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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Wedding anniversary and last day at the paper


Today is a big day for a couple of reasons. First, today is my 15th wedding anniversary. Second, today is my last day of work at the Kuna Melba News, after five-and-a-half years as editor, five of those years as owner.
Actually, it’s quite fitting that these two occasions fall on the same day. They are closely related.
Now, I consider myself a good judge of character, but my judgment of my wife, Nicola, some 17 years ago, is proof that I am the smartest guy in the world.
There was no real way of knowing, back then, that Nicola was going to be a great mother. I could only guess, at the time, that she was going to be a great cook. I knew firsthand from working with her that she was a great writer and a hard worker, but I couldn’t have known for sure that she would rise so quickly and so high in her career.
To think that later she would agree to buy a weekly newspaper in Kuna, Idaho, and become the publisher, doing ad sales, ad design, circulation and all the books, would have been sheer audacity. But she did it, and she was great at it. She made this dream possible. I honestly couldn’t think of another person who could have done what she has done.
I also don't know of many other couples who could have worked together, every day, in a cramped little office under often-stressful conditions.
And without truly knowing any of this, I made the brilliant decision on Valentine’s Day in 1996 to ask her to marry me. And to my great good fortune, she agreed. Thank you for everything, Nicola.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

As always, sage advice from Warren Buffett about newspapers


“Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.”
Warren Buffett, in his 2004 Berkshire Hathaway Chairman's Letter.

The above quote figured in my decision to buy a newspaper in 2006. In my estimation, others were being fearful of newspapers, for a variety of reasons. I thought I’d be greedy and move in the opposite direction. A few things were happening with the newspaper industry, in my analysis:
• Newspapers were getting a bad rap, as publicly traded newspaper companies were having their stock prices pummeled. Knight Ridder, for example, was forced to sell its newspapers because some idiot shareholder in Florida thought newspapers had no future. At the time, Knight Ridder’s profit margin was something like 19 percent, but some jasper who doesn’t read a newspaper determined that no one else reads newspapers, either.
• Newspaper companies were overleveraged. Gannett spent millions of dollars to buy circulation, in the form of the Indianapolis and Phoenix newspapers. Where did that money come from? Partially skimmed from Gannett’s other newspapers, hurting quality and newshole. McClatchy, meanwhile, borrowed millions to buy Knight Ridder’s papers, and the company is still trying to pay off that debt. Again, the debt payments are coming from its newspapers, which are cutting back staff and newshole.
• In cutting back staff and newshole, newspapers were damaging the very thing that makes them worthwhile: local content. I remember being in meetings when the word “hyperlocal” first started being used. We were going to “dig down to the local-local-local level.” We would come out of these meetings to be told we were shutting down three regional bureaus and not replacing three suburban reporters. Actions speak louder than words.
• I didn’t care what execs said in meetings, I always believed that we were hurting our circulation and our bottom line by paying reporters, photographers and editors a lot of money to produce high-quality exclusive content only to give it away for free on our website.
So I thought that the smart thing to do would be to buy a local newspaper but avoid becoming overleveraged and provide truly hyperlocal content, which is what we did when we bought the Kuna Melba News. And we wouldn’t give it away for free on our website.
And it worked, to a large degree. In three years, we nearly tripled circulation and increased revenue by about 56 percent.
Back to Warren Buffett, who continually proves he’s smarter than the rest of us.
You may have heard that Buffett recently purchased 25 daily newspapers, to add to his existing newspaper, The Buffalo News, which he bought in 1977.
Buffett recently wrote a letter to his new newspaper employees, telling them that he sees a bright future for newspapers.
He makes the same points that I observed about a sane course for the future:
• “I believe newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future.”
• “Your paper will operate from a position of financial strength. Berkshire will always maintain capital and liquidity second to none. We shun levels of debt that could ever impose problems. Therefore, you will determine your paper’s destiny; outsiders will never dictate it.” (This quote, I think, speaks specifically to being overleveraged as well as avoiding idiot shareholders.)
• “Technological change has caused us to lose primacy in various key areas, including national news, national sports, stock quotations and employment opportunities. So be it. Our job is to reign supreme in matters of local importance.”
• “The original instinct of newspapers then was to offer free in digital form what they were charging for in print. This is an unsustainable model and certain of our papers are already making progress in moving to something that makes more sense.”
Thanks to jimromenesko.com for posting the full letter on his website, from which these quotes are taken.
However, as Buffett does, he adds a couple more caveats to the soup in his analysis. Some of the points he makes in his letter are particularly salient when considering the purchase of a newspaper, points that I will keep in mind if I ever decide to buy another newspaper:
• “Berkshire will probably purchase more papers in the next few years. We will favor towns and cities with a strong sense of community.”
• “If a citizenry cares little about its community, it will eventually care little about its newspaper.”
• “Strong interest in community affairs varies inversely with population size and directly with the number of years a community’s population has been in residence. Therefore, we will focus on small and mid-sized papers in long-established communities.”
As always, good advice from Mr. Buffett.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mini-review of Anthony Doerr's 'Four Seasons in Rome'


