Revisiting Paywalls Revisited

(Note: this is an unfinished piece from April of 2012 that’s been sitting as a draft in my WordPress que of posts since then. I never did get around to answering the question I asked at the end, but it increasingly looks like there’s no real reason to. The answer seems even more clear now than it did then, so much so, that the question itself even seems rhetorical now…)

Earlier this week, I received a message from a friend of mine asking if I’d heard about the latest round of layoffs at our local newspaper.  Since I moved from Cecil County to Chestertown nearly two years ago now (wow, time flies) I’ve found that I’ve lost interest in the comings and goings in that particular neck of the woods.

The state of printed media in my hometown was a popular topic of discussion on this site for the first couple of years, primarily because it was close at hand, their struggles echoed the newspaper industry at large in a lot of ways, and I still had connections with many folks in and out of the company. As I mentioned in the past, I worked there myself on two separate occasions in various capacities.  Before I received that message the other day, however, I hadn’t experienced a stray thought in their direction for months. 

Professionally speaking, I’ve moved on from any hope of getting back into the newsprint business.  It’s not just the derth of jobs (layoffs, buyouts, downsizing still abounds industry-wide as the revenue sinkhole just keeps getting deeper year after year) it’s that I simply don’t see a future in that area as it presently exists and I have yet to find a digital alternative that looks truly sustainable. Better to look in other directions, I figured.

Ebooks have been my focus for the past year, and, to this point, I see all the possibilities for revenue generation and sustainability within that area that are lacking in the digital-alternative newspaper segment. I’ve been writing, publishing, experimenting, expanding my skills and, most encouraging of all, actually selling my work at a level I’m not scoffing at (nor are the folks whose bills I’m paying with that money)*.  The gist of it is that, to my way of thinking, the struggles of newspapers are yesterday’s problems, ones that I’ve left, rather properly, in the past.  They had ample opportunity to innovate and adapt but didn’t, and the slow crawl to oblivion may be irreversible at this point. 

(* Note: Since then, I’ve since rethought my approach to ebooks and digital publishing. I did bring in a decent chunk of change at the time but I grew dissatisfied with my own efforts, so I’ve been cranking out new material, reworking old material and developing a different, much more expansive approach to this that I’ll be kicking off likely early next year, if not sooner. Try doing that when you’re locked into a publishing contract.)

So, when I read this message about further layoffs, it was a bit like hearing that an old girlfriend you were serious about a decade ago just got married. You hadn’t thought about her in years, she played no part in your day to day life for as long as you could remember, and news that would have seemed enormously important not that long ago ends up met with a shrug. It’s not that it doesn’t sadden me a bit to see the continued decline of my hometown newspaper, it does. But at this point, there’s really nothing that can be done about it. The point of no return for many newspapers passed by a while ago.

In today’s atmosphere, resources have eroded to such a level that genuine full-scale innovation really isn’t possible any longer. If it had been undertaken 3 or 4 years ago, it might have made a difference. Even scrapping the enterprise and starting over isn’t really feasible at this point simply because so many skilled people have been let go, particularly on the content side. You can’t really launch a new direction in an increasingly content-driven market when saddled with a money losing print albatross and a sparse skelton crew of leftovers. It saddens me to see it but, again, all of this at least could have been avoided with a bit of vision and foresight a few years ago when it mattered. But you can’t cry over spilt milk now that the carton’s down to the last few dregs of backwash.

All of which got me thinking about the last stand of newspapers, the paywall. Much like those famed 300 Spartans fending off the Persians, paywalls may hold off the onslaught for a short time, but in the end, the Spartans all ended up dead. For the Greeks, however, that stand provided the necessary time to execute a larger strategy that ultimately stopped a Persian takeover. Do newspapers even have a larger strategy to survive beyond simply fending off immediate annihilation? Or are paywalls their final stand?

Update

So, here we are two and a half years later, and I think this question answers itself. There was obviously no deeper plan going on at most papers, and the renewed push for paywalls then did little if anything to stem the hemmoraging of revenue. Here’s a piece by Clay Shirky essentially penning the obituary on the print newspaper business. As you can see, not only did this strategy not work to stifle print declines, it may well have instigated digital ad declines for them as well. They killed their future trying to protect a past that, at best, was on life support.

As for the company I mentioned, there have been more layoffs since these and the company was eventually sold to a venture capitalist known for slice and dice acquisitions. Doomed isn’t a strong enough word for their prospects at this point. Book publishers and their writers should take note of this. Following a print protectionist strategy did great harm to their emerging digital business. Ask questions, loudly and in no uncertain terms, anytime someone from the industry tries to tell you that restricting digital to protect print is a sound idea and in your best interest. It didn’t work here and I don’t hesitate to say it won’t work there, either.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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Was Chesapeake Publishing just bought by a private equity billionaire?

