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Publishers Corner: The economics of local news

As the Harvard Press approaches its 10th year of operation, it is a good time to review the financial performance of the only remaining local news source in Harvard. Several readers have commented that with the close of competing papers, the Press should be in great shape. Not necessarily.

The Press was able to launch in October 2006 thanks to generous donations from five local patrons, who missed having a quality local paper after the Harvard Post was sold to a regional chain in 2003. With initial no-strings gifts totaling $70,000, the Press published its first issue six weeks later, distributing it free to every resident for the first few months.

In terms of market penetration, the Press has done well, switching to subscription-based distribution in January 2007, with just under 800 subscribers, and climbing steadily to its current paid distribution to more than two-thirds of Harvard households.

Advertising has been a challenge; with relatively few businesses in Harvard, we must reach out to businesses in surrounding towns that see Harvard as a market. When the economy hit the wall in 2008 and advertising revenues fell sharply, it became clear the initial funding would soon be exhausted. The Press went back to some of its original patrons, in addition to encouraging contributions with subscription renewals. Substantial new contributions were received, and the move of the Press office to the General Store in 2009 reduced rent cost, but Press operations were still well short of breaking even.

If writers, reporters, editors, and photographers had been paid at market rates, the Press would have folded years ago. From the beginning, and to this day, the Harvard Press is largely a labor of love—love of Harvard, and a commitment to ensuring Harvard has a strong, locally owned and operated paper dedicated to Harvard news. The Press has been blessed by a steady stream of contributors, ranging from newcomers to those with multigeneration roots. Participation has been strong from the outset, and it gets better every year.

For the remainder of 2015, the Press will evaluate further actions to increase revenue and cut costs. Readers who want to help can add a patron contribution to their subscription renewal and can encourage anyone they know that is not a subscriber to get on board. Over the years, many of our best advertisers have found the Press because a subscriber nudged them to do so. Readers can help by patronizing existing advertisers, and by asking any vendor not already advertising, why not?

This is not a cry of desperation. The Press still has funds remaining and expects to continue its quality operation for some years. We recognize, however, that operating at a loss year after year is not sustainable. Together, with strengthened support from readers and advertisers, we can put the Press on the financial footing we all want.

Worth Robbins is one of three publishers of the Harvard Press.

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