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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.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Unlike the ever-present daily deadline, a weekly newspaper deadline can sneak up on you

Having worked for daily newspapers my entire career, it was actually difficult getting used to a weekly deadline in a surprising way. With a daily deadline, you’re just constantly under deadline pressure; you just have to get done whatever you’re doing right now. With a weekly deadline, it almost sneaks up on you, catches you off guard, as if you weren’t expecting it.
Nicola and I were working diligently along on our first issue solo as owners of the Kuna Melba News, when there came a point when we realized, “We have to get this done.” It was 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2006, and it dawned on us that we needed to go pick up the boys at day care but we still weren’t done with the newspaper, we hadn’t made dinner and there was a City Council meeting that night.
To top it off, I had the whole 20-page paper laid out, every square inch, except for an entire page, Page 6, that had only one little ad on it. I had a story mostly written about a new Boys & Girls Club coming to Kuna, but I was planning on having that be my lede story in the following week’s issue. At this point, though, there was little choice. So I polished off that story while Nicola went to get the boys and grab some dinner at Arctic Circle. As if by providence, the Boys & Girls Club story fit nearly perfectly. (Looking back, I am glad I ran that story in that first issue, “Boys & Girls Club in Kuna closer to reality.” As of this writing, nearly six years later, there is still no Boys & Girls Club in Kuna, perhaps the biggest, drawn-out story of our time in Kuna.)
By the time Nicola and the boys had gotten back to the office with dinner, I had printed out all of the pages and had them laying out on the floor in order, ready to proof. “New owners start new era at newspaper,” was the lede headline, “Dream comes true for Reeds,” for the centerpiece.
For the next three hours, with the labels noisily printing for much of that time, Nicola and I alternately proofed pages, fed ourselves, helped the boys eat their dinners and made corrections on the pages. I decided to skip the City Council meeting, which started at 7 p.m., and check in later if we got the paper done in time.
We finally got the paper done and started uploading the pages to the printer’s by 8:30 p.m., at which time Nicola took the boys home for bed (their usual bedtime was 7 p.m.). I sped over to the City Council meeting, but it was already over, an unusually fast meeting. I saw City Council members Scott Dowdy and Jeff Lang talking outside, and when I jovially asked them what I missed, they gave me a bit of the cold shoulder, saying I hadn’t missed anything.
It was a memorable evening for sure. As I drove home in the waning daylight, I vowed that we wouldn’t repeat a night like that again as owners. We would not run a loose ship with scrambling and fast food and late bedtimes. The paper would get done by Monday, and the proofing would be done during the day Tuesday, so that Nicola and I would clock out at 5 p.m., and have a nice sit-down dinner together as a family. If there was a meeting that night, we would leave a hole for it and I would go back and fill it later.
I’m proud to say that for the next five-and-a-half years, that schedule stuck, for the most part. Of course, there were times the ritual was broken and the paper imposed on our family, but most of the time, we treated the business like a business and called quitting time when it was quitting time.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What if the book industry or the music industry behaved like the newspaper industry?

