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Column: Major Blow To Local News Expansion Consideration

By: Forrest R. Church, Publisher
THE VILLAGE REPORTER

Local weekly community news coverage dates back locally as best as I can tell to the 1870s; we have archives of our newspapers dating back to this period. There are a lot of other local community newspapers dating back to the same time frame. 130-150 years of keeping the same format says a lot about an industry.

Since publishing my first newspaper in August of 2001, having served as a writer/photographer before this time frame, I have noted a tremendous amount of change in the industry. Technology forced the hand of change in many areas, but regardless I think more has been modified in the last two decades than the prior 130-150 years combined.

In 2001 when I bought our first community newspaper in my 20s there was no email, the fax did not work, no computer software to design pages (a wax paper system was used), certainly no social media, photography was conducted with film and a dark room. This system worked for community newspapers for a long, long time. Sometimes I think back and wonder if times were better then? I am proud of many of these upgrades and changes but a more simple style also looks pretty appealing when I’m stressed with more moving parts to run this business now than ever.

I modified things quickly when buying our first newspaper. An email was immediately established, digital fax machine, website created, the old wax paper system switched to software, 35 mm film and dark rooms replaced with digital cameras; but a lot has was forced upon us.

Example – I think social media is great. I also think social media is responsible for a lot of our problems in society and it leading us into an array of dangerous directions. If we did not partner with the platform however, we would be left in the dark concerning much of the community events taking place. For some reason organizations believe placing a community event on social media that shows their posts to around 9-14% of their followers is good enough.

Long traditional community news partners such as newspapers, radio stations and even putting a flyer up at the grocery store which local residents have utilized forever is largely forgotten. Thus social media was honestly somewhat forced upon our news operation.
Yet despite all these changes in the last twenty plus years, a big one was/may still be on the horizon …

WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN HINTING AT FORREST?

After months of debate, I have decided to let the cat out of the bag as the old phrase goes. We have had a business plan at the newspaper that I’ve hinted about in my column pretty much all year long. This change in operation has been something I have often thought about over the past few decades, but I was waiting for the proper timing to pull the trigger if the opportunity presented itself.

I’ve honestly had some fun with these subtle hints as even many on our newspaper team have asked what’s going on, as have a few in the community. But I needed to cross T’s and dot I’s before the decision was made. If I am being honest, my excitement has been a bit deflated the past few weeks. Let’s just say you did not want to read the column that came to mind, and I did not type last week. I feel like an upper cut has been received right to the small business gut, something business and families throughout our nation are enduring; we certainly are not alone.

Some in my business circle probably think releasing such tidbits of information is not a great business concept; however, I have found over the years that transparency and openly sharing thoughts works better than secrets and hidden game plans. While a community newspaper is not exactly the same as the local school district, library or park system, it is still a key element to our communities which is why I shrug every time I hear of another newspaper closing, whether they are “competition” or not. I feel it is important to share our community efforts with our readers as openly as possible.

I have also always tried to be honest with the communities that we serve, whether that information is positive or negative. I certainly loved sharing praises received at the newspaper and positives in the community/newspaper relationship. But I have also been clear in times of struggle. When our former newspapers The Edon Commercial and The Wauseon Reporter were struggling due to lack of community support, I was transparent with our need and struggle long before the decision to close and merge them to become The Village Reporter was made.

The good news is we are not looking at anything like this currently; our Williams and Fulton County communities have been very supportive to us and we hope to be here for decades to come, Lord willing. A great big thank you to everyone who supports us by subscribing, placing an advertisement or purchasing photo reprints.

NEWSPAPER MODIFICATION

Several years ago, we began to offer the weekly E-Edition to print subscribers which arrived immediately within readers’ e-mail inbox, offering digital options along with the traditional print mailed paper. We also began to implement providing individual news stories online as quickly as our writers/photographers completed them, changing our traditional weekly option to more of a daily news format.

This kept the format of weekly news dating back to the 1800s the same but also allowed readers online immediate access, sometimes up to a week before the print copy provided the same story in the mail. I have noted frequently when we have covered the same story as daily newspapers and/or providing a breaking news piece that we have often had our coverage available to our readers even faster (online) than our friends in the daily news game, often the fastest in Northwest Ohio.

Note – Almost all newspapers charge extra fees for an E-Edition and full online access, we have always wrapped this into our base subscription charges – no extra fees.

This certainly brought a lot of change to our weekly community news format. We realize times have changed. News that people used to be perfectly fine waiting for to arrive in the mail weekly is now desired as quickly as possible. With the internet, social media, and improvements in technology, obviously the time it takes for a story to be published has sped up tremendously. I think this is good in some regard, but also has lots of issues exist – another column for another time.

