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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.
“Yes.”
“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?”
“Yes.”
“Well, thank you for the information, I appreciate it.”
Click.
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."

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

When Groupon came to our town


And then you had Groupon and the myriad copycat coupon daily deal services. We had one local business who used Groupon and generated 88 new customers, he mirthfully reported to us.
While Groupon created a relative tidal wave of customers, his ads in the Kuna Melba News were producing a steady trickle of clients. He was reconsidering his ad-buying decisions.
But then I calculated the real cost of a Groupon deal: Let's say he offered 50 percent off his regular rate of $100 for a visit. So that’s $50 gone right off the top for 88 customers. That equals $4,400. On top of that, he has to give half of his proceeds to Groupon. So, even if all 88 customers redeem their coupon, he’d have to give $25 for each customer, or $2,200, to Groupon. In essence, he’s generated $2,200 in revenue but has spent $6,600 to get it.
Plus, in our minds, offering such ridiculous discounts does not help your business in the long run because you’re not really attracting loyal customers. You’re simply attracting customers who are looking for a crazy deal and don’t value your product enough to pay full price for it.
The emergence and surge of Groupon in those days was a scary prospect, without a doubt, particularly for newspapers and particularly for small newspapers like us. But as time passed, we saw Groupon and other coupon daily deal sites wane in popularity like so many other advertising gimmicks.
Our local business owner continued advertising in the Kuna Melba News but never again did a Groupon deal, nor did any other local business in our market.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

On our launch of "Business of the Month"


As the economy continued to deteriorate, we continued to do our best to promote our local businesses. At the beginning of 2010, we launched a new feature, “Business of the Month.” We hired a local resident to write a story each month about a selected business and we unabashedly urged everyone reading the story to go to that business at least once that month. We then ran ads for free for the whole month for that business.
This was my little version of a “cash mob,” in which hundreds of people descend on one business and spend hundreds of dollars there to give that business a cash infusion, a mini-stimulus, if you will.
Our first business was a local restaurant. The owner seemed reluctant to tell us how it went, other than to say that it was really nice of us to do that. But we did hear through the grapevine later that it was the restaurant’s best month ever.
We, ourselves, received compliments from readers who loved the idea and thanked us for either spotlighting one of their favorite local businesses or for introducing them to a business they were not familiar with.
We continued the effort throughout the year, at which time it felt like the feature had run its course. In the beginning, it was new and generated buzz. After 11 months, it became just another feature that had lost its novelty.
But it was a good run and I think it did a lot of good for those businesses that were featured. Plus, I think it generated a lot of goodwill for the newspaper.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thank your local daily newspaper every day


My local daily newspaper had some excellent articles today about: Rep. Todd Akin, the value of a college education in this recession, the demographic makeup of the incoming college freshman class, Pussy Riot-like punishments around the world, Phyllis Diller's obit, charitable giving in religious states, evidence of Amelia Earhart's plane and more.
Plus, I learned about Rosie O'Donnell's heart attack, Nikki Minaj on American Idol and the death of Scott McKenzie.
In addition to local briefs, there were briefs about student immigration checks in Alabama, Rep. Yoder's skinny dip, another Syrian attack, cosmonauts' space walk, Argentina seeking voting rights for 16-year-olds and India blocking websites.
And that doesn't even count sports, life and business — all delivered right to my house.
And I could read all of that news and vital information in about the same amount of time that it takes to watch half an episode of Dancing with the Stars.
And I could read all of that news and vital information without any shrill commentary about those stories from either the left or the right.
Thank you to my local daily newspaper for making me a well-informed citizen every day.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Paying someone to do deliveries was money well-spent


After three years of counting up the leftover copies at convenience stores, I was burned out and borderline psychotic about newsstand sales.
First of all, I took everything personally, so every leftover copy was a personal affront to my abilities as an editor. I would bring my stack of 50 leftover copies of the paper up to the counter with my receipt for 10 copies and payment of $5 and have to endure the chuckle from the clerk behind the counter who would invariably joke, “Not a very good week, huh?”
Second, I still could not handle the vagaries of the public’s taste in news. One week a salacious story about a suicide sold out like hotcakes, but the next week only 100 people bought a copy of the issue that contained important information about an upcoming election on which I had spent hours working.
Finally, it was physically exhausting. After driving one hour to Homedale, hefting 20- to 30-pound bundles of newspapers off the loading dock and into my car, driving one hour back to Kuna, unloading those same bundles onto a hand truck at the post office and distributing those bundles to the carriers, then driving 30 minutes down to Melba, delivering to the post office down there as well as a grocery store and then driving 30 minutes back to Kuna, the last thing I wanted to do was drive all over town delivering new bundles to 10 more stores, which meant driving, parking, hefting a bundle to each store, embarrassedly retrieving my leftovers for the week, collecting my pittance from a minimum wage clerk, lugging my leftovers back to my car then moving on to the next store.
The whole process was demoralizing and draining. To pay someone $25 or $30 to deliver to the stores for me was the best money we ever spent.
My sanity and my body were restored.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Even with price hike, subscription was a bargain


At the start of 2010, we raised the price of the newspaper from $22 per year for a subscription to $28 per year and the single-copy price from 50 cents to 75 cents per issue. Despite some people turning up their nose at $28 as “spendy,” we knew that even $28 was way below other weekly newspaper subscription rates. Even in the Treasure Valley, annual subscriptions were $30, $36 and up to $46. Plus, it was ridiculous to me to think that a family of six will go to McDonald’s and spend $28 on a dinner of Big Macs and Happy Meals but balk at $28 for an entire year of the Kuna Melba News. Heck, I’d go into the convenience stores and stand behind some guy buying $28 worth of Red Bull, beef jerky, cigarettes and Keystone Light. No, no one was going to make me feel guilty about charging $28 for a year’s worth of the Kuna Melba News.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Taking an unnecessarily stinky walk through your neighborhood on a Tuesday night


