemic became the major story (except for some coverage of the presidential election) in practically every news outlet. There were hardly any new subscribers through the mail, either. In the spring of 2020 newspapers and magazines suddenly disappeared from all sorts of waiting rooms and mailboxes. Nobody wanted to hold something in their hands that might make them sick.

From a business perspective the biggest impact came from the loss of all our display advertising. Taken together, those sources amounted to over 90% of our revenue. What we were left with was our website. There, our loyal core of online advertisers stuck with us. We also were seeing more “visitors,” as Google calls them, logging on to www.columbiapaper.com.

It’s a trend in the media business that newspapers unable to make it financially decide to switch to an all-digital news source on the web. We decided not to adopt that web news approach. I have doubts about the business model as long as the social media platforms continue to suck so much of the advertising business from small markets. There’s also the hurdle that crummy broadband internet service poses in many parts of this county. The Columbia Paper started out as an online news source. But since we published our first issue in April 2009 the newspaper has come first.

The non-profit Poynter Institute reports a story online with the headline: “The coronavirus has closed more than 70 local newsrooms across America.” If there’s any question about what kind of newsrooms reporter Kristen Hare is talking about, here’s a quote I’ve shared before: “Since 2004, about 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States…1,700 are weeklies.”

Community newspapers like this one live on the verge of extinction. That’s why I felt not only gratitude but also surprise when, even before we posted requests for donations you—our readers—started sending donations. You wanted us back. We agreed.

We missed our chance to respond to each of you who contributed. I speak for myself when I admit I focused on resuming publication at the cost of saying Thank You for helping us buck the trend and start printing again. So, thank you to all… again.

Having said that I also want to ask you for a favor: Please ask two different people you know who live here whether they subscribe to The Columbia Paper; if they don’t, ask them to consider it. No hard sell. Just a brief testimonial. It might surprise you how many people still say they don’t know about The Columbia Paper even after the 12 years we’ve been publishing.

I’ve thought a lot about our 10 weeks of web-only news last year. I wonder: Was I too cautious? All I know for certain is that no one working with the paper got sick.

We now have a few more subscribers than we did before the pandemic. The revenue looks good. The outlook remains as murky. And publishing it each week is a joy. What saved this newspaper was not a rebirth it was a reprieve. I can live with that if you can.

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