Each November, around the time of Willamette Week's anniversary, I report to you on the newspaper's performance. I do so because you are the most important stakeholders in our enterprise.
Overall, it's been a challenging but exhilarating year—one that can be graded as follows:
AWFUL: Newsprint prices. I complain about this every year, but the past 18 months have been outrageous, with the cost of paper rising 35 percent—despite rapidly declining demand. Since January, this has added three or four cents to every dollar it costs to run WW. We've responded by tightening the ad line and printing fewer pages, while keeping circulation steady at 90,000.
BAD: Craigslist. Don't get the wrong idea. Craigslist is a wonderful tool, and Portlanders use it a lot. Our problem is that the same people most likely to use Craigslist form the core of our readership. It's estimated that last year this service sucked nearly $60 million out of the newspaper economy in the San Francisco Bay Area alone. (No wonder eBay has bought a piece of the company and has been snapping up similar free online classified systems all over the globe.) As far as WW goes, Craigslist has done the most damage to revenues from Rentals in the Classifieds section. We've responded with our own free online service (if you haven't tried it yet, you should check out portland.wweek.com) and have put most of our print classifieds in a separate section called "Umbrella" that now appears in the front half of the paper. The added visibility—coupled with new and returning features like Red Meat, Free Will Astrology, Lynda Barry's Ernie Pook, Night Cabbie and My First Ride: The Real First Cars of the Stars—has helped. So has growth in the Jobs and Wheels sections. At the moment, WW's classified sales are about where they were this time last year—in the vicinity of $30,000 a week, including Personals revenues.
OK: Revenues and profits. Willamette Week gets 99.9 percent of its operating funds from advertising. When this year closes, our numbers will be flat compared to 2004: $6,000,000 in revenues and approximately $300,000 in pre-tax profits. The paper's management group has been working on next year's business plan for several weeks now, with increasing the amount of space for our special brand of journalism as our top priority. Given the continuing growth in the paper's audience, the planned addition of new sales reps, the strength of the events we produce, the successful introduction of new publications, and a large Internet viewership, we expect significant improvement in both revenues and profits in 2006.
GOOD: A new building. Sometime in the early part of next year, WW will move into its new world headquarters—at Northwest 22nd Avenue and Quimby Street. Construction on the space began in August and continues apace under the able direction of architect Dan Young and general contractor Rich Tolvstad. We're excited about working in a building we own—and about being in an area of Northwest Portland that's making the transition from warehouses to all manner of interesting local businesses.
VERY GOOD: WW's journalism. Starting with the publication of "The PGE Papers" back in January and continuing through our recent story on Leif Hansen's auto-repair business, we've maintained the high quality of our reporting. From the perspective of local news, publishing excerpts from Texas Pacific Group's due diligence on Portland General Electric was certainly one of the most important acts of journalism this year. In addition, we inaugurated Finder, a magazine-style locals' guide to Portland. We had expected it would take about three months to distribute all 30,000 copies; they were snatched up in less than three weeks.
GREAT: That would be you, our readers. According to the Spring/Summer report from Media Audit, there are now 418,400 of you reading WW in print on a monthly basis (up from 397,000 in 2004) and 59,900 on the Web. You're younger and better educated than ever—and you're great about shopping our advertisers. Most important, you keep after us with letters to the editor and story ideas, and you remain vitally engaged in Portland's public life. You are, as I say each year in this column, our reason for being. At a time when newspaper readership is falling everywhere (witness this year's circulation declines at The Oregonian, despite the daily's heavy promotion of "high-definition news"), the importance of your continued attention to our newspaper simply cannot be overstated. Without you, we could not exist. With you, we can continue to use the tools of journalism to make Portland a better place in which to live, work and play.
BEST: The Pulitzer. I have been asked repeatedly this year why WW doesn't refer more often in its pages to the terrific honor bestowed upon us this past April 4. I try to explain that newspapers, including this one, already call too much attention to the awards they win and that we want to look forward, not back. Still, it's hard to imagine a sweeter moment than watching Nigel Jaquiss receive his prize May 23 at Columbia University. There he was, in the company of Newhouses and Sulzbergers, standing straighter and taller than all the rest, receiving the first Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting ever given in the award's 88-year history to a weekly newspaper. (It was also the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded for work initially published on the Web.) Back in April, after we'd won the prize, I was walking across town to visit one of WW's original investors. "Hey!" a man in a UPS uniform called out to me cheerfully. "Aren't you from Willamette Week? Will you tell the guy who won the Pulitzer that we've all been reading your paper for years and that you make us feel incredibly proud?" That was the beginning of my understanding that those of you who read this paper feel part of that Pulitzer is yours. You have every right to do so. Nothing makes me happier than sensing the strong feeling of ownership many readers have for Willamette Week. I hope we are able to continue to perform our part of the newspaper bargain—by providing you important information, carefully considered and artfully presented, about the life of this great place we all call home.
Thanks for another good year together,
P.S. In this week's paper you'll find our 2005 Give! Guide, which provides profiles of 24 great local nonprofits that do wonderful work. They could use your help. Please check 'em out and then go to the website we've created to make it easy to give (wweek.com/giveguide) and let loose with your credit and debit cards. We've arranged lots of great goodies for you as added encouragement. Thanks.