I just found out that my former employer twice over, Chesapeake Publishing, has had yet another sale to yet another new owner. This time, the buyer is an Adams Publishing Group from Minnesota. How do I know this? The press release thinly veiled as a news story says so. Good thing, too, because otherwise, there’s no record of an Adams Publishing Group of Minnesota even existing prior to this acquisition.

Here’s the rundown that appeared on the Cecil Whig website. According to the Whig, APG bought three newspaper divisions from American Consolidated Media, the Chesapeake papers as well as papers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio. Not knowing anything of them, I was naturally curious about Adams Publishing, and what else they might happen to own, so I read on. Unfortunately, there was no mention of anything Adams owns by name, and no comment from anyone at Adams, other than the heads of the divisions they just purchased. And, boy, are they happy!

After not finding anything to my liking, I did a little googling only to discover zilch anywhere on the internet for an Adams Publishing Group other than the various announcements of this string of buys. There’s not even one listed in any phone book or address database for the entire state of Minnesota. Odd, I thought. Here’s the description the Whig gave of Adams Publishing Group’s resume:

“Adams Publishing Group LLC…has holdings in radio broadcasting, magazines, outdoor advertising, consumer and trades shows, commercial printing and production, and other sectors…”

Holdings? An interesting way of putting that, no? So, a little more digging and I turn up this description from Wikipedia:

“current holdings include…a national publishing, retail stores and member-based direct marketing organization directed toward owners of recreational vehicles…an operator of outdoor advertising structures in the Midwest, Southeast, and Mid-Atlantic regions…previous holdings have included operators of television and radio stations, print publishers, cola bottlers and community banks.”

Pretty similar, huh? The second description belongs to billionaire private equity investor Stephen Adams who was born and raised in, you guessed it, Minnesota. This is the same Stephen Adams whose holding company, The Affinity Group, changed its name a couple years ago to Good Sam Enterprises after losing tens of millions of dollars with its investments and having Standard & Poore’s drop its credit rating to D for “the company’s highly leveraged financial profile, weak operating outlook, and limited liquidity.” One of the more interesting holdings of Adams was Affinity Bank, which Federal regulators shut down in 2009 because of depleted capital reserves. Are we still happy to be a part of this exciting new opportunity? More from the Whig:

““We are thrilled to be joining Adams Publishing Group and to be moving back to a family-owned company,” said David Fike, president and publisher of the Chesapeake group.”

Family owned, right. Just like the Koch Brothers companies are family owned. Just like the Mitt Romney’s very vulturey Bain Capital was family owned. But I guess when you’re in an industry where bad to worse has been the modus operandi for the better part of a decade now, you tell yourself whatever you have to to keep from crying to sleep at night.

Keep in mind, this is pure speculation on my part based on what little information was provided about the buyer, but it makes sense to me. How coincidental would it have to be to just happen to have a filthy-rich private equity investor from the same location with holdings in the identical areas, whose last name is the same as this seeming-previously nonexistent publishing company? I tend not to believe too much in coincidence.

My only question: if this is actually Stephen Adams behind this purchase, why not just say so? It’s not like old, billionaire white guys buying up newspapers is some kinda rarity these days. In fact, it’s increasingly looking like they may be the only people interested in buying newspapers, including the folks who used to read them.

UPDATE: After unsuccessfully looking high and low for any information on Adams Publishing Group and any connection to Stephen Adams, wouldn’t you know a kind soul took the time to email me a link to exactly that. Here’s a piece from Business North, a business news site for northern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin, that makes the explicit link between Adams Publishing Group and Stephen Adams.

UPDATE PART 2: Here’s a piece from Nancy Schwerzler at the Cecil Times that sheds a bit more light on the subject. She did some legwork through SEC filings to find that APG does, in fact, track back to Stephen Adams. Also, the four LLCs that will house these papers, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Chesapeake, were incorporated in Delaware about two weeks ago.

Perhaps most interestingly, according to the Cecil Times, Stephen Adams’ son Mark is set to oversee the operation of these newspapers. Schwerzler also mentions Mark Adams as the head of an EPG Media, a company founded last year to, essentially, spin off the outdoor motorsports magazines then owned by Good Sam Enterprises.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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.

I’m Back! A few goodbyes and a new beginning

So, after a brief hiatus, I’ve returned to writing my random ramblings here.  In the month and a half since my last post, much has changed.  For one thing, I have a new residence in Chestertown.  After spending all of my life in Cecil County, I felt it was time for a change.  The job market is pretty lousy, to say the least, and I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that the folks entrusted with bringing economic prosperity to Cecil really had the best interests of the people who live and work there at heart.

