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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.