A spark is lost for covering Delaware news

    There is one constant in media these days, change.  Doug Rainey knows about that from his view at the Delaware Business Daily.  He offers comments on the end of “Spark”.

    The following is a commentary by the author:

    The clock had been ticking for a couple of years for Spark, the weekly entertainment publication of News Journal Media Group.

    After all, parent company Gannett had been shutting down publications aimed at younger readers since 2011. By many accounts, Spark was the last one standing.

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    In the end, Spark and Signature Brandywine, a 10-time-a-year slick paper lifestyle magazine, met their fate on one of those Monday afternoons that newspaper staffers have come to dread. The website was quickly taken down and only scattered signs of the nearly decade-long existence of the publications remain.

    Focus on hard news

    Some media observers were relieved. After axing Spark, the News Journal proclaimed it would continue to do investigative reporting and maintain a staff level needed in covering government, school boards, courts and other public bodies. So far, that seems to be the case.

    While gaps can be seen in print coverage, northern Delaware, for the most part, has not yet seen the phenomenon of “zombie newspapers,” burdened with heavy debt loads and operating with skeleton staffs.

    When summoned, the News Journal staff can still cover big news events and court cases.

    But something was lost with the demise of Spark.

    Unique publication

    The staff photos told the story, with artsy images rather than “mug shots.” The personalities of the staff managed to make their way into writing that covered everything from the opening of a local restaurant to items on movies popular culture. That generated many loyal readers and an impressive number of stories on the arts and entertainment scene.

    Perhaps most remarkable was the decision to not do Spark “on the cheap.” During most of its existence, the publication operated with a small staff, rather than an editor and freelancers. Spark also operated with its own advertising sales staff. It created a tight-knit staff and a sassy attitude that was a marked contrast to the serious and some might say “know it all” tone of the News Journal.

    The publication also held its own events, something newspaper gurus have long suggested as a revenue and community building tool.

    Curiously, the Internet was not a big part of Spark, which focused most of its energy on print. Perhaps that kept the publication focused and reduced the temptation to slash costs by moving content online. Sadly, no online version of Spark will be attempted.

    Spark did have a few critics who wanted a publication that would go beyond entertainment and tackle community issues of interest to younger readers.

    The beginning of the end

    Then came 2009 and steep losses in advertising in help wanted, automotive and real estate advertising. The battle was for survival and somehow Spark held on. But page counts never recovered and the end neared.

    General Manager Matt Sullivan left Spark in 2012 and savors the memories.

    “I know it just folded, but it’s hard for me to think of Spark as anything but a success story. It lasted for almost 10 years, a weekly print magazine at the tail end of that format’s history, and we beat the odds time and time again, not just surviving but thriving and innovating as we went. We had years of strong support from the people above us, and they allowed us to do things our own way, both editorially and on the sales team. When I ran Spark, I used to say I had the best job in Gannett, and I still don’t think I was wrong,” Sullivan said.

    Sullivan is skeptical that Spark could be duplicated in a digital world and wonders whether the traditional news model can survive.

    “This is the quandary that all media is in right now. Digital is obviously the only future for most media, but for local, non-national publications, only print can still produce enough advertising revenue to hire and retain good people … people like the ridiculously talented designers, photographers and writers that I worked with at Spark. Maybe the shift is coming, and digital revenue can catch up. For the sake of the industry, for the sake of all our communities, I hope it can,” he said.

    Doug Rainey is the editor of the Delaware Business Daily.  Email Doug drainey@delawarebusinessdaily.com  or follow him on twitter: https://twitter.com/DougRaineyDe





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