A couple of people have commented to me that they find it odd that I, a dyed-in-the-wool newspaper guy, would be such a big fan of e-readers, like my much-loved Nook.
I should love printed, ink-on-paper books, just as I love printed, ink-on-paper newspapers, right? If I rail against newspaper websites, I should rail against e-books, too, right?
First of all, I’m not one of these people who “just loves the feel of paper in my hands.” Blech. That’s such a trivialization of why newspapers are so great.
Second, I’ve said this many times before: Neither e-readers nor websites come close to replicating the experience of reading a newspaper. And when I say the experience, I don’t mean the tactile stimulation of paper in one’s fingertips. I mean the experience of looking at a whole news page there in front of you, a menu of the top stories of the day laid out before you, organized in a logical and consistent hierarchical order that doesn’t change when you turn the page and doesn’t place the same value on every single story, whether it’s Lindsay Lohan or health care reform. I would say some of the tablet newspaper apps come close, but still not quite the same experience.
E-books, on the other, almost exactly replicate the experience of reading a book. You have a rectangle of a page in front of you with a block of text on it. You turn the page to another rectangle of text. The experience of reading an e-book is nearly identical to the experience of reading a printed book. The experience of reading a newspaper website, however, is vastly different from reading a printed newspaper.
Yes, it’s true that in many, many ways, reading a newspaper website is much better — watching video, linking to past stories and related content, photo galleries, etc. But it’s still not the same.
Finally, as I sat there reading Richard Ford’s Canada on my Nook today, it occurred to me that the other big difference is that I damn well paid for that book by Richard Ford. Just because it’s not printed on paper and bound in an expensive hardcover, does that mean it should be free? Oh thanks, Richard, for writing that interesting book, now run along.
What if the book industry was like the newspaper industry and simply gave e-books away for free but kept charging money for printed books?
Let’s put it in another perspective. Remember when Napster came along and enabled users to simply download individual songs for free on the Internet? It turned the music industry downright apoplectic. It set off an industrywide crackdown on illegal downloads, with lawsuits and even threats of criminal action.
At the very same time, the newspaper industry was rushing to put all of its content online, downloadable for free, just like what Napster was doing. The music industry rightly recognized how damaging that was. The newspaper industry, meanwhile, thought that giving everything away for free was the smartest thing in the world.
Further, anyone who disagreed with that perspective was simply not keeping up with the times, holding onto the past, being an old-fashioned obstructionist.
Now, of course, we are seeing this new rush to paywalls, which I personally am in favor of. The bigger question is whether it’s too late and whether readers will pay for quality journalism.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Always trust Luke's observant eye

That first Sunday afternoon in Kuna, we decided to drive through downtown Kuna and show the boys our new town. Our first visit was past the newspaper office, at the far east end of Main Street in the corner of the basement of an old converted church that housed a medical clinic and a counseling center. An unnoticeable sign on the side of the building was all that told passersby that there was a newspaper office within.
As we drove past the building and headed down Main Street toward downtown proper, 4-year-old Luke said from the back seat, “Hey, there’s Earl and Suzi.”
First of all, Luke had never even met Earl and Suzi Maggard, the owners of the Kuna Melba News. He had only seen one blurry photograph of them that I had taken surreptitiously during our visit in July. Surely, Luke would not be able to pick them out in real life. Second, it was Sunday afternoon, and the Maggards wouldn’t be working at the office on a Sunday afternoon.
“No, Luke, I’m sure that wasn’t them,” I said.
“No, it is them,” Luke said in his still-tiny voice. “I’m positive.”
As would become common, Nicola and I would know better than to doubt one of Luke’s astute observations. We pulled the car over to get a better look, and sure enough, there were Earl and Suzi. They had left something in the office and had to go in and get it. It was quite coincidental that we had been driving by at the very moment they were leaving the office. And it was good that Luke had noticed them, as Nicola and I had not even seen them.
Luke was our little journalist in the making. Either that or a beat cop.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Go ahead, take it. It's all right. It's free.

I know some of you have heard this story already, but for those who haven't...
On our first full day in Kuna, Nicola, Luke, Robert and I drove around town a bit, then decided to get a pizza for dinner from Idaho Pizza Company, down at the far west end of Main Street.
When I went in to pick up our pizza, I noticed a big stack of copies of the Kuna Melba News, about 30 or so. I grabbed one and told the kid at the register to add it to our bill.
“Oh, we don’t charge for those,” he said with a chuckle. “They’re free.”
“But it says 50 cents right here,” I said, pointing to the front page.
He looked at it, as if for the first time. “Don’t worry about it. No one pays for those.”
I felt like Eddie Murphy in that Saturday Night Live skit in which he dresses up as a white man and gets everything for free.
Not a good sign, though. I could see I was going to have my work cut out for me.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A sense of purpose being fulfilled

