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The Daily Agenda: Flagstaff's paper has new owners
Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? .... We grilled the CEO ... And newsletters are the new front page!
When we heard that Flagstaff’s main paper, the Arizona Daily Sun, had been sold to local media empire Wick Communications, we were optimistic. Maybe overly optimistic.
As we noted at the time, newspaper sales are almost uniformly bad news. But the Sun’s former owner, Lee Enterprises, is on a particularly hostile slashing spree lately. We hoped that Wick, an Arizona-based family company that owns some of the better rural papers, would be better.
Then we heard from some of the local papers.
“Wick is furloughing its remaining employees, with no pay, for seven work days. Meanwhile, the company has decided to buy another publication — arguably on the backs of unpaid local reporters, ad reps, and circulation staff,” one local reporter wrote to us, providing an all-employee email announcing the cuts and furloughs. “(W)hile Lee does not have a good reputation in how it treats its reporters, neither does Wick.”
When the ownership changes in a one-newspaper town like Flagstaff, it can have huge consequences for the entire community.
Besides the direct impact to the local newspaper staff who rely on the company for their paycheck, 100,000 people in and around Flagstaff rely on their local newspaper — whether they subscribe or not — to document the story of their town, to distribute critical information and to hold local leaders accountable.
The Sun, like so many other institutions, is a shell of its former self. Wick’s purchase could signal a rejuvenation and round of reinvestment, perhaps, or it could signal the final blow. But Wick’s decision to spend untold millions to expand its holdings while simultaneously implementing company-wide furloughs does not inspire confidence in the existing troops, to say the least.
“What's so sad about it is that reporters go into this because they love it and they care about it. But that gets exploited. It's like oh, do this extra work, or do this unpaid work, or have an unhealthy work life balance, because you love it. But nobody can keep existing like that. It's just not healthy,” as one local reporter at a Wick paper told us.
The reporter earns less than $40,000 (before the furlough) at an existing Wick paper. They’re in their 20s, but they already had a few years experience under their belt before joining the team. When asked about the furlough, their first thought was for their colleagues — then for the paper and its readers. They’re the only reporter watching the local city council, they noted, and they’re worried that the public will miss important stuff because the only reporter had to take time off.
“People don't have the time to watch four-hour council meetings and try to understand the fine print to see if their tax dollars are being misused. They don’t have time to read a 700-page report on an officer involved shooting and try to understand what really happened. And the system is designed so that a lot of those things are not accessible to the everyday person with a full-time job and a family to take care of,” the reporter said.
But to Sun reporters, the new owners have the potential to be a vast improvement over the last ones. Lee Enterprises, which recently slashed about a quarter the Daily Star’s newsroom in Tucson despite that paper raking in millions in profit, had run the Flagstaff paper “for a very long time on a skeleton staff,” as the Sun’s longtime photo editor Jake Bacon said in a hopeful Facebook video. The Wick family has generations in the business, is leaning into local news and wants to emphasize local autonomy, he said.
“As somebody who has bought lottery tickets for the past three decades with the fantasy of taking my winnings and buying the Arizona Daily Sun and making it a Flagstaff newspaper that is family owned and has full local control, this is the next best thing,” Bacon said. “It’s hard not to cry about it. It’s a game-changer.”
The news industry is often called the “Fourth Estate” for its role in our systems of checks and balances. And although a free press is just as vital to self-governance as, say, a judicial branch, news organizations and especially corporate legacy newspapers, are essentially a black box as to how they operate, even to the reporters who work there.
But one of the fun things about being a reporter is that it gives you a license to just hit people up and ask them about stuff that is none of your business.
So that’s what we did!
To our surprise, Wick Communications CEO Francis Wick answered our very honest email promising to trash him in today’s edition and subjected himself to an interview (on deadline!).
The resulting conversation was so interesting that we decided to break from our usual format and use today’s edition to run it in full (with edits for length, clarity and to take out the couple of off the record parts). Enjoy!
So, as I said, in the email, I was relatively optimistic with the purchase. I don't think much of Lee Enterprises. I've worked for a couple of the Wick papers, and as far as a newspaper conglomerate goes, you guys seem to one of the more reasonable operations. And that's essentially what I wrote in last Thursday's edition, just a short mention. And then I got a couple of emails from local reporters saying I let them off the hook far too easy — things are not well in Wick world. And arguably, they're buying this new publication off of the backs of people that they're furloughing. So that's what I wanted to talk to you about today. And I guess let's just start there: How do you justify buying a new newspaper while furloughing and cutting salaries for existing employees?
So in my estimation, there's two different situations going on here. One is the operational capabilities of the company and what's going on. The other one is our strategy. So I will tell you operationally, Hank, things are very challenging for newspapers across this country, and Wick is no different. We benchmark with dozens of newspapers. It is very concerning what is happening at a local level for professional journalism. We're original content creators. We don't surmise, we don't package up and redistribute. So the question is, how many people can we have in the newsroom to ultimately be successful?
