MATTERS AT HAND: A good year at the Herald; another good year coming

This is New Year's weekend at the Herald. Our new fiscal year began Saturday. That means we closed our books on 2011 and moved to the new budget year.

This is New Year's weekend at the Herald. Our new fiscal year began Saturday. That means we closed our books on 2011 and moved to the new budget year.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't mention this. The intricacies of our business operations are not news.


For the Herald, 2011 -- which began on Oct. 1, 2010 -- was an exceptional year, the best since I began working with Herald budgets. That was in 1981, when I became managing editor.

Let me do the math. That was 30 years ago.


And except:

There's such general gloom about the newspaper industry in America that I can't resist pointing out that the Herald is doing well.

It's not the Herald's success alone. It is the story of an extraordinary company, Forum Communications, which bought the Herald in 2006. The purchase came in the wake of the collapse of Knight-Ridder, one of the nation's biggest newspaper companies. Investor pressure forced its sale to McClatchy, another newspaper-publishing giant. McClatchy sold off some of Knight-Ridder's assets. The Herald was one. The Duluth News Tribune was another. Forum Company bought these "orphans."

Grand Forks and Duluth fit well into the Forum Company's network, centered on The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and including dailies, weeklies and broadcasting outlets in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

It was apparent very quickly that the network itself was an incredible asset, and it's in the context of the network that the Grand Forks Herald has enjoyed business success.

This hasn't come without pain. We are fewer than we were; job cuts were part of the formula. We lost friends and colleagues.

We cut other costs, too, including the number of pages that we print and the variety of wire services that we buy. We looked for small savings, eliminating wasted paper and turning off lights in rooms that weren't used.

But cost control only goes so far. We also found ways to increase revenue, especially online.


Here it is important to remember that Forum Company and William Marcil are synonymous. The family owns the company, and Mr. Marcil is the patriarch.

Very soon after the Herald purchase, Marcil laid out a specific goal. By the end of Fiscal 2012, he said, Forum Company would get 20 percent of revenue from online operations.

"Twenty percent in 2012." This was a clear goal, and an audacious goal. No newspaper company in America was close.

Marcil said he'd throw a party for the operating unit that reached the goal soonest. Officers of the company were in Grand Forks earlier this year, cooking barbecue and awarding prices.

Yes, the Herald won -- not by ourselves but as part of the Forum Company network. Classified advertising, especially for jobs, is sold across Forum properties, for example. Other venues for advertising include sites dedicated to farming, business and outdoors.

It's important to realize that Forum Company hasn't abandoned the traditional newspaper formula. Like newspapers themselves, the company websites emphasize content, because that's what brings people to the sites, just as it brings readers to the printed product.

The Herald website has far more information about Grand Forks and the region than any other. At the same time, it provides updates about national and international news. Literally, it connects the community with the world. This is what newspapers did, on paper, for generations.

Nor has Forum Company abandoned in-depth journalism. Last year, we undertook a special project called "Running with Oil," that provided background and insight about developments in western North Dakota. We're at work on another such project, called "Living with Water." It will be published in January and February.


Mr. Marcil is proud of these efforts. He sees them as the soul of journalism and as an obligation for the company.

Here in Grand Forks, we've ended a remarkable year. Achieving this was personally and professionally painful, but it is deeply satisfying, and I wanted to share the news -- to reassure you that the Herald is healthy, whatever the state of newspapers elsewhere in America.

Besides, I'm proud of us.

The New Year will bring changes. We've just undertaken a training project to improve our copy editing and headline writing. We're looking for new staff to improve our reporting. We're hoping to add pages, especially on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Most of all, we're looking forward to another great year in a great business.

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