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Editorial: Shame on us

Neal Ronquist, publisherYes, you read the headline correctly — shame on us. We (the newspaper industry) have done a terrible job throughout the decades of informing readers, audience members, business leaders, community leaders, elected officials and citizens about how our business operates. Now, when faced with tough decisions we somehow expect the communities we serve to understand why we're making changes when we have never explained our business model well. We're reaping what we have sown. That's on us.

A joke often heard in most newspaper operations is we're in the communication business and yet are some of the worst internal and external communicators when it comes to our own business. We want to cover stories, not be a part of stories. Back in the heyday of newspapers, telling our own story didn't matter. Now it does.

So in a departure from tradition, we are baring our souls.

Just as it isn't easy for people to ask for help, it is similarly not easy for an organization to admit it has a problem, faces a challenge or just plain needs help. That's where RiverTown Multimedia is today, that's where the newspaper industry is today. We're facing a challenge and we need everyone's help.

Like our coverage, dislike our coverage, it doesn't matter. Our communities need us. Our democracy needs us. You need us. We need you.

Recent decisions

Currently, some of you are upset with our recent decision to close buildings in some of the communities we serve. Some have described our actions as abandoning communities. That's the furthest thing from the truth.

We're not leaving the communities where we're closing buildings. We remain committed to providing quality, community-focused content. The reality is the locations we have closed were not frequented often by the public. Our customers are using Facebook, text messaging, email, websites and other electronic means to communicate with us in real time and more often.

Other media entities cover the metro area, the state, the region from one office, not offices in every community they serve. The number and location of RiverTown offices has zero impact on our news coverage and our commitment to provide excellent, timely content and advertising messages.

A primer on newspaper economics, newspaper economics 101 if you will.

Let's dispel a couple of misnomers: Newspapers are not non-profit businesses; nor are they public utilities.

Newspapers are a for-profit business and are managed and operated like most other businesses. We pay employees wages and benefits. We buy materials and services from local, state, regional, national and international vendors. We pay for utilities. We pay taxes. We donate cash, services and other items to charities.

Newspapers traditionally have derived revenue from three different sources: Advertisers who place ads to market their goods and/or services; individuals who place classified advertisements selling couches, cars, and other goods; and individuals who pay for a subscription to receive the news and advertising messages printed on the newspaper's pages.

And after all the revenue owed to us is collected and expenses paid, we strive to have more revenue coming in than expenses going out — a profit.

So how did we get to where we are at today?

Up until about 2007 the newspaper industry was chugging along as it always had. Enjoying mostly good economic times, with an occasional bad year, or two, as a result of the overall health of the local, state or national economy.

Major disruption started in 2007 as technological advancements resulted in the explosion of the "smartphone" — mainly starting with the iPhone — and simultaneously the build-out of a faster network to handle the movement of massive amounts of data to a massive amount of devices. The newspaper industry had been struggling with how to "monetize" its websites on the internet for nearly a decade and now stared at the added challenge of people being able to access even more data mobily. What had been a relative slow decline in the number of print subscribers and subsequently subscriber revenue started to accelerate. Meanwhile, retailers started to migrate advertising dollars out of print and to digital advertising sources, which had a further negative impact on newspapers.

If that wasn't enough of a challenge, the U.S. economy, and the world economy, tanked in 2008, leaving retailers hurting and pulling back on advertising investments across all mediums. The Great Recession took a significant bite out of newspaper advertising revenue.

The development of social media platforms, coupled again with mobile and network advancements, resulted in people being able to sell their personal items directly to others they were connected with. This eliminated the need to place classified ads in newspapers, resulting in even less revenue flowing into newspapers.

During the same period the cost of business wasn't going down. The cost of materials, equipment, taxes, health insurance were all going up.

Not a good scenario for any type of business.

What have we done?

We've adapted. We're no longer just printing newspapers, we're multimedia companies producing content in text, audio and video formats for dissemination in print and online.

We've embraced technology, resulting in the automation and centralization of many processes and tasks. This has allowed us to retain, and employ, content generators and sales professionals in the communities we serve.

We've shrunk the number of buildings we own and operate. We continue to support the communities we cover even as our physical footprint dwindles; it's because the evolution of our business no longer requires enormous pieces of equipment, or high volumes of people. Just as many factories have reduced in size or number as technology has changed, so have we. One reporter with a smartphone has literally replaced dozens of people compared to 30 years ago. Same goes for a sales representative with a tablet.

We never were a destination business like a retail store. Our employees have always gone out into the world to do their work. Reporters travel to stories. Sales representatives meet with business owners at their places of business. Our independently contracted delivery force, or the U.S. Mail, brings our print products to your doorstep, and, of course, the internet brings content to your mobile phone, tablet or desktop computer.

The world has changed and we have changed with it.

The result is we produce more content today than ever before and have more audience than at any point in our history. We also have less economic support from our communities than ever before.

That's right, we're producing more than ever, being read by more than ever, yet the communities we cover provide us less economic support than ever before.

What's next?

First, newspapers are not dying. They are reinventing themselves on the fly, for all the world to see.

No pressure, but you need us to figure this out. Our democracy, our way of life depends on a strong, free, ethical press. The journalist watchdog is more important than ever as all of us are overwhelmed with messages coming from unknown, untrained, unverified sources.

We're not seeking a free pass. Call us out when we don't meet your standards. We will listen and work to meet your high expectations.

We're asking for your support. Today, that means purchasing us in print, as we don't yet charge for our website-based content. In the very near future we will charge for access to our websites and will welcome your support when that day arrives.

If you own a business; place advertisements with us. Our products get results. We have more audience than ever before.

If you are selling your couch, or car, place an ad with us. Our products get results. We have more audience than ever before.

Support us like you support all local businesses, or perhaps how you should support local businesses. If you want a healthy community, it starts with having a healthy business community and we're a part of that community. Our employees work and live here, buy houses, buy cars, buy groceries, pay taxes; they do their part to support the local economy, as does our business.

We are producing more content than ever and have more audience than ever before. We now need the community economic support to match.