IMAGE: MATT WONG
Each year, I mark the paper's birthday by writing to tell you how we're doing. I do this because, along with editor Mark Zusman, Willamette Week's other owner, I believe readers are the most important participants in this venture, and as the paper celebrates its 32nd anniversary, we want to keep you current. Here, in question-and-answer format, is this year's report:
What are this year's high points?
The paper's move in February to 2220 NW Quimby St. has to be the single biggest event. Though the new offices occupy about the same amount of space as before, we're now much better organized, and the space is brighter and better ventilated.
Of course, our journalism remains our most important activity. While we haven't produced any blockbusters this year, we've done plenty of important work. I think especially of articles by Ian Demsky, whose coverage of conflicts at Multnomah County has had significant repercussions, and Pulitzer Prize winner Nigel Jaquiss, who continues to amaze us with hard-hitting investigative reporting.
We published the second edition of FINDER in July. Launched with a great party in our parking lot (thank you, MarchFourth Marching Band!), WW's irreverent but engaging and helpful guide to Portland was gobbled up by readers in three weeks. Candidates Gone Wild, a wacky, beer-infused political debate, packed the Roseland twice this election year. In September, MusicfestNW had far and away its best run. And WW's Longbaugh Film Festival came into its own in April.
All over the country, newspapers are crying the blues. How are we dealing with these developments?
The daily newspaper business is genuinely in trouble.
Some of what ails dailies has affected weeklies like ours—the emergence of Craigslist as a classified ad competitor, for example. But WW is fortunate to have avoided most of the dailies' woes. First and foremost on dailies' list of troubles is circulation. We published a Murmur two weeks ago about how circulation numbers are down at all but three of the largest 25 daily newspapers in America. (At The Oregonian, the most recent drop was 6.8 percent, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations—third-largest among the country's biggest 25 daily papers and even more surprising given the population growth this region has experienced.) In stark contrast, Willamette Week's circulation has grown by 10,000 over the past seven years, so that we currently distribute 90,000 copies at nearly 1,500 locations in the Portland metro area.
A second difference between WW and the dailies is demand on the bottom line. Many newspaper companies are being forced to lay off staff and cut back investments because their stockholders and/or investment bankers aren't satisfied with current profit margins of 10 to 15 percent. We suffer no such pressure.
Finally, daily newspapers, which have operated for most of their recent lives as monopolies, seem to be struggling in the emerging digital landscape, in which the competition for eyeballs is ferocious. Here at WW, we feel the Internet offers real opportunity, not the least of which is that it puts us in closer touch with our audiences and allows us to break news constantly.
So how are our finances?
Overall, they're pretty good.
On the downside, the timing of our move could have been better, as we had half a year left on our former lease at the time. (Note the empty space at 822 SW 10th Ave., still bearing the old WW awning.) Then there's the impact of Craigslist I mentioned earlier, combined with a tight market on rentals revenue in the classifieds.
Eighteen months ago, we could boast sales of as much as $12,000 in rental classifieds alone some weeks. Today, we feel we're doing well when weekly Rentals revenues exceed $1,000. Our personals, too, have suffered, but to a lesser degree. And once again this year, newsprint prices have gone up several times.
On the other side of the ledger, we've nearly made up for the fall-off in rentals with increases in other areas—like home sales, where revenues have grown nearly fourfold. We also have new leadership and several new, energetic sales reps. Display ad sales have grown nearly 5 percent this year—without a rate increase. And, finally, a week or two ago, we got news of the first (though ever so slight) paper-price decrease in years. The net effect of all this is that revenues will be up a little this year over last and the bottom line will be a little lower. Come Dec. 31, I estimate Willamette Week will post revenues of between $6 million and $6.1 million and will have a net, pre-tax profit in the vicinity of $200,000.
What has Willamette Week done for Portland lately?
We support local arts and community groups to the limits of our ability.
In 2006, for example, we've already donated over half a million dollars' worth of advertising to a wide array of events and organizations. We give our employees time off to volunteer as SMART readers. We've tried to do our environmental part by supplying staff with free TriMet tickets and making Flexcars available. We added a number of energy-saving devices to our new building. Proceeds from Longbaugh and MFNW go to charity. And this week, WW's annual fundraising drive kicked off with Monday's announcement of the Skidmore Prizes.
These $4,000 awards honor Portlanders under the age of 35 for work they do at local nonprofits. Please read about them in the Give!Guide that's inserted in this week's paper and then go to wweek.com/giveguide and let your credit card run wild. Note as well the array of prizes available to everyone who gives.
What am I most looking forward to in 2007?
Six things. Redesigning Willamette Week. Continuing to break important stories. Expanding our presence on the Web. Hosting our newspaper association's annual convention—400 or more newspaper editors and publishers from around North America will be descending on Portland next June. Growing the Longbaugh Film Festival and MFNW. And continuing to work with a group of people who are smart, hard-working, engaged and fun.
Any thoughts on last week's election?
As the pundits have observed, this was one of those elections dominated by national issues. Our better selves won; as a result, all over America, people have a little more bounce in their step.
Despite the new atmospherics, we need to keep in mind how much work remains. Iraq is a continuing disaster. The global environment is deteriorating ever more rapidly. And by almost any standard, our nation is broke. So the future is a daunting proposition, despite the considerable pleasures of life we all enjoy here in Portland. I continue to hope that the fundamental values that inspire you and that animate your relationship with this newspaper will lead to genuine progress in the near term—and a safer and more hospitable world in our lifetimes.
In the meantime, thank you for making it possible for us to have had another good year.
P.S. Feel free to stop by our new digs between 9 am and 4 pm on Dec. 13. We'll have hot chocolate and guided tours.
For regular WW-style reports online, take a look at WWire, which debuted Monday on wweek.com.
One of the ways WW has responded to Craigslist is by establishing our own free classifieds service.
Click classifieds in the wweek.com navigation bar to check out thousands of local ads.
Currently, the best book out on the Web is Chris Anderson's The Long Tail (Hyperion).