Arnie.042414

by Pete Mazzaccaro

If you have read the Local in April, you’re well aware that the state of the paper – from its fiscal well-being to the health of its readership – has been a matter of controversy. That controversy was kicked off by questions and comments of several CHCA board members who felt that the paper’s budget should not be passed until a committee explored the strategic planning acumen and editorial vision of the Local’s staff.

Those actions, and a choice comment that the Local constitutes a “content rathole” spurred what might have been the most passionate letter-writing campaign of support for the paper I’ve seen in 15 years.

The questions, though criticized, weren’t necessarily unfair questions. The Local did suffer through a remarkably poor year of display advertising sales. And, yes, print subscriptions continue to decline.

How to address these declines is a conversation worth having – and something we are working on – but the problem was that these questions caused a panic that led to an unnecessary delay of the Local’s budget and the temporary shelving of several initiatives to reinvest in growth strategies It was a series of actions produced by emotion. Lost in that exchange were easier to digest and harder to argue facts.

The big picture is this: News of Local’s demise is greatly exaggerated.

First, the Local is not failing. Over the last five years, the Local has not only turned a modest profit, it has banked nearly $100,000 in a reserve fund. The business of the paper is solidly in the black. Insisting that it has failed has no merit from a balance-sheet perspective.

Second, our readership is growing. Declining print circulation is an issue, but it’s not one the Local faces alone. While we’ve been printing several hundred fewer papers for distribution both on the newsstand and direct to subscribers’ homes, we’ve gained readership month after month online.

During the last fiscal year (April 1, 2013 to March 31, 2014), chestnuthilllocal.com served 640,000 page views to more than 240,000 people, or as we call them in Web analytics “unique visitors.” That’s 53,000 stories to 20,000 people a month.

This should come as a shock to no one following the news business for the last 15 years, where there has been a mass migration – first to the desktop and now to mobile, which is growing faster than even the most optimistic future-forward experts predicted.

In 2014, the Local should pass a basic health test for any news organization – it is profitable and it has a growing online audience. Of course this doesn’t mean that we can kick up our heels and pass out the celebratory cigars. We’re in the position now of trying to figure out many things that are still vexing other news organizations from The New York Times to Slate.com: How do we make the print product something that continues to have value to subscribers and newsstand customers? How do we diversify our advertising business to take advantage of the great digital migration.

We have a plan in place to reboot chestnuthilllocal.com that would continue to foster that online growth and improve our ability to sell adds. We have a mobile app that is nearly ready for wide release on both Android and iOS. Success here won’t be easy, but it will be easier to accomplish without looking backwards at arguments over content that should have been settled long ago.

The future for the Local is pretty bright. We just have to escape from the past and get there already.

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