The Courier Journal: A Louisville Death Rattle

May 13, 2012

In 1981, I joined the Courier Journal and Louisville Times. That was 31 years ago. I am not sure how I made the decision to leave the Washington, DC, area to journey to a city whose zip code and telephone area code were unknown to me. I am a 212, 202, and 301 type of person.

I recall meeting Barry Bingham Jr. He asked me what I did in my spare time. I was thunderstruck. My former employers—Halliburton Nuclear Utility Services and Booz, Allen & Hamilton—never asked me those questions. Those high powered, hard charging outfits wanted to know how much revenue I had generated and how much money I had saved the company, when the next meeting with the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy was, and how the Cleveland Design & Development man trip vehicle was rolling along. The personal stuff floored me.


I did not have an answer. As a Type A, Midwestern, over-achieving, no-brothers-and-no sisters worker bee, fun was not a big part of my personal repertoire.

I asked him, “Why?”

I recall to this day his answer, “I want our officers and employees to have time with their families, get involved in the community, and do great work without getting into that New York City thing.”

Interesting. The Courier Journal had a very good reputation. The newspaper was profitable, operated a wide range of businesses, printed the New York Times’s magazine for the Gray Lady, and operated a commercial database company. In fact, in 1980 the Courier Journal was one of the leaders in commercial online information, competing with a handful of other companies in the delivery of information via digital channels, not the dead-tree, ruin-the-environment, and dump-chemicals approach of most publishing companies.

In 1986, Gannet bought the Courier Journal. The commercial database unit was of zero interest to Gannet, so it and I were sold to Bell+Howell. After a short stint at a company entrenched in 16 mm motion film projectors, I headed back to New York City.

I retained my residence in Louisville, and I have watched the trajectory of the Courier Journal as it moved forward.

I have to be blunt. The Courier Journal is not the newspaper, the company, or the community force it was when I joined Mr. Bingham and a surprisingly diverse, bright, forward-looking team 31 years ago. The 1981 management approach of the Courier Journal was a culture shock to me. Think of the difference between Dick Cheney and Mr. Rogers. The 2012 approach saddens me.

This morning I read “Answering Your Questions on CJ Changes,” written by a person whom I do not know. The author of the article is Wesley Jackson, publisher of the Courier Journal. (I never liked the acronym CJ and still do not.)

The main point of the article is that the Courier Journal has to raise its prices. Last week, Mr. Jackson wrote a short article in the Courier Journal informing subscribers a letter would arrive explaining the new services that would be available. We received our letter on Wednesday, May 9, 2012. We called on Thursday, May 10, 2012, and cancelled our subscription. I am not sure how many other subscribers took this action, but a sufficient number of Courier Journal readers called to kill the phone system at the newspaper.

Mr. Jackson wrote this morning:

Unfortunately our Customer Service Center’s phone system had technical problems, and many of you  had long wait times or could not get through to get your questions answered. That I know was frustrating.

I bet. I would love to see the data about the number of calls and the number of cancellations that the paper received when it announced the rate hike, a free iPad application for subscribers, and an email copy of the newspaper sent each day to paying customers.

The write up troubled me for several other reasons:

  1. Some of the word choices were of the touchy-feely school of communication. There are 19 “we’s”. The word “value” appears twice, there are seven categoricals: six all’s and one never; and the word “conversation” appears twice.
  2. There is at least one split infinitive “to personally apologize”
  3. An absolutely amazing promise expressed in this statement: “For those of you who would like to ask questions directly, please email me at or send a letter to Publisher, Courier-Journal Media, 525 W. Broadway, Louisville, KY 40202. I promise you will each receive a response.”

“Promise,” “all,” and “never”—yep, I believe those assertions.

I would have included an image of Wesley Jackson but I had to pay for it. Not today, sorry.

My view is that I hear a death rattle from the Courier Journal. The reality of the newspaper is that it runs more and more syndicated content. The type of local coverage for which the paper was known when I joined in 1981 has decreased over the years. When I want news, I look at online services. What I have noticed is that what appears in the Courier Journal has been mentioned on Facebook, Twitter, or headline aggregation services two or three days before the information appears in either the Courier Journal’s hard copy edition or its online site,

Dave Kellogg, the former president of MarkLogic, used to chide me that I should not refer to major publishing operations and “dead tree publishers.” My view was and is that I am entitled to my opinion. Traditional publishing companies have failed to respond to new opportunities to disseminate and profit from information opportunities.

The list of mistakes include:

  1. Belief that an app will generate new revenue. Unfortunately apps are not automatic money machines. (Print-centric apps are not the go-to medium for many digital device users.)
  2. Assumptions about a person’s appetite for paying for “nice to have content.” (One pays for “must have” content, not “nice to have” content.)
  3. Failure to control costs. (Print margins continue to narrow as traditio0nal publishers try to regain the glory of the pre digital business models.)
  4. Firing staff who then go on to compete by generating content funded by a different business model. (This blog is an example. We do online advertising and inclusions and sell technical services. For some reason, this works for me thanks to my team which includes some former “real” journalists.)
  5. Assuming that new technology for printing color on newsprint equips an information technology department that it can handle other information technologies in an effective manner. (Skill in one technical area does not automatically transfer to another technical field.)

I can hear the labored breathing of a local newspaper struggling to stay alive. What do you hear?

Stephen E Arnold, May 13, 2012

Sponsored by HighGainBlog, which is ArnoldIT


One Response to “The Courier Journal: A Louisville Death Rattle”

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