I recall one year doing a particularly good job of telling people what was going to be opened and closed for a certain holiday. Included in that list was a definitive item about garbage collection. Essentially, if a holiday were on a Monday, garbage collection would be delayed by one day. Therefore, if your regular collection day fell on a Tuesday, your holiday-week collection day would be Wednesday.
On Tuesday morning that week, I pulled out of my driveway to head into the office and I noticed that my neighbor had put out his garbage for that morning. Well, I thought, he doesn’t read the paper. Then I noticed our neighbor on the other side had his garbage can out. And the person across the street. And their neighbors. In fact, every single house on my street had their garbage can out. I took a special trip around the neighborhood and saw nearly every house with its garbage can out.
It is a small thing, I know, but it got me to thinking about how the world would be a better place if everyone just read the newspaper. After all, an evening stroll through the neighborhood becomes unpleasantly stinky when the garbage is put out for two days. Similarly, neighborhoods and street corners were littered with garage sale signs, sandwich boards and posters for yard sales and youth sports signups and pieces of paper stapled to telephone poles for lost cats and items for sale. My perennial favorite was always the cardboard box with writing on the side of it. I always had the nearly uncontrollable urge to swerve off the road and drive over the box with my car, but there was usually a big rock placed in the box to weigh it down.
I got to the thinking that if everyone just read their local newspaper and advertised all their stuff in the paper, we wouldn’t need all this clutter. But alas, people put up those signs because otherwise, if they advertised only in the newspaper, they wouldn’t reach a significant segment of the population.
But not just the small stuff like garbage cans and yard sales would be affected. How about elections? That’s pretty big. Like a supplemental levy election, which affected people’s taxes.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Sometimes it helps to view your life objectively


I recall getting ready to go out to the annual Down Home Country Christmas craft bazaar on a cold December Saturday morning in 2009. For many reasons, I wasn’t quite up to the task that day. Having worked extra hours just about every night the previous week, I just wanted to do nothing that Saturday but sit around in my pajamas, read the paper and maybe watch an old movie on TV. I was not looking forward to a full day of a craft bazaar, taking photos, interviewing grumpy vendors, covering the parade and Christmas tree auction and not getting home till well after dark.
But then it occurred to me: Isn’t this what it’s all about? Isn’t this exactly what I had imagined life being like as the editor of a small-town newspaper? Holiday bazaars and bake sales, candidate debates and Friday night football games. If I looked at my situation objectively, I could see that this was an enviable position — the enviable position I had envied — to be getting up on a bright clear crisp winter morning, heading downtown to the Old 4th Street Gym, where I would see friends and acquaintances, perhaps meet some new friends and be a vital part of the life of a community.
Yes, this is what it was all about. I headed downtown in the bright December sunshine with a new perspective and a renewed energy for my job and my life in general.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A new circulation strategy is born


In the fall of 2009, no fewer than 10 people threw their hat in the ring to run for Kuna City Council. 
As was my usual custom, I went down the list and checked to see if any of them were subscribers to the Kuna Melba News. In keeping with the overall trend, only three out of the 10 were subscribers, a 30 percent rate that mirrored our overall penetration rate.
And then, you started seeing the subscriptions come in. One after the other, the candidates, who all professed to love the community and want to be involved in the community, signed up to receive the paper. By the end of the campaign, I think we finally had eight out of the 10 as subscribers.
This led Nicola and I to joke, “Well, there’s our new strategy. We just have to get everyone in Kuna to run for City Council and we’ll get 80 percent penetration.”

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

You got any coupons in that newspaper of yours?


We were thrilled at the prospect of getting coupons in the Kuna Melba News. We promoted it heavily and announced when the coupons were in the paper.
Our police chief, who had allowed his subscription to lapse, had the audacity after a city council meeting one night to tell me that he didn’t subscribe to the paper because there weren’t any coupons in the paper and that his wife really just wanted to get a paper for the coupons.
Forget for the moment that this was a public official who regularly appeared in the pages of the newspaper. Forget for the moment that stories or letters to the editor regularly appeared in the paper about his police department. Forget for the moment that there were other stories that affected him and his family simply as residents of Kuna, such as school news, stories about taxes and property values, assessments, sports signups, etc. Forget for a moment that for some reason he felt it was perfectly all right to tell me to my face that he didn’t subscribe to the paper because there weren’t any coupons in it.
So it was with some sense of vindictive gratification when I told him that we do carry coupons, but it’s only for subscribers.
Unfortunately, even with coupons, our police chief never did return to the paper as a subscriber, another foreboding sign of what an uphill battle we were waging in this town.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Kuna Melba News took home seven awards that first year


The evening’s MC announced the awards as they were displayed on a large screen at the front of the room. They mixed in the categories for daily newspaper, weekly newspaper and television one after the other.
One of three plaques received that evening.
When my first award was announced, a first place for Best Series, my neighbor issued forth a squeak of approval, “Isn’t that you?” “Yes.” “Well, good for you,” as if I had just won a participation ribbon in the Special Olympics.
When my second award was announced, an honorable mention for Business Reporting, the table again turned to me and nodded that, “Well, good for you,” nod.
Then came the third award, then another, and another and another.
By the time we had won our seventh award, the anchor mumbled, “Jeez, you’re really cleaning up.”
By the end of the evening, we had won three first place awards, including Best Series, Best Religion Reporting for the Scott Piper story, and Best Sports Feature for a story about a local high school student competing on the track team as a wheelchair racer
We won a second place award for Website General Excellence and a second place for Business Reporting for a story about a local business going on the Home Shopping Network with one of their products.
The story about the tax benefit of a big-box store earned a third-place award for Investigative Reporting, and a story about a local winery won an honorable mention for Business Reporting.
At the end of the evening, as I collected my armful of awards, I felt dizzy, a combination of the gin-and-tonics and the excitement from winning.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

