The Death Throes of a Small Town Newspaper

Regular readers of my ramblings here will recall that the trials and tribulations of my hometown newspaper, The Cecil Whig, was a regular topic of conversation a couple of years ago, before I moved out of Cecil County and, honestly, I finally lost interest in watching what was a staple of the community I grew up in crash and burn as spectacularly as The Whig was.  It reached the point where I simply had to avert my eyes from the carnage. 

Well, in the time since I last mentioned anything going on with the formerly-distinguished, nearly two century old newspaper, things have actually gotten worse.  The Whig has now dropped from printing five days a week to three, a shift, I’m told, was horribly unpopular with many of their regular subscribers.  More than that, layoffs have continued periodically, including another region-wide purge reportedly shedding somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 people from Chesapeake Publishing’s (The Whig’s immediate parent company) payrolls in the past few weeks.  Their long-standing office in Elkton is up for sale, nearly vacant as it stands after the printing facility that operated from there was shuttered nearly two years ago.  The office itself, where something like 200 full time workers were employed not that long ago, has been pared down, unbelievably, to less than a dozen, reportedly.

With the sorry state of the newspaper industry these days, what’s happened at the Cecil Whig isn’t really surprising.  It is, however, difficult to watch a once-venerable institution be picked to pieces like this.  Sometimes, I almost think bankruptcy and an outright shutdown would’ve been preferable to this death by a thousand cuts.  At least that way, the paper’s legacy would’ve remained relatively intact.  When the doors do finally shut on them now, will anyone really miss the wispy, hollowed out shell that was left during its final days?  I kind of doubt it.

At this point, it serves no purpose to rehash what went wrong.  Like many in the newspaper industry, good decisions in the face of technologically driven change were virtually nonexistent at Chesapeake and The Whig, overwhelmed as they were, and continue to be, by the poor choices of those who never really came to grips with the disruption that shredded their business model.  None of that really matters anymore, with the Whig down to a skeleton crew, soon moving to a smaller office, then, very likely, oblivion sometime later.

No matter how difficult times have become for them, it does seem like the hits just keep on coming, taking away a little more of what was once their sole domain. Earlier Today, I read this piece on the Cecil Times website about a battle going on within the Cecil County government about where its sizeable (for a small town) legal ad business will go in the future.  Legal ads are one of the last bastions of classified revenue still flowing into newspapers’ formerly dominant positions in communication, made so by local laws that generally require publication in a region’s “paper of record.” It’s also one I happen to believe is in dire need of reform. Frankly, in a time of shrinking tax receipts and shriveling municiple budgets, there is very little justification in sending good money after bad by continuing to pay monopoly rents to a fading, formerly only-game-in-town newspaper business. According to the Cecil Times piece, the county government spent upwards of $150,000 on legal ads with the Whig last year, a sum that strikes me as massively wasteful, particularly considering how the newspaper itself has continued to decline in relevance and readership.

A few years ago, when I was publishing Pet Companions Magazine, I put out about 20,000 monthly issues for a year between 32 and 52 pages each, with a full color glossy cover and my print bill for the entire year was less than a third of the county’s legal ad bill. The glossy cover alone accounted for about a quarter of that amount, too. So, what’s stopping the county government from publishing its own legal ad magazine monthly in regular 8 x 10 size or so on newsprint? They could put out 20,000 to 25,000 a month and bulk drop them for free everywhere in the county where the Whig is available. They could also post everything freely on the county’s website, provide a pdf file free for download or, if they’re especially adventurous, put in a little extra effort to format it into an ebook and make that available freely as well. The county could pay someone to compile the info, typeset it, layout the publication, get it to a printer, have the finished print run delivered, bulk drop the entire county and create the pdf and ebook files for, at most, half of what they pay The Whig for position in its rapidly thinning classified pages, if not significantly less.

As many have learned over the past few years, it has become much cheaper and more efficient to communicate directly with the public than to go through the traditional path of an intermediary like newspapers. With the local paper losing its influence, we see more and more advertisers, writers, and even readers circumventing the old ways altogether. With the crush of needed funds in localities all over the country, it really doesn’t track any longer for governments to pay exorbitantly for newspaper advertising. Crucial government information can be passed along to the public in any number of formats, print and digital, without that traditional large expense.

The fight in Cecil County shows another interesting issue with governments supporting those who’s job it is to cover them with advertising revenue, as well. Cecil County Commissioner Diana Broomell obviously has a problem with the content of The Cecil Guardian, a competitor of the Whig who put in a much cheaper bid on the legal ad business and got legal approval as a qualifying newspaper from a judge. She clearly wants no part of shifting that business The Guardian’s way, savings be damned. The Whig’s coverage of county business, on the other hand, has either been pared down to non-existent or is outright positive. Do we really want to have a situation where local newspapers, struggling for revenue, have to softball their coverage of the local government for fear of losing that ad money?

