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November 5th, 2003 RICHARD H. MEEKER | News Stories
 

Publisher's Notebook

The business of WW, at 29.

     
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RICHARD H. MEEKER
TO OUR READERS:

Each year, on Willamette Week's anniversary, I offer a summary of our company's condition. Here is this year's report:

Who are we? In an age of continuing media concentration, Willamette Week remains both independent and locally owned. Editor Mark Zusman and I bought the paper in 1983. I have lived in Portland and worked at this newspaper, with a few interruptions, since graduating from the University of Oregon School of Law in 1974. Mark began working here shortly after earning a master's degree from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism in 1978. We have raised our families here and do our best to remain involved in the life of this remarkable place. Our downtown offices, located across the street from the main branch of the Multnomah County Library, are home to 55 talented employees and serve as the stomping grounds for 40 more part-time employees, interns and independent contractors.

What do we do? While we couldn't publish anything without loyal advertisers, the most important part of our paper is its coverage of news and culture. In this regard, FY 2002-03 was solid. The paper won numerous awards for editorial excellence. More importantly, we broke significant news (just ask former Lewis & Clark College president Michael Mooney), came up with creative news-gathering techniques (think "Rubbish!"), published engaging writing (try our recent riff on Zoe Trope or the collection "Portland, They Wrote"), produced stellar special sections (Best of Portland, Restaurant Guide), supported important local cultural events (PICA's TBA, Cirque du Soleil, Core Sample), and started one of our own, the Longbaugh Film Festival, celebrating independent cinema.

Who reads us? According to our most recent survey (conducted this summer by Media Audit, an accredited Houston research firm), WW's total metro-area readership rose to more than 386,000 this year--not counting tens of thousands of additional Web readers. This is an increase of 30,000 from last year. While we can attribute the larger numbers to an increase in the number of papers we print (from 85,000 to 90,000) and more than 100 new distribution points, we are especially heartened by our ability to grow in a poor economy and in the face of increased competition. In addition to maintaining strength in local news, during 2002-03 WW became the city's leading cultural guide for Portlanders between the ages of 18 and 49. According to the most recent audit, WW reaches 23.9 percent of the 1.1 million area residents in that age group--a smidgen more than the 23.2 percent for The Oregonian's A&E, which more than half our 18-to-49-year-old readers told Media Audit they don't use.

How's business? Despite a third straight year with a lousy economy, revenues so far for FY 2003-04 are up--albeit slightly--from last year. When this fiscal year closes, we hope to report total revenues somewhat above $6 million. While we've expanded our advertising base in the arts and entertainment arena, it has declined in basic retail categories. This, we believe, is a product of the local economy and competitors' selling ads well below their cost. Retail holiday prospects, however, appear solid, and we're hopeful about next year. In Classifieds, revenues are up about 10 percent over last year, with special strength in rentals, automotive, real estate, adult-services ads, and the Backpage.

And the other side of the ledger? While revenues inch upward, the cost of newsprint has risen appreciably; we increased staff pay across the board in the spring; and we picked up the double-digit increase in our cost for health insurance. I believe our staff deserves everything we can afford by way of pay and benefits. WWers are highly skilled, work incredibly hard, and approach our enterprise with remarkable good will and cheer. We also continue to try to do our part to give back to this great community. WW has a general policy of donating advertising space equivalent to 10 percent of display revenues to worthy organizations. In addition, we've provided significant cash donations to First Octave from the proceeds of MusicfestNW (the weekend of music and club-hopping we organize every September).

What's the bottom line? As a result of continued economies elsewhere, Willamette Week should generate a pre-tax profit of 5 percent --approximately $300,000--this year. As I have noted before, such small margins would be unacceptable in most other media companies. For papers our size, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies' average pre-tax profit is twice ours. There are several reasons for the difference: We devote a larger percentage of our budget to the editorial department; we publish more papers--and have more readers--than alt weeklies in similar-sized markets; we have more employees and occupy more--and better--office space; and we spend more on design and production. The tradeoff, we like to think, is a paper that holds more value for you.

Why don't we charge for the paper? I get asked all the time how we can give our paper away and still make money. The simple answer is that, to some degree or other, all media work this way. In the late '70s and early '80s, before Mark and I owned WW, the paper was sold on newsstands and delivered by mail to subscribers. That both limited our total distribution--WW never could seem to get over the 20,000-subscriber hurdle--and cost us a lot of money. These days, it's a whole lot cheaper to distribute 90,000 newspapers for free than to maintain a subscriber base of 20,000. Moreover, when you pick your paper up, we know you plan to read it.

What's ahead? Our biggest challenge continues to be to cover public life in ways that ensure its relevance to you, capturing your attention and empowering you to act upon your very great potential to have a positive impact in this community. Every one of you--from the newly enfranchised senior in high school to those who make the sacrifice of running for public office--has the opportunity to be an agent of change for the better. Willamette Week's role is to make our coverage of Portland clear enough to be understood by the newcomer, readable enough to grab the attention of the rushed, and sophisticated enough to be helpful to the seasoned. All politics, it is said, are local. So, too, I believe, is the most important journalism. At the very least, I hope our coverage of Portland and Oregon in the year ahead will inspire you to register to vote (if you haven't already) and to exercise your franchise with abandon.

A final note: All of us at Willamette Week know that without you, we simply wouldn't matter. I hope this column sheds at least a little light on the inner workings of our enterprise, and I urge you to keep after us in any way that suits your fancy--with questions, complaints, story ideas. Most important, I hope you'll keep picking up our paper every Wednesday.

Thanks,
Richard Meeker.


MORE ABOUT YOU:
Total audience: 386,538

Women: 179,740
Men: 206,798

Average family income: $56,733

Median age: 42.15

Web audience:
300,000-350,000 visits per month

Men: 54 percent
Women: 46 percent
Median age: 31

WW readers represent more than one-fifth of all adults--and one-quarter of all 18- to 34-year-olds--in the Portland metro area. About 45 percent more people read WW than read the Friday edition of the Portland Tribune. And about three times as many read WW as read the Portland Mercury. More than three-quarters of the Merc's readers also read WW, while more than two-thirds of WW's readers don't read the Merc.

WW has significantly more readers than any radio station in town has listeners--one and one-half times as many as KOPB (Portland's overall audience leader in drive-time), for example, and more than three times as many as KINK.

Almost half of WW readers are single, and more than three-quarters attended college. Altogether, 6.6 percent of you describe yourselves as of Hispanic descent; 4.9 percent, Asian; and 3.2 percent, black.

Sources: Web stats come from our online surveys of visitors. All other information comes from the Spring/Summer 2003 Media Audit.

 
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