A friend who reads the blog asked me the other day how I wound up owning seven newspapers on the Oregon and Washington coasts by the time I was 30 years old. Well, I didn’t plan it that way. It just sort of happened.
My first paper was in Aberdeen, Washington, on Grays Harbor. When I started out, I knew that I had to have something worth reading, and I also knew I needed to have enough advertisers to support it because I started on a literal shoestring. A very short shoestring. Getting the material to fill the pages wasn’t all that hard. But what about the advertising? Well, I came up with an idea that worked so well it surprised me.
I went to the largest car dealer in town, introduced myself to the owner, and told him I was starting a weekly newspaper and offered him a deal. I said, “Look, you don’t need me. You’re doing fine already. But I need you. So I would like to offer you a free full-page ad every week for a month – no cost or obligation at all. I only ask two things from you. Number one, if you feel the ads were worthwhile, you consider advertising with me on a paid basis once your free month is over. And number two, don’t tell anybody else that the ads are free, because obviously, I need to sell somebody an ad to make enough money to keep going.” How could he resist that?
Then I went to the next biggest car dealership and introduced myself to the owner and told him about my new newspaper, and asked if he would be interested in buying an ad. I knew he was going to tell me no. I didn’t have any kind of a track record, and he didn’t know who I was, so why should he take a risk on me? And when he did say no, I told him no problem, I understood completely. But so-and-so Ford dealership just took a full-page ad, and I wanted to give him the courtesy of paying a call on him so he didn’t feel left out. He asked, “The Ford dealer’s doing a full-page ad?” I told him yes, a full-page for a month. Guess who bought a full-page ad? Then I went to the next biggest dealership and ended up selling him a half-page ad.
Next, I went to the biggest real estate company in town and offered them a free full-page ad four weeks. They took it, and I repeated the process at several other real estate companies telling them all that their biggest competitor was going to have a full-page ad for a month. Then I hit the biggest grocery store in town.
By the time the first issue of my newspaper came out, I had enough advertising to pay the printer for the next three issues and to impress a lot of other businesses in town, who then jumped on the bandwagon.
A year or so after I started out, the same car dealer who took those free full-page ads and I had become good friends. One day he said he wished I would expand my circulation to the next county over because a lot of people from that area traded in our town. I thought about that, but then I got an idea. I started another newspaper in that county and did the same thing I had with my first paper to fill the ad pages. And to sweeten the pot, I offered any business that ran an ad in one paper the same ad in the other paper for half-price. The work of selling the ad and putting it together was already done, so that was pure gravy. Six months later, I went to the next county on the other side and did the same thing, offering free ads, offering half-price ads in other papers in the next counties, and before you knew it I had a small chain of newspapers, just like that.
My overhead was low because all of the layout and composition was done in our main office in Grays Harbor, and in the other places I rented very small offices, hired a woman to work the counter and answer the phone, and put a couple of salesmen on the street on commission. Each of those papers had one reporter who covered the local news, and the rest was filled in from news from my adjoining county papers plus syndicated material.
I had been at this for about three years, and by that time I had five or six newspapers going. But then I made a big mistake. I went to my first national newspaper conference. There was a high-priced consultant there who was giving a talk on the newspaper industry, and he said that one could expect to spend $1 to $3 million to start a newspaper and could expect to run in the red for five years before they turned a profit.
Sitting and listening to that “expert” talk was the worst thing I ever did! I didn’t have that kind of money to start a newspaper, and I had started all of those already. What had I gotten myself into? When I returned from the conference I could not function. I literally could not figure out what my next step should be. He had convinced me there was no way I could succeed with even one newspaper, let alone seven.
Finally, after a week or so, I called him and told him my situation, and he told me that I was only fooling myself if I thought I was really making any money. That didn’t help either. It turned out he had a daughter who lived in Seattle, and he was coming to visit her in just a few days. He suggested he might drive out to Grays Harbor County, where I was, and spend the day with me. I’m sure he was hoping to get an expensive consulting gig out of it, and I was just as sure I didn’t have any money to pay him for it.
But on the appointed day, he showed up at my office. We talked a bit and I showed him my books and told him about the way I was running things. He scratched his head, and he looked at the books again and said it didn’t make any sense. He suggested that he would be happy to stay an extra day or two if I would spring for a motel room because he really wanted to know more. In exchange, he would give me a report of where he thought I was and where I was going.
At the end of three days, he handed me a letter that said he had no idea how I did what I was doing, and that I had broken every rule there was when it came to starting a community newspaper. But whatever the hell I was doing, keep doing it! So I did.
Along the way, I made a pretty good chunk of money, and I learned a lot. Eventually, I sold out and moved back to Arizona, and started three newspapers there. But that’s another story for another time.
Thought For The Day – It’s better to walk alone than with a crowd going in the wrong direction.