Writer's Block: How's The Paper Doing?

“How's the paper doing?”

That's one of the most frequent questions I'm asked, and I know other members of The Chronicle staff hear it often as well. It came up quite a bit in the past year thanks to two things: COVID and increasing publicity about the loss of local newspapers and news coverage nationwide.

The short answer is that the paper is doing just fine, thanks.

We were certainly nervous in March 2020 when everything began to shut down. Would advertising fall off the precipice? Would news dry up as folks hunkered down at home? Would we still have the ability to cover stories and put together the paper under such dire circumstances?

As readers know, we were able to continue to put out the paper. News didn't dry up; in fact it ramped up as we covered the local impact of and reaction to the pandemic. We worked the phones more than we might have otherwise. We learned that online meetings have both benefits and drawbacks (they're usually recorded and so can be watched at any time, and often played at faster speeds to reduce the time commitment; but being remote sometimes makes it hard to read people and ask followup questions).

Advertising dropped initially, but it gradually climbed back almost to pre-pandemic levels and by summer was pretty much level with where we would have otherwise expected it to be. Helping make this happen was the need for local restaurants to advertise their own pivot to takeout service, the desire of other businesses to let customers know they were open and their COVID protocols, and, of course, the super-hot real estate market. We're grateful that local businesses recognize the value of print advertising as an efficient and effective method to reach customers.

Like many of those businesses, The Chronicle also benefited from the federal government's Paycheck Protection Plan assistance; we also received a small grant from Google designed to help local news organizations. Taken together, these measures helped keep our entire staff working and getting paid.

And, as detailed elsewhere in this issue, we are now in a position to grow our staff. This is a continuation of an expansion of our coverage that began several years ago when, in response to requests from the community, we began reporting Orleans news. It made sense to add Orleans to our Chatham and Harwich coverage for a number of reasons: the three towns surround Pleasant Bay and share other resources and issues in common, and the communities and their residents have always had close ties, as well as some good-natured rivalries. We began by coaxing veteran Cape newspaperman Ed Maroney out of retirement to cover the town part-time. When Ed decided to retire – again – a few months ago, we tapped former Cape Cod Times reporter and editor Ryan Bray to take over the beat. Given his skillset and the opportunities we continue to see in Orleans, we decided to bring him on full-time.

That gets to how The Chronicle has managed to survive, even thrive, when other newspapers are closing or getting swallowed up by national corporations or hedge funds. Dedication to the communities we cover is a big part of that, but just as important is our independence. We don't have corporate bean counters breathing down our neck and squeezing out every last penny, consolidating functions many states away and cutting staff to the bone. Our publisher, Henry Hyora, knows that to maintain readership we have to provide content that people can't find elsewhere, and that's hyper-local coverage of everything that impacts the community, from taxes to schools to erosion, as well as the milestones that define a community, like graduations, awards, centennial birthdays, business openings and community events and fundraisers. And to do that, you need people, experienced journalists who not only know how to report and write the news but are happy to meet and interact with the diverse residents in our three towns.

Some parts of the country are experiencing a “news desert” as more and more newspapers close. Although Massachusetts has largely escaped that fate, the number of newspapers has dropped by 69 since 2004, a 27 percent decrease, according to the The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina's Expanding News Desert website. There are 10 newspapers remaining in Barnstable County (there was once nearly twice that number), but only three of them are independently owned: The Falmouth Enterprise, Provincetown Independent, and The Chronicle. I'm not going to pile on our competition, but the difference between the three locally owned, independent papers and the rest (all now owned by Gannett, publisher of USA Today) is obvious to even the most casual reader and a significant reason for The Chronicle's success, especially our expansion into Orleans.

In a few weeks, we'll publish the annual statement of ownership, management and circulation required by all publications sent through the U.S. Postal Service. The form provides specific circulation numbers for both mailed copies and newsstand sales. Last year our average circulation was just over 7,600, and should continue to be right around that figure this year, our publisher tells me. Last year we were the highest circulation weekly on the Cape. Applying the industry standard of three readers per copy, that puts our print readership at 22,800, even higher when considering the growing number who only read the paper online.

That's pretty good when a weekly paper is considered successful with a circulation of 2,000 to 4,000 – the twice-weekly Storm Lake Times in Storm Lake, Iowa, which won a Pulitzer Prize and is the subject of a new film about local newspapers, has a circulation of about 3,300.

Despite our successes, it's not all clear sailing ahead for us. Who knows what will happen with readership and advertising as generations change? And with our increased coverage of Orleans, we must work hard to continue to balance coverage among our three communities.

If there's one thing that can help guide us, it's feedback from our readers: what we're getting wrong, what we're getting right, what we're missing. Send us an email, message us on Facebook or Twitter, pop an actual paper letter in the mail. Now that you know how the paper's been doing, let us know how we're doing in the days ahead.