As some of you know, I was in Louisville, my hometown, all last week for the Kentucky Derby and related activities.
Despite a lot of rain on Saturday, Derby Day, it was a great time, and the city was throbbing with action and anticipation. On Sunday, the day after Derby, there’s always a bit of a letdown, a communal hangover, as people float back down to earth and try to return to their normal routines.
One thing almost all Louisvillians, as well as out-of-town visitors do on Sunday is read The Courier-Journal’s special Derby section, where people can read about all facets of Derby Day, from the race itself to the fashion on display and the celebrities who attended. The special section — usually 20 pages or more — takes weeks to plan and involves thousands of hours of work by editors, reporters, photographers, artists, designers, copy editors and others. It is always well done and as much a part of the Derby aftermath as rumpled suits and dresses and soiled Derby hats.
But this year there was a problem, a really big problem. For most of the Courier’s 240,000 Sunday subscribers, the paper — the news and Derby sections, anyway — did not come out on Sunday morning. Just after the presses began to run Saturday night, an unusual and fatal press failure occurred. Sunday morning, tens of thousands of people woke up and found only the pre-printed sections — opinion, the arts, features, etc. — in their boxes or on their doorsteps.
The “live sections” — the main news section, the Metro section, the regular sports section and, of course, the Derby section — were missing. Understandably, the calls began pouring in to the paper. I was staying at my uncle’s house, and he began calling before 8 a.m., getting a recording that said, “All circuits are busy.”
Thousands of people, undoubtedly, went to their local convenience and grocery stores in search of papers, but what many of them found was what my wife Patty and I found — hand-printed signs on the doors saying, “No papers.” About the only place where some full papers were available were hotels relatively close to downtown and Churchill Downs.
Later in the day, Courier-Journal President and Publisher Arnold Garson said at a news conference that the paper received “tens of thousands of calls.” The press failure, which Garson said involved “complex electronic circuitry,” did not affect the paper’s online presentation. The Derby stories and photos, and all the other “live” stories, were there. But it wasn’t the same.
“This is the worst possible time” for a press failure to occur, he noted. The paper had planned a run of 270,000 papers, Garson said, which would have allowed for single-copy sales of about 30,000. To learn more about the press failure and to highlights of Garson’s press conference, click here.
Almost all newspapers, including The Star, experience routine problems that interrupt the press run, but a catastrophic problem like the one The Courier-Journal experienced is extremely rare. And, unfortunately, it happened on the paper’s best-read, most-anticipated edition of the year.
On Sunday afternoon and evening, the live Sunday sections were being printed in Indianapolis, as were copies of today’s paper. This morning, subscribers got Sunday’s live sections along with today’s paper.
As a result of the press failure, The Courier-Journal suffered significant monetary losses. The greater potential threat, however, is a loss of confidence among subscribers. Even though newspapers have suffered significant circulation declines in the last decade or so, the bond between many communities and their daily newspaper is very strong, and it’s not due primarily to the online product — not yet, anyway. It’s because of the newspaper that people pick up in their yards, hold in their hands and read with their eyes. It’s one thing they count on every day. They might complain about the product, but they’ve come to expect it to at least arrive.
Hopefully, most Courier-Journal subscribers will understand that the weekend debacle was an aberration. The incident should not significantly dent subscribers’ confidence in the company, but that doesn’t mean it won’t. These are tenuous times in the newspaper business, and readers have many more options. The Courier-Journal would be wise to reach out in some way to its subscribers to try to make amends for Derby Debacle 2010.