Okay, I’ll touch on this briefly; one main point is the spread of incorrect information. I can give several instances in the last few weeks where community members have shared tremendously incorrect information on some Facebook groups which were then shared by hundreds. Even after the media shared correct official news stories afterward, the incorrect information remains front and center. Spreading of such misinformation is dangerous and in these instances hurtful. Okay, really, this is another column for another time.

The speed of news delivery has been a desire of readers for some time. Thus the secret I have had in the bag was to begin publishing two editions per week instead of one. Thought I’d never state what I have been hinting at most of the year, huh?

As I stated earlier, this has been on my mind for decades. The need for more frequent print news was also confirmed without their knowledge it was on my radar by separate leadership in the two county area who have appreciated our unbiased news coverage (compared to other media outlets) but they were not a fan of the weekly format in getting print news delivered slower than they would like to see. Out of thin air I was asked twice if we would ever consider more editions per week.

The desire of a Monday/Thursday newspaper format was going to bring our coverage of local news to a whole new level. We originally were looking at starting this format as early as October 31, 2022 or as late as January 1, 2023.

Adding editions would be something that I am unaware if any newspaper in the country has done recently. As you know and I’ve mentioned in past columns most newspapers that have published daily or even twice a week now have cut down publication days (editions) by 50-75%. Some now only printing a single edition per week; a few no longer print at all and are online only.

I have honestly felt blessed that in the midst of newspapers cutting coverage and editions around us that we have been in the position to even consider an increase, going the complete opposite direction. This is due to our hard-working staff that truly cares about providing local news to our local communities and the support of our subscribers and advertisers – likely if you are reading this rather long winded column – YOU.

We were looking forward to the big sports game coverage arriving half a week earlier to subscribers in the mail.

We were desiring that the early week small government meeting coverage was in the hands of our readers who do not care about the early online access we provide, quicker than ever.

I felt that two editions per week was a “sweet spot” as I know those subscribing to weekly newspapers would love more editions in their hands per week yet 5-7 editions a week (daily) can be a bit much and build up on the coffee table to be thrown away at the end of the week without adequately reading. Let’s face truth, we are all pretty busy and it is easy to fall behind on reading newspapers. Thus twice a week in my mindset, placed feelers, strategic planning, etc… seemed perfect.

(Insert screeching breaks)

INFLATION – THE GUT PUNCH THAT KEEPS ON COMING

For most of this year I have prepared. The Post Office was contacted on what needed to change with our mailing permit. I checked with the printer on print windows available. I estimated and re-estimated financial expenses vs the benefits to our communities over and over again. When waking up at 3:45 a.m. with a consideration that came to mind from the midst of a deep sleep, I added it to the numbers and crunched some more. The deal was 90% closed, we were going to move forward. 130-150 years of weekly format would change.

Then a phone call from the print press warning me of a large print increase was heading our way due to paper prices sky rocketing came. I pouted, yelled, screamed, went for walks, and crunched numbers while trying to look into my crystal ball even more. Was this a death blow to the idea? At the end of the day I thought maybe we could still move forward – the deal was now 60% closed.

Yet then notification came from the National Newspaper Association of a large increase earlier this year in postage pricing, despite newspapers around the country fighting the USPS to provide quick and consistent delivery (stop losing subscribers newspapers at SCF centers).

These two increases (printing and mailing) were massive, our razor thin profit margins we have been able to make work for years became even thinner, before the idea of doubling our prints/mailings per year from weekly to twice a week. Now the concept of twice a week was up in the air 50/50.

I know we are not alone with the inflation battle. I could probably tell a hundred stories of business struggles locally. On a citizen level just this week I received two e-mail from older subscribers who indicated they love our paper and look forward receiving it in the mail each week but due to limited income, one living off social security only, they can no longer afford $2 a week in expense (less than a cup of coffee or candy bar).

This, well in non proper grammar, sucks. Not because of what I consider their kind words, but because like us, they are severely struggling as inflation is out of control with housing prices, groceries, gas, etc. etc. I can do little to assist or discount our $2.00 per week price.

Before these pricing increases I keep gabbing on about here, a larger newspaper edition print and mailing can put us in the red. When we printed 60+ page editions before the printing and mailing increases in past years it may have cost $2.25 to print, mail and deliver a newspaper we were selling for $2.00. Smaller editions broke even or maybe even provided the needed profit margin business rely upon. Now with printing and mailing increases, this difference is much larger.

