Back in the black: new math for old papers
Shortly after I became the editor and publisher of this newspaper, I had lunch with Mark Garber, the publisher of our sister publication in Gresham.
We discussed a variety of topics over burgers at the Pacific Avenue Grill and, as we walked back to the office, he asked: 'Do you know what is the most-important thing you can do for the News-Times?'
Several thoughts raced through my head: picking a good staff, improving the accuracy and timeliness of the news, increasing circulation.... But rather than hazard a guess, I asked for his answer.
'Sell an ad.'
It was not the reply I expected, and certainly not the one I wanted.
Like Mark, I had come up through the news side of the business.
My first job was at a non-profit ad-free magazine, supported by grants.
In Portland, I landed at Willamette Week, where there was a literal and figurative wall between the news staff and the sales staff.
Ads, to me, were, if not quite a 'necessary evil,' a tainted means to a more honorable end of pursuing truth, justice and a well-played sports cliché.
In fact, I remember watching a focus group of loyal WW readers and being appalled that when asked to say what they liked best about the feisty award-winning alt-weekly, several mentioned not the great coverage of City Hall or incisive cultural commentary, but the ads.
Unlike Mark, who had served as publisher of the East Oregonian before coming to The Outlook, I had yet to understand that newspapers are businesses - and that the second half of my title made the first half possible.
Since then, I've gotten a crash course in Newspaper Finance 101, taught in the middle of the worst recession the industry has ever seen.
Many of our problems are of our own making. We were slow to understand the threat or the promise of the internet.
On the news side, we began shoveling our stories from our papers to our websites - for free. On the ad side, some guy named Craig came up with a list, and he didn't work for a newspaper. Suddenly, if you wanted to sell a couch, find a job or buy a pickup truck, a screen was more effective than a subscription.
Twenty years ago, the News-Times had four pages of weekly classified advertising bringing in $100,000 annual revenue. Those days are gone - forever.
Since then, we've watched the advent of social media and the extension of electronic advertising to cell phones.
And yet, I'm optimistic about the future. Here's why:
After a big drop in advertising a few years ago, we are slowly climbing back.
We're seeing some small business owners who appreciate a local, one-stop ad shop that won't break their banks.
We're getting increased interest from retailers in Hillsboro, who recognize that shoppers on this side of WinCo are quite accustomed to driving east to make some purchases.
And, we're seeing some businesses, after dabbling in cable TV, direct mail and web advertising, come back to us.
One of the reasons, I think, is a change in attitude about electronic media.
Most of my friends who watch television tape their shows to skip the commercials. Most try to block the pop-up ads on their favorite websites and curse the spam that gets past their email filter.
And yet, I've never had a single complaint about the ads in the News-Times. No one calls me up and says, 'How come Van Dyke's is putting those dryers on sale?' or 'Why does Phil's Subs have those stupid coupons in your paper?'
In fact, the more common complaint is, 'Why don't you run the BiMart insert?' (We've tried) or 'How come there are no ads for the Sonic drive-in in Cornelius?' (We're working on it.).
And while some of our bigger brethren in print have been seeing dramatic drops in circulation, the News-Times has a renewal rate of about 90 percent. This helps us maintain a steady readership of roughly 10,000 people - people who not only welcome us (and our advertisers) into their homes, but are willing to pay us to be there.
That's because the News-Times remains an excellent value for its readers. Last week, I outlined some of my frustrations with limits on our staffing, but for 50 cents a week, our readers still get something they can't get anywhere else.
If you want details on the latest Congressional impasse or which Blazer led the team in rebounds Monday night, you have dozens of news sources that can help you.
But, if you want to know what happened at the Cornelius City Council or whether the Banks Braves made the playoffs, there's only one media outlet that you can count on.
And, in a world of unedited blogs and tweeted rumors, the newspaper provides facts and corrects its mistakes.
The result is a level of trust that extends to our advertisers. These aren't impersonal, big-boxes run by out-of-towners. They're your friends, neighbors, community members.
And, they allow me to perform both parts of my job title.