My first awards banquet was a memorable one


In the spring of 2009, I attended my first-ever awards banquet.
I had submitted 15 entries for stories, columns, photos, website and general excellence from issues in 2008 to the annual Idaho Press Club contest. In March, I had been informed that I had won at least something, but what I won and whether I had won more than one award would be revealed only at the awards banquet.
The Idaho Press Club held its annual awards banquet at the Riverside Hotel in Boise, a once-upscale hotel situated along the Boise River that had its heyday in the 1980s and was still decorated in that era.
A couple hundred journalists from all over the state attended, providing an eclectic mix of well-coiffed attractive TV journalists, including some highly recognizable anchors from Boise, reporters and editors from all of the big papers from around the state, as well as a strong showing of weekly newspaper editors and reporters from several corners of the state.
It was a relatively glamorous affair, as glamorous as one could get in Boise with a room full of journalists. At least most of the women were wearing dresses and most of the men were wearing ties, even if they were purchased on sale at JC Penney.
A couple of the big TV stations and newspapers congregated at their own sponsored tables, folks from Eastern Idaho had their own clique, and the weekly newspaper people got scattered around the room wherever there was an open seat.
Nicola and I attended the event with our administrative assistant and her husband. The four of us were seated at a table with a couple of TV reporters/anchors for the state’s top local TV station, KTVB-TV, the local NBC affiliate.
Seated on my left, one of the female anchors, whom I thought was rather good and higher up on the TV personality attractive meter, had recently been let go from the station, but by God, she was going to cash in on the invitation to the banquet. With other employees, reporters and producers from her now-ex-station present at the banquet at other tables, it seemed an awkward situation. She and the other reporter at our table spent much of the evening complaining about the pay and the horrible working conditions at the station. Nicola and I, as the owners of a previously unheard-of weekly newspaper from a rinky-dink town, sat, it seemed to me, at her table as a testament to the insult that was added to the injury of having been let go. Wine and gin-and-tonics flowed freely, and as the evening wore on, the stories grew more ribald.
I occasionally tried to engage the anchor in conversation, but it was clear that I, a newspaper person, let alone a weekly newspaper person, was below her status. She was polite, though, in her dismissiveness, as a movie star would be to an adoring fan.
When the time finally came for the announcement of the awards, sometime between dinner and dessert, I was a shaky nervous wreck despite the gin.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Sick and tired of newspapers acting like an abused spouse


In February 2009, we launched a major advertising and circulation campaign. We offered full-page and half-page ads at a 50 percent discount on top of the incentive to go to every household in the school district. To our business community’s great credit, we were overwhelmed with ads.
At this point, the newspaper was in great shape editorially. I was covering and writing more than ever, including hard news, breaking news and features, good news, bad news, all news in between. Those issues in February included stories about school district budget cuts, city budget cuts, the Special Olympics torch run through Kuna, the Melba Community Auction, the Kuna Boys & Girls Club, Walgreens’ plans to open in Kuna, a renewed push for an overpass, all of the major topics that Kuna residents seemed to be interested in.
In addition, all of our features were in high gear: News of Neighbors, a new Looking Back history column, Steven Ricks’ column, Nancy Simper’s This Is The Life column, Zeke Speaks, Madge Wylie’s Of This ’N’ That, my Editor’s Notebook, Community Calendar, half-page weather report, crosswords and sudoku, At the Library, Business Spotlight, full-page Service Directory, high school sports, senior columns, students of the week, recipe of the week.
Plus, because we had so many businesses purchase color ads in the ad discount, we had 16 pages of color, meaning many of our photos that normally would have been in black and white could now be run in color.
For that one month, my long-term vision of what I wanted our newspaper to be was realized. The Kuna Melba News hit 40 pages that month, full of news and listings and color photos and ads. And it was all 100 percent local, no fillers, no wire copy, no generic columns or stories, just local news and information about Kuna and Melba.
We were at our peak.
Unfortunately, we all know what comes after the peak.
Despite radio ads and billboards, full-page ads and flyers and mailing sample copies to every household in the school district, we were receiving a trickle of new subscriptions back, not even enough to pay back the money we had spent on the billboard.
This was a disaster. Every morning, as we went to the post office to collect our mail, it was like a kick to the stomach when Nicola would say we didn’t get any new subscriptions that morning.
All that effort, all that work, all for nothing.
And then it hit me. It was my honest-to-God, epiphanic, genuine Oprah Winfrey a-ha moment: This isn’t our fault.
For years and years, the newspaper industry kept blaming itself for its downward spiral. We blamed short-sighted newspaper executives or not enough mugshots in the paper or the stories were too long or the stories were too short, or there wasn’t enough mainstreaming or not enough investigative stories or the paper was too liberal, too boring, too gray, didn’t have a good design.
The newspaper industry for too long acted like an abused spouse. We kept getting abused and battered and we kept saying the same thing: “I’m sorry, it’s my fault, I’m to blame.”
We kept looking for what we were doing wrong that made the public turn away from us. “Why don’t you love me? What did I do wrong?” we would sob every day.
Like a battered spouse, we tiptoed around the answer, closing cabinet doors softly, trying not to burn the dinner, wearing the right clothes.
And then the answer hit me: It’s not me. It’s you.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Newspapers are the ultimate tape-delayed broadcast


