THERE’S NOTHING THAT SAYS we have to write ourselves an annual birthday letter, but now that The Columbia Paper and the www.columbiapaper.com are officially teenagers that’s reason enough to offer ourselves some advice.
The newspaper and website were born into bad times. It was the late winter of 2009 and the number one domestic problem was the huge loss of jobs as the economy imploded. Thousands of people were laid off each week and it seemed it would never end. But not so much here. Columbia County apparently had a stronger job market to begin with and the unemployment data suggested that many people who wanted to work could find a job.
There was one exception as far as I could tell: the newspaper business. In early 2009 the newspaper chain that owned the twice-weekly Independent newspaper summarily closed it and laid off all but one employee. Many of the rest of us weren’t having any luck finding gainful employment using the skills we’d honed at The Independent. I get that. If you’re a big company you don’t necessarily want to hire people whose previous job experience includes writing about the shortcomings of of big companies.
So we started a new community newspaper for Columbia County, The Columbia Paper.
Journalists tend to be stubborn, nosy and, in my case, anyway, more focused on the news than the bottom line. But in the newspaper business over the last 13 years, even the cleverest hedge fund managers have no workable business plan other than to buy marginal papers, suck out whatever revenue remains from them and then sell the office furniture.
We weren’t so far from considering that type of fate over the last couple of years. Then things changed. We discovered we could operate despite the pandemic as long as we could master Zoom and other online gathering platforms. (I’m still working on it.) We also managed to produce several issues working on editing and layout at three separate locations.
Our new physical flexibility forces us to surrender the sense of teamwork that comes from working at close quarters in a dusty shed with overworked plumbing. But those aren’t the biggest lessons learned from a few tough years.
The most important thing: newspapers still make a difference. The news in print reminds the people in power that someone is watching and the people who thought they were powerless that it isn’t necessarily so. And as artificial intelligence and disinformation grind away at your privacy, the only things a newspaper reveals about its readers are that you have disposable income of $1.50, you can read and you’re interested in Columbia County.
We’ve had to resize the paper to what’s sustainable and pay more attention to the numbers. In that regard, last month we began to distribute some of the funds we have received in donations to The Columbia Paper Journalism Fund set up by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation. The donations will augment reporting on subjects we already cover. Those topics are:
Arts & Culture
We have story plenty of story ideas. This county has an abundance of non-fiction tales that need telling. The challenge lies in finding people who know how to write or who are serious about learning and want to get paid for their efforts.
We had a scare a few weeks ago. A larger-than-usual number of our subscribers did not renew their subscriptions. I imagined all sorts paranoid theories to account for the loss. It turns out that the most likely cause was that we sent out our renewal notices several weeks late.
I’m very sorry for that. We depend on your subscriptions. Not only do we count on the revenue from subscriptions to keep the paper operating (it’s now our second biggest source of revenue last year), you subscribers are probably our most valuable asset. You are the residents who are sure to see not only the news but also the ads that make the paper thrive. And temporarily, I screwed it up.
That’s a teenager for you.