Perhaps the last straw really was the company of the year award that I wrote so much about previously here, here, here and here.  I just can’t reconcile how a failing company shedding people virtually by the day can win such an award.  Plus, there’s one more little tidbit of info about this.

Considering that I was basically the only one publically calling out nearly everyone involved in this absurdity, how’s this for a coincidence?  My mother worked at Chesapeake Publishing for something like 25 years.  Less than a week after the award was given, and I wrote the rather scathing piece entitled “A Bad Joke”, my mother was summarily dismissed from the company.  She was called in on a Friday afternoon and told, “today’s your last day, we don’t need you anymore.”  Odd, no?

The funny thing is, mom does’t even read this site, let alone know what I write about.  And she was always amazed at how I had better information than the people who work there.  I never once used her as a source for anything, nor would I.  Yet, only a few days following my post, which included this little not-so-polite quote: 

“There is no way I would have accepted an award like this in similar circumstances even if given. And I certainly wouldn’t have lobbied for it. Thanks but no thanks. I would have had a little respect for the community I was trying to serve by allowing someone who really deserves the recognition to receive it, not just so I can hang another plaque on the wall, have a soundbite in the paper, and call myself an “award-winning” company. An honor like this that isn’t really deserved has no meaning.”

My mom got the axe.  Coincidence?  You be the judge.

In other news, it turns out that the eulogy I wrote for Nor’easter Magazine, which I helped found with many others, was just a short few months premature.
Written two weeks before Christmas, it was a glance at the magazine’s final issue of 2009 and how the last few remaining traits of the style of the magazine we started in 2001 were gone.

Well, by the 4th of July of 2010,  Nor’easter had published its final issue ever.  Interestingly, I was contacted to do some writing for Nor’easter, beginning with the July 2 edition.  I had two articles in that issue, giving me the unique “honor” of being the only person involved with the magazine’s first issue and its last issue.  I suppose that kind of complete circle well and truly wraps up the cycle of Nor’easter Magazine.  To be fair, the letter I received announcing the ceasing of publication did say that, if and when the economy and the boating market specifically rebounds, they could come back on the scene.  But that’s a very large uncertainty at this point.

In my eulogy, I said about Nor’easter’s possible future:

“The market will ultimately bear out how well the new direction plays.”

Well, it looks like the market provided about six months of life support.  I still think the December 2009 issue is a more fitting closing.  The 2010 season was sort of like Johnny Unitas playing for the Chargers or Joe Namath with the Rams.  Sure, they were great in their day, but they should have hung up their cleats before that one final,  reputation damaging season.

Anyway, now that I’ve got this app for my Android phone, I’ll be writing again regularly.  And who knows what any of it will be?

Published in: on September 9, 2010 at 4:58 pm  Comments (3)  
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A Bad Joke

So I’ve been away the past couple weeks, and I’ve still got quite a bit of work ahead of me. Some major changes going on and my time to ramble on here has been somewhat limited of late. But today, I felt like I had to comment on something that has played a bit of a role in my approach to things recently and a few major life decisions coming up.

Anyone who reads this regularly will remember that about a month ago, I revealed a little insider information on who the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce was going to award its Company of The Year honor to on June 18. At the time, the selection of Chesapeake Publishing, owner of the Cecil Whig, seemed like a perplexing decision, given as the selection was made almost immediately on the cusp of Chesapeake’s choice to shutter the long-standing Elkton printing plant, eliminating dozens of Cecil jobs in the process. That, on top of consistent cutbacks and layoffs over the previous 18 months or so, just had me shaking my head in wonderment how the Chamber could possibly justify this kind of move.

Well, after a little digging around and research, I discovered that the Cecil County Office of Economic Development also supported the choice (maybe we should rename it the Office of Economic Retraction?), and that the Chamber itself circled the wagons after the initial poor public reaction to the news, and developed a justification involving something about successful internet integration. Yeah, okay. I even spoke to a couple members of the Chamber’s Board who informed me that Chesapeake was not only the winner of the award but they were the only company even nominated by a small committee consisting of a Chesapeake employee and a couple others. One of the Chamber members I spoke to, who requested to remain anonymous, even went so far as to say they were finished with the organization after this matter.

