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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The problems with going to free circulation

For at least a couple of years, Nicola and I and our consultant, Ken Blum, had talked about the possibility of going to free circulation. It was so difficult to get people to subscribe to the paper, that we felt the only way we were going to help our advertisers was to get the paper out there for free. There were many problems with that idea, though. First, we’d lose about $50,000 to $60,000 in subscription and over-the-counter revenue. Next, we’d lose about $20,000 to $30,000 in legal notice revenue, because state law required that the newspaper must have paid circulation. With just two line items alone, we’d be losing about $80,000 in revenue in one fell swoop. Plus, our printing and mailing expenses would go up dramatically by printing and mailing 6,700 copies (in the 83634 ZIP code) or 9,700 (all households within the Kuna school district).
It was obvious that we’d have to more than double advertising rates in order for it to work. As it was, especially given the depressed economy, businesses were having a hard enough time paying $24 or $30 for a small ad in the paper every week. To expect them to pay $75 or $100 per week, or $300 to $400 per month, did not seem tenable.
A reduced — practically free — subscription rate, though, would allow us to maintain at least some subscription revenue and all of our legal notice revenue. With higher circulation, the idea was that you’d be able to attract more advertisers, ads would have a better return on investment for the advertisers and you might be able to charge a little more for the ads, making up for the lost subscription revenue.
But you'd have to get a really significant number of new subscribers.
It was worth a shot. We had tried just about everything else.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Four months, 108,000 words, 368 pages: The end is in sight

The end is in sight. I am approaching the end of my book, so I decided to go back and do a little assessment of how much I’ve written so far.
After about four months, I’ve written 108,612 words, or 368 pages (12-point, double-spaced).
My target was 96,000 words, 320 pages, so I’ve surpassed my goal, and that allows me ample room to do some healthy editing.
I’ll feel very comfortable going back and deleting entire sections and paring down bulky language. One of my biggest fears in all of this was that I was going to be constantly revising along the way, never happy with how my writing turned out on the previous day, and that I would just be constantly rewriting what I had just written. For whatever reason, I was able to simply plow ahead, knowing at times that what I had written the previous day was not all that great.
I’ve already started the revision process from the beginning, and along the way I’ve been reminded of some stories that I had forgotten about. So I will be going back and adding in some of those tales as I pare down and polish what I’ve already written.
As it is, I probably have just a week or so left of putting the ending on my book and wrapping the whole thing up. All in all, it has turned out just about how I planned.
The process has gone about as well as I could have expected. I knew going into it that one chapter every two weeks, without fail, was an ambitious goal, and here I am about a month past my deadline. Still, though, I’m pretty pleased with writing 108,000 words in four months.
It can be done.
Now, since I have spent more of my professional career as an editor than as a writer, I am very much looking forward to the editing process. Onward.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

On the prospect of selling the newspaper

Toward the end of 2010, we had received an inquiry from a regional newspaper publishing company that was interested in purchasing the Kuna Melba News.
It may be hard to understand, given our frustrations with gaining circulation and the seemingly endless attacks on our business model from just about every front, but the prospect of no longer owning our own business was daunting. The business was paying us a decent salary, more than enough to pay our bills and go out to dinner every once in a while. It was paying for our minivan. It paid for our gas, our health insurance, our newspaper subscriptions.
We were still enjoying our status in the community, as well. Despite the occasional late-night run to the grocery store in sweatpants in which you invariably ran into someone who knew you from the paper, we enjoyed being recognized by people in the community. We liked having farmers stop by the office to drop off cantaloupe and zucchini and tomatoes for us. We liked being asked to judge singing contests and Dutch oven cooking contests.
Perhaps most importantly, we liked the flexibility we had in owning our own business. By now, we had settled into a good routine, with Nicola going into the office early after seeing the boys off to school. Robert by now was in kindergarten, attending full-day kindergarten every other day of the week, while I took him to day care on the other days. In the afternnoons, Nicola would usually go get the boys from school, take them home and help them with their homework. If she was busy, I could easily go get them myself and do the routine or even bring them to the office, where they would work on their homework in the conference room while we would do our work in the main office.
If one of the boys was sick, it was easy enough for one of us to work from home without having to get anyone’s permission. If the boys had a music program during the day, Nicola and I would simply put a sign on the door that said we’ll back in one hour.
I often recalled working at the Democrat & Chronicle, going in at 9:30 and staying until at least 7 p.m. I thought about what the prospects would have been there of saying I needed to work from home one day or take off for an hour for a school program or take off early for a soccer practice.
No, the idea of going back to work for someone else was not appealing.

