You’re where our efforts begin—and end.
The 400,000 of you in the Portland metro area who pick up Willamette Week or view wweek.com on the Web—or both—are the reason I issue this report each year. For if this newspaper is to continue to earn your time and attention, as well as your trust and support, you’re entitled to know how we’re doing and what’s in store for the year ahead. So here goes:
Two years ago in this space, you used the expression “Yuck!” to describe the economic environment. Last year, you noted WW’s revenues had dropped again. The Oregonian continues to lose circulation after buyouts and layoffs. Just how bad is it out there?
The economy still stinks. Our advertising revenues are down another 5 percent. But our situation remains surprisingly sound. That’s because of difficult choices we made in March 2009 to cut pay, lay off staff, reduce circulation, and economize internally. Online revenues are up appreciably, our printing costs have been stable, and we took risks with non-newspaper activities such as MusicfestNW and Restaurant Guide that paid off. As a result, this year’s revenues will fall just short of $5 million—about the same as last year’s total—with overall expenses down. So there have been no more layoffs, and none is contemplated. In May we raised our press run back to 90,000. And this week co-owner Mark Zusman and I committed to raising pay for staff affected by the 2009 pay cuts, effective Jan. 1, 2011.
Has the poor economy caused you to scale back your editorial ambitions?
I hope not. The biggest single event of the past year was politics, and WW has been fully engaged. This meant an incredible amount of grueling work for the paper’s editors, designers and reporters.
How do you know all this attention to politics makes the slightest difference?
Here’s a bit of anecdotal evidence: Over the past couple of weeks so many of you told me this consistent message that I lost count: Thank you for your endorsement issue—and for the videos you posted; both were enormously helpful in sorting through the complex array of measures and candidates. And here’s a fact: Market research consistently shows you to be actively involved in terms of registering to vote and then exercising your franchise.
Politics aside, what stories did you produce this year that made a difference?
Three cover stories in particular stand out: Beth Slovic’s “A Stitch and Time” (which, among other things, resulted in the donation of a beautiful new cello to the subject of the story, Harun Mustafa); Nigel Jaquiss’ “Oregon’s Scariest Cops” (which detailed the outrageous number of crimes Clackamas County sheriff’s officers have committed against the citizens they’ve sworn to protect); and James Pitkin’s “Saving Ryan” (which showed how a pair of Multnomah County Circuit Court judges, working in an overburdened legal system, made special efforts to help a young drug addict named Ryan Santana).
What about those big risks you mentioned a few paragraphs ago?
First, WW decided to celebrate the 10th anniversary of MusicfestNW by going outdoors. We rented Pioneer Courthouse Square and hired a couple of big-name acts (the National and the Decemberists) as headliners. We needed good crowds—and good weather—to make things work out. Executive Director Trevor Solomon’s booking (more than 170 acts in five nights) was spot-on, and MFNW enjoyed terrific support from more than 15,000 attendees as well as a healthy number of major sponsors. Second, we chose to honor the maturing local restaurant scene by turning our annual Restaurant Guide into a full-blown magazine inserted in all copies of WW. We ended up with a fabulous guide and enough added revenue to more than cover the extra printing costs.
What about that new website? (And is the digital world making WW any money?)
Since January we’ve been working with Wehaa, a firm from Milwaukee, Wis., and a local Web architect Eric Hillerns (of pinch.nu). The goal has been to create a better Web presence for our journalism. The new wweek.com should launch early next month. That should be followed in a few months by a new mobile app. The digital world has generated about $150,000 the first nine months of this year—up 60 percent from this time. We also have created an online store (wweek.com/store) at which you can buy everything from copies of Restaurant Guide and Finder to tickets to WW events to WW-branded thank-you cards, coffee cups and water bottles.
Anything else you want to brag about?
Of course! At the beginning of the year, the International Association of Culinary Professionals asked if we would schedule our annual food-cart festival to coincide with its convention in Portland. So we held EatMobile on April 24 and gave IACP’s foodies first shot at Portland’s gift to North American street food—before letting more than 1,000 of you have at the amazing fare at EatMobile’s new location under the Morrison Bridge. Then there’s Team WW. Our ragtag band of softballers won the championship of the 24-team Sunday Softball League.
So what have you done for Portland lately?
Glad you asked. Starting at the beginning of 2010, a team of seven WW-ers (plus Executive Director Brittany Cornett), with help from folks at the Young Professionals of Portland, OakTree Digital and Momentum Market Intelligence, has been working on this year’s Give!Guide and accompanying Skidmore Prizes. A copy of WW’s annual effort to spur year-end giving to worthy local nonprofits is included in this issue. Please give it a good look, then go to wweek.com/giveguide and let your better angels have the run of your credit or debit card for at least a few minutes. Last year your incredible generosity resulted in more than $900,000 raised to support specific local nonprofits. This year we’re shooting for a cool million.
What about the overall state of journalism today?
Last week’s elections highlighted the single most salient fact of modern American life: This country has come to resemble an oligarchy. Only the ultra-rich have benefited from our economy since the early 1980s, when President Reagan set this nation on a tax-cutting, reinvestment-slashing binge with no recovery in sight. Great wealth has a way of preserving itself, and the growing necessity of obtaining huge sums of money to run for office, especially in light of this year’s woeful U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, has spawned an increasingly unfair advantage. Along the way, we as a society seem to have chosen to encourage the rich and powerful to exploit the poor and less fortunate. I can’t help but think this is the result not just of a failure of our politics, but of American journalism, as well.
That is as big a challenge as a newspaper can face. That’s also why you’re so important. You are the bulwark of Portland, and your continued attention, trust and support give us the wherewithal and motivation to continue to aspire to journalism that makes a difference in local life.
Richard H. Meeker