Celebrating Newspaper Survival

PETER A. JAY

July 11, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Anyone with a home computer can be a publisher these days, and new local newspapers keep bursting into bloom. Like wildflowers, they seem to sprout overnight on suburban lawns, and then as quickly fade away.

So it was notable last week that The Record, the weekly journal of this 208-year-old community, was quietly celebrating its 125th anniversary. This kind of durability isn't unprecedented; Maryland has several papers that are older. But it's still a ripe old age for any periodical, and few of the sleek new ones will ever attain it.

Even the short-term survival of a community newspaper is a balancing act. Readers, especially the hard core who have grown up with a paper and take a proprietary interest in it, hate change. But communities, often unconsciously, demand it. New people and new generations must be accommodated, or they'll look elsewhere for their news. That's a fact, and to newspapers it represents a mandate.

Perhaps half the readers of a typical traditional weekly vote on the paper once a year, when their subscription expires and they decide whether to renew. The other half vote every week, issue by issue, at the news stand or convenience store. An editor's obligation, no more and no less honorable than the obligation of a politician to the electorate, is to satisfy enough members of each group to keep the paper viable.

Partly because that task has grown so daunting, we are now in the era of the free publication. Virtually every town has one or more of these. They are either made available to anyone who'll bother to pick up a copy from a box, or distributed to every household in a particular area. The latter is called "total market coverage," or TMC.

Advertisers seem to like this approach, which makes sense to them on a cost-per-household basis. They like the idea that they're reaching everyone in a certain area, and they no longer find persuasive the argument that readers who pay for a paper are more likely to read it. Actually, the news coverage in some of the free papers is fairly good, and sometimes it's outstanding. But usually the editorial content of a free newspaper illustrates the old principle that you get what you pay for.

Because for 15 of The Record's 125 years I was one of its two owners, editors and publishers, I have to admit I view its survival with mixed emotions. I'm happy it's still alive, but I'm both irritated and saddened, like any other old mossbacked reader with a satchel full of prejudices, by some of the changes I see.

Most of these changes were probably inevitable, and my objections to them aren't all rational. It's been almost five years since my wife and partner, Irna Jay, and I sold The Record to The Baltimore Sun, which operates it now as part of its Homestead Publishing subsidiary. And any newspaper that doesn't change at all in five years would have to be either dangerously self-satisfied or just plain stagnant.

We certainly made plenty of changes of our own when we had the chance. Some succeeded and some failed miserably, but we kept inching ahead. After 15 years, we were doing 15 times the dollar volume of business as when we started. We had five times as many employees. More important -- remember, this was in the '80s, the Decade of Greed -- we were making a profit.

That came about because we were willing to make changes, some of them irritating to our dearly beloved readers. In 1974, a year after we had bought The Record and about nine months after we had discovered what dire financial straits it was in, we were trying out lots of new ideas.

Around that time I heard that a fellow who worked for another newspaper was telling anyone who'd listen that our paper's days were numbered. It would be dead in a year, he predicted. I taped that prediction to the wall by my desk, and year by year, as the paper gained ground, it gave me a lot of encouragement.

In a way, I suppose, selling a small business you've built into a bigger one is like seeing your child married. It's an emotional moment, and you know life will never be the same; someone else has taken over a responsibility you thought you'd have forever. In some ways the change is even more stark; your children are always your children, but when the business is sold you're part of its history but nothing more.

Jim Kennedy, whom Irna and I hired as a young reporter for The Record, is now its editor. These are difficult days for all who work for newspapers, with the business climate sour and a glut of out-of-work journalists looking for jobs, but he seems to be doing a fine job. The paper isn't what it was, no doubt, but it isn't supposed to be.

We don't look over Jim's shoulder or second-guess his editorial judgment. But because this is a small town, and because we're still hanging around and easy to find, when there are complaints about the paper we tend to hear them. On the whole, the ones we hear are trivial. Certainly they seem milder than those we used to get when we were the ones to blame.

There's no doubt in my mind that the best newspaper for a community is one owned and edited by people who live there. But that's yesterday's wisdom and not today's. In these times, a town still served by the paper it had 125 years ago can count itself fortunate, no matter what the ownership might be.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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