Monday, September 17, 2012

On the day a woman stormed my office and called me an idiot

Unfortunately, my least favorite moment of journalism happened during the same period of my investigative series on public salaries.
In that same week, I did a comparison of the rank-and-file police officers assigned to Kuna and found that Kuna’s police officers were making $61,000 to $63,000 per year, compared with $35,000 to $62,000 in other police agencies around the Treasure Valley and state. Police officers in my new favorite city, Rexburg, were making $30,800 to $45,800.
I, myself, did not come right out and say the salaries were too high, and I didn’t have anyone else quoted in my story saying that the salaries were too high. My goal was merely to provide the information and let people decide for themselves. However, it was patently obvious that Kuna’s salaries were on par and higher with other cities that were two, three, even four times the size of Kuna with much higher crime rates and arguably more dangerous crimes.
On the day that the story came out, Nicola and I were in the office working away when a woman entered our office. She picked up a copy of the paper that was on our front counter and asked Nicola, “Is the person who’s responsible for this in the office?”
That would be me. I came out of my cubicle and smiled a greeting.
“Are you the one who put the salaries of police officers in the newspaper?” she asked, now becoming clear to me that she was angry.
“Are you aware that a police officer was shot in the head last night and is now clinging to life right now?”
“Yes,” I replied. Unfortunately, a police officer in Nampa had been shot in the head the previous night. It was clear that this woman was about to make the argument we shouldn’t question how much police officers make because they have a dangerous job. Had this woman been reasonable, though, I might have had the chance to make the point that the police officer in Nampa who was shot in the head probably made a lot less than an officer in Kuna, which hadn’t had a shooting in years. We never got to have a conversation, though.
“So what gives you the right to say whether a police officer makes too much?”
“My story doesn’t say whether police officers make too much or too little. It just tells people how much police officers —”
“Are you an idiot?” she interrupted me.
I didn’t say anything. I just stood there with my mouth open.
“Are you a freakin’ idiot?”
“Get out,” I said finally and pointed to the door.
She tried to say something again, but now I was mad. “Get out of my office right now. Get out,” I said now in a louder voice, pointing again.
It was now her turn to look stunned.
“Thank you for coming in. I’ve got work to do,” I said and turned around and went back into my cubicle to work.
After a couple of moments of silence, she spoke up again.
“Look, I’m not saying that what you wrote is wrong, but don’t you think —”
I got up again, bordering on furious.
“Lady, I’m not having a conversation with you. You come into my office and call me an idiot? I’m not going to have a debate with you. Now get out of my office.”
I went back into my cubicle, and I heard her mumble something as she stormed out of the office.
Nicola and I looked at each other in a shared feeling of disbelief and jangled nerves.
And then the door opened again, and the woman peeked in and said, “How would you feel if someone shot you in the head?” and then took off just as quickly.
Nicola got up and pulled the shades down and locked the door. We were closed for the day.
The incident for sure rattled us, and we spent a few days of looking over our shoulders and peering out the window to see if our crazy woman was coming back.