Part of the reason for my irrational optimism in owning the newspaper, I think, was that I was extremely happy doing what I was doing. I could almost palpably feel a clicking, an alignment of the planets, a sensation of my physical being sliding into a perfectly formed pod, a round peg in a round hole. My purpose in life being fulfilled.
Newspapers, for sure, were my thing, my calling. But this, this was even beyond that. Being the owner and editor of a weekly newspaper felt so perfect for me, not only in the sense of being gratifying work for me, but also because I felt the inverse, that I was perfect for the work.
Almost immediately I felt that everything I had done in newspapers, everything I had learned, everything I had enjoyed and appreciated about newspapers was finally coming to bear all at once in this one job.
I loved local journalism, city budgets and tax levies. I was just about the only journalist I knew who was actually good at math and could accurately calculate percentage changes.
I had always loved photography. (My parents had given me a Pentax K-1000 as my high school graduation present, and I loved taking and processing black and white photos.)
I had done page design extensively at The News-Herald. I had learned Quark and gone through a pagination changeover.
Sure, I knew about supplemental levies and property taxes, but I also knew what a sweep play was, what a 3-2 zone defense was, the difference between a tractor and a combine, who had written last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. I felt I knew a little bit about a lot.
All of these skill sets came to bear on this job. I would write about sewer rates one day, interview the head of the Farm Service Agency the next, cover a football game on Friday, write a feature story about a girl who received a liver transplant and cover a school board meeting Tuesday.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sampling effort paid off right from the beginning

Very shortly after we bought the newspaper, we did a round of “sampling.” This involved printing a few hundred extra copies of the paper each week and delivering them for free to households that did not already subscribe to the paper. Inside each free issue, we inserted a blue sheet of paper, simply asking people to subscribe to the Kuna Melba News, with a tear-off subscription form at the bottom which they were asked to mail in with $22 for a one-year subscription, or $20 for seniors.
Here's the subscription form we sent out in that early effort.
The Kuna ZIP code at the time was divided into nine delivery routes plus the post office boxes. Each route had about 500 to 600 addresses. If there were, say, 600 addresses in one route, and we had 200 subscribers on that route, we would print an extra 400 copies and cover that entire route. The next week, we would move on to the next route, and so on, until we had hit each route.
This is where a little bit of working capital helped. It cost probably $300 to print roughly 5,000 blue subscription forms, and then it cost about $60 to $80 extra each week to print and mail the additional copies.
We didn’t really know what to expect in terms of response. We were told that 1 or 2 percent would be a good return on this type of direct mail. Out of 6,000 addresses, we were going to send out about 5,000 free copies over 10 weeks. At 1 percent, we’d get 50 new subscribers.
So we sent out the first batch and crossed our fingers.
I suppose we should have had some indication of what the response would be. Word was getting around that there were new owners, and we started almost immediately getting drop-in traffic from people introducing themselves and signing up for a subscription. A couple of people told us that they had been waiting for someone else to take over the paper and that there were a lot of people in the community who didn’t like how the paper was being run and had canceled their subscriptions. They would spread the word, they said, that it’s OK to subscribe to the paper again.
Well, that first issue hit mailboxes on a Thursday, and by Friday we received two or three forms back already. That should have been an indication that at least a couple of people felt it so urgent that they must have filled out the form as soon as they got the paper and rushed it down to the post office immediately. There was simply no other way we would have received their subscription by Friday morning.
On Saturday, our post office box was stuffed with another dozen or so new subscriptions. The trend kept up just about every day, so that it was like Christmas morning each time we went to the post office.
We averaged probably 20 new subscriptions every week for 10 weeks solid.
Keep in mind, too, that each one of those new subscriptions came with a $20 or $22 check, so 200 new subscriptions meant new revenue of about $4,000 in just a matter of two months.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What it felt like to own a weekly newspaper