And right now, in 2023, news organizations are very much struggling at a local level. Wick is no different. We're going through what I would coined to be some centralization efforts to try to streamline some of that for us. But when we get down to it, Flagstaff is different. And not just Flagstaff, in fact, we've been making investments. A company has to grow, right? If you're not growing, you're dying. We have to make strategic investments. And we have a balance sheet that has allowed us to do that. But what we can't do, is we cannot fund operations if they're not making money.
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Obviously they're all making money. Whether they're turning enough of a profit, or a profit at all, is another question. So which papers aren't turning a profit? And are the furloughs limited to those papers? Because in the email that I read, it seemed like an all-staff situation.
It is where we're at as a company currently. We talked about it long and hard, and it's not just furloughs, it's reduction in pay for everyone, from myself all the way down. It's a tiered approach as a reduction in pay. Our general employee rank is furloughed seven days through the end of the year. The reduction in pay ranges from 20% down to 10% for executives.
And are you 20 percenter?
I'm the only 20 percenter.
And what's your salary after the 20% cut?
I’m not gonna share that. Come on, man.
Okay, so it's high. We can surmise that much.
You can make that determination if you want.
Maybe it's too low to talk about, but I doubt that's the case. So, when was the last time all employees got raises?
This is a really good question. Because part of our challenge has been inflation, in every area, the biggest one being production. And so as you're probably aware, the cost of newsprint has gone up dramatically. Distribution has been off the charts, from a cost standpoint. Yet we have given raises, pending different circumstances, across different departments, throughout this pandemic, at times. I don't have the number from it, but collectively, we've given more raises and cost of living adjustments in the past year than we've ever done.
What is a reasonable salary for a local reporter?
First of all, it depends on the community. The cost of living is gonna determine a bit more about the amount that the reporter may make. But if you ask me in general terms, we all want news organizations and journalists to be paid. I like to use the parallel of, it's kind of like being it's kind of like being a teacher, right? If you want a good education, you should probably pay your teachers more. It should become a priority. And unlike education, which is taxpayer funded, news gathering, and news reporters are not.
And that entire business model is predicated on the economics of what has traditionally been an industry in decline since 2008. Since 2008, newspaper publishers, which are the largest employer of local journalists in this country still today, have been seeing a decrease in revenue of 8% a year compounded every single year. So take that for 15 years. Where did all that money go? It went, went to Craigslist. It's going to Facebook. It goes to Google. It goes to all these different places. And that's why news organizations are trying to quickly advance themselves digitally. I mean, you have some creative efforts like Substack, which I think is really interesting, right? Where you become an intermediary, you package information and you surmise it and then you add some context to it. That's an interesting business model. In our case, we're the original local creators. So we still have to figure out how to fund that.
But I want to come back to why we why the Sun, because I think this is an important piece: We have been pursuing the Sun since 2019. So this didn’t just happen — this has been a longstanding pursuit, because we're an Arizona based company. And when we look at our strategy, Arizona is our home and at the end of the day, our best opportunity for success is the places that are closest, and Flagstaff is one of those.
But one thing that was really cool is, there's a North Star for us when it comes to local journalism being able to pay for itself: You want enough digital subscribers to be able to pay for your newsroom. We've been focusing on this for five years. And our best outcome is in Wenatchee with about 45% of our newsroom payroll. Flagstaff is over 100% of their payroll. (EDITOR’S NOTE: To be clear, that’s newsroom positions, not all the other costs or salaries associated with running a newspaper.) So for us, that is a huge learning lesson. It's like, okay, what are they doing that we can learn from, that we can now implement? Because clearly something is going well.
How many reporters are there? How many staff are we talking about supporting with digital subscriptions?
If I break it down, I think they have about 10 people in the newsroom. And the other thing that's a huge benefit is their employees. A lot of them have quite a bit of institutional knowledge. They have this rockstar photographer, Jake Bacon. He had so many great probing questions about the transition and what to expect — there was obviously a lot of concern. And somebody in the meeting asked, “Hey, we understand furloughing people, what's going on?” And I explained it will not impact Flagstaff. And the sad part is they're very used to it, like they’ve had rolling furloughs. It speaks to the level of concern, and the challenges that we all face in local journalism, that companies are dealing with this on a day-to-day basis. And a lot of companies aren't talking about it. And I don't know if you're aware of this, but I'm heavily involved with the advocacy in DC around the Local Journalism Sustainability Act.
Yeah, I noticed Wick was leaning into that real hard back when it was a thing that looked possible.
