Thursday, April 24, 2008

Concord Monitor faces economic challenges

Editor's Note: This is a corrected and edited version of an earlier post. Monitor Publisher Geordie Wilson was kind enough to respond to the first edition of this post with some clarifications which I have integrated into the original post. His full comment is posted on the version of this post. This is the first in a series analyzing the news industry in Concord.
The Sunday edition of the Concord Monitor revealed some startling admissions on its editorial pages about the teetering state of the newspaper industry and what the company would be doing in the future to stay in business.
The revelations were a bit startling to many, especially those who have had a long-term relationship with the newspaper [For me, it's been more than three decades: I started reading the newspaper as a boy, became a peddler of the afternoon edition in the late 1970s while in middle-school, and have been a regular reader for years].
While they may seem awkward, these letters to readers are an important part of continuing the relationship between the reader of the news and the producer of the news. Despite the economic climate, many people are still connected to their community newspapers and Concord is no exception.
In the column, linked here: ["Tough times, tough choices for the 'Monitor'"] Executive Editor Felice Belman noted that changes were coming in order to weather current economic conditions. While not going too deeply into specifics about how bad things were, Belman said the newspaper would preserve what was important: reporting local news:

In planning for budget cuts we have been mindful of protecting what's most important: the local news report, brought to you by a serious staff of New Hampshire reporters, editors and photographers.
The Monitor will cut costs by lowering print and ink usage. It will publish tighter newspapers by dropping filler house ads and moving to a two book edition instead of four books. On Monday and Tuesday, the paper published the tighter layout with 20 pages. The previous two Monday editions were 24 pages. On Wednesday, the Monitor was a four book again, with 24 pages. Belman wrote that the changes would limit space previously available for national and international news noting that readers could get that information via other outlets [And she's correct on this point].
These types of changes are not surprising and have been the norm for a while in an industry battling to stay alive. Some have lopped off column inches from the size of their newspapers and cut other costs to preserve what is important without alienating current readers. Some have gone through redesigns in order to hide the changes from readers.
The fact that it took the Monitor so long to come to these cost-cutting conclusions is a bit remarkable considering the state of the industry. Everyone in media circles knows how bad business is and has been. As advertising revenues have been diverted to other mediums, newspaper companies have sustained layoffs [or buyouts for those fortunate enough to be union employees or highly-paid columnists] year after year in order to please shareholders. The Monitor has delayed decisions made by other companies because it is owned and operated locally and is not hounded by Wall Street worrying about 20 percent returns each year.
But there is only so much one business can sustain before making changes. Since the Monitor has been owned by the same family, it has not had to worry about market forces until now. Many of us though have suspected things might be bleak for our local daily as recently as 18 months ago.
Back in December 2006, as part of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce's Leadership Class, I spent the day at the Monitor's facility for our Media Day class. We did some roleplaying which was fun for the non-media types and there was also an interesting debate about news media issues in which the Monitor's circulation director Mark Travis took a cheap shot at local radio for not having a person on the panel [What he did not realize until later was that I was a member of the class and managing WKXL at the time and therefore, not invited to sit on the panel, something not lost on my classmates].
The class also received a tour of the offices and printing facility. It was great to see the new facility [It isn't all that new but to me it was since I remember the days when the Monitor's office and printing press were on Green Street, in the heart of downtown].
Since WKXL was actively seeking support from the same advertising base as the Monitor, I had some inside knowledge about the state of affairs at the Monitor. Specifically, the Radio Advertising Bureau [RAB] had provided our company with the newspaper's declining paid circulation numbers - numbers which turned out to be incomplete - and other ways of showing how the Audit Bureau of Circulation [ABC], one of the circulation bureaus used by newspapers, fudges the numbers for newspapers to make the numbers seem not so bleak.
According to Wilson, the Monitor has a circulation of just under 20,000 weekdays, and a little more than 22,000 on Sunday, based on calculations done in June 2007 by the Certified Audit of Circulations. This circulation includes Newspaper In Education sponsorships, as well as other programs, although Wilson noted in a recent email that more than 90 percent of the editions are paid copies.
The ABC figures submitted to the radio station were apparently for Concord proper only and not the entire service area. Those figures showed the Monitor with an average daily readership of 18,000 Monday through Saturday and 19,000 on Sunday, according to the latest figures available from 2005 [The Monitor claims 22,000 readers and the latest figures are not currently available without paying for them]. These figures were based on about 7,800 newspapers sold each day in Concord, Monday through Saturday, and 8,000 on Sunday. The ABC calculates circ numbers based on more than one person reading each edition of the newspaper which is sold: 2.3 people reading the weekday edition and 2.4 people reading the Sunday edition.
This mechanism of calculating readership by ABC is a great leap of assumption but is also the industry standard. Despite this standard, it seems like a completely flawed formula and probably reflects inaccurate readership numbers. How inaccurate? Well, consider other mediums for a minute.
