“The Olympian” is dying, a slow and public death

September 9th, 2008 by Ken

Ten years ago the headline read “Newspaper circulation on the rise.”  The Olympian’s business editor, Walter Neary, stated that in March 1998, the newspaper breached the 40,000 mark in circulation and said, “Publisher Fred Hamilton tells me that he has his sights set now on the big 50,000 mark.”

In 1998, this Gannett owned paper had a staff of 240 employees with some 25 percent of them involved in gathering and disseminating the news.

Olympia’s hometown newspaper was constructing a new 14,000-square foot addition to its building and the newspaper was bringing in some $30 million dollars in income each year.

Now, ten years later, The Olympian’s circulation has fallen to 32,000 and property it had purchased for possible expansion is now up for sale.

Employment at the newspaper had fallen to 180 and most recently Publisher John Winn Miller announced that he was cutting staff even further and looking for voluntary buyouts.  He also reduced the work hours for all hourly employees.  This is on top of a wage freeze implement last month and a 10 percent cut in employees in July.

Profit margins for The Olympian aren’t known but those with more knowledge than I suggest that its revenue has fallen significantly since the $30 million dollar year a decade ago.

What happened?  A major portion of the blame can be attached to the internet.  More and more people are getting their news and information from that source and have shoved aside more traditional media, like newspapers.

Newspapers depend on four areas for revenue; classified advertising, display advertising, circulation and inserts.  In The Olympian’s  case you can also add outside printing jobs, since the newspaper continues to print US Today for Gannett.

In 1980, nearly 30 percent of all advertising dollars, nationwide, were spent in newspapers.  That dropped to 25 percent in 1990, 20 percent in 2000 and about 15 percent in 2005.

In other words advertising revenue has declined by half from its peak and by one-third since 1998.  Circulation has dropped by 20 percent and is also cutting into the paper’s revenue.

What’s happening at The Olympian is happening nationwide.  All newspapers are showing a decline in revenue and a decline in circulation.  Newspapers are cutting back in all areas, including staffing and some, like McClatchy (which owns The Olympian) has shifted some jobs overseas.  In this particular case circulation has been farmed out to the Philippines.

But, while our own newspaper is declining as part of a national trend, it has had some problems unique to itself.

In the last three years, The Olympian has had three different owners.  Gannett Co. which owned the newspaper since 1976 sold the paper to Knight Ridder in August 2005.  Less than seven months later, the paper was acquired by the McClatchy chain.

During the last ten years The Olympian was had three different publishers – – Fred Hamilton, Bob Ritter and John Winn Miller.  It’s had some stability in editors, but recently its editor for 10 years, Vickie Kilgore announced she was leaving.

The paper also has  stability is some long term employees (who I think are still working at the paper).  Mike Oakland has been editorial page editor for the past 10 years and environmental reporter John Dodge has been with the paper for more than 30 years.   Political editor Brad Shannon has been with the paper for at least two decades.

So, what happened?  Why did our community daily newspaper fall on hard times?

We’ve already talked about the decline of readership as younger people gravitate towards the internet.  We’ve also talked about the decline in advertising dollars as fewer and fewer retailers, real estate agents and companies are using the paper. 

Those events on their own would signal trouble for any newspaper.  Thousands of newspaper employees across the country and around the world have been laid off as revenues decline.

But focusing on The Olympian, its decline started when it was purchased by the McClatchy Company.

McClatchy had a good reputation within the journalism community and its flag ship paper the Sacramento Bee had received numerous awards for reporting and writing.

Similar events were expected here when The Olympian  came under its ownership in 2006.  After its takeover in 2006 McClatchy owned four daily newspapers in Washington state.  In addition to The Olympian McClatchy also owned The (Tacoma) News Tribune, the Tri City Herald and the Bellingham Herald.

But it also owned a 49.5 percent share of the Seattle Times  and the Yakima Herald Republic.   Ownership of those daily papers plus ownership of several weekly and bi-monthly newspapers made McClatchy a big player in Northwest media.  (It also owns The Idaho Statesman and the Anchorage Times.)

Owning that many newspapers in an area, made it economically feasible to consolidate some operations.   It moved all circulation, for all of its papers, overseas.  The Olympian’s  former classified advertising manager Cindy Broome and its advertising manager Frank Bauer now work out of The (Tacoma) News Tribune.

Recent cuts in personnel at The Olympian means more and more of its news coverage is provided by other newspapers.  You may see a story or two from local sources, but most of its coverage is from reporters working for McClatchy’s other papers.

It’s obvious that McClatchy is planning to regionalize its news coverage.  In other words, one major paper in an area with several regionally zoned editions.

In this case most of the advertising would be generated out of Tacoma with regional advertisers getting a break by advertising in all of the McClatchy papers.

News operations would be coordinated out of Tacoma, but McClatchy would keep a small contingent of writers and reporters in Olympia, to cover state government.  Most sports coverage will come out of Tacoma, as most of it does now.  More and more stories about the Mariners or the Seahawks carry a Tacoma byline.

The future of The Olympian as much as it is, has already been written. It will become a zoned edition of The (Tacoma) News Tribune.  It may carry an Olympian banner, but the paper will be a Tacoma product.

Change always impacts our lives.  Change in the newspaper arena has also changed how local residents get their news.   We depend on The Olympian for our local news.  We read the paper for its obituaries, for its birth announcements and for its list of those filing for divorce.  We read about those who have been picked up by the law for various offenses and we read about how they came out in court.  The Olympian is our public bulletin board.

The newspaper is trying to continue in that vein by putting more effort and time into its on line publication which started in 1998.   It means that more and more stories will be previewed on line and may or may not make the printed pages.

But, what bothers me more than anything else is the fact that we’ve come to rely on our local newspaper for complete coverage of events in Thurston County.  The lack of revenue means cutbacks and cutbacks mean less and less people covering our community.

Who’s going to do the job when The Olympian leaves?  Will our elected officials feel free to do anything they want, without having to worry about public scrutiny?

I hope not.

(A similar story ran in the pages of Ken’s Corner & The Real News last month. For subscription costs consult my home page.)

Posted in Business, History, Informational, The Real News

(comments are closed).