With the current and constantly improving technology, there’s no reason at all why local governments can’t communicate cheaply and effectivly with the people they represent on their own in matters like legal ads. The laws about “paper of record” are becoming more and more costly to follow, and have lost much of the justifications for their existence in the first place. If the paper was donating the space out of a sense of community, that would be one thing, but a $150,000 annual advertising bill seems to me to be a harbinger of a past better left to history.

This illustrates why it’s both sad and inevitable that newspapers will soon meet their demise. Sad because we are leaving a rich and storied element of our past behind us. Inevitable because there is virtually no single element of a newspaper’s role in the community that can’t be done better, cheaper, and more efficiently by any number of alternatives. Newspapers have always been intermediaries between the public and institutions, be it government, private or business interests. The digital shift going on now has very effectively removed the necessity of intermediaries from much of open communication.

I am sorry to see a classic element of society like the newspaper struggle and fall, but, as with all of us in our day-to-day decisions, needs must win out. That means the county government and the people they represent are much better served now and in the future by going directly to the people and using the extra $80,000-$100,000 they save on things like infrastructure, firefighters, teachers, and what have you. To do anything else in this day and age with these present conditions, is a level of wastefulness we can no longer afford. Tradition doesn’t pay the bills.

The Watershed Chronicle’s Greatest Hits

It’s been a little over a year since I began posting things to this site, and I thought now would be a good time to look back.  Using the handy little stat counter built into wordpress, I’ve made a list of the ten most read posts from the past year.  One thing you’ll notice is that they’re almost all about local publishing companies, with only one exception.  So, here they are, in reverse order, the top ten posts in the history of this blog:

10.  End of an Era-  May 2, 2010

One of the more recent posts on this list, End of an Era was about the closing of the Chesapeake Publishing printing facility in Elkton.  In this piece, I lament the loss of the only local printing plant in Cecil County and what that could mean for the future of our local paper, the Cecil Whig.  Even though this was four months ago and virtually all of the announced changes by Chesapeake have been made, it still stings a bit to see our more-than-century-and-a-half-year-old newspaper lose its local production.  Times change, I suppose, but not always for the better.

9.  Remembering My Friend Bob- Nov.19, 2009

This one inspired a handful of comments, and even a few photos emailed to me.  I wrote this the day I got the shocking news that my friend and former colleague Bob Liddell had passed away.  After sharing a few of my memories of Bob, I received several phone calls from mutual friends, good conversations about Bob and the time we knew him.  It even inspired a second piece, More Recollections of Bob, which included some comments sent to me about him.  All in all, it ended up as a pretty nice way to deal with the untimely death of a friend.

8.  A Bad Joke-  June 21, 2010

This is the most recent post on this list and one that I’ve referenced several times already.  It’s also climbing the list little by little everyday, even though it’s three months old at this point.  As anyone who reads this site regularly knows, this was my wrap-up rant about the company of the year award going to an unquestionably undeserving recipient.  I won’t rehash the details here, suffice it to say that this was an exceptionally popular subject.  So much so that another post on this topic checks in at number two on this list.

7.  He Rode In On a Pale Horse and His Name Was Death.  And He Carried an iSlate-  Jan. 5, 2010

This is the only post on this list that isn’t directly related to local publishing.  It’s a fairly non-descript review of the possible effects of the release of the then-unnamed Apple iPad.  At the time, I liked the name iSlate better, hence its use in the title.  It’s not even one of my better efforts.  So why so many hits, you ask?  It’s the name.  I’ve had more traffic come to this article with searches for “death” and “he rode in on a pale horse” than anything else.  People are apparently obsessed with death and, in particular, biblical references to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  In honor this piece being the most searched for of all my work, I watched the Clint Eastwood western Pale Rider the other day.  Now that’s what I call riding in on a pale horse.

6.  Department of Reader Response-  Nov.11, 2009

This is one of my personal favorites.  I received a typo-riddled comment from an annoyed reader after some criticism I had leveled at Nor’easter Magazine in the post that is coming up at number five.  Rather than simply ignore the comment, I chose to simultaneously respond logically in defense of the criticism of my criticism as well as ridicule the writer’s typos.  Maybe not the most mature way to respond, but it was fun.  And judging by the reaction I received from readers, a large number of them enjoyed it, too.  Especially the Sean Connery school of elocution crack; people just loved that one.  This also led to another post the next day, Calling a Skink a Skink, where I went after one particular typo.
The funny thing is that in all this criticising his typos, I made some myself.  Sure, I could change them now and no one would ever know, but I’m the kind of guy who will stand by my own hypocrisy.