Well, on Friday night, Chesapeake was, in fact, given the Company of the Year award. There’s a little mention of it in today’s paper. The most interesting line was that the company was “accepting the award on behalf of the 250 people who work together to publish the Cecil Whig.” Of course, only about 30-40 of that 250 number are actually still employed in Cecil County, with the rest of the 100-150 jobs that used to exist in Elkton either being outright eliminated or shipped to the corporate office in Easton. There’s even a quote from Publisher David Fike about how change isn’t easy but necessary. Interestingly, there are two obvious typos in the quote; a double period and a set of quotation marks in the wrong place. I guess the changing landscape of the newspaper industry precludes the involvement of actual copy editors.

But again, don’t get me wrong. Chesapeake has every right to do whatever they have to to survive and deal with the economic issues going on today. As I’ve said before, the problem here is the local groups rewarding them for it. There is no doubt that the restructuring at the Whig is bad for Cecil County economically. We’ve lost work, we’ve lost jobs, we’ve lost a manufacturing facility. How can organizations dedicated to improving economic circumstances in the County possibly reward a company that has engaged in this type of stuff, however justified for them it may be? It’s a slap in the face to every Cecil company who is successfully dealing with the current economic issues without eliminating jobs and outsourcing work. It’s, to put it simply, a disgrace.

I’m not typically so blunt with my opinions, but this situation is pretty telling. It’s more important to these organizations to suck up to the local newspaper than it is to actually recognize real economic progress within the County. And, honestly, speaking as someone who has been intimately involved with start up publications, and even being a publisher myself for a while, there is no way I would have accepted an award like this in similar circumstances even if given. And I certainly wouldn’t have lobbied for it. Thanks but no thanks. I would have had a little respect for the community I was trying to serve by allowing someone who really deserves the recognition to receive it, not just so I can hang another plaque on the wall, have a soundbite in the paper, and call myself an “award-winning” company. An honor like this that isn’t really deserved has no meaning. And I suppose that’s my real problem with this. We are in one of the worst economic periods in my lifetime, or any of our lifetimes. It’s tough out there. And where do we turn when the groups that are supposedly working to improve things take actions like this that really undermines their credibility?

So, begrudging congratulations go to Chesapeake Publishing. Cecil County, you deserve much better.

Clarifying The Rumor Mill

As with all things, sometimes rumors will outweigh the reality of a situation.  Earlier today, I received a tip that the Cecil County Office of Economic Development had threatened to pull financial support from the Chamber of Commerce over the now-contentious matter of the upcoming Company of the Year Award.  I have learned that, after the recent meeting, it was reaffirmed that Chesapeake Publishing and the Cecil Whig will indeed be recognized with this award.  Being naturally curious, I sought comment from Vernon Thompson, the Economic Director of the Office of Economic Development in Cecil County.  Mr. Thompson was gracious enough to reply.  Here’s what he said:

“The information you have been provided is incorrect. The office of economic development is a close partner with the chamber and the Whig. The decision of the Chamber regarding the “Company of the Year” was theirs to make.   It was based in part on the ability of the Whig to recalibrate successfully in a difficult market for print media.   We support the Chamber selection.”

Thank you, sir, for the clarification.  Whether or not we agree or disagree with a decision, it’s very easy for unsubstantiated rumors to be confused with facts.  In my experience, people do many things that deserve criticism, but we should be cautious to not demonize someone unfairly or based on false or half-truths.   More on this story later.

Wow, The Times Must Be Tougher Than I Thought: Lowering The Bar For “Company Of The Year”

In my current position as freelance pain in the ass and media critic, I frequently am privy to all sorts of interesting information about the goings on around here.  Some of it is rumor, some is insider info, some of it is sour grapes, and I try to be selective about what I report here as it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference.  Today, I received a tip that was so shocking as to be unbelievable.  But I’ve lived here long enough to know that “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” is a long-standing way of life in some circles, so it’s not quite as unbelievable as it first seemed, I suppose.

Every year, the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce holds an awards gala where they name, among other things, a Company of the Year.  According to my information, this year, on June 18, the Chamber will bestow that previously prestigious award to none other than Chesapeake Publishing.  You know, the people who put out the Cecil Whig, among other things.  Certainly, the Whig does a fair job publicizing things around here in its varied publications and special sections, but Company of the Year?  Exactly how many people did they lay off in 2009?  And, as I’m sure you know by now, they recently started the process of shuttering the printing facility at the Whig office in Elkton, a process that effectively began with a big round of layoffs during fiscal year 2009, taking all of that commercial printing work and more than a few jobs, out of the County.

