Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A vote cast in favor of this job

This job can get a little crazy and stressful (not how long it's been since the last blog post).

This week (and it’s only Tuesday), there’s must have been a full moon because it’s been non-stop crazy.

I’ve had to explain and justify why I won’t remove items from the police blotter (the pot wasn’t his, he was holding it for a friend) including why it’s wrong to bribe me to do so.

I’ve had to explain and justify why the community calendar contains only community events. Hell, an Elvis convention in Pasadena could justify that there are people in small town middle America here that would have an interest in attending — that doesn’t mean it goes in this hyper-local newspaper.

An ad for a local bar was next to an ad for a day care on the page with the school bus schedule and back-to-school information.

It’s just been one thing after another. But the latest thing was crazy only in the sense that it’s not the norm.

I posted a blog on my newspaper’s website Monday afternoon reminding people of the primary election the next day, how some races would be decided by the primary because of no one from the other party is on the ballot and listed the coverage our newspaper has had of candidates the past two months.

A little after 4 p.m. the next day, election day, a woman came to the newspaper office to read the election coverage that spanned several editions. She had gone to the polls and upon seeing the ballot she exited the voting both without casting her ballot. There were too many names she didn’t recognize. Remembering my blog, which she saw via a link posted on Facebook, she came to the newspaper office.

With less than three hours until the polls closed she perused through the newspapers to catch up. We didn’t charge her the 75 cents per edition and stayed open a few minutes past 5 p.m. to let her read.

Most people will either not vote for those candidate or select them at random. Because of the local newspaper, however, this woman took time to be an informed, responsible voter.

Despite all the chaos a small town newspaper editor/reporter sees, it’s the little things like that sometimes that make this job worth it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Death of a salesman (and newsman)

I'm calling this week a failure for our business. Not that the failure specifically happened this week, but the reality of it came to light.

Coming up on the editorial side of the newspaper/news biz, I was always focused on the ideology of the newspaper's mission: provide the news/facts in an unbiased manner, be a government watchdog, find innovative ways of story telling and be the record keeper of history as it happens.

These are fine, lofty goals. But it's not the big picture of the news business. Over the years, I have come to see the overall goals and missions for newspapers and broadcast that carry the news. Yes, it is to deliver pertinent information in a timely manner. But that is just one of many parts in the news machine.

To be economically viable, the newspaper (or news broadcast station) must also be practicable marketing tool for businesses. Specifically, a community newspaper must be a feasible means for local businesses to advertise.

If circulation and readership decline, the value of the product is less to those advertisers (or potential advertisers).

The past couple years I've worried about our declining circulation. But we all know subscriptions and single-copy sales don't make us much money. The ad revenue drives the newspaper.

For the past few weeks, a local grocer who has placed a full page ad every week in our newspaper for decades gave incredible deals through coupons in its ad. The response was minimal. So minimal, that our newspaper will no longer have that ad.

This is a big financial blow to our weekly newspaper. But that's not the only thing I'm concerned about. The low rate of return on great deals for necessary items (eggs, milk, etc.) concerns me from a readership standpoint.

Coupons are a great indicator of consumer response to advertisements. Take many furniture stores or car dealerships - in broadcast ads they'll say things like "Tell them Bob sent you" or "Ask for John." Chances are, the salesmen have never met Bob (or don't care that Bob sent you) or John won't be there to help you. But it gives that business an indication of who is coming there in response to the ad.

If we are getting such a low rate of return on local grocery coupons, what does that say about how many people are actually picking up the newspaper and reading it?

From an editorial standpoint, it means people in this community are not as informed as they should be about local issues.

From a circulation standpoint, it means we are not reaching the number of people we need to.

From an advertising standpoint, we are not a viable marketing tool for local business.

Unfortunately, despite the ideological goals, the latter is the one that matters most. If local businesses cannot use the newspaper as a means to drive more business for themselves, then that product is useless to them - a waste of their money. Those businesses cannot grow through the newspaper.

That's where it hurts the news biz financially. They stop advertising and subsequently stop picking up the newspaper. The domino affect begins.

Unless we can find a way to rebound in circulation, we are, as the pundits have put it, writing our own obituary.

I do not believe newspapers have to die. I believe the way we deliver them can be modified to fit consumers, creating that viable marketing tool.

But that subject is for another blog post.

Thursday, June 30, 2011


Maybe arrogance is the answer for newspapers.