5.  The Changing Face of Local Publishing-  Oct. 30, 2009

This piece is the one that inspired the rather nasty comment that led to number six on this list.  Funny thing is, I hadn’t really intended to make those criticisms in the first place, they just kind of came out as I was writing.  On the whole, this post was all about how the larger publishers had begun talking about local as a buzzword that would save their profit margins.  Ironically, at the same time, they were outsourcing work away from local pubs to save money.  My entire point was that if the legacy publishers were going to abdicate their local staffs, then new startups that really are local would spring up to fill that void, and they have in increasing numbers.  One other point I made, specifically about Nor’easter, was that the magazine’s change to a smaller print size could have negative results in addition to just saving money.  Well, Nor’easter is now off the market, and two of the main complaints I heard were that customer service suffered having to deal with production staff hundreds of miles away, and that the smaller publication size was wildly unpopular.  I hate to say I told you so.  Well, actually, that’s not true.  I love saying I told you so.

4.  I Got Canned!  A Farewell To The Mariner and Chesapeake Bay Boating-  March 21, 2010

It’s not every day you get to tell someone you worked for to shove it in front of, well, everyone in the world.  Last year, I was the editor of The Mariner until I was let go.  It was a sometimes fun, mostly frustrating experience that once again found me butting heads with management about how to make a magazine successful.  To my credit, by the way, in the six months since my departure, the mag has shown no appreciable growth, and, much like Nor’easter, may be on a corporate death watch without a serious uptick in advertising or interest.  Anyway, judging by the number of people who called or emailed me after this post was published telling me how “they laughed their ass off”, there must be a large number of ass-less people wandering around out there.  I have to say, despite getting the ax, this one was pretty satisfying.

3.  A Eulogy For Ira Black’s Nor’easter Magazine-  Dec.11, 2009

After Bob passed away, and Nor’easter made the changes talked about in number five on this list, I picked up a copy of the magazine, and it just seemed like the publication I remembered was no longer there, so I penned this farewell to the magazine that I had helped found.  Oddly, I ended up writing two more articles for Nor’easter before they went belly up in July, but it still wasn’t the same.  It really is true what they say, all good things come to an end, whether we want to believe they will or not.

2.  Wow, The Times Must Be Tougher Than I Thought.  Lowering the Bar For Company of the Year-  May 9, 2010

So this is the one that set off the interest in what qualifies a business to win a company of the year award.  Fresh off the news that the long-standing Elkton printing plant was being shut down, and the resulting layoffs that came with that decision, I received a tip that the company in question would be honored by the Chamber of Commerce as company of the year.  Honestly, I thought it was a joke at first.  It was and still is inexplicable to me how something like this comes to pass.  I mean, really?  There’s no one else who could have won?  After discovering that no one else was even nominated, along with the close involvement of an employee from the company in question in the process, it started to make sense, distasteful as that may be.  Bad economy or not, it’s just like old times in Cecil County.

1.  Manning the Helm For Cecil County’s New Weekly Newspaper-  Nov. 7, 2009

Coming in at number one with a bullet is this piece announcing the possible editor-ship of the then-unreleased Cecil Guardian weekly newspaper to Ira Black of Mariner and Nor’easter fame.  Of course, his position turned out to be short lived, amounting to a few months of irreverent editorials kicking off each issue, but it was an entertaining ride, if brief.  As for the Guardian, or what was originally supposed to be the Cecil Observer, headed by former Whig-staffer David Healy before a dispute over a non-compete agreement cost the paper his involvement and the name, it appears to be doing just fine.  Page and ad counts seem to be improving steadily, and the emergence of extra and special sections shows even more progress.  With or without Ira’s involvement, and the currently reeling Whig to compete against, the Guardian may be around for a while yet.

So, there they are, the ten most-read posts in the history of this blog.  Eventually, I intend to do a list of ten of my favorite pieces regardless of hit counts, but that may be a while yet.  After all, I’ve got about 200 posts to choose from.  Thanks for reading.