Friday, September 14, 2012

On my favorite moment of journalism

My favorite moment in journalism came in 2010 while I was working on a three-week investigative series on public salaries. I was trying to compare our police chief's salary with other police chief salaries around the state. I called around to a few cities to get their salaries.
I called the Rexburg city manager out of the blue. I was surprised when he answered the phone. I identified myself and told him what I was working on and then asked him what the Rexburg police chief’s salary was.
“Who are you with again?” he asked suspiciously.
I told him.
“And what are you working on again?”
Even though I knew full well that when you ask a public official for a piece of public information, it is technically against the law to ask why it’s being asked for, I played along and repeated what I was doing.
The Rexburg city manager explained to me that he didn’t want that information to be out there, because when people just read a number, they tend to overreact and get upset.
“What is the salary of the Rexburg police chief?” I asked this time in a less patient voice.
“Well, our police chief is going to be retiring and we’re going to be hiring a new chief soon, so I don’t know what that salary is going to be,” he said.
“What is the salary of the current Rexburg police chief?” I asked more specifically.
“Well, I can tell you what the range is that we’re going to be advertising it for.”
“OK, what’s the range?”
“$60,000 to $96,216.”
“Um, that’s a pretty big range. Can you be more specific about what the current salary is?”
“All I can tell you is that the top of the range is $96,216,” he said, an apparent indication that that’s what the current salary is without directly saying so.
“So is that the current police chief’s salary?” I asked.
“That’s all I’m going to say,” he said.
“OK, just so I’m clear. You will not tell me what the current police chief’s salary is.”
“That’s correct.”
“OK, thank you for your time.”
I hung up the phone agitated but not angry, not yet. I decided to just let it go and use the range he provided to me. But as I thought about it, it irritated me more and more that a public official would point blank refuse to disclose public information. I decided to make a point.
I filled in the blanks of one of my pre-written Freedom of Information Act/Public Record law letters that I routinely used when requesting public records.
I addressed this letter to the Rexburg city attorney, got his email from the city’s website and sent him the letter with an email message saying that I had just spoken with the city manager, who refused to give me the information I was requesting and that perhaps this letter would help the release of public information.
I sent it off and went back to my research on public library director salaries, expecting the Rexburg city attorney to take his sweet time in responding to my request.
About 15 minutes later, my phone rang, with the caller ID saying “City of Rexburg.” I expected it to be the city attorney.
“Kuna Melba News, this is Scott,” I answered cheerily.
“Ninety-six thousand, two-hundred sixteen.” It was my old friend, the city manager.
“That’s the salary of the current Rexburg police chief?”
“Well, thank you for the information, I appreciate it.”
We will win. We will win. We will win.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Looks like a Ridley's grocery store is coming to Kuna

It looks like Ridley’s Family Markets is planning to open a new store in Kuna. It would be Ridley's 11th store in Idaho.
The planned Kuna location is at the southwest corner of Deer Flat and Meridian roads, long-discussed as a site for a “big box” store and approved by the city of Kuna in 2007 for such a use.
Collier’s International has placed a couple of signs at the site, with drawings showing not only a Ridley’s but an Ace Hardware store, as well.
Here's the sign for the development at Deer Flat and Meridian roads in Kuna.
The sign says that there is room for additional mid-box and big-box development, available in spring 2013.
The corner was part of the 78-acre so-called Profile Ridge development, which included plans for a big-box store, along with several commercial lots and houses. But the declining economy took its toll, and the site’s developers couldn’t find a taker for the big-box location. The development went into foreclosure, and lender Syringa Bank took over at least part of the property.
The other interesting aspect of this development is that it may open the way for Idaho Central Credit Union to build a branch at the site.
In 2008, Idaho Central Credit Union purchased a 56,000-square-foot lot fronting Deer Flat Road just west of Meridian Road as part of the Profile Ridge development. ICCU was the only one to purchase a lot on the site at the time.
If completed, Ridley’s would join Paul’s Market as the second grocery store in Kuna.
Ridley’s currently has 10 stores in Idaho, mostly in smaller cities, such as Blackfoot, Buhl, Gooding, Jerome, Kimberly, McCall, Middleton, Pocatello, Rupert and Weiser. Ridley’s also has one store in Nevada, five stores in Utah and two in Wyoming. Stores are open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and generally include pharmacies.
In 1984, Jerry and Connie Ridley opened their first Ridley's in Payson, Utah. Today, their company has grown to a chain of 18 stores and two standalone pharmacies, according to the company’s website.
The company’s motto is, "Small enough to serve you. Large enough to save you money."
Company timeline
SOURCE: Ridley’s website
1984: Jerry Ridley leaves career as Store Manager for Safeway to purchase first 12,000 sq. ft. location in Payson, Utah
1986: Jerry and Connie sell store in Payson, Utah and enter partnership to build and run a new Food-4-Less store in Provo, Utah
1988: Farmer Jack decides to leave Idaho and Utah markets and sells several stores. Jerry and Connie take the opportunity to sell out of their partnership in Provo and purchase three former Farmer Jack stores in Jerome, Gooding, and Rupert, Idaho.
1992: Ridley's purchases two Smith's locations in Boise, Idaho. Both stores are later closed.
1994: Ridley's purchases two Sprouse Reitz stores in Emmett and McCall, Idaho. The Emmett location is later sold in 1999.
1997: Ridley's purchases Jim's IGA in Middleton, Idaho, and Paul's Food Town In Jerome, Idaho.
1998: Ridley's purchaes Kleigel's Market in Buhl, Idaho.
1999: Ridley's purchases Weiser IGA in Weiser, Idaho, and Purrington's Marketplace in Pocatello, Idaho.
2001: Ridley's purchases Shaver's Marketplace in McCall, Idaho and relocates their general merchandise store into the newer and larger store where they are still located today.
2002: Ridley's purchases R&B Market in Buhl, Idaho and moves out of their smaller store into their current location in Buhl.Ridley's purchases Jubilee Foods in Kimberly, Idaho.
2003: Ridley's purchases Gomans IGA in Blackfoot Idaho.
2004: Ridley's opens their store in Tremonton, Utah, their first location outside of Idaho since 1988.
2005: Ridley's purchases South Cache Market in Hyrum, Utah. Ridley's team of employees grows to over 500 for the first time. Ridley's purchases Crane Creek Market in Boise, Idaho. This store is later closed in 2008.
2007: Ridley's purchases Gorman's Market in Ely, Nevada, Ridley's first store in Nevada.
2008: Ridley's purchases Faler's General Store in Pinedale, Wyoming, Ridley's first location in Wyoming. Ridley's purchases the Albertson's location in Blackfoot, Idaho, and relocates their current store into this larger facility.
2010: Ridley's purchases two stores from Albertson’s both in Orem, Utah. Ridley's purchases Sav-Mor drug in Buhl Idaho, Star Pharmacy in Star Idaho, and Professional Pharmacy in Ely, Nevada. Professional Pharmacy and Star Pharmacy become Ridley's first standalone pharmacies
2011: Ridley's purchases stores in Kemmerer, Wyoming and Morgan Utah. Both have pharmacies.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