Recently I was outside a fast food restaurant and saw the USA Today newspaper rack. USA Today usually impresses me with its front page. It did again this day. I wanted to buy a copy for a story on the front page because apparently I was too lazy to use my phone app to find it.

There was one problem: I had no change. I could go inside the restaurant and get change, except for the fact I had no cash.

Maybe this is really why single copy sales are down - who carries cash (let alone change) anymore?

If only we could equip every news rack with a way to swipe a credit or debit card to gain access. I'd like to see the results. It's not totally unheard of. Some college campuses have a readership program for students. They swipe their ID cards to gain access to the local metro daily, USA Today and/or New York Times.

I mentioned this to a business owner in town.

"You'd lose money on every transaction," he said.
"Not if we charge $10 per newspaper," I quipped.

Understanding that I was joking, he said I was right. But it got me thinking. I'm not suggesting we charge $10 per newspaper. However, maybe we should consider upping the price a bit.

In what other business do you charge less than the product is worth.
This week we produced a 10-page A section, 4-page B section, 6 page C section and 8-page D section. That's 28 pages plus inserts. At 75 cents per newspaper, that's less than 3 cents per page. Where else can you get that kind of rate. I don't think 3 cents covers the raw costs of ink and paper, let alone transportation to get those newspapers to those locations on top of the salaries to produce it. And let's not forget overhead costs. Of course, advertising is supposed to supplement that cost. Obviously it doesn't.
Anytime you charge more for something, it ups the value of. Let's face it, if people really want it then they will pay for it. If they don't really want it, then we're wasting our time, right?

I say charge more for a single copy of the newspaper and charge for unlimited online access.

In a small town like this one, there are not many other means for a business to effectively advertise. So charge a little more for advertising, but not to the point it excludes many businesses.
I'm sure we happily pay more than many things cost from raw materials through production and delivery.
Perhaps we shouldn't be going around begging people to advertise and begging people to subscribe and begging people to visit our website. Maybe it's time to say to people if you want legitimate news presented in a fair, professional manner you're going to have to be willing to pay for it. If you want to reach your target audience, you're going to have to consider the investment associated with marketing.

I say this, but a paperwork error last year sent subscribers a renewal notice with the price of two-year subscription in the place of the one-year subscription. Subscribers balked at the notion, many calling to cancel their subscription if that were the renewal price.
Sticker shock will turn many away. For the news stand price, I say up it gradually over a two-year period. The same goes for subscribers, except make it a slight increase for current subscribers to renew and a notable increase for new subscribers (but still getting a far better deal per issue by subscribing).

If we were to implement this program tomorrow, my goal would be to have the current 75-cents per issue news stand price to be at $2 by this time in two years. For the subscribers, I would propose their renewal price to increase for a year subscription from $30 to $32 in that time. For first-time subscribers make it $35.
For the web, give print subscribers full access. Offer a web-only subscription for half the price. Allow one-time fees ($2 a week) for those who just need to peruse the website from afar a few times a year.

This would increase revenue (assuming there was no significant drop in subscriptions and single-copy sales or that it bounced back within six months) around $35,000 based on our circulation after numbers return to normal.
For ads, up the cost 20 percent gradually over the course of two years. I can't give good figures on that, except that I would assume given a drop in advertisers we would still be making at least 5 percent more a year than we did two years prior. That can't hurt.

People pay more for gas, groceries, coffee and alcohol. They do it while grumbling at first, but get used to it and continue anyway. Why not add news to that list?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osam bin-WHO?

I felt sick this morning.

Sick from dissatisfaction of what was expected of me - due in part of what some people think our readers expect from us.

Less than 24 hours ago, President Barack Obama announced Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces. Bin Laden was allegedly the mastermind behind (among many terrorist acts) the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that collapsed the two World Trade Center towers, put a hole in one side of the Pentagon and downed a plane full of passengers in a rural Pennsylvania field. The incidents that day forever changed our world.

Today, in the aftermath of this man's death, many are buzzing about bin Laden's death. This is a man who organized al-Queda, but has been hands off for about two years. Most agree that his death is not the end of our nation's war against terror. Perhaps it is the beginning of the end, but there is certainly still a long journey ahead.

His death has not changed our world, though. Not near the way so many things have changed our world. There were no U.S. casualties in the battle that took bin Laden's life.

Yet, on the dawn of bin Laden's death, my publisher (who is a rarity in that he came up on the editorial side to the publisher position), energetically insisted that all of our weekly newspapers come up with "local" coverage of this. He even went so far as to post breaking news to solicit comments and locate sources.