Anthony Doerr is a fantastic writer. I particularly liked his short story “Village 113,” found in his short story collection “Memory Wall.” I picked up his memoir, “Four Seasons in Rome,” to gain some insight into writing personal experiences as I venture into my own memoir about owning and running a weekly newspaper.
As expected, I thoroughly enjoyed Doerr’s writing style. However, I do think there are some lessons to be learned. First, I didn’t really laugh until nearly the end, when Doerr told the story about a woman in line spewing a diatribe of Italian that Doerr could only understand in pieces.
“For a full minute her story builds. Words fly past me. I hear ‘flowers’; I hear ‘loaf of bread.’ But she is leaning in now; I am at the business end of her index finger, miles past the point where I might ask her to slow down.”
Unfortunately, this anecdote comes on page 196 of 202. There aren’t many, if any, other stories that made me laugh, and I think it’s important in memoir to scatter funny stories throughout.
Doerr does a lot of thinking and a lot of observing, excellent qualities in a writer. However, it doesn’t make for a very interesting memoir. I know you can’t manufacture action, like when his wife collapsed and had to go to the hospital, but I think it’s important to have stories to tell when writing a memoir. Things have to happen.
I consider this a great caution for me, as I’m similar to Doerr, a lot of introspection, observation. I’m telling my story as a middle-aged happily married man with two young boys. I’m not a young, single man backpacking through Europe, detailing my stories of adventure. Still, I need to make sure I’m telling stories as I go, not just introspection and observation.
Finally, a big lesson learned is being personal. The reader of “Four Seasons” can sense that something personal is being held back amid Doerr’s recounting of Pliny the Elder’s writings and Doerr’s observations of water fountains and frescoes. His memoir contains a remarkable lack of other people (he admits in the end that he wished he had gotten to know more Italians, had invited a shop owner over for dinner). When he talks about writing a short story about a village going underwater for a dam project, he never mentions the name of that story or the book that it’s in, almost as if he’s reluctant to even identify who he is. A story about flying to London to do an interview earns a couple of passing paragraphs. Did nothing happen?
Again, this is a concern of mine because I identify with Doerr. I’m a private person, not terribly outgoing, not quick to share myself personally. But that doesn’t really make good memoir. I will need to make sure that I open up more, tell stories of events and regularly try to make the reader laugh.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Great paper, but I don't read it