A Eulogy For Ira Black’s Nor’easter Magazine

So I stopped on my way home from work the other day to pick up a copy of Nor’easter. I was looking forward to a couple of things. First, I was hoping to see an interesting remembrance of Bob Liddell, my friend who helped found Nor’easter with me and a group of others and just passed away recently. I also wanted to see if they chose to honor him by placing his name in the masthead next to our other forming founding member who had passed away, Donna Kaehn. In addition, I wanted to read Ira Black’s farewell article, as he is leaving the boating biz for greener pastures, most notably the new Cecil County newspaper, The Cecil Guardian. Well, I was more than a little disappointed. Not only was there no remembrance to Bob in the masthead, Donna’s name had been removed for the first time in Nor’easter’s history, encompassing nine years and some 222 issues, counting the one year we did a special New Jersey edition. There was a nicely presented obituary to Bob, but it was little more than a rehash of obits I had seen previously in other publications. I was expecting more out of a magazine he was instrumental in founding than only a brief mention of his time there in what was otherwise a pretty standard obit. Ira’s column was good, though.

It’s interesting to me that these three elements corresponded in one issue, coincidentally, the final issue of 2009. In my mind, it serves as a final farewell to Ira Black’s Nor’easter Magazine (which was the original name of the publication). Those in charge are clearly trying to find an new identity away from what was originally established. I can’t fault them for that; times change and those who don’t change with them are often left behind. But still, the masthead thing bugged me. I just thought it would have been nice to remember those who came before in a more permanent way. Oh well.

But sitting down to read the now- smaller publication (in size, page count and name–the word “Magazine” has apparently been dropped, as well) seeing clearly the lack of Donna’s presence for the first time, the obit to Bob, and Ira’s good-bye feels a lot like closure. There were many ideals we worked under when we founded the magazine, and they have been getting less and less evident over the years as new minds and new ideals took their place. Now, they are hardly recognizable. New people, new ideas, new priorities have taken over. I’m not saying if that’s a good thing or a bad one, just different. The market will ultimately bear out how well the new direction plays. There will still be a Nor’easter, it just bears little resmblence to the one we founded, for better or for worse.

Ira’s final “In The Wind” column was a fitting eulogy, to me. A great thank you to everyone who supported us, and everyone who helped us along the way. A very nice way to say good bye. I no longer feel any real connection to Nor’easter, despite my efforts in its origins and formative years. It must be a little like a parent letting their children out into the world to make their own way. We don’t always agree with their choices, and it can be too easy to rebuke their missteps from the sideline, but ultimately, it’s their life and their decisions to make. This will be my final words on the subject. It was a helluva lot of fun while it lasted. Ira Black’s Nor’easter Magazine, Rest In Peace.

Manning the Helm for Cecil County’s New Weekly Newspaper

After doing a little digging, I’ve uncovered an interesting tidbit of information about the soon-to-be new newspaper here in Cecil County, The Cecil Guardian.  The editor of this new self-billed “community newspaper that listens to your needs” will be none other than Chesapeake Bay boating icon Ira Black. (Full disclosure:  Ira gave me my first job in Publishing at The Mariner way back in 1997.)  Ira’s brand of wry, off-beat humor and straight shooting for The Mariner, then later with his self-titled Ira Black’s Nor’easter Magazine, helped make him one of the most recognizable personalities in the Chesapeake Bay boating scene over the past twenty years.

Reports are that Ira will man the helm of this new weekly publication from its initial stages, kicking off with a December 3 premiere issue.   Speaking as someone who worked closely with Ira for a number of years, his understanding of publishing dynamics and how to appeal to a large audience can be invaluable, and his sometimes obsessively old-school copy-editing can be a welcome change to the world of rampant typos and grammatical missteps that pervades print (and online) publications these days.  Honestly, that part always annoyed me when I was writing for him, but I have a little better appreciation for it’s usefulness now.  I guess age and experience really does add perspective.

Anyway, this new wrinkle in the print publications wars in this area only adds to my interest in seeing how this progresses.  Things are definitely heating up.

Published in: on November 7, 2009 at 6:13 pm  Comments (1)  
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Competitive Juices Are A’Flowin’

Just a week after running across the emergence of a new classified shopper in Cecil County, the Better Bargains Advertiser, I ran across yet another new player in the local print advertising battles.  The Cecil Guardian’s website, billed as “The community newspaper that listens to your needs,” has just emerged, and while it’s sparsely poulated with content at this apparently early stage, there is the rather intriguing announcement of its debut print edition scheduled for December 3.  I’ve also included the site under the Local Publications links on the side-bar so we can keep track of how this progresses.  It sure seems like the old guard media is continuing to see challenges to its former dominanace popping up all over, both online and in print.  I seem to recall mentioning something about that happening here, here, here, here and here, and probably in a few other places I can’t remember at the moment.  I’m sensing a theme.

Published in: on November 5, 2009 at 2:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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