Keeping the lights burning into 2013
As the year ends, it is time to take stock of where we are and how we got here. As acting publisher, this year-end review falls to me and I submit the following for those who are curious where we stand at the end of the year, and those who care about what we think, what we stand for, and what we want to accomplish in 2013.
The universe shifted abruptly, for me, on March 9, a Friday night when the lights went dark at Village NetMedia (the newspaper/website side) and VillageSoup (the web platform development side), along with the announcement that four community newspapers — The Herald Gazette, The Republican Journal, Capital Weekly and The Bar Harbor Times — would immediately cease to publish. I had a little prior warning but was caught pretty much flat-footed and in shock when the realization of what a dark community — one without local media coverage — might mean, numbed by the sobering fact that 54 good people suddenly had the rug pulled out from under them with no financial or job safety net.
These people were from my community; though competitors, many had worked with me in the past and many were friendly competitors, at least.
Over the final nine months my obligation and first priority was to turn the lights on and restore as many of the lost jobs as possible. To that extent, we have been successful and we look to continue to add more staffing and continue a pattern of growth.
It was indeed a juggling act; since my relationship had always been competitor, finding the balance and merging two distinct organizations is a fine line. We began by deciding to keep both — The Free Press and the new Courier Publications — separate and hire a new management group for Courier Publications that would build a team and create a positive work culture, while maneuvering the fine line of honoring what was while moving ahead and looking to the future.
We also needed to find a new home from which to publish and we found that on the fourth floor of the Breakwater Building on Camden Street, along with our offices in Camden and Belfast.
I have continued to hear rumors that somehow this was an orchestrated take-over of Village NetMedia; far from the truth, but perhaps some need to think this in order to make sense of the “why.” The facts were simple: for the last five years I was not only a competitor, but also a customer of Village NetMedia/VillageSoup. I ran a print co-op that included The Free Press and we provided revenue and jobs for our competitor. I paid my bills on time and I grew the co-op to include a dozen publishers, providing substantial revenue to Village NetMedia/VillageSoup. My goal was to keep the money local, even if that meant spending it with my competitor.
Anyone who has followed the Midcoast publishing scene the past 25-plus years has seen The Free Press hold its own in the competitive newspaper industry. The fact is The Free Press needed to print and if printing locally made financial sense — which it did — then I encouraged and embraced it.
Village NetMedia’s decision to close its print shop and printing press in 2011 was a financial one that we did not cause. The equipment was older and the repairs and updates would have been expensive. The decision to close was not mine to make. In fact, after being informed of Village NetMedia's decision to close the print shop, we facilitated the move by bringing all our co-op clients and the commercial clients of Village NetMedia to the Brunswick Times Record printing facility. Six months later, the Village NetMedia/VillageSoup publications joined the co-op as well because it provided better pricing and more color capability than the commercial printer they had turned to.
On that March day, when the lights went out with the closing of Village NetMedia/VillageSoup, my hope was that a bank refinance would provide the former owner with the cash and flexibility to pay his outstanding print bill up to date and move forward with his vision. It was not to be and I was left with a decision; I could pick up the pieces and help our community move forward or I could take advantage of the situation as the only Midcoast-based media outlet left standing with The Free Press.
The bank called me to discuss the situation and my decision to move forward was based on the simple question; what was the right thing to do and did it make financial sense to do so? Saving jobs and saving the tradition of The Courier-Gazette, The Camden-Herald and The Republican Journal in Belfast was where the weight of my foot fell and, lucky for me, The Free Press staff did not revolt or view me as a traitor. They love this community too.
Moving forward and realizing that this is a business, the idea was to create a sustainable and profitable entity. I am happy to report that we have done that, and let you know how that has been accomplished and what we will do next.
First, the management team of Ken Waltz, Bryan Gess, Dave Libby and Dan and Christine Dunkle have created a working atmosphere at Courier Publications and VillageSoup that has allowed us to move forward. We’ve been able to restore both the 100-plus-year-old branding of The Courier-Gazette and The Republican Journal as well as bring back the 100-plus-year-old Camden Herald. In the beginning we were able to hire back more than 30 former Village NetMedia/VillageSoup employees and we have added several new associates in the past few months. We have restored some of the pay cuts and asked our associates to continue their “team first” approach as we foster and embrace this philosophy company-wide.
And let me give a public thank you to all of you who have made the journey with us, and for us.
Next, another thank you to our newspaper readers and online viewers on VillageSoup. We have seen an increase of about 30 percent sales on the newspaper side and the acceptance when we asked readers to pay for online news content in order to keep the lights on and to keep 10 reporters on the streets, has been phenomenal. To date we have about 5,000 paid subscribers to the website and their “8 cents a day” is paying for half the reporter budget. The VillageSoup site continues to grow every week with both new subscribers and hits and page views are closing in on all-time highs. The fear that nobody would come has vanished and we see both an increase in quantity and quality of time spent on the website reflected in the numbers we look at each week.
Lastly, a final thank you to our advertisers. Your enthusiasm for our first issue is still chilling; as a former ad representative, I know it was unfamiliar territory to have clients back-slapping, high-fiving, and thanking us (we are more familiar and comfortable with the sole of your shoe on our back side and a shooing out of the door). I will say, nine months later, the norm has returned and the sales staff is doing everything it can to keep our advertisers happy with the knowledge that we need to continue to provide a rate of return that will keep the support you’ve entrusted us with in the years ahead.
Our approach to the news hasn’t changed, but perhaps our attitude has. We see ourselves as a total media company whose job and mission is to provide timely, accurate and substantiated information about what is happening in the communities we cover. Whether you read us online, in print, or both, we are here to serve you, our reader, and you, our advertiser.
Going forward, the plan is simple. Continue to do the little — and big — things that will make us better able to serve you. We’ve brought back paper delivery people; the days of paper boys and girls is not dead, it is just morphing and we are trying to look at how we can get the paper to you earlier and with personality. By the end of this year, we hope to have about 10 percent of our subscribers home delivered and next year triple that. The tradition of delivering the paper by carrier is important to many of us at this newspaper — me included — as it is the start of a career for some us and/or often a first job for those who have paper routes as teens.
On the VillageSoup website platform development side; our platform has been adopted by a dozen publishers sprinkled throughout the country. Our goal for 2012 was simple; keep it steady, and that’s what we did. In 2013, we will add two more users to the platform in the first quarter and we have contracted with a team of programming consultants to ensure the continued growth and continuity of this part of our business. It is exciting to be part of this movement online and to have excellent partners who want to work with us to develop new revenue sources that benefit both publishers and consumers.
We look to you, our readers, to continue to tell us what you need from us and where we can serve you best. These are not our newspapers or websites, they are yours; they belong to the community we serve and we won’t forget that.
Turn the Page. Peace out; Reade.
Reade Brower can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.