It's still out there — we have two pieces of legislation. And, you know, there's so much pride in this industry. We need to get rid of that. Things are not where they should be for the kind of information and reporting that we want to strengthen democracy. And everybody has skin in that. It doesn't matter who you are. I don't care if you read or don't read. If you're a voter, you have some responsibility to bear in this. If you're a leader, you have some responsibility to bear in this. So I take it very personally, my efforts and the efforts of many of my colleagues who are going to Capitol Hill that are talking to these lawmakers. And when you talk to these lawmakers, it’s really ironic, they’re like, “Yeah, it's hard for me to get a hold of a journalist.” It's like, obviously, because we've had all these challenges!
So I want to back up — I don't think I got a number on what is a reasonable salary for a reporter, other than we all want them to be paid well. What does well mean?
I want to be careful. I don't I don't know that I can answer that because the reporters in Flagstaff are more than likely going to earn more than somebody in Parker. That’s the reality.
Let's use Flagstaff as an example. The cost of living in Flagstaff has skyrocketed. Rent is as much of a problem there as anywhere else. What was Lee paying reporters and what is Wick planning to pay them?
Again, I'm not gonna say what Lee was paying. But what I will tell you is that we hired everyone there. We hired 100% of the staff at what they were earning, and they're not getting furloughed.
So what's the future of the Sun? And what's your vision? And what are you excited about there? I wanted to make sure I at least gave you the opportunity for some softer questions now that we've gotten through most of the hard stuff.
You know, one thing I didn’t say that's really exciting is that they have a funnel to bring talent — they have a great relationship with NAU and the journalism department there. We're not in another community where we had that kind of access, where you can actually bring in talent. And that is really exciting.
Another point is, they really have no local decision making on almost anything there now. They're going to have a lot of decision making at the local level going forward. That is really important to us.
And then obviously, all the digital aspects. If we can figure out how they have achieved their digital subscription strategy and can start instituting that in some of our other markets, that's huge. That is huge.
I'll be perfectly honest, this is a very large investment. And a time that's, as you’ve identified, is kind of uncomfortable. So what are we doing? We're doubling down on our state, and a craft that we're very passionate about. We see this as an opportunity to further engage ourselves in areas that we know.
Well, this has been fascinating. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to keep you a full 20 minutes past our allotted time here. Anything else you want to talk about?
No. Well, two things. One, I appreciate that you gave me the opportunity to talk through it, because I think there really is a difference in the context between the strategy and what's happening with our operations. And one other caveat that I think is interesting, because it will add to what we're doing, is we just bought the Bisbee 1000.
I don't actually know what the Bisbee 1000 is.
It’s a very high profile event down in Bisbee once a year where all these people from around the country come and they run up and down the stairs. It's really cool. And we did that because part of our diversification strategy to support local journalism is we have to get much better at events. And this is an established 33-year-old event that we can build from. And so really, what we're doing is we're looking at areas that we know we can build from and we can learn from. And I share that because I think it adds important context on how quickly we're trying to move to position this company to be successful in the future as things continue to change.
Well, I appreciate your time. And this was interesting putting a face to the name and it gives me some things to think about as we try to grow our own little local news empire. Got any advice?
What I would tell you is that I think it was a lot easier long ago. I think the people who are in it today, they're doing it because they care. And they realize that it's a life worth leading. This is something that I fundamentally feel very proud about, and I want to be here when we find that stability. Everyone says sustainability. I don't think that's the appropriate word. Because things are changing so quickly, I think you just need to find stability to maneuver and build and grow and reach. All those things are so important. But what you're doing, I think it adds to this diversity of this news ecosystem that's trying to find its way, right? Like all these things are flexing, and we're all trying to find a part in it. And it's not going to be one thing — it's probably a dozen different answers that end up coming together. That's the way I look at it. If you're being successful, just continue to do it. And every once in awhile, lift your head up and say, you know, what, shifting?
Yeah, we're kind of in a newsletter moment right now. I feel like that's a good model that’s working. It's a format and delivery method that people really like. But how long does email even last?
We do we do a lot of newsletters in Wick. This has been a big goal of ours. And the expectation has been that the editors write them and curate them from their own voice. The idea was to humanize the newsroom because so many people are intimidated to engage with the newsroom because it's very one directional. So if we can get editors to be willing to engage, it just creates a better community around the news organization. So I tell all my publishers, in fact, I told the newsroom up in Flagstaff, our newsletters are our new front pages. Simply because in most cases, we reach three times as many people through our newsletter than we do our physical product. And that's the entry point into the rest of our ecosystem.
The hardest part has been a lot of our editors don't like doing it — we're still so deadline focused on the physical product it becomes becomes a challenge for them to prioritize this over, you know, getting getting the getting the pages uploaded, to the press, getting it there on time. I think I think what you're doing makes a lot of sense. And I think ultimately, all these things work together. I mean, your your model works. Now my model hopefully works, too.
People ask me, “Why do you still do this?” I mean, I'm 42 and I'm super passionate about it. But at the end of the day, it's like, I can't see our country or state or communities, I just don't see them existing without professional news. Like that just does not compute.