IMAGE: Tom Martinez
"So—how's the newspaper business?"
Until about a year ago, that question was typically just small talk. Now, I hear it all the time. Those asking seem to be seeking reassurance: Are you OK? Are you going to make it? So here are the answers: Yes—and yes. And, thanks for your concern.
We are celebrating 35 years and have no plans to slow down. As I remind you each year in this space, you are the secret to our durability and success. You give us energy. You provide us news tips. You attend our events. And, by patronizing our advertisers and sponsors, you sustain our sources of revenue. In short, you are our reason for being. So, in question-and-answer format, I'd like to answer the most obvious follow-ups to the "How's it going?" question.
Q. Oh, come on now. Don't suggest you haven't felt the recession!
A. We certainly have. Our revenue is down 16 percent this year. And we had to make a number of cost cuts, none more painfully than in personnel. We laid off or did not replace six full- and part-time employees. Staff took pay cuts of 8 percent in March. (We were able to maintain health-insurance coverage and 401(k) matches.) The paper's owners (Editor Mark Zusman and me) took 25 percent reductions in pay. It hasn't been fun. But everyone here has been patient and supportive in the face of the current economy. We've also benefited from a drop in the cost of newsprint. When this fiscal year ends, Willamette Week will have logged a small profit, and our paper in Santa Fe will have done a bit better.
Q. So how can you say you are OK?
A. First, while we don't find joy in others' misfortune, our revenue losses have been much less than those of other major media in Portland, leaving us in relatively healthier shape and better able to capitalize on the new environment we all face. Second, we expect revenue to increase in 2010, beginning in the second quarter. Finally—and most important—you, our readers, have stuck with us. In fact, according to the most recent Media Audit, there are more of you—405,000 a month—picking up WW than ever before. Google Analytics reports another 182,000-plus of you viewing us each month at wweek.com. Perhaps most telling, Media Audit shows WW is now the leading source of news and culture writing for younger readers (18 to 34) in Portland, with three-quarters of you between the ages of 18 and 44.
Q. Why do you think readers have stuck with you when they've deserted other publications in town?
A. Those of you who've read this column in past years know my rather simple-minded view: We do what we do for readers, listeners and viewers. They, in turn, attract advertisers by their numbers and demographics. And the advertisers make it possible for us to continue to produce journalism. It's a circular value proposition that still works well for us. Then there is the special sauce that is WW. For one thing, WW is free; therefore it is much easier for us to compete with the digital world for readers than, for example, the daily newspaper or a monthly magazine, which charges for copies. Even more important, every word in our paper is written, edited, designed and produced by us. A remarkable amount of energy and thought goes into practically everything we print or post online. Take a look at the box accompanying this column for a sampling of stories we published in the past year that you wouldn't have found anywhere else.
Q. What distinguishes WW's approach to the news business?
A. Ours is a different scenario from that of other media companies, many of whom are driven more by dollar signs than a desire to break news. Back in the '80s and '90s, when business was good, the owners of daily newspapers yanked out boatloads of cash, without reinvesting or thinking about the future or—most important—the implications of emerging technologies. Worse, many of these papers were sold to larger conglomerates for huge multiples of earnings, resulting in debt obligations that cannot be satisfied even by healthy profits and cash flow. The current recession has exacerbated an already difficult situation—and has seriously damaged the staffing and quality of daily newspapers across the country, especially in large and medium-size markets. We've always tried to reinvest our small profits in this business. We have not used large bank loans in our newspaper acquisitions. We still have most of our editorial staff intact. And perhaps most important, while we speak to a large audience, we do not try to be your sole source of news and information. That is, rather than trying to cover every aspect of this community, we pick areas we think are important or are not being covered adequately by other media. In the current media landscape, our ability to marshal our resources to cover what we care about most gives us a huge advantage.
Q. What's WW got in the works for 2010?
A. First, let me tell you what is planned for the rest of 2009. This week we kick off our annual Give!Guide, a year-end appeal in which we all take special pride. Six years ago we began this effort to help raise money for local nonprofits that excel at delivering service but could use some extra support with fundraising. Last year, nearly 4,000 of you gave, in total, more than $800,000. It's an extraordinary effort that underscores your great generosity and heartfelt concern for others. This year, despite an economy that remains terrible and continuing high unemployment, we hope you will continue your giving ways, as Portland's needs are greater than at any time since the Great Depression. A copy of WW's 2009 Give!Guide is inserted in this week's paper. As for next year, we don't expect the economy to pick up much until late spring or early summer. But we're not going to sit still waiting for that to happen. A major reworking of our website is in order, along with an iPhone app produced by the same folks who did the Obama campaign's. We plan to expand WW's Finder. It's MusicfestNW's 10th anniversary, so we hope to let our ambitions for that event run wild. You'll see more from the Retail Therapist and Dr. Know, as well as expanded food coverage. And, of course, we plan to continue, expand and refashion WW's brand of journalism.
Q. Any final words?
A. Yes. Thank you for another great year. For us, even at the ripe old age of 35, the newspaper business still looks and feels good, fun, productive and—we hope—helpful to the larger Portland community we seek to serve. Thank you for sticking with us: So long as we have you on our side, we'll be fine.