I found myself bristling Saturday night at the #nbcfail whiners and jokesters who were complaining about NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, in particular NBC’s tape delay of certain events until prime time. “Everyone” already knew that Ryan Lochte had beaten Michael Phelps earlier in the day Saturday.
The jokes started coming in about wondering whether Jesse Owens would win and not being able to wait to see how Mary Lou Retton performs.
I tweeted a couple of counter-jokes about sitting in my basement all morning surfing the Internet and being the first to watch the Man of Steel movie trailer, viewing every episode of Annoying Orange and watching the Olympics.
I also tweeted that some of us were actually outside on a beautiful Saturday actually doing stuff and weren’t inside watching the Olympics. Some of us — gasp — actually didn’t know until Saturday night that Lochte had beaten Phelps.
Oh well, that was fun. Move on.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Then you started hearing from the navel gazers who predictably began to point out that here it was, the end of television as we know it, NBC holding onto those last dying breaths of the “old media” while the “new media” was taking over. Some pined for the day that Google would bid for the rights to broadcast the Olympics.
The problem with navel gazers is that they’re usually sitting in a darkened room by themselves and that they’re sitting in a darkened room by themselves for a reason. They usually have very little experience in the real world and they have very little grasp of how the real world actually functions.
One thing the navel gazers failed to grasp is that prime time is called prime time for a reason — it’s the best time for television viewership. While all the twitterheads and geeks were checking their Yahoo news feed and smartphones for updates, most of the rest of the United States was out doing stuff, with nary a concern about the Olympics. Then, at the end of the day, after the lawn was mowed or the garden tended, the lake was fished or the museum visited, everyone crawled back into their air-conditioned houses for some unwind time in front of the television.
The other thing the navel gazers missed was the fact that NBC is not only delivering Olympics coverage to viewers, it’s actually in the business of delivering viewers to its advertisers. That’s how it makes money. And, as it turns out, they’re doing a pretty darn good job of it, as ratings for this weekend’s Olympics coverage — tape-delayed and all — went through the roof, delivering record audiences to the advertisers. Seems like it wasn’t such a fail after all.
OK, Scott, what’s going on here? You’re getting way too worked up over this. What’s really behind all this vim and vinegar?
Well, I guess if I had to really think about it, I would say that this whole dustup reminds me of another condescending anti-old media argument that’s near and dear to my heart: newspapers. Yes, everything comes back to newspapers in my world.
The underlying current in the #nbcfail feed was this unspoken, “Ha ha, I heard about it first. Aren’t I smarter?”
I’ve written before that I’m glad I don’t surf the Internet for up-to-the-minute breaking news alerts. I much prefer to wait until the next day for my newspaper to come and inform me — in a measured, reasonable and accurate way — of the day’s top stories.
After all, newspapers are the ultimate tape-delayed broadcast.
And as a former weekly newspaper editor and owner, I know first-hand how a seemingly important end-of-the-world news story simply loses its significance after just a day or two.
Besides, are we really smarter for knowing things first?
Just ask CNN and Fox News watchers whether they are smarter for learning first that the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down the Affordable Care Act.
No, there’s something to be said for digesting news and information slowly and deliberately.
And there’s something to be said for sitting in front of your television in prime time with millions of other Americans and cheering on the Olympic athletes, even knowing that the event may have happened earlier that day.
Obviously that’s the case. Otherwise, NBC wouldn’t be having record ratings.
Now, about Ryan Seacrest as an Olympics commentator, that’s another column for another day.

Monday, July 30, 2012

One house illustrated how our economy got to be such a mess


In the summer of 2008, Nicola and I were looking at houses. We had been renting a house in Kuna for the better part of two years, and we were ready to buy our own house.
The economy was in the throes of recession, and home prices had already begun to fall. Had we only known just how far home prices would fall, we would have waited to buy a house. Regardless, we were ready to buy and did not pretend to know when the market might hit bottom.
One house, in particular, that we looked at told the whole story of the poor economy.
It was a relatively nice house in a relatively decent neighborhood. It was perhaps a little small, but it was a short sale and a good bargain. The owners owed something like $220,000, but they were listing it at $160,000.
As we toured the house, we noticed the rather large flat-screen TV in the living room. Then we noticed another in the master bedroom. Then another in one of the girl’s bedrooms, and another in the bonus room upstairs. (Our family had not even yet bought a flat-screen TV; we still somehow managed to survive on one television set, and that was our bulky set that was in Nicola’s first apartment in Carlsbad in 1994.) Outside, we noticed the dish for satellite TV. In the garage, the story became even clearer: two ATV’s, a couple of personal watercraft, three more cars, including two SUVs and a sports car.
It was thoroughly depressing. Here was this family almost assuredly about to lose their home to foreclosure, but they had satellite TV, multiple television sets, all sorts of grown-up toys. It was no mystery to me why our country was in the shape it was in with a scene like this.
The house was so depressing, we passed on it.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Kuna Melba News gave away free ads for Stimulus Day


As some of you may recall, in early 2008, the federal government issued a stimulus package to try to get the economy kickstarted and out of its doldrums. This stimulus took the form of a tax refund — not a rebate or credit, but a refund, a check to every taxpayer amounting to an estimated $8.5 million in the 83634 ZIP code that covered 6,300 mailboxes in Kuna, or about $1,300 per household.
I came up with the idea to hold a “Kuna Stimulus Day” on May 17 of that year, arguing that we should use the stimulus money for its intended purpose: to stimulate the economy, particularly our local economy.
I got some support for the idea from our columnist Steven Ricks, who urged people to shop locally that day. Nicola took it to the next level by putting together a special section in the newspaper with deals and coupons from local businesses.
The section ran for two weeks before the event.
Just to show how altruistic we were, we gave businesses the ads in the sections for free. Each business got a little square 2-by-2-inch ad to put their offer in. The 35 to 40 ads took up nearly three pages in our special sections, and they were all full color. We believed in the idea so much that we just wanted it to work without any risk to the local businesses. Heck, businesses that didn’t even advertise with us regularly or at all got a free ad in the sections.
We felt that our own long-term success was connected intrinsically with the success of our local businesses. If this was successful, it would come back to us eventually.
It was shocking to me that some businesses did not participate, even though it was completely free to them. Some business owners suffered from their own laziness.
Scanning over those ads now, I’m amazed to see dentists, investment advisers, realtors, accountants and insurance agents — businesses usually closed on Saturdays — hold office hours on that Saturday for the Kuna Stimulus Day. The Kuna Melba News held its own office hours, with a 15-month subscription for $22, plus you got a free Kuna Melba News ball cap with your new subscription. By God, if we didn’t try everything we could to get new subscribers.
As would become customary with anything ventured in Kuna, the result was “OK. Not great, but good.” That was the polite underwhelmed response from business owners when asked how they did on that Saturday. Needless to say, we did not see $8.5 million poured into Kuna that day.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