We've compiled the slew of elected officials' statements. Now we're to seek out local sources - local reaction.

I just do not feel this is our role as hyper-local, weekly, community newspapers. The announcement of bin Laden's death came late Sunday night. Our papers go to press Tuesday night. For me, my newspaper hits the stands late Wednesday afternoon and is delivered via U.S. Postal Service to subscribers on Thursday.

My prediction: by Friday talk of bin Laden's death will have dwindled significantly and by this time next week it will be just a fleeting thought. Within two weeks from now, it won't be talked about at all.

I agree with localized coverage on Sept. 11, 2001. It changed our thinking, it changed our lifestyles. It disrupted that day in everyone's life whether they were on the East Coast or Midwest.

This man's death does not disrupt our lifestyle. Troops are not being immediately withdrawn as a result. Almost nothing changes except a moral victory for the United States.

In some places, celebration erupted in the streets. A crowd gathered outside the White House. Impromptu rallies formed in Lawrence, Kan., and Columbia, Mo., where there are large populations of college students. In some places, people have pulled their American flags out the closet and hung them proudly. Others have put up banners declaring the victory.

But here, in the community my newspaper serves, little seems changed. I cannot find any more American flags than usual. I do not see any special signs or banners. This is the same town that has held half a dozen Tea Party rallies in the past three years. This town's patriotism is not in question. But like many small communities, it was exciting news last night. By noon Monday people had moved on with their lives. By Thursday, I doubt many here will care much anymore.

Had a group staged a rally, had people displayed extra patriotism or had more people been willing to talk about when I tried to do man-on-the-street interviews; I would gladly splash this on the front page.

One of our reporters said that newspapers are "a rough draft of history." True. But the draft is very rough if it's some redneck's uneducated opinion. Meanwhile, here, I have a full list of local issues that weigh readers' minds: pit bull bans, flooding issues and cost increases for curbside recycling among other things.

As a small town, community newspaper, we need to focus on documenting this town's history; not wasting time and space for something nobody seems willing to talk about. We are the rough draft of history for this community, not for the nation.

Sure, there are plenty of other angles to consider. I'm tracking down military service members from our community who will be headed to Afghanistan soon. Ideally I would find the family of someone who was currently over there. But with our deadlines, producing something worthwhile is going to be difficult as I'm already having a hard time getting known sources to call me back.

I digress.

Whatever this community wants to make a big deal of, I'm willing to print in the newspaper. Anything else just seems forced.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

By the numbers

To those who have ever grumbled about pay, layoffs or other general cuts in the newspaper world, I'm right there with you.

But have you ever sat down and thought about what all this costs?

Frustrated with the way things were going and sparked by my own entrepreneurial, I wrote out what I thought a newspaper should be: how it operates, how it fits into a small communities, etc.

After getting some general and specific concepts down, including a staff list and duties, I started putting numbers to it. I've been around the biz for a while, so I'm confident in my estimates for costs and revenue. I've built a business model that (with optimistic numbers) breaks even. Except I haven't figured in the printing cost yet.

I know, that's the obvious cost, but I don't know those numbers without some research. Salary cost was easy. I know what I get paid, have been paid, what others were paid and what I think they should get paid.

Circulation and advertising revenue figures were fairly easy, too. The wild card to me is printing. I can barely get it to break even without printing costs.

I'm not saying layoffs and other cuts are right or fair. I'm just saying this is harder than it looks. Start up costs are astronomical. Annual costs are surprisingly high. It makes me wonder how newspapers even worked to begin with, let alone stay open today.

I've got a little more respect for those in the HR/accounting offices and the decision makers. I'm going to continue to find ways to make it work and create a model. Suggestions are more than welcome. So are contributions for a start up.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

It's a bird, it's a plane....

Jackie Cooper's voice echoed in my head this morning.

Many may remember Cooper's role as The Daily Planet Editor Perry White in the Superman movies with Christove Reeve.

Following the dramatic opening and credits to Superman III, we cut to The Daily Planet newsroom.
Perry White: I don't understand you Olsen. A boring banquet and you bring me three thousand boring pictures. Yet Superman saves a man from drowning on 3rd Avenue this morning while you stand there watching the whole thing and you don't even bring me one picture.
Jimmy Olsen: Chief, I didn't have my camera with me.
Perry White: A photographer eats with his camera. A photographer sleeps with his camera.
Lois Lane: I'm glad I'm a writer.

