WEN survives despite the decline of print media
By Tony Zeli
When I took over The West End News in 2014, I’m sure a lot of folks thought I was being foolish. A common question was, “Why a newspaper?” Print news was not exactly a trending industry. Turns out, the same was true for Ed King when he began WEN twenty years ago.
“I feel like I was getting into the newspaper business just as the newspaper business was dying, but twenty years later I wasn’t totally right on that…” King told me during a Zoom interview last month. “But that was a time of a lot of upheaval in the newspaper business. A lot of newspapers did go out of business. A lot of traditional, especially daily, newspapers at that time went out of business.”
Yet, our community paper has managed to survive through twenty challenging years. King attributed much of his success to keeping local news at the heart of the paper. And I can say that the same is true today. There will always be a need for local, neighborhood-level coverage that bigger players cannot deliver.
Starting a community newspaper
Ed King recalled saying to a friend months before he started The West End News, “You know what this area really needs is a newspaper.”
At that time, he swears he had no intention of starting one.
“A couple months later, low and behold, I am looking for a job and a ran across this ad – I think it was in the Casco Bay weekly – looking for somebody to start a newspaper in the West End. I thought, well, there it is. And so, I basically applied and went from there,” said King.
Turns out, Ethan Strimling, long before he was mayor, was running a nonprofit in the West End and wanted to publish a community newsletter. Ed King got the job, sold the ads, wrote, edited, and distributed the inaugural issue of the West End Times in February 2001. But, after the first and only issue of the Times, there was a falling out, and King took the paper in his own direction. In March 2001, The West End News was born.
“I’d like to say I was being altruistic, or community-minded, or high-minded in any way, but the fact is I had to pay the rent … and there it was looking me in the face.”
And he did pay the rent, at least often enough. King partly credits the newspaper’s survival to keeping things small. From day one he ran the paper out of his living room and that never changed. Though about a dozen people were involved in a meaningful way with the paper during those early years, no one ever took a traditional salary. It was all volunteer. From stuffing inserts into the newspaper with the community police officer to driving around Portland with friends to deliver copies to a hundred locations, the community came together and helped the News thrive.
Community newspaper survives
Talking with Ed King, I couldn’t help but think how things have come full circle. With the Covid-19 pandemic, I am mostly working out of my living room (though I maintain a coworking membership at PelotonLabs). Because of lost advertising revenue, I have had to make difficult decisions. Opportunities for paid gigs with WEN – such as freelance writing or paid delivery runs – are just not happening.
Covid has been a challenge for the News, as it has been for everybody. But the much larger challenge to our community newspaper’s future is the utter dominance of online advertising by literally three companies: Google, Facebook, and Amazon. These huge companies collect over 2/3rds of all online advertising revenue, leaving all others from The New York Times to The West End News and every publisher in-between to slice up the remainder. Advertisers increasing look to the world wide web for cheap and effective advertising. As you can imagine, WEN’s hyperlocal website will not likely be a primary driver of ad revenue. WEN’s future remains in print.
Luckily, we have a few things working in our favor.
First and foremost, we have remained volunteer centered. The contributions that fill our pages come from your neighbors, and they take no pay for their words. They are the engine that keeps the News steaming ahead. My gratitude for their creativity – and willingness to make deadline – is immense.
Another point in our favor, as Ed King put it, “To some degree all news is local. You can get all the news you need or want about congress, or Donald Trump, or men landing on mars, or whatever they did there. But you can only get in The West End News a story about what happened on Bracket Street last night.”
Further in our favor, increasingly fewer and fewer users trust Facebook. Even though Facebook is one of the most widely used social media sites when it comes to getting political and election news, according to Pew Research Center’s American News Pathways project, Facebook is distrusted by about six-in-ten U.S. adults (59%).
And the greatest advantage of all for community newspapers is our readers, who like to read the news in print. They have remained loyal to their long-trusted news sources. And so, to you, loyal readers, I promise to continue the News in print and for free. And I will keep these words from Ed King in mind:
“The best thing I could do is supply community news… That was the heart of it. Everything else went from there – the cartoons, The Dumpster, the horoscope, and everything else went from there. But the heart of the newspaper in my mind was reporting what I perceived as the most important story affecting people who lived in the West End particularly.”-Ed King
Tony Zeli is publisher and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.