My shot at being the Kim Kardashian of the newspaper world


I had an interesting phone conversation the other day with a London-based documentary filmmaker who is working on a project for the A&E Channel about community newspaper owners. He said I would have been perfect for the documentary.
The only problem is that I’m no longer a community newspaper owner. Had he gotten a hold of me this time last year, I very well could have been the next reality show Kim Kardashian or Gene Simmons.
I have to admit I felt a little sick to my stomach at the poor timing and potential opportunity that could have been for me. I gave him a couple of suggestions for some local newspaper owners he might use instead and I offered my “expert” services if he needed them.
Putting aside my initial disappointment, I think that a documentary/reality show about community newspapers is a great idea. I’ve always felt that newspapers suffered mostly from an image problem. The general public thinks newspapers are old-fashioned, outmoded, obsolete.
People — wrongly — think news stories just magically appear on the Internet.
People — wrongly — think newspapers are behind the times.
People — wrongly — think that community newspapers don’t cover important stories.
I think the newspaper industry could use a good shot in the arm from a little positive media coverage for a change.
But let me put a little caveat to all of this: Please don’t pick newspaper owners that simply play into that worn stereotype of the slightly kooky, crusading, fight-picking, gin-drinking rabble-rouser who uses his newspaper as a personal attack sheet, tilting at every windmill he can find.
That type of show would serve only to perpetuate the myth that newspapers are a thing of the past, a quirky little leftover of yesteryear like black-and-white television and the milkman.
Alas, I suspect, though, that that’s the reason I was called.
One of the things this gentleman told me was that he saw my photo on my blog, the one with the fedora, pipe and golf club, and he thought, “This guy’s perfect, a real character.”
Despite my best efforts, however, I am not a character.
I don’t actually wear a fedora, I don’t smoke a pipe and I really don’t golf much anymore. Yes, I am kind of a hard-bitten, old-fashioned, dyed-in-the-wool newspaper guy, but only in the good ways.
I believe newspapers, particularly community newspapers, provide important information that no one else would provide you if newspapers didn’t exist. Newspapers, particularly community newspapers, are at City Council meetings, school board meetings, reporting about budgets, sewer rates, tax levies. The stuff that community newspapers report on, I argue, have a greater direct impact on your everyday life than just about anything that comes out of Washington.
But I fear that the common misperception will continue to be spread, that community newspapers, run by people with little or no professional training, cover such quaint events as escaped animals on the loose and run front-page stories accusing the government of wrongdoing with little or no proof.
I would love to see a reality show that documents the day-to-day life of professionally run, locally owned community newspapers that cover their communities in myriad important ways.
But just as in the newspaper world, the question for such a show would be, “Would anyone watch?”

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Being involved with the Chamber of Commerce was important to us


Nicola and I had waited to get heavily involved in the Kuna Chamber of Commerce until we were sure we had provided adequate attention to our business. The Chamber president, Allen Gamel, recruited us pretty heavily, asking us very early on if we’d be interested in serving on the board. We told him we wanted to focus on just the business for the first year before taking on other responsibilities.
True to our word, after about a year, Nicola joined the Chamber board in the summer of 2007. In August 2008, she was elected president of the chamber.
First, a few words about the Kuna Chamber and about chambers of commerce in general.
We believed strongly in chambers of commerce and we believed strongly in the Kuna Chamber of Commerce.
At its core, a chamber of commerce is an affiliation of local businesses that seeks to promote the local business community. Because the health of the Kuna Melba News depended highly on the health of the local business community, we were naturally interested in an organization that sought to improve the health of the local business community.
The biggest problem, as was the biggest problem with just about everything in Kuna, was lack of participation. If you went down the street and tallied up businesses that belonged to the chamber and businesses that didn’t, you’d come out about 50-50. People who didn’t belong to the chamber complained that the chamber didn’t do anything for them, not recognizing that their lack of participation directly affected the chamber’s ability to do something for them.
The chamber’s situation was similar to how I viewed the newspaper’s situation: If only everyone belonged to the chamber, the world would be a better place.
Unfortunately, the chamber had to make do with what it had.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Watching, really, is the biggest, most important part of watchdog journalism


During my time covering City Council meetings and school board meetings and other public entities, I developed a philosophy about watchdog journalism. 
I came to the understanding that watchdog journalism is more than just writing about perceived wrongs. Perhaps the most common view of watchdog journalism is conducting an investigation, uncovering wrongdoing and writing about it.
This is true and accurate, of course, but there is also a more nuanced version of watchdog journalism that I came to appreciate and practice. This was the act of simply watching.
I learned that it was not always necessary to write a story or an editorial, publicly flaying a public official or excoriating a City Council member whom I deemed to be acting inappropriately.
I found often that my simple presence at a meeting put public officials on notice that whatever they say or do can and may be used against them in a court of public opinion. I also found that simply asking questions was enough to achieve an end result.
After all, what is the purpose of watchdog journalism but to right a wrong, correct an incorrect practice?
There were several incidents in which my simply asking questions led to action without my ever writing a story or editorial. I know there were some in the community who thought I didn’t pick enough fights, that I didn’t write scathing editorials often enough. They hated it when I simply wrote a bland, factual, two-sided story about an issue. Some wanted more shouting, more rants, more of what they thought was watchdog journalism.
But as I learned from my experience, pretty soon people stop listening to a watchdog that is constantly barking.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Early foray into video journalism


