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A year of changes

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It’s time again for my annual “state of the newspaper address.” I’ll try not to sound overly enthusiastic. But, you need to remember I’m a salesman at heart and I love to talk about our business and employees and it’s been truly an unbelievable year for the Dispatch and Echo Publishing. The list of accomplishments is long. Included are many sizable “once in an eon” projects. It gives me a chance to give us a grade for the year and keeps us accountable to our readers and invites your valuable response. What did we set out to do and what did we actually accomplish? It’s my one chance to reflect back, get out the crystal ball and look ahead to the new year.

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Two years ago when I wrote my first publisher’s column, I remember my niece who read the Dispatch online from Bemidji commenting about how nasty some of the online commenters were. One said, “I bet this new guy doesn’t know what he’s getting into, or he would run for his life.” Well, I’ll finally answer that by saying I’ve just finished two of the most gratifying years of my professional life. I’ve had the privilege of leading some of the most dedicated and hardworking co-workers you would ever want to be associated with.

Together we have forged ahead to bring the Dispatch and Echo medias into a more relevant position. We continue to improve every day. We’re not perfect by any means, but we are sincere and dedicated. And we certainly are producing more with less revenue and people. Don’t think of that as complaining. That’s the way life is today and we have more than met the challenge. Think of the services you get today compared to five years ago then think about what we produce day in and day out.

2011 was a year of procedural transition — new computers, new communication systems, new software, training and changes in the way we disseminate information. We bought systems and software which allowed us to be much more efficient and mobile.

If 2011 was a year of procedural changes, it allowed 2012 to be a year of physical changes. The communication changes allowed us to be more mobile, literally allowing our employees the ability to have access to their desks from anywhere. This allowed us to accomplish one of our biggest tasks — consolidating our three media companies into one office in Brainerd. This not only saved expenses but allowed us to be more efficient with our people’s time and resources thus better serving our communities. Our goal was to make sure we wrote more stories and covered more news in Pequot Lakes, Pine River and the other communities covered by Echo Publishing. I’m proud to say publisher Pete Mohs and his dedicated staff accomplished that goal. Echo Publishing’s editorial staff recently won three Minnesota Newspaper Association journalism awards. Starting in 2013, Nancy Vogt will serve as editor of both the Lake Country Echo and Pine River Journal weekly newspapers. Echo Publishing’s Pequot Lakes’ office remains open from 8 a.m. to noon during the week.

With the consolidation, we hired Keith Hansen, our new VP of Audience Development (editor) and went about the business of restructuring the news department. We also hired a new page designer in Jan Finger to help redesign and train Dispatch employees to be consistent with this new style of publishing. Our goal was to be more user-friendly with our new digital products. We began using bigger photos, more dynamic and colorful page layout with film strips and video included for the digital applications. One of the digital applications was our new iPad app we introduced in March. We also introduced our much improved version of our eEdition. Both use the curated newspaper format of turning what you are reading page by page. Recently on the digital side, Echo introduced its redesigned PineandLakes.com website. Our goal is to continue to build and enhance the best digital products we can. We do the best we can and could be better but we must be doing something right because our audience of digital readership is growing exponentially.

I remember another negative voice from two years ago who said, “The print side is already dead; newspaper owners just refuse to admit it.” I say, “Not so!” Since we introduced our award-winning newspaper redesign our circulation has grown, especially on Sundays where we have supplied our readers a record number of inserts in 2012. The big companies still have not figured a way to get a better ROI (return on the investment) than to spend the money on inserting ads into small town newspapers — at least not yet. Yes, they are trying to figure out how to be efficient digitally but still they spend a large portion of their marketing dollars with newspaper distribution.

This year we accelerated our journey of supplying a growing collection of audiences with news and information. The Dispatch still is read daily by 25,000 to 35,000 readers with dramatically different demographics than our other audiences, each of which are quite different. Two years ago we averaged 120,000 unique visitors to brainerddispatch.com. In 2011 that grew to over 200,000 per month. Those numbers have continued to grow in 2012 and last month we set a new record with over 298,000 unique visitors reading our news and information online. Echo’s PineandLakes.com averages 145,000 page views monthly and should grow in 2013. Our readers are getting information from whatever source is more convenient. The Dispatch has more than 1,000 readers who have downloaded the iPad app and over 2,500 that read our eEdition online. Finally, we have over 11,000 friends that share our information via Facebook. Yes, we are heavy into the social networks and we are tweeting and blogging daily. We want to reach audience members who are less likely to reach for a newspaper.