It is difficult to convey how we were feeling in those first few weeks of owning the newspaper. At varying times, Nicola has reported to me a dizzying sensation of disbelief, waking in the middle of the night thinking, “Oh my God, we own the newspaper in this town in Idaho. We are the owners of this town’s newspaper in the middle of Idaho.”
For me, I usually felt a perhaps unrealistic sense of optimism. 
Many times, though, it occurred to me that I should be ridiculously frightened out of my wits. If I thought about it long enough, I knew rationally that this business venture was folly that would most assuredly spell disaster for our family. This is how it happens, I would think, that a family goes into financial ruin. You meet this kind of a guy sometimes, on an airplane or in a motel bar. You ask him what he does for a living and you get his life story: He’s in town for a business seminar on how to make money at real estate. He’s divorced, his wife has their two kids, he gets to see them one weekend a month. They were doing well, but he was tired of “working for the man,” so they bought their own business somewhere in Idaho but everything went bad, they lost their life savings, their cars got repossessed, she eventually left him, and he moved back in with his parents until he can get back on his feet. This real estate seminar is going to turn everything around, I can feel it, he says.
If I looked hard enough, I could see my dismal future laid out before me.
But for whatever reason, particularly in those early days, I easily and quickly shook off these doubts and just went right back to work, somehow certain that this was going to work out just fine.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What does digital media's rise say about traditional journalism?

David Carr of The New York Times wrote an interesting column about the launch of a new digital weekly magazine, Huffington. In his column, he made the point that the magazine’s launch, similar to so many traditional print magazine launches of yesteryear, was another sign of the increasing velocity of the transformation of modern media to digital-only formats.
“I’ve written before that The Huffington Post may be one of the fastest build-outs of an editorial brand in history, all the while complaining that it derived a lot of value from digitally kidnapping the work of others,” Carr writes. “But I’ve come to understand that it doesn’t matter what I think is right and wrong, or what I think constitutes appropriate aggregation or great journalism. The market is as the market does.”
He also relates a story about the Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans, which cut production from daily to three times a week and laid off about half of its staff. On the news, he turned to his colleague, Brian Stelter, to say, “Well, the future you rooted for is finally here.” To which Stelter replied, “I didn’t root for it, I just realized it was going to happen no matter what.”
This is all well and good.
I have no problem with embracing the future of newsgathering and dissemination, whatever form it takes.
I don’t have a problem with the future of (print, digital) newspapers and magazines, as long as that future includes good and important journalism, not just snippets of celebrity news and a couple of paragraphs of stolen copy from another news source.
It’s all well and good to accept the brave new world of digital media, as long as digital media can foster — and generate revenue from — doing good journalism.
I am not worried that digital-only magazines like Huffington are going to supplant traditional print magazines like The New Yorker or that The New Yorker will someday go to a digital-only format. So be it, the market is as the market does, as Carr puts it.
My bigger concern is that digital-only magazines like Huffington will no longer provide — or be able to afford — the kind of journalism that The New Yorker or The New York Times is now providing.
In other words, the market isn’t necessarily saying, “We want digital.” Rather, the market seems to be saying, “We want short vapid stories about celebrities and grisly murders.”
Yes, as Carr points out, The Huffington Post won its first Pulitzer for its 10-part series on wounded veterans. However, two big points:
• Is that series the norm or the exception?
• I strongly suspect that the execs at Huffington Post know exactly how many hits that 10-part series received as opposed to, say, the stories about Kim Kardashian’s divorce, which arguably took fewer resources.
You see, this hole we’re climbing down really has less to do with digital presentation of news. It has more to do with content.
The reason that the Internet and digital-only sites like Huffington Post have exacerbated the downfall of traditional print newspapers is because it has allowed the market to voice itself much more quickly. And the market is telling us it doesn’t want long-winded boring stories about health care reform and AIDS in Africa and austerity measures in Greece.
Of course, print newspapers have lost circulation to readers who do read these stories online, and advertisers have scattered to online advertising, which add to the problem.
But I will argue that the real problem is that thing that newspapers do better than anyone else — really good important journalism — is becoming less and less in demand.
And that, my friends, is the real story behind the rise of digital media and the downfall of newspapers.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Believe it or not, I miss the logistical aspect of being an editor

