[This appeared in The Frederick News-Post on April 29, 2017]
Today, April 29, 2017, marks my last day as editor of The Frederick News-Post.
I was hired 22 months ago to lift the quality of the journalism, to make the paper look better, read better, and to publish stories that meant more to readers.
I think we did that, with a talented team of writers, editors, designers and photographers. By almost any metric we are better than we were in June 2015 when I arrived.
Last year, in our regional press association awards, which include The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post, we won 39 awards plus newspaper of the year for our circulation category. This year we won 49 awards plus newspaper of the year.
We did not do this alone. The publisher Geordie Wilson and the departing CEO of Randall Familly LLC, Will Randall, made many changes to this company in recent years. In all departments of the newspaper — circulation, advertising, and printing — they hired creative new personnel and made changes in business culture and drive that helped us improve across the board. I thank Will, Geordie, the entire Randall family and the employees in all departments for having the vision to realize those changes.
Going forward, The Frederick News-Post will again be challenged, with the short-term instability that always happens under new ownership. And all parts of the company will have to work with significantly fewer people. I’m not at liberty to disclose the number of cuts, but understand that it is significant. So be patient when you see mistakes in the paper and on the website. With fewer editors, more mistakes get through. That is the nature of quality control — anyone who has worked in a factory gets that principle. There are still great journalists here. Give them some time. And please subscribe; reading a local newspaper is as important as voting in all local elections.
What is happening here at The News-Post is part of a larger crisis in local journalism in this country. The changes in the economic model for journalism: internet users’ expectation that everything online should be free; the Great Recession; the disappearance of classified ads to the free site Craigslist; the struggles of big malls and retailers that have less money to advertise because they’re competing against online ordering; the Google and Facebook monopolies that have taken over the distribution of news from publishers; all of these make it hard for a single-standing publication, like The Frederick News-Post, to be very profitable.
But I believe strongly that most large chains trying to adapt to this model are going about it the wrong way. And even some of the smartest people in this country, including Warren Buffett, who owns a chain of 31 small and medium-sized papers, are going down this wrong path.
The Berkshire Hathaway Media Group this month announced that it had eliminated 289 jobs from its group, taking it down to 4,450 people. Why? “Because of declining advertising and circulation revenue,” Terry Kroeger, president and chief executive of the group, told the Omaha World-Herald. He also said they were reducing the number of pages they print at most of their papers. And the World-Heraldnoted that circulation was down 6.1 percent on weekdays, and 7.3 percent on Sundays across the Buffett chain.
Cutting staff, cutting quality, cutting pages is not a strategy for success. It leads to lower-quality, smaller papers, less-ambitious websites, and pretty soon people stop buying our product.
I think we proved over the past couple of years here that a strategy of raising journalistic quality, being more creative about raising revenue from FNP-branded events and different forms of advertising in the community, and a hard focus on cutting costs in printing, although they don’t lead to immediate short-term profits, is the path to longer-term survival and success.
This is the strategy that Jeff Bezos is pursuing at The Washington Post. Now, I know that not everyone’s a billionaire like he is. But he’s hiring. The Post is hiring a new team to do short-term enterprise and investigative stories. It has invested in its website and the people who run it. And the publication is reaching more people online by amounts leaps and bounds beyond what it used to reach because it has formed a solid team of national and international reporters who deliver interesting news every day. The publication is now making more money than it has in years, according to my sources at the Post.
But here on the local level, I think the same lessons hold. Although journalism is a public good, and is the only business protected in our Constitution, I don’t believe in nonprofit journalism. I think we should make profits. The only dispute is how. Cutting, cutting, cutting is not working and will only lead to fewer and fewer people reading smaller and smaller, less-ambitious, and dull publications. And that endangers our democracy. Keeping people informed on the local level is a bulwark of self-government. Without it, we drown in authoritarianism, ignorance, and fake news.
Now I want to thank the people of Frederick County, particularly our readers and members. This is a fascinating, warm, engaging county with good values. I have met a lot of you, but never as many as I wanted. People write to me daily from throughout the county and I have always tried to respond fairly. I have learned a lot from those conversations and I thank you.
The county, by and large, is well-run. Its government is lean compared with others I have covered in three other states and helps out the least of us whenever it can. Downtown Frederick is a pearl that needs to be nurtured into a fine magnet for food, entertainment and urban living. The recreation opportunities in and around the county and the beauty of its rural sections are gifts to be preserved. Its farmers are an important part of our collective prosperity.
Finally, I want to thank my writers, editors, photographers and designers. At the end, we had built ourselves into a cohesive, professional, highly competent team working to inform the residents of Frederick County.
In a democracy, there is no higher calling.