Mike Jacobs: The 'Daily Miracle' will go on
Let's get some things straight right out of the gate. First, the Herald is not leaving Grand Forks.
Nor is the Herald's decision to shut down the press, stop printing the Monday paper and move production to Fargo the decision of some malevolent manager. The role of a newspaper manager is to print the news and make a profit. The second is important. Without it, the first is impossible. Newsprint is expensive and so is operating a press. In tough times, cutting expenses makes profit possible and ensures the continuation of the Herald in Grand Forks.
Nor is this decision a subversive scheme by out-of-town owners to diminish the importance of Grand Forks or the Herald. The Herald has not had a genuinely local owner since 1929, when the Bacon family sold it to the Ridder brothers. M.M. Oppegard was a trusted manager, and he had an ownership interest in the Herald, but he was never a majority owner.
The current owners are more nearly local than any since the Bacons, who owned other newspapers but lived in Grand Forks. Forum Company, which bought the Herald in 2006, is based in Fargo, of course, and that has whittled the chip on our city's civic shoulder. The truth is that Grand Forks has been at a competitive disadvantage to Fargo. The main reason is location.
In the steamboat era, this place was important commercially because it lay at a natural junction, as is reflected in its historic name, Grand Forks. That advantage was lost when the Great Northern built catty-corner across North Dakota, and Fargo's position was secured by an interstate highway junction.
Would the Herald have been better off under different ownership? Perhaps operational decisions would have been different. The central issue, however, remains the need for profit. That's what keeps the presses running. For generations, newspapers followed a simple business model: Print the news and sell advertising to meet the costs. This worked well, and it made many fortunes, including one for the Marcil family, sole owners of Forum Communications and therefore of the Herald. Changes in technology revealed a flaw in the formula, however. It undervalued part of the product, giving the impression that the news didn't have value, that it was essentially free. Throughout my career in the newspaper business, advertising paid most of the bills; subscriptions accounted about a third of revenue.
This paid the distribution costs, but not the production costs. The formula worked well when retail establishments were in local hands, not so much when the national chains replaced local owners.
The Herald is certainly no worse off than other newspapers involved in the Knight-Ridder sale, and it is considerably more secure than some. Partly this is because Forum Company's infrastructure is nearby. It is possible to print a paper in Fargo and distribute it the next morning in Grand Forks — challenging, of course, but doable most days. So it makes sense from a business perspective to cut costs by closing the pressroom.
The major impact of this move will be earlier deadlines. For a seasoned newspaper person, this is a chilling prospect. Rushing into the shop and shouting "Stop the presses!" is one of my favorite memories of nearly four decades at the Herald. OK, I did it only twice, when the Marine barracks in Beirut was blown up and when Israel was bombed during the First Iraq War.
Stopping the presses won't be possible under the new regimen, and not just because the press will be 80 miles away. Early press starts will force a different way of reporting the news. The morning paper won't have hockey scores, City Council reports or election results. These will be reported "in real time" on the Herald's website and in the digital edition in the morning. A Monday edition of the Herald will appear there, too.
The new deadlines create opportunities for more thorough and more reflective reporting, exactly what's needed to compete with factoids and talking heads that dominate other media outlets.
Rather than rushing to get City Council news in the paper, reporters now might have time to ask follow-up questions. So will political reporters covering elections. And Brad Elliott Schlossman's incomparable hockey coverage, full of insight and inside info, will read just as well without the scores, which you probably know without the Herald telling you. Savings in the production may also make it possible to hire more reporters, making the news product more comprehensive.
On the whole, these moves are good for the Herald and for Grand Forks.
My great regret is the loss of jobs in the pressroom. Those who run the presses are special people, willing to work at odd hours with messy ink and complicated equipment in order to complete the process of producing what we in the business like to call "The Daily Miracle."
The compensation — though not for them of course — is that these moves will improve the Herald's business prospects, so that the miracle can happen over and over again, in the Herald's 140th year and beyond.
Like I said in this column when I retired, I expect to be buried with that day's issue of the Herald in my hands. I'll try not to die on a Monday.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.