Shortly before I left the Democrat & Chronicle in 2006, the buzz in the newspaper business was all about “backpack journalists.” The idea was that these journalists would have all the necessary reporting tools in a backpack in order to cover a story, photograph it, take video of it, write about it, edit it and upload an entire package to the web from the field.
Of course, now that seems like a no-brainer with the growth in technology and the seemingly endless stream of videos and photos posted to Facebook and Twitter nearly automatically through smart phones. But at the time, it was new and exciting territory.
To me, after I left Rochester to buy the Kuna Melba News, it struck me as an incredibly democratizing notion. The idea for a big paper like the Democrat & Chronicle was to send out one reporter to a fire or car accident or press conference, photograph it, take video and upload it to the web remotely.
If a big paper could send out one person to do all that, why couldn’t a small paper like the Kuna Melba News do the same thing, I thought. Going even further, you could see the TV stations simply posting all of their video news segments online and selling ads around them. Here was newspapers’ great opportunity to do the exact same thing.
Then, and still today, I believed that this was where newspapers’ future lay, in online video news reports.
With that in mind, I went out and bought the Flip video camera, at the time quite a revolutionary video recorder but which seems rather quaint by today’s standards.
My first foray into video recording, naturally, was sports, and I started with the football season in 2008. I was able to put the little video camera in my front shirt pocket and take it out whenever I felt there would be a good play to video. I would simply pull the camera out and hold it on top of my photo camera, which was balanced on a monopod. That way, I could actually take video and photos at the same time.
My little setup caught the attention of the players on the Kuna team. During one game, I was standing right next to a few of the players on the sideline when I took my Flip camera out and started videotaping a play. One of the players asked me, “Hey, what is that?” I told him it was a video camera. “No way. Really?”
He called over a couple of other players to check out "this cool camera this guy’s got."
I figured if I could impress high school kids, I was pretty technologically advanced.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

You never know what story is going to sell papers


One of my early lessons in newspapers was doing the best with what you have. In Carlsbad, I remember one issue of the paper in which we were planning on our Page One lede story being something that was to be discussed at the City Council meeting that night. Unfortunately, that item got tabled, leaving us with very little to write about but a big Page One lede story hole to fill.
My managing editor, Shon Barenklau, asked me what the best thing out of the meeting was, and I said it was a resolution supporting a blood drive or fun run or something like that. Well, if that was our best story, that was our best story and that became our lede.
In a small town with slow news days, it could be that way sometimes. A similar thing happened to me in the summer of 2008 when I was planning on a big story out of the Planning & Zoning Commission meeting. Unfortunately, the item got tabled and wasn’t even discussed. I thought about Shon and said to myself, “Well, what’s the best story?” It was a rather mundane approval of a couple of fourplex apartments near the Paul’s Market Plaza. It was Tuesday night, and I had nothing else. So a short 8-inch story became my lede story that week under the headline, “Kuna hears plan to put apartments near Paul’s.”
Oh well, I thought, I deserve to put out a less-than-stellar issue every once in a while.
It turns out that week’s issue sold out and nearly broke a single-copy sales record. Go figure.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

As owners of the local newspaper, we were chronically extolling the virtues of shopping locally


One of the biggest drums we beat while we were the owners of the local newspaper was the “shop local” drum. Every chance we got we urged readers to shop locally.
One of my biggest pet peeves was the overreliance on the big-box hardware stores, two of which were located about 10 miles north of Kuna. At the time, we had two hardware stores, one of which had been strictly a lumber yard but took a major risk and bought out the hardware inventory and national affiliation from a nearby store that had gone out of business. Both of our local hardware stores were locally owned, family-owned businesses.
For whatever reason, too many of the good people of Kuna automatically assumed that it was best to shop at Home Depot or Lowe’s or Walmart rather than even give a consideration to a local business.
Nothing demonstrated the folly of that more than their ignorance of our local hardware stores.
First of all, we did a quick price check on some lumber one day at the hardware store/lumber yard, and our local store came in cheaper than the nearby Home Depot.
Second, I loved going into my local stores to be greeted immediately by the local owners and employees and asked what I needed. A couple of times, I even just handed them my list, and they walked around the store finding the items for me. Other times, I received advice on a new door handle or toilet float — without wandering the aisles for hours looking for someone to help.
Third, if a round trip to the big-box store was 20 miles and took a half-hour, that’s $4 in gasoline plus the cost of your time. If you spent 39 cents more on powder graphite at the local store, wouldn’t that be worth it?
Fourth, as I repeated regularly every chance I got in the newspaper, money spent locally gets re-circulated in the community multiple times. The owner of the hardware store will take your money and go have dinner across the street at the local Mexican restaurant. The owner of the local Mexican restaurant will get his insurance next door at the local insurance agent. The local insurance agent will have a drink at the bar across the way. The owner of the bar across the way will buy an ad in the Kuna Melba News. The owner of the Kuna Melba News will buy a new door handle at the local hardware store.
And all of us, as local residents and homeowners, paid property taxes that helped our local government and schools.
If only everyone saw things this way, though....