None of these changes we have introduced were done without our reader input. We listened by completing an extensive survey this year. We asked what you liked or wanted more of. One of the most frequent negative comments was “It looks like you could still use a good old proofreader...” Our goal was to change that! We’re not perfect yet but we have improved in that arena by restructuring the news department to have more proofreading. Plus we have begun using software which will do a better job.

Before the new VP of Audience Development and the redesign, many complained we were too liberal. One comment I remember from two years ago was “Hope...the new publisher has a bit more of a spine when dealing with the boldness of left-leaning editors at the BDD!” Now we get more comments that appreciate what we do, though some may think we’ve now gone too conservative. One way or the other the comments this year are more positive: “The Dispatch is still the leader in recording news and the history of our local community...” and “It takes effort to produce a good paper and run a clean website and for all the extra energy your group puts into it, I thank you, sincerely, all of you. I would like to wish you all a great New Year and again, thanks!”

No, I thank you for commenting, something that has increased dramatically since we have been writing daily editorials which was part of our redesign. Our goal was to get more reader participation and we now have more feedback than ever before. Our intent is to invite constant and civil discourse. Most of all, remember this — the Brainerd Dispatch, Lake Country Echo and Pine River Journal — these are your newspapers. And that includes their websites and other media serving all of our local communities. Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts and opinions.

So what have I missed on the list of major accomplishments?

• We had a major equipment upgrade with the SLS1000 inserter which was purchased and put in place. This machine was worth $750,000 new but we got it for a bit less. This is the third Morris newspaper it has performed in — Jacksonville, Fla., Topeka, Kan., and now us. The project took four months as we rebuilt most of the machine. In the end it will make us 600 percent more efficient on some jobs. Our old machine did seven inserts at 7,000 an hour. The SLS1000 will insert 14 inserts at up to 22,000 an hour.

• We sold Echo’s sheet-fed commercial business.

• We bought the Discover Racks.

• We develop popular sections like Tech Savvy.

• We created web-based interview shows like “In the Bleachers” with Wayne “Wheaties” Wallin and the “Sideline View.”

• We consolidated all three classified departments into one then did the same with the online department.

• We hosted many training seminars on how to use our online products.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we had a record year in commercial printing. They took on a major preprint account on top of already printing about 25 weekly publications. That’s on top of what we produce for ourselves.

One of our steadfast goals is to always continue improving the quality of our products both in content and presentation. Our efforts were rewarded in 2012 when we received five Morris Awards for content and was chosen three times as a “Top Ten Front Page” from Newseum. Plus we have just received word that we have won eight Minnesota Newspaper Association Awards that will be given out in two weeks.

Stage two of the consolidation had to wait until Jan. 1, 2013, which was combining the sales teams of the Dispatch, Echo and the Pine River Journal. Like the news department it required restructuring and new job descriptions and responsibilities. In preparation one more major accomplishment had to be completed this last month; we had to combine the Echo and Dispatch databases into one database, which was a massive job.

After such an enormous year of change, can we expect the pace to continue? For me and my employees, I hope it’s a more normal year. What can you expect from us this coming year?

Because the advertising reps will now be working with all of the products — Brainerd Dispatch and Echo Publishing — there is a need for a new “umbrella logo.”

Today we introduce our new logo — DE Media. Simply put it stands for Dispatch/Echo Media. Don’t be intimidated by this; all the names, logos and masthead will stay the same for all of our products.

What it does mean is you will only have to work with one rep; you will get only one bill and life should be easier.

On the online side there are many exciting, affordable and effective new products and services coming down the line — Engine 212 and Main Street Media to name a couple.

Last year, I said, if not promised you in my column: “Our franchise and the communities’ trust has always centered on our local news. Most of our changes in the last year, and those yet to come, have been made so we are able to rededicate ourselves and our resources to better serving our communities. It may not seem like it sometimes to the readers who want us to do even more, but a year from now, I plan on writing this column and extolling our successes.”

I believe we have done all that we set out to do this year. I believe it was done with a lot of blood, sweat and tears from our dedicated and professional employees. These improvements, products and services are expensive and time consuming. Because of that, by the middle of the year we will ask you our readers to help pay for the digital services you’ve been using in some small way. You will be hearing about something we call All Access which has been successfully launched in most of our metro papers. One of the things we heard when we offered our iPad app is why aren’t you charging me to get this?

Thanks for all your continued support. All of it keeps 100 dedicated co-workers employed and working for you! It has been truly humbling this year at the number of times people have sent us notes, cards, emails, or have walked across the room to say “I love what you are doing with the newspaper.” The irony is that in a lot of cases, it wasn’t just the newspaper. They also meant the iPad app, the websites, the eEdition, our magazines, and on and on.

And for that, we thank you.

TIM BOGENSCHUTZ is publisher of the Brainerd Dispatch.

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