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Newspaper will endure economy

December 20, 2008|By JOHN LEAGUE

During my travels in Hagerstown and elsewhere, I get a lot of questions from people about the headlines forecasting doom and gloom for the newspaper industry.

As a result, I thought I'd use this space to make a bit of a report to our readers.

Newspapers, like nearly all businesses, flourish in good economic times, and are challenged when times get tough.

This has been a tough year for many businesses in Washington County as the economy has posed major challenges to revenue growth and bottom lines.

Nationally, too, the situation is acute, particularly for many in our business, the so-called old media gang -- newspapers, television, radio.

Newspapers have received the lion's share of the bad press. And a lot of metropolitan papers are trying to figure out ways to keep their doors open.

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Some, such as the Detroit newspapers, are reducing home delivery to three to four days per week. Others, like The Sun in Baltimore, have gone to a three-section newspaper.

The situation isn't much better in broadcast. If it weren't for political advertising, our broadcast brethren would be hurting big-time, too. You'll see those headlines during the first six months of next year when broadcasters have to face a changing, challenging market without the benefit of millions of dollars of political advertising that simply rains down from the skies every two years. (Am I envious? You bet!)

Our newspaper has struggled through one of its toughest times since the recession of the early 1980s. I was working as a reporter here then, and I can remember unemployment around 20 percent, mortgage interest rates in the double-digits, and a downtown area that lost the remainder of its major national and regional retailers, and a good bit of smaller ones, too.

As a local paper depending on local advertisers, we prosper when times are good and struggle when times aren't so good.

I have visited with more than 140 advertisers since January. Nearly all of them tell me that business is bad. As the year has progressed, the climate has worsened, though I did hear some enthusiasm about Christmas sales in early December. I hope that carries into 2009.

At The Herald-Mail, we were forced to lay off about 3 percent of our work force because of the tough times. We have reduced the paper's width from 50 to 44 inches to reduce expenses and to avoid a price increase. (The cost of newsprint has increased by more than $200 per ton this past year. We use about 2,000 tons of newsprint per year.)

But unlike many big-city papers, The Herald-Mail remains profitable. Given all of the bad press that newspapers have received, I feel compelled to tell our readers that.

We're not going away, at least not any time soon.

I believe there are a few reasons for that.

One, we've never strayed from our roots. We are a local newspaper. We print stories, information and photos that we generate, and that you generate. Digital delivery of information only has enhanced that strength, as we've seen with some of our new community weekly publications. We publish more local news today than we ever have.

Two, our staff is right here and we're accessible. Got a complaint? You can call me or Executive Editor Jake Womer. We'll either take the call or return it ASAP. There are no Ivory Towers.

Three, we are committed to the community. During my 13-plus years as publisher, The Herald-Mail has contributed, conservatively, more than $750,000 in outright cash or in-kind contributions to charitable causes. (And that's only 13 years out of a 181-year history.) That does not include contributions from our employees.

The beneficiaries are as diverse as the United Way, the Boys and Girls Club, the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, the YMCA or a monthly savings bond to high-achieving public school students. That's only a handful, and does not count the many Herald-Mail employees contributing sweat equity to civic clubs, fraternal organizations, youth sports and churches.

All of this shows in our readership. Given our Web and print reach, we remain the No. 1 news and information source in Hagerstown and Washington County. No one comes close. And those numbers are higher now than they've ever been, and growing. (Our Web site has more daily readers than any individual radio station in the county has listeners.)

Yes, we, like many of you, are going through some challenging times. But we'll adapt, change, tighten our belts and do whatever we have to do to keep providing you with all the news you want, every day.

And finally, to our readers: Have a great holiday season, and a Happy New Year!

John League is editor and publisher of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7073, or by e-mail at jleague@herald-mail.com.

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