The following scenario has happened to us a few times now since Nicola and I sold the Kuna Melba News in December. We ran into a family at El Gallo Giro restaurant last night. I know the father from a couple of stories that have appeared in the paper over the years. Very nice guy, intelligent, enjoyed talking to him. In a lot of ways, he and his family are the target market for the Kuna Melba News. They've lived in Kuna for 13 years, they have a son in the school district, the father actually worked for the school district for a time, active in Scouts, etc. He was telling me how great the paper is and how great it is that Nicola and I are in the community, running the paper, telling us to keep up the great work. He was surprised when I told him that we sold the paper in December, that Nicola took another job in February and that next week is my last week at the paper. All of these pieces of news have appeared in articles in the Kuna Melba News over the past several months.
I don't take these things personally anymore. I can look at it much more analytically and objectively now that we don't own the paper anymore. But on more than one occasion over the past few months, I've had people come up to me and tell me how great the paper is and what a great job we're doing with it, but it's clear that they're not reading the paper because they didn't know about the sale of the paper, Nicola leaving the paper, the new employees.
When we sold the paper in December, we wrote a front-page story about the sale. It wasn't the lead story across the top, but it was a big headline in 42 or 44 point type in one column on the right side of the front page:
Kuna
Melba
News
sold
Then a lengthy story about the sale, the new owners, the history of the paper, etc. The next week, a local business owner came into the office to pay his bill. He told us how great the paper is and that he hoped we were going to stick around for a long time because the newspaper is a really important part of the community. It was clear he had not read the story about us selling.
In the ensuing weeks, it has happened time and again, people telling us how great the paper is but not knowing the paper had been sold, not knowing Nicola left the paper, even after two separate stories about it.
Of course, this hasn't been limited to the sale of the paper. People have told us they didn't know anything about a supplemental levy election, the Kuna Community Food Bank, the City Hall bond issue, that AutoZone was coming to Kuna, etc.
Again, I can look at all of this much more objectively and analytically now, but it's a sobering analysis when presented in the context of discussing why we would have ever sold the newspaper.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Probably do things differently if we bought another newspaper

My old friend Marc Goldberg, whom I've known since the fifth grade, called last night after reading my facebook post that I was leaving the Kuna Melba News. He called to congratulate me and to catch up. He had missed my post in December when I announced that Nicola and I had sold the newspaper. He asked me whether we would buy another newspaper again. I gave him an honest answer.
First, I love newspapers and couldn't imagine doing any other job, other than writing books. If I do re-enter the "real" work force, I probably would go back into newspapers. Second, I have loved owning a newspaper. I have loved making all the decisions, changing course quickly when needed, taking calculated risks, testing things out. So, yes, I could see buying another newspaper — with one caveat.
I don't think we would have Nicola work at the paper, as well. Not that it was a bad experience. But moving forward, I think it would be best if it were just me working at the paper while Nicola had another job elsewhere.
Here's why.
I still deeply and firmly believe in newspapers, how important they are, the mission they serve, but I am less confident in readers' desire to read newspapers. I don't think newspapers will go away for a long time. There will always be a segment of the population that recognizes the importance of newspapers and appreciates how a physical printed newspaper functions. (I still believe a printed newspaper is an extremely effective and convenient way to deliver the day's most important news and information, whether it's national news, local news, sports scores, things to do, whatever.)
However, the American public's appetite for printed newspapers is diminishing, for a variety of reasons that I could go into in nauseating detail (but I won't).
That said, having both me and Nicola working at a newspaper together essentially puts all of our eggs in one basket, relying on the newspaper to pay for our health insurance, our taxes, our salaries, our mortgage, our groceries, everything. That's a lot of pressure to grow the business in an industry that's not necessarily poised for growth.
If Nicola were to work at another job, that would take off some of the pressure to keep growing the business.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Announced today that I'm leaving the Kuna Melba News

Thank you to everyone for the kind words about my departure from the Kuna Melba News. I announced in this week's issue of the paper (and on my Editor's blog and the paper's Facebook page) that I'm leaving the Kuna Melba News after five-and-a-half years as the editor, five as the owner.
After selling the Kuna Melba News to RIM Publications in December, I agreed to stay on as editor for six months to help with the transition. Those six months are up at the end of the month, so I'm moving on.
I've decided to take the summer "off" to spend more time with Luke, now 10, and Robert, 7, but I'll also be working on a book about our experience of buying and running a weekly newspaper.
I'll be posting regularly to this blog, so feel free to follow me here and send me a message.
I still have another week as editor of the Kuna Melba News, but I'll be digging in in earnest on the book on June 1.