Willamette Week was founded 37 years ago this week, and it’s been 28 years since editor Mark Zusman and I bought what’s grown into a fully formed news media business. Because you are the most important ingredient in our enterprise, I celebrate our anniversary each year by reporting back to you.
To help make these letters engaging, I answer questions from an imaginary interviewer who has an uncanny way of reading my mind. Here’s hoping this year’s exchange is of value.
So, as WW begins its 38th year, what’s on your mind?
I’m like the rest of Portland: pissed off at what’s been done to our country by a small minority with access to seemingly limitless financial resources. At the same time, I remain excited and energized by WW’s scrappiness—despite an economy that’s been on the ropes four straight years.
Let’s talk dollars and cents. How are you doing?
Revenues are up over last year, but very slightly. The biggest gains have come at our events; the next two months will determine whether we show growth in our key drivers: display and Web sales. On the expense side, just about everything but our libel insurance and printing costs are up. The latter is a pleasant surprise, given that for years we endured price gouging by newsprint manufacturers.
Overall, City of Roses Newspaper Co. strives to remain profitable but not to maximize profit. This year, total revenues for WW should come in right around $5 million with a net, pre-tax profit of about 2 percent, or $100,000. We consider ourselves fortunate not to have been swamped in the dreadful economy—and to be eking out a small margin again this year.
What’s the stalled, rotten economy done to life at your office?
On one hand, we feel a little beaten over the head by these tough times. On the other, we’re better off. We’ve diversified our editorial reporting, so that we now deliver a robust diet of digital news—video interviews of candidates for office, slide shows that amplify our stories, and breaking news ahead of other Portland media outlets. We’ve also improved the print quality of our newspaper; it’s now heat-set with color available on every page. As a result, the paper is a little more magazinelike, and the ink is much less likely to rub off on your fingers (and then on your white shirts and sweaters).
Finally, our audience continues to grow—it’s significantly over 450,000 a month, including Web viewers. Our average reader is well under 40. In this digital era, that’s crazily counterintuitive, and contradicts the notion there’s not a market for serious news among Portland’s most active media audiences.
Are there any good journalists left?
We certainly think so. Earlier this year, when managing news editor Hank Stern left to work for Multnomah County, we were able to persuade Pulitzer Prize-winning Oregonian reporter Brent Walth to take his place. We got a great catch in Martin Cizmar when his predecessor, arts and culture editor Kelly Clarke, found the joys of newfound motherhood too great. We have a superb new reporter in Hannah Hoffman, whose first few nights on the job were long ones, courtesy of Occupy Portland. And Ruth Brown, who comes to us from Australia, is our new Web editor.
Altogether, there are so many smart, energetic, ambitious and creative people working in our office that practically every day here is rewarding, both personally and professionally, for Mark and me. (In the interests of full disclosure, I must note that as I write this, music editor Casey Jarman is parked on a couch outside my door playing a new video game without interruption for the next 24 hours. He’s scribbled a sign pinned to his sofa: “I AM DOING THIS FOR A STORY. THANKS.” To see how that worked out, see here.)
They were real successes, both benefiting from good weather. Late last April, I got an incredible charge looking north from Eat Mobile’s digs under the Morrison Bridge to thousands of you—at least eight blocks long—waiting to get into our signature annual food event just as the Portland Trail Blazers pulled out an amazing playoff comeback victory.
And Musicfest…the weather, the crowds and the music were fantastic. About 3,500 attended Eat Mobile; 25,000 (including a fair number of visitors to Portland) saw shows at Musicfest. We’re already at work to make both events even grander in 2012.
I like to think these two publications are in a class by themselves. Hats off to Restaurant Guide editor Ben Waterhouse, Finder editor Aaron Mesh and creative director Carolyn Richardson, who was responsible for the design of both.
Despite our good way with service journalism, news remains our bread and butter. Careful reporting, attention to detail and great design animate our journalism. Here are examples from 2011 of classic WW-style reporting: “Strange Wu” (Feb. 23—the story that helped David Wu decide he needed to leave Congress, opening the door to this week’s primary election and January’s general election); David Cay Johnston’s “9 Things the Rich Don’t Want You to Know About Taxes” (April 13—no story has gotten more hits or had longer legs on wweek.com); “Dirt Roads, Dead Ends” (May 11—about Portland’s 59 miles of unpaved roads and the civic leaders who promised to fix them); “The Good, the Bad and the Awful” (June 22—our biennial legislative ratings); and “The Other Portland” (Oct. 12—Corey Pein’s profile of Portland east of I-205, a major battleground in the upcoming mayoral election).
What about the digital world. Where’s it headed?
The digerati are putting a lot of bets on the tablet—as a format where people feel comfortable reading long stories and advertisers are increasingly interested in spending their money. Ken Doctor, an Oregonian and former journalist who’s now a leading news industry analyst, said in Portland recently that the tablet is “a huge game-changer.” He says 20 percent of the U.S. will have tablets by the end of 2012. So a better tablet format is clearly on WW’s agenda.
You talk a lot about community. What are you doing to give back?
Right now most of my attention is on this year’s Skidmore Prizes and Give!Guide. Tuesday night, Nov. 8, we celebrated four fabulous Portlanders under the age of 36 who work for local nonprofits. You can read more about them in this week’s lead story.
We’re also publishing our eighth Give!Guide; a copy has been inserted in this week’s paper. This is our annual effort to support local nonprofits. The secret is that you can get great incentives in return for your donations. (See the list here.)
Last year we raised more than $1.16 million; this year, we’re shooting for at least $1.3 million. Greatest credit for the Give!Guide’s success, of course, goes to you, who have donated more than $3 million to this cause since its inception in 2004. Please give the 2011 Give!Guide a careful look, then go to wweek.com/giveguide and let your better angels have the run of your credit or debit card.
Any closing words?
Yes. I want to be sure you, as readers, understand our continuing debt to you. That is, as I try to remember to say every year in this space, you provide us with our reason for being. Your continued engagement gives us the wherewithal and the motivation to produce journalism that can improve this already remarkable community.
Thank you for another year together,