An Oak Lawn trustee is eating his words — and possibly more — after his rosy forecasts about the economic viability of publishing a village newsletter did not come to bear.
Following remarks made last March by another trustee that Oak Lawn’s proposed experiment in newspaper publishing would amount to a $100,000 waste of taxpayer money, Alex Olejniczak proposed a bold dare.
He said he was so confident the village wouldn’t lose $100,000 on the endeavor that if the ad-supported newspaper — Oak Lawn Matters — cost residents over $20,000, he’d put his feet where his mouth is — literally.
"[If] we as a village spend more than $20,000 on this publication, I have a pair of Florsheim shoes that I will eat right here at the desk if that happens," Olejniczak boasted, raising his foot above the dais so that all watching could see. "You can hold me to my word on that."
One year later, Oak Lawn has lost $71,304, an average of about $6,000 per month, on the venture, village records show.
"There is zero denying that the plans and promises have fallen far short of what we were told," Olejniczak wrote in an email to the Daily Southtown on Thursday after reviewing the financials.
Olejniczak also indicated that he would honor his shoe eating promise.
The paper actually eclipsed $20,000 in losses in just its first three months, but trustees pressed on with the publishing experiment in hopes that advertising revenues would eventually grow to offset the $9,147 spent each month to produce, print and distribute the paper.
It never happened. Oak Lawn Matters did not come close to paying for itself, as Olejniczak initially said he believed would occur, in any of its first 12 months.
Advertising revenues fluctuated from month to month, topping out at nearly $6,000 this January, but declining each of the last three months, and dropping to a 10-month low of $1,400 in May, records show.
"It’s not a self-supporting publication, and I don’t think anyone envisioned that (it would be) when we embarked on it," village manager Larry Deetjen said of the paper. "But I think everybody was hopeful and more optimistic about advertising. And those revenues haven’t been realized."
He chalked up the disappointing returns to the limited amount of money local businesses can afford to spend on advertising and the growing number of advertising options available to them.
"It’s challenging because businesses don’t have endless budgets," he said. "They have to determine how they spend them and spend them wisely, and we have to be respectful of that."
Oak Lawn, which does not have an in-house public information officer, launched its venture in publishing last spring in an effort to disseminate its message to more residents, trustees said at the time.
On that account, officials said, Oak Lawn Matters, which reaches approximately 60,000 residents and businesses each month, has been an overwhelming success.
The village pays Fanning Communications, a south suburban communications and marketing firm, $3,000 per month to produce the paper’s content, which informs residents about community initiatives and highlights positive news in village government, schools, parishes, local businesses and the park district.
It spends another $2,460 monthly on printing costs and about $3,780 for postage.
The 20-page June edition contains stories about a Special Olympics walk, the consolidation of Hodgkins’ dispatch center with Oak Lawn’s center and plans for a new high school performing arts facility.
"I’m totally high on it," publisher John Fanning said of the concept. "It is, I believe, vitally important for communities to have some sort of resource in which official information is imparted to the citizens, and these newsletters do that."
Despite the costs, Fanning said he believes the first year of the paper’s run has gone well.
"I don’t know anyone who can launch a magazine and run in the black in the first year. I don’t think that’s ever happened" he said. "It takes a while for people to understand, see the product, understand the product and start to trust the product."
Fanning said he thinks that over time, as the community and its local businesses become more comfortable with the paper, advertising revenues will pick up.
He also believes there’s an intangible and oft-overlooked value that newsletters like his provide communities by fostering stability and civic pride.
"You cannot stop violence and crime… in our communities unless you have a vehicle to make the community stronger," Fanning said. "I personally believe that a community newspaper is an essential ingredient in that because people have a feeling they’re not alone, they understand what’s happening next door to them and it really helps in many ways.
"In order to have a robust community, I think you need a community newspaper."
It remains to be seen whether Oak Lawn will continue to publish one.
Deetjen said the village board would revisit its contract with Fanning Communications as it embarks on its 2018 budget preparation this fall.
"It’s going to be looked at," he said of the publishing contract with Fanning, which runs through December. "If the advertising is not at a level that was envisioned by the trustees and has an impact on the net cost, we’re going to have to address that."
While Olejniczak said he’s been pleased with the publication, he plans to introduce a measure to keep costs under control.
Olejniczak hasn’t yet confirmed when it will happen, but said he had no problem honoring the promise he made last March.
"I’d have no problem eating my shoes," Olejniczak said, adding that he would do so "with a fork and a knife."