I am trying to draw the line in the sand on not increasing our pricing in the manner literally every business has done but please note here and now I do not know for how much longer. All advisors indicated I should have done this in the summer as any lost revenues since then cannot be made back up. I am resisting; I want our subscriptions to remain as affordable as possible. Though $2.00 per week is on the higher end of single newspaper rates, our per page cost is often half of other newspapers. Most area papers publishing 8 to 16 pages per edition charge $.09-$.14 cents per page for news (they are providing good pricing), keep in mind we charge $.04 ($2.00 / 46 average pages = $.04). Again please also note above, we include the E-Edition and daily website news at no extra cost for subscribers.

I have joked I am too fat to walk on water. The Hebrews or whoever invented math did a pretty good job, no matter how much I refigure expenses vs income the numbers remain the same, I’m not a miracle worker. Our losses in this area are being made up in advertisement revenues and honestly more readers buying our newspapers at local stores than in recent years. The more newspapers we sell via subscriptions or at stores quickly improve these numbers I’ve probably bored you with, as our fees per newsprint piece decrease the longer our print press runs, as setup and early press run fees are the most expensive aspect of the printing process.

INFLATION MET WITH EVEN MORE INFLATION

Last week I checked in on our National Newspaper Convention gathering in San Francisco, specifically interested in what Postmaster General Louis DeJoy had to say to publishers from around the country. I normally attend these gatherings first person but with recent health issues I did not think it was wise to travel that far from Northwest Ohio. Checking in, it was another gut punch as the USPS notified newspapers that another mailing increase will start the first of the year despite the recent one just added, increasing mailing more or less by 15% in costs.

From the National Newspaper Association: “Local newspaper publishers entering their subscribers’ newspapers at local post offices will see an average 7.6% increase in postage rates in January 2023. The increase comes as USPS is experiencing inflation pressures and also raising prices to improve revenue for its operation, where a new Delivering for America plan will roll out major changes in the way mail is handled and transported. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy spoke today to an assembly of community newspaper publishers gathered at the National Newspaper Association Foundation Annual Convention & Trade Show in San Francisco. He said USPS had been hurt by pricing limitations in a 2006 law and that more postage increases were ahead.”

“NNA incoming chair John Galer, publisher of the Hillsboro (Illinois) Journal-News, said the proposed increases were daunting. The January increase added to a price hike of around 7% from July 2022. The total impact of increased mailing cost has risen into the range of 15% in a single year. We understand the damage that inflation inflicts upon the U.S. economy and, as loyal customers of the Postal Service in our industry for more than 200 years, we try to take actions to help USPS control its own expenses,” Galer said. “But price increases of this magnitude will hurt newspapers as well as the Postal Service. This is not the time to drive business away if the Postmaster General’s goal is to fill his mail trucks and his mailbags, as he told us today.”

In a personal social media post last week, I wrote, “We have been hit over the head with increased printing prices due to paper pricing, and now a second large postage increase within 12 months. I’ve seen more increases in 12 months than in 22 years combined it seems. I know other businesses and personal budgets are taking a hit in the midst of this inflation, but this is unreal. I fear a lot of community newspapers that may make 10 cents on a sold newspaper copy will have to fold. We have already lost the Delta Atlas, Antwerp Argus, State Line Observer (Morenci), Hamilton News, Montpelier Leader and at the first of the year Hicksville Tribune for various reasons at the local level.”

Let me be clear here. I am disappointed in these production increases but I do not feel anyone is taking advantage of us. Example – I know how much more American print presses are paying for paper rolls, they have to stay in the black and raise their fees. Literally every business, organization, family and entity is fighting this in some level, whether big or small. Everyone is forced to raise their prices it seems.

This increase changed our desire to double our edition count per week from 50/50 to more on the unlikely side of consideration, at least for now, sadly do to circumstances completely out of our control.

SO WHAT NOW?

Brutal honesty? No clue, time will tell. The brakes have been put on the twice a week concept for now. While upset that the same printing I have paid for over the years is costing a lot more and postage is increasing every six months, I have to look at the big picture. These changes could have arrived after we put our neck out on the line on the twice a week and we would have been hit harder than we are now. Sometimes in life and in business it is important to look at the big picture; maybe this is a blessing in disguise.

But, on the flip side, I also believe in shoulders back and fight ahead. Anything of value is worth fighting for. I have not given up on the idea of doubling our weekly edition output. We will have to see how this all hashes out.

In the mean time we will continue to provide the news coverage you love the most – local news. Again thank you for your support, please keep us in mind when holiday shopping, gift subscriptions make a great idea.

I’d love to hear from you on the matter, as always, feel free to reach out to me at publisher@thevillagereporter.com or via the mail at 115 Broad Street, Montpelier, Ohio 43543.

The post Column: Major Blow To Local News Expansion Consideration first appeared on The Village Reporter.


Source: The Village Reporter

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