In a previous Newspaper Days blog post titled How I Did It, I shared with you how I started out with one small town weekly newspaper and wound up with seven of them on the Pacific Northwest Coast. Now, let me tell you about how someone I knew managed to fail miserably in the same region in the same business.
Because I grew my small newspaper chain so quickly, I attracted the attention of several people who wanted to do something similar, and I found myself consulting with some of them on occasion. Most did pretty well, two or three were very successful, and one person crashed and burned. But then again, I think she would have failed in any business she attempted.
Bremerton, Washington is a thriving small city located on the eastern side of the Olympic Peninsula on Puget Sound. Besides being a busy Naval yard where ships are brought in and overhauled or mothballed, Bremerton is also a bedroom community for people who ride the ferry across the Sound every day to work in Seattle. It was one of the places that I looked at for starting a newspaper, but before I got around to it, a woman came to me with the same idea and asked if she could pick my brain. She spent two or three days with me, looking at our operation and asking lots of questions, and she was very enthusiastic. She was also a very personable young woman, and I thought she would do well.
So she set off to do her thing in Bremerton, and a few weeks later the manager of the central printing plant who handled printing for several small newspapers in that region called to ask me what I knew about her. I told him what I knew and that I had referred her to him, and he said, “Yeah, thanks a lot. Her last three checks for printing bounced.”
The very next day I got a desperate phone call from her, asking if I would be willing to come over and look at her operation because she was not doing well.
A couple of days later I drove over to Bremerton, and before I ever got out of the car I had a good idea why she was in trouble. She had leased a very nice office (read expensive) on a downtown street, and in the parking lot next to the building was a sign that said Reserved For Publisher. In that parking spot was a brand-new Cadillac. I went inside, and the carpeting was so plush that it felt like I was sinking up to my ankles. Soft background music was playing and the young lady at the desk in the very nicely appointed outer office asked if she could help me. I told her who I was, and she picked up the phone and pushed a button for an internal number and said, “Mr. Russell is here.”
A moment later she escorted me back through a couple of empty offices with expensive new furniture to the publisher’s office. I know it was the publisher’s office because she had her name and title on a large brass plaque on the door. Folks, I kid you not, she had a desk that looked about the size of a pool table, and when she stood up to shake my hand, she was wearing a dress that I’m sure cost more than my wardrobe for a week would have. We sat down, I asked what was up, and she said that she was losing money hand over fist. She was overdrawn at the bank, she didn’t have the money for the next month’s rent on her office, and the printer was threatening to cut her off.
I asked to see the editions of her paper she had put out so far, and they were only eight pages each. For reference from day one, my publications were always 36 pages or more. I looked at the few issues she had put out, and they were dismal. The entire front page of the first one was taken up with a picture of her standing behind her desk and a long article about her background and all she hoped to accomplish with the new publication. There were only a handful of ads, and they were all small. The next issue had another picture of her on the front page, this time standing next to her new Cadillac, and it was another puff piece about how wonderful she was. Again, there was very little advertising, and most of her editorial content was just boilerplate picked up from one of the services which supplied stories to newspapers at the time. Most of those were what is known in the business as advertorials, promoting some product or company. There was not one local story or one local item of interest in any of the papers I looked at.
I reminded that her that I had told her that every issue of a community newspaper should have pictures of local people. Kids playing in a park, profiles of business owners or high school students who made the honor roll, folks at the senior center, or policemen and firemen. People love that stuff and want to see it. Her reply was that she didn’t have the money to pay any reporters, and she “didn’t have the time for all that nonsense.” She said if somebody wanted something in the paper, they could take their own picture and bring it to the office.
When I asked her how her salespeople were doing, she said she didn’t have any salespeople. She had hired two, but neither had lasted more than a few days. I asked why she was not out on the street selling ads herself, and she said that she was too busy running the paper, and besides, selling advertising is not a publisher’s job.
I asked why she needed such a fancy car and such a nice dress, and she said that as the newspaper’s publisher, she had an image to maintain. That’s when I told her that she might as well close the door right then, because she was never going to make it at the rate she was going. I pointed out that I was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt and driving a five-year-old pickup truck, then reminded her that when she visited my office, somebody at the counter yelled, “Hey, Nick, someone’s here to see you.“ I told her that the desk in my office was just a small standard size, picked up a secondhand store someplace. Again, she told me that she needed that big desk because she was the publisher, yada yada yada.
When she came to me seeking advice, I had explained to her my method of getting advertisers, which I wrote about in my, How I Did It blog post. I asked if she had done the same thing. No, she was not going to give advertising away. Why in the world would she want to do that?
I tried to explain to her again that starting a newspaper is a labor-intensive process and that she was not going to have a successful publication if she wanted to spend all of her time sitting behind her huge desk admiring her own image. I reminded her that I sold ads, covered news and feature stories, helped lay out the paper, and took the trash out, too. She didn’t take kindly to that and told me that if I didn’t have anything positive to contribute, to stop wasting her time. So I did, and I left.
A week later, the printer called to tell me that she had never shown up to get that week’s edition printed because he told her he would only accept cash, and he would work out cash payment terms for the bounced checks. I never heard from her again, and as far as I know she went off to some other career. Whatever it was, I hope she did well. But I doubt it.
Thought For The Day – Don’t worry if plan A fails, there are 25 more letters in the alphabet.
The story you told is all too often repeated not only in publishing, but other endeavors. I have a business degree from the University of Minnesota, but DON’T ASSUME that i have made the best business decisions in my career. My grandfather told me that much of his success was having connections and being, of all things, liked! Good advice is often conflicting, and business acumen is a gift from God along with a good business education!
Some people ask for advice, then when it’s not to their liking, blame YOU for giving it.