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Recognizing which stories sell papers


In August 2007, after having owned the Kuna Melba News for less than a year, I began to recognize a troubling trend with regard to our local news coverage and its correlation to single-copy sales. I wrote a column about the problem.
Here is part of that column, which ran under the headline, “Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney — made you look”:
"When we first took over the paper in October, we were selling about 200 copies per week over the counter. We slowly worked our way up to 300 copies, 400 copies … We’ve been regularly floating between 400 and 500 copies every week.
"So it was troubling when we sold only 330 copies over the counter for the July11 issue. The lead story that week was the Kuna school board’s decision to put a $25.5 million bond issue on the ballot in September — a huge issue that will affect everyone in the school district.
"The following week, though, we sold 502 copies — about 170 more people bought the paper than the previous week. The main story? An inside tour of the castle house on Meridian Road. It certainly was a curious story of high interest in the community, but not even close in importance to a $25.5 million bond measure.
"But there you have it. Over-the-counter sales went up 52 percent because of a story about the castle house.
"In an age when newspapers are reducing their content and cable networks play up stories about Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, I feel there is a niche for serious news coverage — especially local news coverage. My goal is to offer both — news that you want and news that you need.
"But my biggest concern comes when I report, write and publish stories on important matters and few people read them.
"I spoke with a couple of people in Melba about whether the Melba library district measure would pass on Aug. 7 (that was the story right next to the castle house story on the front page). Unfortunately, they didn’t know anything about the library vote, but they knew about the castle.
"So in an effort to hammer home the details of the Kuna school bond measure and the impact on the property tax levy, I will give a detailed account line by line of the district budget, annual amortization of payments based on — oh my gosh, you’re not going to believe what Britney just did."

Five years later, I daresay the problem is even worse.


P.S. Do the kids even know who Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are any more?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Single-copy sales for three-part investigative series proved disheartening


One of the first big stories that I covered in 2008 was the story about Best Bath and its move to Kuna, which some neighbors opposed because of the company's use of the chemical styrene in its manufacture of shower and walk-in tub units. I spent weeks researching a three-part series titled, "Will Best Bath smell?" The series rolled out in April.
The single-copy sales of that first issue spiked. For the second part, single-copy sales dipped. By the third week, single-copy sales plummeted to their lowest level in weeks. Each week, as I collected the increasing number of leftovers from the previous week’s issue, I became more and more demoralized that I had spent all of this time and effort — and space — on this series that answered important questions, perhaps the most important questions the community was facing at the time, only to have the community turn away from it.
Literally hundreds of people had purchased the first issue but did not come back for the second and third installments. It was perhaps my first hint that the public’s appetite for “important” stories was greatly limited.
I suppose I was heartened, a year later, when the series won first place for Best Series from the Idaho Press Club, beating out the much larger papers Idaho Mountain Express and The Star-News. It also earned an honorable mention in that year's National Newspaper Association contest.
But still, unfortunately, the experience made me more hesitant about launching a deep investigation that would take several weeks and span more than one issue of the newspaper.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The hardest interview during my time at the Kuna Melba News


In early 2008, I interviewed Pastor Scott Piper, the pastor of Kuna Baptist Church, who lost his wife, Julie, to cancer, leaving Scott with their seven daughters and the church in the middle of a new building project. We went to El Gallo Giro to do the interview over lunch, sitting at a table near the front, where all comers and goers would walk past us (big mistake).

Over the course of lunch, Scott told me in detail the story of his wife, Julie Piper, how they met, how he came to be the pastor of Kuna Baptist Church, how they raised seven daughters and then how Julie became fatigued during a softball game, how she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer, how she went through treatments and “how poised, quietly confident, elegant she remained through it all.”
Scott broke down several times, such as the time he told me that they reluctantly decided to go through with cancer treatments “so the girls would know their mother tried to be with them as long as possible.”
I did my best to keep it together. The last thing I wanted to do was to break down and cry in the middle of an interview. But thoughts of my own cancer diagnosis and the thought of leaving my own children tugged at my heart. And seeing how difficult it was, still, for Scott pushed me close to the verge of tears many times during our interview.
My final breaking point came when I asked him how the girls were handling things, and Scott told me the story of when his 3-year-old daughter was leaving their house out the back door one day, stopped, came back in, closed the door and turned to her father.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” she said to him. “When is Mommy coming back? I miss my Mommy.”
That was it.
That was enough to make two grown men sitting across the table from each other at a popular Mexican restaurant break down into fits of uncontrollable tears.
Unfortunately, that was the exact time that the local director of the Better Business Bureau happened to be walking by our table and decided to introduce himself.
I’m not sure exactly what I looked like, but I did my best to compose myself and wipe my face with my napkin. Perhaps he thought I had eaten something spicy, for he paused only briefly to ask me if I would be interested in running a column about avoiding scams.
I was still choked up, but I managed to give him my card and asked him to call my office or send me an email later. He looked over at my lunch companion and realized he had walked in on something he shouldn’t have. I can only imagine what he must have thought our discussion was about.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Manual, back-breaking part of the job had its own rewards


Wednesday mornings were devoted to hand-labeling, bundling and inserting that week's issue. Nicola and I would drive together to the printer's in Homedale, about an hour away. The copies of that week's issue would be sitting there waiting for us in one big pile on a pallet.
The Wednesday morning ritual was tedious and tiring but also rewarding — in the beginning. It was definitely manual labor, so it made us feel like we were really working hard at this newspaper thing, not just sitting in front of a computer. It was also gratifying in that we were doing everything ourselves, even the back-breaking part. If we could have operated the press just for our paper, we probably would have wanted to do that, too.
The other thing about the labeling, even to the very end, was that it gave us a chance to look at all of the names of the people who subscribed. Even in the beginning, at 900 to 1,000 subscribers, it was a heck of a lot of names. Toward the end, when we got up to 2,400 subscribers, it made us realize just how many people we reached. It was always a gratifying experience to do the labels.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Launching a "News of Neighbors" page was a source of worry early on


