Will WJ make it to 40?

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

I've been enjoying the 40th anniversary edition of The Sun, a monthly magazine out of Chapel Hill, N.C., started in 1974 by a Brooklyn transplant named Sy Safransky, who is still at the helm four decades later.

The Sun is a pleasant blend of the spiritual, political, creative and personal — kind of like this column, come to think of it, which must be why I like it so much. 

The Sun is remarkable for having survived so long. In 1990, Safransky decided to forego advertising altogether, putting responsibility squarely on the readers (supplemented by foundation grants) to keep the enterprise afloat. They rose to the occasion. 

A friend gave me a subscription for Christmas a year ago. Each month I look forward to an interview with someone fascinating, followed by poetry, short stories, and a powerful section written by readers called, simply, "Readers Write" (subjects announced months in advance). This issue's topic is "Running late." You'd be amazed what people come up with. Our Viewpoints section, at its best, resembles this.

In addition, "Sy Safransky's Notebook," a semi-regular column, provides a fascinating glimpse into the publisher/editor's mind — mined from his hand-written journals. The "Dog-Eared Page" reproduces an excerpt from a favorite work of literature, and each issue ends with "Sunbeams," a collection of thoughtful quotes related to that month's theme.

On the Contents page, you'll find another quote, this one from Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning:

"What is to give light must endure burning."

The Sun has endured the burning for four decades. When the magazine lands in my mailbox each month, I experience a small surge of pleasure.

Pundits have been talking for years about how print journalism can survive. This is how. The reader needs to look forward to sitting down and spending time with it. Any publication that doesn't provide that sensation will not endure. It's that simple. 

But this column isn't about the 40-year-old Sun. It's about the 33-year-old Wednesday Journal, which has certain things in common with The Sun. At least I hope so. 

As a reader, do you experience that expectation of pleasure when you see our front page or visit OakPark.com, when you come across Dan Haley's column or mine or any of our other columnists or bloggers, when you see David Pierini's photos, a profile of a fascinating fellow resident, Marty Farmer's sports coverage?

If we can't sustain that positive reinforcement, we won't make it. More to the point, we won't deserve to.

Like every other newspaper, this company has been struggling for five years now — ever since the Great Downturn. The economic recovery has been painfully slow, and there's no boom waiting around the corner. Advertising and subscriptions alone won't keep this newspaper afloat forever. The Internet isn't going to ride to the rescue either.

My prediction is this paper will not exist in its present form — i.e. with its current business model — in six years when it turns 40. If it turns 40.

Sy Safransky has a different business model — he isn't shy about asking his readers for support. I'm not asking for that support. It's not my place to do so. In fact, I'm flying solo on this opinion (as far as I know).

But I can see where this is going. The free market alone cannot save us. To make this enterprise sustainable (the most important word in the English language right now), readers must view Wednesday Journal as an indispensible community asset and be willing to support that asset. 

In other words, yes, it takes a village. If not Oak Park, then where? Well, River Forest, too, one hopes.

There's a reason the good folks of a little burg in northern Wisconsin are able to support a championship-caliber NFL franchise, and it ain't free-market economics. Not alone anyway. It's the collective that makes the difference for the Green Bay Packers (ironic since many of their fans probably vote Republican).

I doubt Wednesday Journal will be hosting pledge breaks anytime soon, like National Public Radio or Television, but sooner than later, I'm guessing, we will have to become more reader-supported. 

But that won't happen unless we hit the sweet spot for the majority of readers who pick up our product.

In the last five years, WJ and most other newspapers have been forced to do more with a lot less. This newspaper is only as good as it is because the creative, talented people of Oak Park and River Forest feel enough ownership to contribute to its excellence. What I'm talking about takes that a step further. Maybe several steps.

We need a new model for community journalism, one that demands a lot more of the community. The old model is insufficient to the stormy present, as Lincoln said once upon a crisis. We must think anew and act anew. We need a combination of free-market forces (advertising/subscriptions) and collective investment (reader support). 

I can't paint the particulars for you (I'm not a logistics guy), but without community support, will we be around to celebrate Wednesday Journal's 40th anniversary in 2020? 

Your guess is as good as mine.

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

Reader Comments

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John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: February 11th, 2014 1:35 PM

NPR gets a considerable amount of funding from its listeners and viewers. Why? Loyalty! The loyalty comes from a programming base that spans from Sesame Street to the PBS News Hour. The strong programming base drives funding from advertisers wealthy donors, and its customer base. While customer loyalty is powerful in the short term, it is risky in the long term. In the early 1950's, Packard Motors had the highest loyalty rating of all auto companies. Depending on that, Packard did not introduce new products while GM, Ford, etc. were attracting new buyers with contemporary products. By mid 1950, Packard was bankrupt. It had failed to understand that its "Loyalty" base was too old to sustain sales growth. Ken Trainor's question can be summarized as does the WJ have the loyalty to sustain itself for forty more years? Survival of any business in the 21st Century requires a constant and consistent recognition that the product base and delivery methodology change rapidly. Loyalty also changes rapidly? Does WJ have the equity (reporting, loyalty, and financial) to compete long term? In a New York Times article of Feb. 10, titled "Local Papers Shine Light in Society's Dark Corners", reported that it was "The Record" a small, regional newspaper in Bergen County, NJ broke the political involvement of Gov. Christie staff in the George Washington Bridge fiasco. It was also reported that "The Record" had not reduced manpower while the national press manpower had declined by 30% (Pew Research) since 2000. Rachael Maddow stated, "Anytime you see a story on national TV that starts in a small town, odds are that the story began with local reporters who would not give up and reported it right and aggressively?..! Would the WJ have been as aggressive with the same type story? The newspaper business is no longer just about reporting. To compete with the expansion of electronic communication, it has to reveal as well as report. Revelations

Brent from Oak Park  

Posted: February 8th, 2014 8:23 AM

"The Journal" must survive,and prosper! In this age of negative and alarmist media,it is a refreshingly positive publication,free of electronic stimulation. (Please excuse me for emailing this! Brent

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: February 6th, 2014 1:51 PM

Wednesday Journal is a community paper. There was room for another paper when the Oak Leaves was not doing a good job at bringing Oak Park to the community. The Wednesday Journal may consider going back to each purpose instead of where it is at now. Communities want community news. Community advertisers can get a lot more for their money in a community newspaper then they can on facebook, or any other social media outlet. Get back to where you were, and get it going again.

Bill from Oak Park  

Posted: February 6th, 2014 1:38 PM

Ken, if you keep the WJ going through subscriptions, contributions and non- governmental grants, that is the Free Market. As for Green Bay, nothing to do with Republicans. NFL benefits from special treatment granted by Congress and the ability to blackmail the fans for new stadiums. Same system in Green Bay as liberal San Francisco/Chicago.

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