The state of the newspaper industry in 2020

The most common question I get today is how is your business doing? Unlike that question posed to all small businesses impacted by COVID, what people really want to know is how has the Internet impacted us. It is a valid question.
The general assumption is newspapers are going to be forced to close down because of the competition from the latest new technology. 
Let me put that notion to rest because I believe the Internet is the best thing that has happened to small community newspapers. In the not to distant past, publishing a weekly newspaper was a labor of love that took amazing skills. Small local publishers had to be a writer, a salesman, an advertising specialist, a photographer, a printer, and often a bookkeeper. 
In small towns like ours they had to belong to most of the service clubs, the Chamber of Commerce and attend school board, city council meetings and most high school sporting events. If they were large enough they could hire reporters to do some of the work. Graphic artists to design the papers and customer advertisements. Pressman to run the press and delivery people to get the paper delivered.
Often times keeping staff was often difficult as they moved on to larger publications that could offer higher pay and benefits. 
I bought the Lake Chelan Mirror in late 2000 and immediately traded some stock in my little company to the then owners of The Leavenworth Echo and Cashmere Valley Record.  At the time, The Echo and the Record were being printed in Ellensburg. Chelan had its own press. So, I was able to save enough money by moving my printing to Chelan to pay the debt on an SBA loan to complete the purchase. 
Over the years we have added the Quad City Herald in Brewster and The Wenatchee Business Journal to our stable of publications.
Our early business plan was that by consolidating the back office functions of these small publications we could work to improve the editorial products. The Chelan office handled printing, circulation administration and record keeping. Leavenworth handled bookkeeping, corporate governance, taxes and personnel administration. We all shared advertising sales activity. Leavenworth also took charge of technology. From our earliest days we installed a computerized system for taking and tracing advertising activity all through a network of computers. 
We were one of the first businesses in Leavenworth and Chelan to install high speed fiber lines from the Chelan PUD to connect our offices. That allowed us to send fully paginated pages to our printing operation in Chelan. 
A few years ago we recognized that if we were going to be competitive in the print advertising world we had to add more color. Unfortunately, our press and our building had limitations that could not be overcome without a huge investment in new press equipment. Equipment that may soon become the real Achilles heel to our business model.
At the same time, the larger daily newspapers were being hit even harder by the rise of the Internet. They began cutting editions. That left their presses with excess capacity that they needed to monetize. We sold our press to the Wenatchee World and started printing our papers on their press. Today, there are only a handful of printing presses on the east side of the Cascades. Competition for quality printing is keeping prices low and reduction in the number of editions and pages in daily newspapers across the country has resulted in excess paper production. 
It may sound like the whimpers of a dying industry. But while the Internet purports to be able to replace the printed page it lacks one vitally important quality – local relevance. There are business models emerging to address that issue, but none have been able to maintain viability. 
They have been successful in picking off some advertising revenue from local media. Revenue that would otherwise support a more robust local media presence, but they do not provide reliable local news content. Google and the other search engines are raiding local news sites to pull news content from other copyrighted media. They have come under criticism for that activity and are now starting to talk about paying local publishers for their content.
Today, each of our newspapers has an active website. Those sites contain some premium content that we developed on our own and much free content that is provided by local organizations and individuals. It also has content that is submitted to us but which we don’t have room for in the print edition.
To access the premium content, visitors must be paid subscribers. Last year, we changed our policy on our online subscriptions. Premium access is now the same price as a print subscription. Part of our website includes an “E-Edition” that is an exact version of the printed newspaper. Visitor’s have to be a paid subscriber to access it.
What we have learned is people will pay for an online edition. We get counts of exactly how many people opened the E-Edition. The numbers are growing and our readership has actually increased over the last few years.
One other thing we have learned in the last year. Some of the best local content has been contributed by local people. We are exploring the issue of instead of us hiring young inexperienced journalists to send out on “assignment,” we will be looking at establishing a list of contributors who we may pay as freelance writers. Last year the best track coverage we have ever had was provided by the coach in Cashmere. We will be looking for more of that kind of coverage going forward. 
The other question I always get these days is, “when are you going to retire.?”
My wife and I love what we do, but we are getting older and would like to pursue other activities. We are interested in selling. We truly believe that this business can be a home-based business that provides a good income. If you think you might be interested give me a call and we can discuss our vision for the future with you. My cell is 509-670-1837.
By the way, one of the things I would like to pursue is to write a couple of novels. My first one is in editorial review now and should be available in book stores and on Amazon by the end of the year. Keep your eye open for a local ad for pre-ordering!

 

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