In small town community journalism, there is no luxury of being just a writer.

I've blogged about the need for a journalist to carry a camera at all times, this is one of those blogs. It's also about the advantage of being the "little guy."

On my way to work this morning I saw a metro area TV news station's van. Naturally, I followed, dreading what story they would blow out of proportion leaving me to play clean up with a story in next week's paper.

As we headed north of town, I was becoming even more curious about what story they were chasing. Then I saw the helicopter hovering near the neighboring town that is in our school district. This couldn't be an average accident. It wasn't. There was a school bus in the ditch. The accident happened about an hour earlier.

While everyone else shot video, I whipped out my 5-megapixel cell phone camera. The distance from the accident and the sun rising in the background left me with nothing but sun bursts and hazy images.

This is the best one I took.

My digital SLR was in the office on my desk. Had I known I was going to a school bus accident, I would have stopped at the office (on the way) to grab the camera. By the time I got to the accident and figured out what was going on, called in to get a web update and evaluated the situation, they were towing the bus out of the ditch. I didn't have time to go to the office and get back with a camera before the bus was gone.

But being this was my backyard, so to speak, I still had some advantages. The police officer director traffic said he didn't know anything to tell the TV news reporter. They were just working traffic, the state highway patrol was in charge of the scene. She walked away discouraged.

Then I approached.

"How are you liking your new digs, Tom?" I asked, knowing the police just moved into a new building.

We chatted about them still getting settled in, yadda, yadda.

"So what time did you get called to this?" I asked.

"I got on at 7 and was immediately sent here, it had just happened," he replied.

We still had no idea about injuries and I knew he wouldn't know.

"How many ambulances were there when you got here?" I asked.

He talked about ambulances from at least three different areas, so I was able to surmise there were enough injuries to warrant at least half a dozen ambulances.

That's all I could get out of him, but it's more than the TV reporter got. I think I had the advantage in knowing the officer by name and being able to come up with chit-chat to lead into some questions that gave me more background on the incident.

Next, a man, looking very casual, in a jacket and ball cap comes walking from the accident to get in a pickup truck. The TV reporter has no idea this is the assistant superintendent in charge of transportation. I however, again have the advantage.

"Morning, Randy, what happened?" I lead off with.

He clearly didn't want to talk to the media. But between her badgering questions he'd rather ignore, I was able to remove the sensationalism out of the impromptu press conference from his pickup truck cab as he is saying he doesn't have time to talk.

"What can we put on our website that parents need to know?"

He then proceeds to tell me that parents have been contacted and what they were told.

The assistant superintendent drove off, but now we've got a handle on injury types (non serious), how many students, what grade level, etc.

The TV reporter at this point is confused about which schools the students may have been going to and the assistant superintendent has left. I, however, have no need to look up this information.

So I don't have any good photos. I was probably the third news organization to report via the web the fact there was a school bus accident. But in the end, I was able to gather enough information in a short amount of time to get something more substantial online before having to wait for the highway patrol to call me back.

So score one for the small town local guys.

Take that back. I just completed this blog and went to grab my cell-phone photo out of my e-mail to put in the blog when I saw an e-mail from the city manager to many people in the community alerting them of the accident. In that e-mail, he posted a link to a TV news station's website.

So much for hometown.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

This one's on me

There are some days you've just got to love this job.

This morning I started out touring the mayor's new business - in another city. I agree that he couldn't find the building to fit the need for this wine club he started, but I'm sure he is going to receive some backlash from the community for not investing in the hometown.

That will be humorous.

That same mayor, 20 years ago, pushed for an ordinance that restricts signage for beer or liquor at gas stations. After learning about this obscure law and noticing several gas stations in town in violation, I admittedly stirred the pot by asking too many questions. City officials realized they had not enforced this ordinance so cracked down on it and I wrote a story on this 20-year-old, obscure law that had gone the wayside until the newspaper brought it up.

The newspaper came out yesterday and our website was updated this morning, including this story. Today, a local TV station contacted city officials about interviewing them for a story about this. The city official who drew the short straw to talk to the TV station called me and said, "You owe me one." Not because of doing the story or because anything was inaccurate. He just doesn't want to be on TV and blames me. Technically, it's the city's own fault for not keeping up with its own laws.

Why isn't the mayor speaking to the TV station about his alcohol advertising restriction law? He's too busy getting his new wine store ready in the metro.