I had a very nice lunch with a fellow newspaper editor yesterday. It was good to talk shop, and it was surprisingly good for me to talk to someone about the woes and challenges of managing a daily newspaper.
You see, for the past five-plus years, I’ve been a one-person newsroom, making all the assignments (I still called them assignments, even if it was just me assigning something to myself), writing all the stories, shooting all the photos, editing all the copy, designing all the pages, writing all the headlines.
Before then, I had been an assistant metro editor, city editor, managing editor and night news supervisor. Those jobs always entailed juggling reporters, assignments, photographers and handling copy, photos and layout in order to make deadline.
I guess what I hadn’t realized until yesterday is just how much I miss the logistical element of being an editor. Without a doubt, it’s the most frustrating aspect of being an editor, when you don’t have enough reporters to cover a breaking story or you have to send a photographer clear across the other side of the county for a new assignment, but in many ways it makes the job the most gratifying when you finally put the paper to bed and look at all the pieces to the puzzle and think back to everything you had to do to make it happen.
Of course, when you pick up the paper the next morning, it just looks like it was all meant to be the way it turned out, but what many people don’t fully understand is that the front page was blank 24 or even just 12 hours earlier. Most newsrooms have their news meeting at 2 or 3 p.m., at which the editors decide what’s going to go on the front page, which photo is going to be “the centerpiece,” which story will be “the lede,” whether it will be stripped across the top or a “soft lede” over two columns on the side. Many times, an idea will come out of that meeting that means all of your well-laid plans are thrown out and you have to make new assignments and new plans at the last minute.
I remember talking to Terry Winckler, my executive editor at the San Mateo County Times, about our coverage of a certain story. Terry was always the big thinker, “if you’re going to fail, fail big,” who would usually see the forest but not the trees. I was talking to him about contingency plans for the front page in case we didn’t get a certain story in time for deadline (we were publishing three editions per day, an overnight, a morning edition and an afternoon edition, every day — talk about being a logistical editor). Terry told me, “Scott, quit looking for problems.” I replied, “I kind of feel like it’s my job to see problems before they happen and fix them.”
I certainly cut my teeth as managing editor at the San Mateo County Times, assigning eight to 12 reporters, three photographers and managing two shifts of copy editors.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Grateful to have found newspaper consultant Ken Blum very early on

During the time that Nicola and I were searching for a newspaper to buy, we interviewed a couple of newspaper owners in Vermont, a couple of owners in New York state, an owner in Arizona and a serial business owner in South Dakota.
The serial business owner in South Dakota turned us onto a guy by the name of Ken Blum, a newspaper consultant who writes a column for the National Newspaper Association’s newspaper Publisher’s Auxiliary called “Black Ink,” which is also the title of a book he wrote offering tips on running a community newspaper.
We signed up for Ken’s email newsletter, “Black Inkling,” and bought his book.
We ate it all up. Every night, Nicola and I swapped chapters and read about circulation-building, advertising ideas, editorial features, special sections, promotions, etc. It had become a minor obsession.
We had subscriptions to the Kuna Melba News and The Clinton Courier and we dreamed about what we would do with the papers, how we would increase revenues, what we would change designwise, what special sections we would add.
We also set up a phone interview with Ken (which turned out to be a wise investment of time on Ken’s part, because Nicola and I later became good clients, but more on that later).
Ken Blum is an imminently affable soft-spoken intelligent man who will often introduce himself as “Ken Blum. I’m from Orrville, Ohio, the home of Smucker’s jams and jellies.”
Ken was encouraging about buying a newspaper in an almost matter-of-fact way, as if he were saying, “Oh, of course, you want to buy a newspaper. It’s the most wonderful business to own.” It seemed almost ridiculous in Ken’s world that someone wouldn’t want to own a newspaper. That reassuring sensibility made him eternally optimistic about buying a newspaper and in turn made us optimistic about buying a newspaper. “See, we’re not crazy. Here’s this perfectly reasonable nice man highly confident in the decision to buy a weekly newspaper.”
His optimism was very much rooted in a pragmatic, fiscally sound notion of running a viable business, which also provided much comfort to a young couple with two small boys contemplating giving up their relatively cheap and reliable company-sponsored health care.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

