A lady dropped by the office last week to grab her usual stack of newspapers. If you’ve never seen The Leader office on a Thursday, you should come by just to see – it’s a steady stream of cars throughout the day, with folks walking to our front door to get their weekly dose of local news.
I happened to be rushing out of the office at the same time (seems I do a lot of rushing these days), and the lady apparently recognized me from this ugly mug that gets published each week in the paper.
“You’re Jonathan, right?” she asked.
“I heard The Leader was about to close down.”
I asked where she heard that, and she said it was from somebody else, though she couldn’t remember who, or she just didn’t want to tell me.
We got another call a couple of weeks ago asking the same question. This call was from a business, and though they don’t currently advertise with us, they said someone had come in their store and told them we wouldn’t be around much longer.
Not to go all Donald Trump on you and start screaming Fake News, but after receiving that question a couple of times within the same week, I thought it might be a worthwhile endeavor to address what more than a few of you likely have heard.
In case the past decade hasn’t provided enough headlines to make you aware, this business model of printing news on pieces of recycled paper isn’t exactly placing owners at the top of the Forbes 5 Million list. Companies – especially small companies like ours – don’t get into the newspaper business to buy a second home or even a second set of golf shoes.
We do this because we love it. We do it because nobody else does it. And we do it because nice ladies come to our office door every Thursday to get their weekly dose of local news.
In other words, my bank account doesn’t grow each time a new edition of The Leader hits the streets.
All across this country, there are people like me who publish community newspapers, and while some are more successful than others, we’re all at a bit of a disadvantage because our business floats on an island of uncertainty. We are supported almost completely by local businesses who use us to market to the immediate neighborhood, and if local businesses move their marketing dollars to other forms of media (mainly digital, these days) then it’s hard for us to keep water from overtaking the island.
Ever since Hurricane Harvey, The Leader’s business operations have struggled. We lost a number of advertisers after that hellacious week, and some of them never returned.
On top of that, some of our bigger businesses – ones that, at one time, supported non-political, local news – no longer use publications like The Leader to promote their products.
Here’s a great example, and it’s just one: In the four months leading up to Whole Foods opening its doors in Independence Heights, we tried to reach their marketing folks once a week. We wanted them to know that our newspaper is delivered to nearly 30,000 homes in the same area where their new shoppers live. We also wanted them to know that if they really want to be a neighborhood market, there may be no better place to get involved than by promoting their store in the one publication that covers this area of Houston better than any other source in the city.
We never got a call back from Whole Foods, and we completely understand. Heck, even though Kroger boasts of its neighborhood involvement, they don’t promote themselves locally, either.
That’s not a complaint – none of this is a complaint. It’s just the way things are, and it’s the reason The Leader isn’t the 24-page behemoth it was just a couple of years ago.
Does that mean we’re closing down? Not in the least, and not by a long shot.
If you’ve ever studied business, there’s this wonderful concept called the “economies of scale,” and about a month ago, our company was given an opportunity to purchase The Greensheet, which delivers more than 320,000 copies to locations all around the city. In a wonderful way, the economies of scale at The Greensheet have helped resurrect The Leader. We’re now part of a bigger family, and many of the support functions of our business were merged with this new, bigger company to relieve some of the financial pressure on The Leader.
We’ve also done something else that I think is going to pay huge dividends at The Leader over the next few months. Back in June, I wrote a column asking if there were any folks in the community who would consider volunteering to serve on our newspaper’s Reader Advisory Board. I was looking for 10-12 people from all parts of the community who would meet with me every couple of months to talk about our neighborhoods and share ways The Leader could have a greater impact on the people who read us and the businesses that market with us.
By the time the emails stopped coming, I had 48 people who volunteered to help guide The Leader through our continued transition in an age of digital news, and I had the most wretched task of winnowing that group down to 18 people.
Maybe you know some of the members of our new board. I asked if I could list their names in the paper, and they all seemed just fine with it. So if you ever have story ideas or questions, feel free to talk to any of our ambassadors. Our board members are: Kallie Benes, Helen Cirrone, Mary Henderson, Marianna Jayson, Lindsey Kimble, Chris Kimble, Jonathan Kolmetz, Patrick Kurp, Mary Lamb, Troy Lubbers, Lori Miller, Kathryn van der Pol, Karin Poulos, Meredith Raine, Jennifer Saladino, Leslie Saunders, Mary Beth Thomas and James Wolfinger.
If you want to know why I know The Leader will be around long after I’m gone, take it from one of our board members, Marianna Jayson:
“I volunteered to serve on the advisory board because I read The Leader every week, front to back. Also, I mourn the loss of print news, a tenet upon which our country was founded. I want to see The Leader thrive and continue to be a conduit of and for local conversation.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.