The end of The Vindicator: How did we get here?
By MARK A. BROWN
Vindicator General Manager
The newspaper business throughout the U.S. has been changing in dramatic ways over the past two decades. We have, as have other family owners of newspapers across the country, come to the conclusion that the only hope of maintaining a strong, locally focused newspaper to serve the needs of our area’s readers and advertisers was to become a part of a larger organization that is better positioned to succeed in such challenging times, or to become the printer of other nearby newspapers. A single, stand-alone newspaper (with the exception of about five papers in the U.S.) simply cannot generate a profit and therefore succeed now or in the future.
Our preferred choice was to become the printing hub for nearby newspapers and other commercial printing. To that end, as you may recall, we bought a newer press that was capable of printing two separate newspapers at once. We commissioned that press in March of 2010. But we were unsuccessful in winning any major printing work.
Since then we have been trying to find a path forward on our own. As advertisers have moved to spending money on Facebook and Google, they have reduced their spending with newspapers. As people have moved to internet shopping, brick-and-mortar stores have had sales declines, which have resulted in less spending on newspaper advertising. During this time, we have continued to battle traditional electronic media for the advertisers’ budgets. Like all other newspapers, our classified section is a shadow of itself since Craigslist and other online classified sites provided stiff competition for automotive, employment, real estate and garage sale advertising.
We tried to add products and change our operations to stem the losses from advertising, but we could not stop nor even slow the declines. We know of no daily newspapers that have been able to stop the decline in advertising revenue.
While we are never happy with any delivery service problems, we have recorded our lowest complaint ratios the last few years. Service is never perfect, but we have strived to make it so. Nonetheless, our circulation numbers have continued to decline, as has our circulation revenue.
We have reduced costs as much as possible without totally gutting the newspaper. Each year as our revenue numbers would decrease, we would reduce our expenses significantly, but not enough to change our bottom line. Our employees have made numerous sacrifices over the years in a joint effort to maintain as many jobs as possible while still concentrating on producing a quality news product for you. Our unions have realized the seriousness of our situation and have worked with us to try to keep this newspaper viable.
Everything I have written about our struggles is something any newspaper in the country could write about themselves. With perhaps a handful of exceptions (such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post), all of the remaining 1,300 daily newspapers in the U.S. have virtually the same story as ours. To be clear, our expenses have exceeded our revenues in 20 of the past 22 years. We have restructured the operation by cutting expenses, but have tried to avoid gutting the editorial product. We have had layoffs, but much has been saved by not filling vacancies when they occurred. Corporately, we have not paid a dividend since 1992. We were forced to spend $12 million on a new press when the only maker of the old letterpress plates was about to go out of business. And we have slowly depleted an additional $11 million covering operating losses.
We have no loans. The company’s only debt is from underfunded pension plans, like most employers with defined benefit pension plans. Historically, our pension plans were fully funded, sometimes as high as 130 percent. But some years ago, the government changed the funding time period for such pension plans from 30 years to seven years. Kind of like having someone change your home mortgage from a 30-year mortgage to a seven-year one. That was followed by the stock market pullback from the “great recession” and a period of unusually low interest rates, which makes the funding shortfall much worse.
We provide this context of our situation and some of the factors involved so you might gain some understanding of why the decision was made to close. The entire newspaper industry is facing the same issues. Over the past few years, according to a University of North Carolina study, close to 1,800 daily and weekly newspapers have closed. All of our unions, employees and carriers have shown tremendous cooperation in fighting for this newspaper’s survival. Our unions have agreed to unprecedented changes over the years to help us.
Our hearts go out to all of our staff and carriers who have worked incredibly hard throughout the years to create and deliver the best possible newspaper to our community. All tried their best to make us succeed, so this loss is especially devastating to them, as well as us. We obviously never envisioned this type of ending.
We also worry about the general welfare of the community. Local newspapers help keep politicians honest, uncover corruption, make sure public servants do their jobs properly while keeping the public informed about what local governments and school boards are doing and report on the court system and with crime in the area. We have led most of the fights in the area for public records and Sunshine Law enforcements. We also bring news of births, the joy of engagements and weddings and the sadness of deaths of our friends. We celebrate the triumphs of local people, be it over disease or disability or whatever else that life throws at them. We worry about the void we will leave in covering local news and the effect that will have on the general welfare of our community.
As we said earlier, we are deeply grateful for you, our loyal readers and advertisers, and for having the privilege of working with our fine staff and carriers.