Times are hard, but 'Chronicle' excels

My first regular paycheck from a daily newspaper came 41 years ago. Every year since then, I've been hearing that newspapers are dead. First it was radio, then television, then cable, then the Internet that was going to make us irrelevant.


A lot has changed about the news business since I started as a summer copy boy, but one thing has remained constant: newspapers remain vital to their communities. All those predictions about the demise of newspapers were dead wrong. We continue to provide the news and information people need to run their lives, individually and collectively.

Many big-city newspapers have had a hard time lately, but The Augusta Chronicle is reaching more people than ever before. And we're increasing our lead on our competitors. We have changed the way we operate, most recently with our increased reliance on Internet operations. We will change more in the future. Who knows, someday ink on paper might disappear, but we will continue to deliver the information you need in the way that makes the most sense to you.

The truth is, America's economic slowdown has hit all businesses. That has made people who buy advertising nervous, so all media must work harder to generate revenue. As in other companies around the country, Augusta Chronicle managers have had to make difficult decisions to reduce expenses without damaging the product.

One sign that we have kept up the quality of The Chronicle comes from last week's Georgia Press Association awards, where we finished second in overall excellence to the much larger Atlanta Journal-Constitution . We win many awards every year, including national awards, but to consistently place in the top three in general excellence shows what a deep commitment we make to quality.

We have finished in the top three in general excellence something like 15 of the past 18 years, better than any other paper in Georgia except the Journal-Constitution . To achieve excellence is difficult enough, but to sustain it year after year takes commitment.

The people of our community already know about that commitment because they have made us the dominant information provider in the area. Just how dominant we are was driven home to me this year when I saw the results from a market study done by Belden Associates, a national firm that conducts media surveys around the country.

Belden interviewed 1,010 residents of Richmond, Columbia and part of Aiken counties to find out how they use media. Of the 325,000 adults covered by the survey area, The Chronicle reaches 219,000 of them in a typical week. Because readers see an average of 4.5 papers every week, the total gross impressions in a typical week are 991,000. Over the course of a month, we reach 247,000 adults, with 5.4 million impressions.

In Richmond and Columbia counties, we reach 73 percent of the adults in a typical week. That sounds impressive, but you might think other media do as well or better if you listen to them crow about how successful they are. The problem is they don't measure how much of the total potential audience they reach. One question from the Belden study showed me how many people depend on The Chronicle for information.

The question asked, "For overall advertising information, who do you rely on?" The Augusta Chronicle was tops with 50 percent. The next closest response was all television, with 19 percent. Then came all Internet (which includes augustachronicle.com) at 12 percent. Ads in the mail were 8 percent and all radio 3 percent. So if you add all of our competitors together, they aren't relied on as much as The Chronicle .

If you want to know how much other media rely on us, just listen to the morning news reports on the radio. Many of them are read right from the daily paper, and a few broadcasters even give us credit.

We have gotten pretty good at breaking news on our Web site. Broadcast media used to be able to beat us at stories that broke during the day, but not any more. When big local stories happen, you'll find them first at augustachronicle.com.

Some people have said we are weak among women, minorities and young people, but the Belden numbers proved what I have known for years: The Chronicle is strong among all groups of people.

On Sunday, we reach 63 percent of working women, a powerful number. During a typical month, on Sundays we reach 70 percent of minorities in Richmond and Columbia counties. On weekdays, young people tend to read the paper less, but on Sunday they read the paper at the same rate as other groups, 62 percent in a typical month.

Compared with other markets surveyed by Belden, we're stronger with working women, minorities and people ages 18-34.

People need our information so much they willingly pay for it. In truth, it's a bargain, because if you use the coupons, you more than pay for the cost of the subscription. In Columbia County, 58 percent of adults live in households that subscribe to The Chronicle . That number is 49 percent in Richmond County.

Most businesses dream about reaching that large a share of the Augusta market. That's why so many of them advertise with us. Our reach also is why we on the news side take our jobs so seriously. We know we can have an impact on the community, so we want to get it right. And we know that to continue to occupy that place of trust, we must listen to you and give you what you want, sometimes even before you know you want it.

As more of you looked to the Internet for information, we adapted, combining our online and newsroom operations so now everyone here thinks about print and online. We added audio and video to our site and started a political Web site at augusta.activote.com. We allow you to post photos at Spotted, or post stories, blogs and comments on stories. You have become our partner in covering the news.

All of this makes covering news and providing advertising information more complex and difficult. It's also more exciting than ever as readers help us shape news coverage. So though we might struggle from time to time, hold off on throwing those shovels full of dirt. It's not over for newspapers; it's just the beginning.

Dennis Sodomka is the executive editor of The Augusta Chronicle. Reach him at (706) 823-3487, or dennis.sodomka@augustachronicle.com