IF YOU’RE READING THIS on a piece of paper the chances are you’re reading the first issue of the brand new Columbia Paper. . . kind of. My hesitation comes from not knowing whether having new owners will make a difference. But we’re about to find out.
I started The Columbia Paper as a website a few days after I was laid off from my job as editor of The Independent, a twice-weekly countywide newspaper headquartered in Hillsdale. All the Independent’s employees except two lost their jobs that day in early February. That included me. The Independent wasn’t making the revenue targets set by the Journal Record newspaper chain, which owned many small newspapers and by that time was busy closing them down.
It was a quiet exit. The publisher, who did not lose his job that day, told me to be the last person out and lock the newspaper’s door behind me. Earlier that day, when it was clear that the layoffs would not skip over anyone, there was some sobbing. But by day’s end, employees had returned to the job of producing that last issue and then probably to figuring out how to find a new job during The Great Recession, which was growing worse by the day.
I don’t remember how we decided we’d be ready to launch The Columbia Paper in mid-April 2009. At first we created the pages in a small cabin on a mountainside in Craryville using equipment salvaged from a Dumpster at what had been The Independent—desks, chairs, monitors, a printer, office supplies, cabinets but no room for the archives, no reason to drag along that record of achievement; take a deep breath and let go.
Since then our story is familiar to entrepreneurs everywhere trying to catch a breath between unending technological change and hunting for customers in all sorts of ways. As for newspapers, the job is delivering clear and useful information to the widest possible audience. But that means competing with digital disinformation that confirms biases and all too frequently offers hate and ignorance as all-purpose solutions.
It takes a lot of energy and concentration to collect and edit the news, even in a small publication like The Columbia Paper; it takes a lot of money too. And there’s one other skill that every enterprise needs: business savvy. I don’t possess it. To make up for that deficit I have borrowed money. I can no longer do that.
Over the last few years I have reached out to potential investors. But as you might expect from people with business skills, my contacts weren’t interested. I also explored changing to a tax exempt entity. We are already working with the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, which has established the non-profit the Columbia Paper Journalism Fund. Even with the extraordinary generosity of local donors, we can’t cover our expenses.
So I was faced with finding someone to buy The Columbia Paper, somebody who has more money and business skills. Or we could shut down the paper. There was no Plan B.
A friend gave me a phone number. Not promising. No use calling but I called. I remember thinking about the day the Independent had closed. Mark Vinciguerra answered the phone. This week I sold him The Columbia Paper.
Mark and his business partner, Warren Dews, Jr., say they will leave the paper as it is. I think they could do that and thrive. I plan to help them. I hope you—our readers—will join me.