We left town in quite a hurry

I suppose the smart thing to do would have been to give ourselves a little bit of time between quitting my job, packing up our house and flying to Boise. Why we weren’t smart, though, I can’t recall.
For whatever reason, I had convinced us that we should quit my job on Thursday, pack up all of our belongings into a moving truck on Friday then catch a 6 a.m. flight from Rochester to Boise on Saturday morning.

And so begins Chapter 2: Year One, 2006-07

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

'Editors don't buy newspapers. You know that, right?'

By the spring of 2006, several promising prospects for newspapers to buy had turned out to be dead ends.
We heard about a group of four weeklies for sale in southern New York, around Binghamton.
Neither Nicola nor I was very optimistic about this prospect, but I needed to keep my dream alive, even if I knew it was going to end in disappointment.
It turns out we had very good reason to be pessimistic.
Even though the owner wanted $450,000 for his newspapers, he couldn’t tell us how much money he paid himself as owner. He “just took money out” when he needed it. He never took a salary.
When we asked him about whether we’d be able to buy a house in the area (thinking about our Middlebury experience), he eagerly told us we would be able to get a great house for a steal. 
He drove us down to a residential neighborhood near the hospital, where just about every other house was for sale.
“Why are all these houses for sale?” we asked him.
“Oh, they just announced they’re closing the hospital, and a lot of these people who live here work for the hospital, so they’re all in a mad rush to sell their houses,” he told us, as if this were the best news in the world.
I’m not sure how fast we left that town, but I’m pretty sure we broke the speed limit.
I was becoming despondent. It looked as if I was going to have to give up on my dream of owning a newspaper.
I decided to call a newspaper broker to see if he could help us find just what we were looking for.
After telling him a little bit about myself, he asked, “So you’re an editor looking to buy a newspaper.”
“That’s right,” I said.
“Editors don’t buy newspapers,” he said condescendingly. “You know that, right? Editors don’t buy newspapers.”
I got a little testy with him, then, and not-so-gently conveyed to him the seriousness of my intentions to buy a newspaper.
Well, in that case, he said, he had the perfect little property for me. It’s a great price, a real bargain, the owner is motivated to sell a group of four weekly papers in southern New York, around Binghamton, for just $450,000.
I don’t recall which was louder, the sound of my palm smacking my forehead or the sound of me slamming the phone down.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

When buying a newspaper, beware the Trojan Christmas tree

In our search for a weekly newspaper to buy, December 2005 was a busy month for us.
Right around Christmas, Luke, Robert, Nicola and I visited Middlebury, Vermont, to look at a weekly paper there. It had serious competition from a daily and another, more-serious weekly. The longtime owner ran a less-serious paper with fewer real news stories, more submitted items and pretty poor design.
Still, she claimed to have incredible annual revenue — and a pretty high asking price.
Of course, we never could verify the revenue figures, because she kept all of her books in an old-fashioned ledger book, the kind you’d find Bob Cratchit working on.
I have to admit, when we arrived in Middlebury on a beautiful winter weekend, we were smitten. It’s the kind of place we were looking for, a picturesque, quaint, old-fashioned, wealthy college town.
I think the paper’s owner was counting on that kind of emotion to make the sale. Shortly after we arrived in our hotel room, she arrived at our door with a gift, a miniature decorated Christmas tree. She just stopped off to say hello and bring us the Christmas tree. She’d let us get settled in our room, then we could get back together later to meet and have dinner.
I don’t remember if it was me or Nicola who first had the thought, but at some point we decided to examine the Christmas tree more thoroughly, looking for a bugging device, thinking that this woman had planted the tree as a way to gain an unfair negotiating position.
We couldn't find anything, of course, but just to be safe, we eventually put the tree in the bathroom with the door closed.
What our experience in Middlebury taught us was that we were going to need an accountant to really scrutinize numbers very closely. The other major thing we realized was that it was very likely that we would be unable to afford to buy a house in Middlebury. Even if we could buy a house in Middlebury, we probably wouldn’t be able to afford the taxes. That would leave us living somewhere outside Middlebury, living a life that wasn’t very attractive to us. Plus, the growth potential for the newspaper was virtually nil. I could have improved the paper journalistically, but there were already two very good journalistic newspapers in town. No, people liked this newspaper because of its owner and, in a way, because it wasn’t a “real” newspaper with “real” news stories in it. And, frankly, I did not want to run that kind of newspaper.
And so we kept looking.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Cancer diagnosis enhanced my desire to buy a newspaper