Radio tracks listeners by recording and tabulating the decisions of the listener. But imagine what a boon it would be if a station could take its six share and multiply it by 2.3 and tell advertisers, "Well, there are three commuters in every car so ..."
Television tracks household viewership [They may multiply households by 2.3 viewers to get overall viewership but I don't know for sure. I'm sure they do this to come up with the 10 million viewer number but not the actual ratings].
The Internet tracks things by actual clicks of computers entering a site. They could exaggerate and say, "There were three co-workers leaning over my shoulder while I was on Drudge ..." but that isn't how it is done.
Weekly newspapers - at least the ones that I have worked for - talk about actual print editions sold and subscriptions sent out. They don't multiply by 2.3.
So, why shouldn't daily newspapers be held to the same standard? These comments are not posted to beat up on dailies, the Monitor, or anyone else. It is just done to show a flaw in the mechanism of counting circ and one has to wonder how they get away with it.
When I thought that the Monitor only had about 8,000 sold editions in a market population of about 120,000, I was floored and didn't believe. It turns out, these figures were wrong and not as bad as previously posted, which, frankly, is a relief.
But how could any newspaper in a small market stay alive with such a small amount of newspapers sold?
Before the Media Day class, participants of the class sat in on an editorial board meeting of the newspapers editors to watch how they decided what went into the newspaper. About seven editors sat at a table and talked about the stories of the day, including local stories, photos, sports, and other items. It was an interesting discussion to watch because there wasn't much discussion. A list was printed up of all the potential stories and a photo editor showed off the day's shots. There was a bit of banter but it was not extensive.
After the editors were done, they answered questions about the process or anything else we wanted to know about. The six people who attended the meeting and did not work in media had some interesting questions about story content, staffing, and other things.
One woman asked, "How many news reporter do you have?"
Then-Executive Editor Mike Pride stated, "13."
"How many people work on the paper itself?" another asked.
Pride said there were 46 editorial employees and 120 employees altogether.
I asked about the new publication called The Insider and why it was only distributed to the Concord subscribers and not in say, Webster, where people might find the information and content interesting.
Pride said people from outside of Concord could pick up it at newsboxes downtown.
But what if they don't get downtown?, I asked.
Then folks wouldn't get it, he said.
I then asked, Was there any thought to spending the staffing dollars beefing up the Local/Regional section instead of producing an entirely new product?
To this question, Pride bristled and stated "No" quite sharply and I didn't ask anymore questions.
This entire conversation shocked me on many different levels.
To start, I couldn't believe the newspaper had so many employees. But the numbers were later confirmed by Wilson when he gave the classmates a tour of the facility a week after the editor's meeting.
During the tour, Wilson showed off the Monitor's printing presses and some of the other publications which the company printed for other businesses. Those newspapers included The Hippo, some Spanish language newspapers, and the Sun Transcript chain on the North Shore of Massachusetts, showing that the printing presses were an integral part of the company's overall business strategy.
Issues of staffing and news production were front and center in my mind and had been for months. There had been staffing issues at WKXL, specifically, the station was losing full-time employees but not replacing key personnel in order to save money. Over a period of two years, staffing went from 15 full-timers and two part-timers at its peak, to six full-timers and a few part-timers. The six remaining full-time employees were expected to produce more content and a heavier workload than the previous 15. The six people were also expected to perform as good - if not better - than better-staffed news operations like the Monitor, NHPR or WMUR-TV Channel 9.
The production [and quality] of the local news produced by the Monitor was often used by the station's owner to criticize the two full-timers and one part-timer working on news.
'How come the Monitor got this story and we didn't?' was a regular mantra I heard.
'Eh, because they have more reporters doing less work?' [This is not a dig at the Monitor reporters. But some days when comparing the two news organizations, their 13 reporters would produce fewer actual stories than the station's 2.5 reporters, while the radio reporters also produced calendar listings, long-form programs, and numerous 5-minute audio segments on top of the actual stories].
While I didn't know this for sure, I suspected as much. After attending the class and confirming the 6 to 1 and 10 to 1 staffing level differences between the Monitor and WKXL, I mentioned to the owner that he should either hire more staff or limit the amount of criticism leveled at the station's news operation. No new staffing was hired and I returned to my previous newspaper job a few months later.
What was cool about the admission by Wilson was that he would make the admission. But also that a family business so cared about the quality of its news and its commitment to the community that it was willing to use another facet of the business to sustain that quality [WKXL should get the same consideration on a smaller scale].
In making these changes, the Monitor is clearly salvaging what its staff believes is important while at the same time attempting to survive the current economic storm. They seem minor and worthy of support by both the news consumer and the news producer. And, frankly, it is an important endeavor to make sure newspapers which focus on local content and information stay alive and vibrant.

Upcoming: The importance of local news and why it is worth fighting for. Plus, some suggestions on how the Monitor [and other news outlets] can change with the times while also staying relevant to the community.

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