Slightly more than a year ago, in January 2008, Mike Dillon remembers the first financial pinch: the six small, local newspapers put out by the Pacific Publishing Company, Inc. (PPC), where he serves as publisher, began experiencing a clampdown on the flow of advertising dollars. As the year progressed, the company heard that business was slow, from both advertisers and retailers that contributed to PPC's community papers: the Capitol Hill Times, the South Seattle Beacon, the Madison Park Times, the North Seattle Herald-Outlook, and the Queen Anne & Magnolia News, the company's flagship.
Then came October. And, as experts mentioned the dreaded word "recession," the financial pinch Dillon felt turned into a near stranglehold, as advertisers gripped ever tighter to their dollars. And as the calendar shifted to 2009, and January gave way to February, Dillon, himself from a newspaper family, came face-to-face with cold, hard reality: He had to lay off part of his staff.
So on Feb. 20, he let go two editors and four ad sales reps -- nearly a quarter of his workforce -- with their terminations effective immediately. He says those layoffs, while difficult, have helped bring expenses in line with ad revenue. These are "tough times out there economically," says Dillon.
Few people will argue that. Yet while newspapers are awash with dire economic figures (consider the 7.6 percent national unemployment rate for Jan. 2009 as one example), another story of the economy's downturn has been eating up more amd more ink: the ever-increasing collapse of print journalism. The tremors are everywhere.
On Feb. 24, the Hearst Corporation announced that, unless it can reduce its losses, it may sell or close the San Francisco Chronicle, which it's owned since 2000. (Among the cost-cutting suggestions: a "significant reduction" of both union and nonunion employees.) Three days later, on Feb. 27, the Rocky Mountain News, after 150 years in publication as one of Denver's two daily papers, ceased publication, due in part to losses of $16 million last year. And locally, there's the Seattle P-I, also Hearst owned, which may cease print publication as soon as mid-March, if a buyer can't be found.
With weekly circulation topping 35,000, the PPC resides in a different category than many of the suffering big-city dailies. But local papers serve a great purpose, says Dillon, by focusing on the essential ingredient in any community: the people. "Very often we know the people we're writing about and we try to be honest brokers in what we write," he says. "You have to fundamentally like and respect people and have a sense that people matter."
The importance of community newspapers is echoed by Erica Smith, who, in the summer of 2007, started the blog Paper Cuts (graphicdesignr.net/papercuts/), which tracks layoffs and buyouts in the nation's newspapers. "Smaller papers are going to cover stories and issues that the big papers don't care about and don't cover," says Smith, who works as a multimedia producer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
So far this year, the blog has tracked more than 2,700 people in the newspaper industry who've lost their jobs. (The total for 2008 exceeded 15,500.) Yet when it comes to tracking the fate of the country's smaller papers, Smith says it's taken time because layoffs at the big dailies tend to generate more attention. But as her blog has gained notice, the past few months have found an increasing number of people emailing about the plight of community papers.
Smith offers what may help neighborhood papers would be to tap into the power of the blogosphere, which may have a local person who's willing, say, to cover City Hall. "I think it would depend on the community" and its resources, she says. With a prediction that this year's newspaper layoffs will surpass last year's, Smith believes such ingenuity may be a necessity.
Yet even with such bad news all around and the necessity for last month's layoff of six staffers, Dillon anticipates that, financially speaking, this year may not be so bad for PPC. His faith resides in part on a twice-monthly advertising-laden section in the company's papers called City Living, the Feb. 25 edition amounts to 24 pages. The section has generated new ad sales, he says, and the company has become more creative and aggressive in offering things to advertisers. "We have every reason to be hopeful," he says.
Also lurking in the background is another potential bright spot, one borne of economic tragedy: the demise of the Seattle P-I. For even though its disappearance would take away from the richness of the city, a quality he himself would miss, he says that his community papers could see a benefit. "We might be beneficiaries of their demise," says Dillon. "But I don't want that, to see that happen."