In the summer of 2004, something happened that created a bit more urgency in my desire to buy a newspaper.
I got cancer.
After a routine checkup with a new doctor in Rochester, it was discovered that I had colon cancer. Just nine days after my colonoscopy, I went to Rochester General Hospital and had two-thirds of my colon removed (I joked after my surgery that I now had a semicolon). On Friday, Aug. 13, my doctor informed me that it appeared the cancer was Stage I and had limited itself to the inside wall of my colon, and he declared me cancer-free. On that same day, Nicola had gone in for her first ultrasound that told her she was pregnant with our second child.
I would like to say that having cancer had a profound effect on my life, but in a lot of ways, it really didn’t.
First of all, as I like to tell people, I really only had cancer for nine days. From the time I was told I definitively had cancer to the day that it was removed, it was all of nine days. I did not have radiation or chemotherapy, I did not lose my hair, I did not go through any of what so many cancer patients go through.
Second, I have a somewhat morose personality to begin with. I’ve always felt that tragedy is just around the corner, waiting to unfairly snatch happiness out of the lives of undeserving people. Because of this, I have lived my life in a couple of very important ways: I try to make decisions so that I don’t have regrets and I immensely enjoy the very simple act of living. Cancer didn’t change that, it merely enhanced it. I already felt that life was fragile and I have always had a fine appreciation of life. I’ve also lived my life as if I could die in the near future. So I’ve done seemingly crazy things, like become a stock broker, take a job in New Mexico, move to San Francisco without a job. Buying a newspaper was simply another seemingly crazy thing to do.

What is the definition of a mid-life crisis?

The most interesting character to me so far in Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada, is Neeva Parsons, the Jewish mother who has an unlikely marriage to a handsome good ol’ boy from Alabama.
She’s an intellectual who writes poems and journals every day. At one time, she had dreams of marrying a college professor and writing poetry and living the life of an academic. Instead, she got pregnant and married Bev Parsons. His job with the Air Force takes them from town to town in Texas, Ohio, Michigan and Montana, places she looks down at with scorn as anti-intellectual nowhere towns.
A key question at the point that she and Bev rob a bank is, “Why?” Why did she go along with the bank robbery? Why not just take the kids and go live with her parents?
I think what Ford is hitting on here is a definition of a mid-life crisis that is universal.
I would define a mid-life crisis as a (usually painful) transition from dreaming about what you’re going to be when you grow up to realizing what it is you have become.
And that can often make people do crazy things.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Great first day at my new job

I had an excellent first day of writing. I got off to a late start today, because today was the last day of school for the boys, consisting of a two-hour session. So Nicola and I dropped the boys off then went and had coffee and bummed around downtown Boise. Took Rob for a haircut then had lunch at Bardenay before heading back home. Nicola and the boys went to the pool while I wrote. I had a goal of 1,600 words today, and I'm happy to report that I topped 2,000 words. I kind of figured that day one was going to be a burst, as I've been champing at the bit to get down to writing. I had already written parts of chapter one, so I'm already at 7,500 words for the first chapter. I'm estimating each of six chapters to be about 16,000 words, so I'm more than halfway through chapter one on my first day. Feeling very good.