As you know, Willamette Week is a privately held company. Editor Mark Zusman and I are the paper's sole owners. At the same time, we view you as our most important stakeholders, so each year, on this newspaper's anniversary, I report to you on the condition of our business.
I. FY 2002
A year ago in this column, I projected revenues for WW of about $6 million and pre-tax profits of $265,000 for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2002. In an ever-worsening economy, Willamette Week met the revenue target and exceeded the profit target by $100,000. This was the consequence of two basic developments. First, local papers like ours have been hurt less than big dailies by the economy's downturn. Second, the cost of newsprint--our biggest single expense--has gone down.
This year, the economy still stinks. But thanks to lower newsprint costs, we've been able to raise staff pay 5 percent, increase circulation to 87,500 and install a sophisticated new classified system--while increasing our projected pre-tax profit margin slightly and avoiding the layoffs that other similar-sized newspapers made elsewhere in the country. Come next March 31, we're hoping to report revenues in the $6 million range once again and to post pre-tax profits of $375,000.
To put these numbers in the context of our local competitors, based on my observations and conversations I'd guess The Oregonian's annual gross is in the range of $300 million these days (down significantly from two years ago); our daily's pre-tax net may have dropped to as little as 10 percent. That would make the Big O's pre-tax profit alone about five times WW's total revenues. More daunting, the daily's total revenues are at least 50 times ours. From such a perspective, I can only marvel at this newspaper's ability to continue to beat the daily to important stories and to provide smart reporting, thinking, writing and design with passion and energy.
If The Oregonian is the elephant in local newspapering, where does this leave the Portland Tribune and the Portland Mercury? Though erratic, the Trib is a handsomely designed and printed paper that has produced its share of quality enterprise journalism during the past year. Altogether, it's my guess the Rev. Dr. Bob Pamplin's gift to Portland rang up losses in the range of $8 million to $12 million during the semiweekly's first year; those appear to have been trimmed to $4 million to $6 million this year with the elimination of home delivery on Tuesday and other cost-cutting measures.
While the Trib was created specifically to go after The Oregonian, the Portland Mercury was designed by its Seattle owners to target Willamette Week's audience. Journalism isn't the Merc's focus; its real appeal is attitude and bargain-basement ad rates. The best guess here is that the Mercury loses upwards of $250,000 a year on revenues of less than $1 million. Ongoing losses from its Portland operations helped drive its parent company to join forces earlier this year with the Chicago Reader, one of the oldest and largest alternative newspapers in the country.
II. The Larger Context
While financial comparisons offer one view of our enterprise, they don't say much about Willamette Week's place in today's world.
For me, the signal event of the past year is still the one that occurred 14 months ago. Yet, what I and others here draw from 9/11 and its aftermath seems utterly lost on those in charge of our government.
The first lesson of global terrorism has to be that the forces for world order must find common ground. This requires intelligence, experience, skill and worldliness. Yet the cast of characters President Bush has chosen for this purpose, with the possible exception of Colin Powell, couldn't be more inappropriate. And the policies they're espousing are, ultimately, self-defeating. Whatever the subject, our government's message to the world is blunt: It's our way; there is no other.
"I'm a uniter, not a divider." Remember that? "We should not engage in the business of nation building." Did the same person say that? Who's hijacked the core message of W's 2000 campaign?
From my vantage, what's most problematic about all this is the way America's mass media serve as powerful agents of the status quo. If you only watched the news on television or read a daily newspaper or checked the news briefs offered on many sites on the Web, you'd have no idea how misguided our foreign policy has become--and you'd have little idea of what's at stake.
Then, there's domestic policy. Here, too, the mainstream media act as if they're largely clueless. The question of taxes provides a simple enough point of entry. Most newspapers and television newscasts seem totally comfortable with the notion that taxes should be as low as possible--to give you and me more money to spend and to give the economy a needed boost. But study after study shows no direct correlation between tax cuts and economic growth. (For more on this, see especially Taxing Ourselves, a recent book from the MIT Press, by Joel Slemrod and Jon Bakija.) And tax cuts almost always benefit the rich at the expense of everyone else.
In the past 20 years, thanks to the massive exercise in income- and property-tax cutting that began in earnest with Ronald Reagan's supply-side economics, fully 20 percent of Oregon's tax burden has shifted from corporations to regular folks like you and me. Nationwide, the redistribution of wealth has been so extreme that today America's 13,000 richest families earn as much as our 20 million poorest. America hasn't seen such plutocracy since the turn of the 19th century.
Local television, where most of America gets its news these days, offers little analysis. Through a relationship with Channel 6, Willamette Week occasionally engages in joint investigations, and whenever we do, I am impressed by what KOIN-TV can bring to a story in terms of visual imagery and overall impact. Yet, for the most part, local television is where serious matters of public life regularly are subverted by fright stories--a fire here, a shooting there and a plane crash somewhere else.
"Some people still think knowledge is power," the jaded journalist Carl Streator blurts out in Chuck Palahniuk's new novel, Lullaby.
Here at Willamette Week, we still believe: Journalism should challenge the way things are. Our role is to facilitate social change--and not to serve as an apologist for the current order. What's more, our continuing faith provides the basis of our relationship with you--without whom, as I note each year in this column, we simply wouldn't matter. It continues to be our mission to arm you with information that will empower you to help make Portland a better place in which to live, work and play.
By your education, skill and community-mindedness, you are better equipped than most to tend to the care and feeding of life in this remarkable community. In the year ahead, I hope we can continue to live up to the high standards you set.
Total Audience: 352,200.
There are nearly 30,000 more of you reading WW these days than a year ago. In addition, 70,000 separate sets of eyeballs visit our website each month. You represent well over one-fifth of all adults in the Portland metro area. You also represent about two-thirds the total audience of The Oregonian's A&E, though more than two-fifths of you don't read A&E. There are about twice as many of you as there are readers of the Friday edition of The Portland Tribune and three-and-a-half times as many of you as there are readers of the Mercury. There's surprisingly little overlap between you and the Friday Tribune's audience, but almost all of the Mercury's readers also read Willamette Week. (This information comes from the Spring 2002 Media Audit, an independently researched survey of the Portland market.)
You are nearly evenly split by gender, though for the first time in recent memory more of you are female (51 percent) than male (49 percent). Nearly three-quarters of you are between the ages of 18 and 34. Your average household income is $58,573. More than half of you are single and more than three-quarters of you attended college. 78.4 percent of you identify yourselves as white; 9.1 percent, Asian; 6.9 percent, of Hispanic descent; and 6.9 percent, black. (Source: Spring 2002 Media Audit)
During the preceding 12 months, Willamette Week received more journalism awards than ever before. These ran the gamut from five national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies to 25 statewide awards from the Oregon Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. In addition, the Education Writers Association cited Nigel Jaquiss' "The Poisoning of Whitaker" as the Best Investigative Story of the year; the National Association of Black Journalists gave Steffen Silvis second place for a piece of commentary on the paucity of stage roles for black actors in Portland; and the Association of Food Journalists gave us three major awards.