It seems to me that there used to be some criteria for the award, little things like being a growing company and actually bringing jobs into the County.  Apparently, if this selection is indeed true, those criteria must have changed.  A brief glimpse at the most recent Chamber newsletter on their website shows, listed highly amongst the group’s Board of Directors, an employee from  (you guessed it) Chesapeake Publishing.  I guess there’s no conflict of interest rules for the award, either.  It would be interesting to know if this individual abstained from the selection process, or, in fact, lobbied for it.  Either way, from the outside, it looks a bit unseemly for an organization dedicated to promoting business and growth in Cecil County to give its top award to a company who also happens to have an employee as a high-ranking member of their Board of Directors.  Especially considering said company has engaged in a nearly two-year stream of layoffs and cutbacks after being bought out by a company from way, way outside of the County.

Of course, it could be that the economy is just so bad in Cecil County that having only a hundred or so layoffs in a year could qualify you as Company of the Year, but I’m not even that pessimistic.  I, for one, would certainly appreciate an explanation for this decision, as would, I’m sure, any of the 500 or so dues-paying member businesses of the group.  As always, if anyone from the Chamber would like to explain, you have an open forum here.   Please.

End of an Era

It has come to my attention, through a variety of ways, that the Cecil Whig, a publication that has been around for the better part of 170 years, will no longer be printed locally.  Interestingly enough, rumors were swirling about the changes days before official  word came down, which might explain why the Cecil Whig website posted a piece by Publisher David Fike on late Friday or early Saturday morning, the day after the news was revealed to Elkton employees,  likely as a means of trying to control those rumors.  Unfortunately, because of the paywall that exists on the Whig’s site, you can’t access anything other than the first two paragraphs, which only shows some catch phrases like “evolving our overall business model”, and “a need to scale back spending to fit today’s economy.”  Perhaps the rest of the piece might have been a little more optimistic, but I wouldn’t know because of the paywall.  Internet Awareness 101, right there folks.  A chance to frame what is a pretty important announcement about the County’s paper of record, but the casual citizen of Cecil County can’t even read it.  What was that about evolving?  Of course, I’m sure it will be on Monday’s front page, so you can always read it there while waiting in line for coffee at Wawa.

By all reports, press operations at the Elkton plant will be shut down, and all equipment transferred to the Easton, MD office.  As for personnel, some will be offered the ability to transfer to Easton, but there will inevitably be more layoffs.  This is the latest shift of resources from Elkton to Easton for the company, following nearly half of the Elkton printing plant’s personnel and operations being shifted in April of last year.  After this, all camera, pre-press, mailroom and printing activity for Chesapeake Publishing will be done exclusively out of Easton.

The Whig, and David Fike have gone to great lengths to explain that this consolidation effort, as they call it, is a retooling and not a steady shut down of the Elkton office or The Cecil Whig, as some fear.  All editorial and sales for the Elkton plant’s publications will still be done locally, albeit, in what amounts to a large, mostly empty warehouse.  According to Fike, the consolidation effort isn’t related to their publishing operations (not quite sure how that can be considering printing is a pretty big part of publishing operations, in my experience) and The Cecil Whig is not closing.  To even feel the need to express that publicly may show that there exists some concern within Chespub about how this latest move will affect The Whig’s standing and reputation in our community.

When I first heard this, my initial thought was expense.  According to the Whig, consolidating print operations in Easton leads to spending less money, but there is one rather immediate issue, that being geography.  With the Elkton plant, The Whig could print a day’s edition and distribute it from a centrally located point in the County.  Now, the paper will be printed in Easton, and presumably shipped to Elkton every day.  For a daily publication with circulation rates suggested to be 15,000-19,000 copies (and that’s not counting the many and varied inserts) that’s a lot of bulk weight to be trucking an hour and a half every morning just to reach the same point where actual distribution starts.  And that says nothing for time.  Will the paper have to be done earlier to allow for the travel time?  What results could losing those possibly valuable hours have on coverage?  And what will be the additional expense of trucking a load like that every day be?

Consolidating print operations may, in fact, be in the best interests of the overall company, but it’s difficult to see how it’s in the best interests of The Whig itself.  In fact, I would assume no appreciable savings on the cost of print work, (you’ve still got to pay roughly the same number of people to run the presses for the same amount of time using the same amount of materials, and using some of the same equipment, in fact) and additional expenses for trucking that currently don’t exist.  This for a publication already having a tough go of it revenue wise in the down economy.

It’s a very trying time for the publishing industry, newspapers in particular, but watching a stalwart portion of our county transferred a piece at a time out of town is troubling.  Say what you want about newspapers, but we still rely a great deal on what they produce.  Change may be inevitable, but will we even recognize what’s left after it’s over?

Note:  By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I have been employed by Chesapeake on two occasions, from 1997-2000, and from April of last year through March of this year.  I was let go as editor of The Mariner, another Chespub product soon to be formerly printed in Elkton,  in March.  Take that for what it’s worth.

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