On the day that "We will win" became our family's rallying cry

Our little 400-square-foot office had no loading dock. We were not a big newspaper building with a dock out in the back in which you could simply pull a tractor-trailer up to and wheel off a pallet of inserts using a pallet jack.
But that’s what our insert delivery companies thought all too often.
The first time it happened, Nicola was out on a call to an advertiser, and I was just about headed out the door to interview someone for a story. The wind had begun to pick up significantly and a drizzle began to soak the sidewalk in front of our office.
The driver of the 18-wheeler pulled into the alley a half-block away from our office and came in asking where to deliver the inserts.
Ideally, the inserts would come in individual boxes, which could be piled onto a hand truck and rolled into our 36-inch-wide door in three trips.
On this day, though, our inserts were delivered loose, on a shrink-wrapped pallet on which 2,200 individual coupon booklets sat. The driver expected to simply pull up to a loading dock, shove a pallet jack under the pallet of inserts and wheel the pallet 50 feet off his truck and onto the awaiting loading dock. The shipping manager would sign for the delivery, and our driver would be on his way to the next warehouse.
When I told the driver to just bring them right here through this door, he looked at me like either I was simple or he was on hidden camera.
The roughly 200-pound pallet could not have even been hoisted down off the truck, which did not have a rear gate lift. Nor did the driver have a hand truck. That meant he and I had to rip open the shrink wrap, grab a handful of inserts, hold them down in the now blustering wind, cover them as best we could from the descending rain droplets, deposit them wherever we could find room in our tiny office, then run out to grab the next armload.
At best, I could grab maybe 50 at a time, with each armload taking about a minute. At 100 inserts between the two of us, that would mean it would take about 22 minutes to finish the job — in the rain, in the wind.
I called my appointment to reschedule, then headed out to grab the inserts.
Grumbling and increasingly angry, I put my head down and started grabbing inserts as quickly as I could. I began to think to myself, “This is the worst possible situation for this. I’m alone in the office, late for an appointment, it’s raining, it’s blowing wind.” I felt the odds were being stacked against me by some omniscient practical jokester who was out to get me.
And then the thought occurred to me about halfway through, just as I could see a light at the end of the tunnel: “I will win. I will win. Go ahead, throw anything at me. I will do this. I will beat you. I will win.”
When finally all of the inserts were successfully — if only slightly wetly — deposited into our office, making our tiny quarters look like a tornado had struck a printing factory, I breathlessly shook a triumphant fist to the sky and shouted, “I will win.”
From that day forward, "We will win" became our family's rallying cry. Anytime we were hit with a challenge or an obstacle, Nicola and I would smile at each other and say, "We will win."