Very early on in our ownership of the Kuna Melba News, it may have even been the second week, I decided to dedicate Page 2 to “News of Neighbors,” which would contain weddings, engagements, birthdays, graduations, etc. Strangely, the News of Neighbors page caused me the most amount of stress the first few weeks. I wanted to take the strategy of launching something new only if I knew for sure that it was sustainable. I started my weekly “Editor’s Notebook” column knowing I was going to be able to fill that each week. We launched a community calendar, knowing that we had enough items to keep that going for several weeks. We started an “At the Library” feature with the agreement that the library was going to supply something each week.
But News of Neighbors, to some extent, was a crapshoot. This page would rely almost solely on reader-submitted items. Already in just a few weeks, I had noticed that submitted items like this were coming in regularly, but would they come every single week? What if Tuesday rolled around and not a single person had submitted a single News of Neighbors item? What would I do? How would I fill that page? Each time I received something through email or through the door, I would rejoice that I would at least have one thing to put on that page.
Those first few weeks, though, I did most of my worrying about the News of Neighbors page. Five-and-a-half years later, I can say with some degree of astonishment that we never had a blank News of Neighbors page. Every single week, for five-and-a-half years, someone somewhere always sent something in to use on that page. I’m still amazed by that.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Getting a copy of Brideshead Revisited was hard to do, but it was well worth it


I just finished reading Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited. I highly recommend it. It’s an amazingly efficient book, given its 25-year timespan and at-times flowery prose. The novel moves quickly while at the same time pausing frequently to share important introspections and observations. Waugh’s pacing is just incredible, particularly given the fact that he wrote the book in six months.
The novel also tackles a number of subjects, including religion, namely Catholicism, wealth, love (Platonic and otherwise) and an interesting commentary on the changing times from 1920 to 1940 and the worthiness of the upcoming generation of young people.
I had watched the BBC miniseries when I was in college and I was awed by it. I watched it again last month (I’m slightly embarrassed to say, in two six-hour sittings) and was inspired to read the book. At first, on a whim, I tried the library. I was appalled that our local library not only didn’t have Brideshead Revisited but didn’t have any books by Evelyn Waugh. I thought for sure I could download Brideshead on my Nook, but there was only a pre-order for the e-book, coming out Dec. 11, 2012. Then a trip to our local bookstore in Boise, Rediscovered Books. Still nothing. Finally, I found a copy at Barnes & Noble. It didn’t take me long to read Brideshead. It turned out to be one of those books that I couldn’t wait to get back to. I actually looked forward to our flight home from San Diego just so I could read.
As soon as I finished it, I immediately wanted to read another book by Waugh. Fortunately, Barnes & Noble was open till 10 p.m. Sunday night, and I made it there just before closing. Oddly, Barnes & Noble only had a couple of more obscure Waugh titles, The Loved One and Vile Bodies. I was hoping for Handful of Dust or Scoop, but I bought both books that were there.
It looks like the e-books of many of Waugh’s novels will be coming out on Dec. 11. I would highly recommend buying a copy of Brideshead Revisited for just $9.99 when it comes out.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Perhaps even more than we did, our boys deserved our epic vacation last week


My blog took an unexpected hiatus last week. I say unexpected because I had fully planned to continue updating last week while my family and I took a vacation to San Diego.
Obviously, that didn’t happen.
Happy boys after nine hours spent at Legoland.
This is a good thing, though. We had an epic vacation. We got laid over in San Francisco because we missed our connecting flight due to delays caused by fog. After we got over our initial frustration, we realized, “We get to spend the afternoon in San Francisco.” We took the boys into the city, rode a cable car, walked to North Beach and had dinner at Tommaso’s. Once we got to San Diego, we went to SeaWorld, went to Balboa Park and the Natural History Museum, spent nine hours at Legoland, visited my sister Meg and went to the San Diego Zoo.
It was an epic vacation, one that was much-deserved by our boys. It has occurred to me many times that we have asked the boys to sacrifice a lot over the past six years as we owned and ran the Kuna Melba News. It hit particularly hard for us one year when the good folks at the Kuna Boys & Girls Club happily informed us that Luke had gone to the Club more days than anyone else in Kuna. That broke our hearts because we realized that we had done nothing with the boys that summer, no camping, no vacation, not so much as even a three-day weekend getaway.
I readily admit we spoiled the heck out of the boys last week, but they deserved an epic vacation even more than their parents did.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The benefits of subscribing to a daily newspaper: health care ruling, Ann Curry and the divorce of a couple of actors


What a great day to be a newspaper subscriber.
Yesterday, I saw all the tweets and posts about the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on health care reform, but I did not bother reading the stories. I knew that a group of reporters and editors was hard at work yesterday sifting through the ruling, sifting through the stories, getting local reactions, writing stories and designing news pages containing the most important, pertinent information for me this morning. Sure enough, my local papers put together fantastic coverage, giving me all the information I needed to be informed, including Charles Krauthammer’s interesting take on why he thinks Chief Justice Roberts ruled the way he did.
Plus, today’s paper also carried a story detailing Idaho’s new texting while driving ban, more details about John Bujak’s arrest, an update on yesterday’s Eurozone meeting, a story on Turkey fortifying its border with Syria and many more. And yes, there was a brief about Ann Curry leaving the Today show, relegated — rightly — to a small item off to the side (watching Twitter yesterday made it seem like Curry’s departure was akin to the Kennedy assassination).
Also, had I been simply trolling the news sites for stories about the health care ruling, I might have missed the story about asteroid hunters (Page A6), the story on the decline in child sex abuse cases (Page A7), the story on the new first lady of Egypt (A6), and the U.S. Attorney General being held in contempt of Congress.
This doesn’t even yet touch the sports section (Don Larsen will sell his World Series uniform, Nadal ousted at Wimbledon), the living section, the business section or the entertainment section.
Yes, I see that the big news of the day today (bigger, apparently, than the Kennedy assassination) is the divorce of a couple of actors.
But I’ll wait till tomorrow’s newspaper to get all of my news presented in a way that puts everything in the proper perspective.