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These column was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 3, 1999. All rights reserved.

Between the Lines: 15th Anniversary

Can it be — that time of year again? Maybe the accelerating

pace of the "fin de" millennium is affecting our psychological

time clock, but it seems like just yesterday we had to endure one

of these annual lectures from our boss, the fictional interview of

himself by the "reigning office smartypants" (to use a term

that we saw creep into the New York Times the other day, in a story

about the Village Voice).

We say "endure" because reading this anniversary column is

always a chore. First it’s a report card on how we are doing, and

second it’s an evaluation of whether or not we can expect to be around

here again next year to mark another anniversary. And so we here at

the U.S. 1 office have to read between the lines, literally and figuratively.

But can it really be one more year? Already? Yes, our records show,

it really has been a year. For those who can still do the arithmetic,

it is the 15th anniversary of U.S. 1 — not a landmark like the

25th but a hopeful sign of some permanence nevertheless.

And so the office smartypants clutches his notebook and walks the

gauntlet — the stacks of papers, teetering piles of computer boxes,

and dead or dying monitors and other computer peripherals that clutter

the boss’s corner office. "Well, some things never change,"

the young reporter says, cheerfully, approaching the desk. But the

boss isn’t in the mood — another paper has to be ready for the

printer tomorrow.

"Sorry, kid," he begins. "I have done this something like

500 times now, and I have never yet been late for a date with the

printer. And I don’t want to start now."

You mean it doesn’t get easier after 15 years?

"Yes and no. Parts of the operation do get easier — you get

more help and better help, you get more and better equipment, and

you yourself actually get better at what you do. I can’t tell you

how many crazy propositions and wild ideas cross my desk that 15 years

ago I actually spent time considering. Now I just say, `No, I’ve been

there and done that and I am not going to waste your time or my time

considering it again.’ And it helped that I came into this business

with 19 years of experience as a professional journalist, and before

that — as a kid growing up in IBM country — had an interest

in data processing and computing.

"But despite all that personal growth and despite the development

of the company as a whole, this is still a sole proprietorship. I

don’t know of any successful community newspaper in our area that

operates much differently — the owner is also a hands-on operator,

in the trenches with everyone else and usually getting there before

most of the employees or staying there later or both. The best analogy

is the chef-owned restaurant. Everybody loves it until the chef starts

taking time off, or gets sick, or turns day-to-day operations over

to some culinary equivalent of the office smartypants.

"You’re too young, kid, to remember the free weekly that covered

Hamilton Township and Mercerville. It was owned for a while by a group

of community business leaders who had to hire an outsider to run the

show. Guess what? It couldn’t break even despite a huge circulation

and eventually it was sold to a chain. Even the chain couldn’t make

a profit on it and had to put it to sleep. That publication needed

an owner/operator.

"We have seen them come and go in 15 years: The paper for women,

a great idea that reached a free circulation of something like 35,000,

and then went down and out. When the owner of the paid circulation

weekly in West Windsor, one of the wealthiest residential neighborhoods

in central New Jersey, got tired of the grind, he tried to find a

buyer. Guess what? No one was willing to pay a dime, not even for

his mailing list. For most people taking on the grind is bad enough

— why pay for it?

"You could probably wing it for a while, cutting down on the fresh

ingredients, using the microwave more often, etc., to use the chef-owned

restaurant analogy again, but sooner or later the readers would catch

on. And our readers have come to expect a lot from us."

I don’t mean to be critical, boss, but some people around

here —

"Go ahead, kid, be critical. The worst that can happen is that

you’ll be fired and hung out to dry at the corner of Route 1 and Alexander

Road. But relax, I’m just kidding."

— Well, some people have said that maybe you need to

delegate just a little more, then the grind wouldn’t be so bad.

"That’s a good question, kid, and you won’t get fired for it.

I did a little survey of my work habits the other day — both in

terms of hours I spend on work and the ways in which I spend the hours.

"The total, I thought, was pretty impressive: more than 75-some

hours in an average week — average week, not one in which we are

doing the Business Directory, for example, or some other special issue,

or when there is some personnel crisis at the office. Now 75+ hours

on a week-by-week basis, spread over 15 years, is a grind, but it’s

manageable, and it’s a lot better than it was in the very beginning,

when the start of this venture seemed like a life-or-death ride into

the abyss.

"Trying to figure out where my time goes now, I also took an inventory

of the areas in which I work. It broke down into three components:

Editing, business management, and desktop publishing. That was interesting

because I thought back to my first professional jobs in journalism,

with the Binghamton Evening Press starting in 1965, and with Time

magazine in 1968, and I thought of all the countless meetings that

took place among the editors and business people, among the editors

and production people, and among the business and production people.

"And I realized right there in the late 1960s that these meetings

were a horrible waste. In 1984 I resolved not to have them. U.S. 1

now probably saves one fulltime equivalent staff person right there

— we don’t have those meetings and we have little of the in-fighting

that characterizes many creative workplaces.

"Beyond that I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of consequential

tasks I perform."

<B>Surprised? How come?

"Well, we’ve all heard these horror stories of entrepreneurs who

can’t let go of anything, and who are hunkered down in the engine

room of their operation, putting grease on the gears while the ship

is careening out of control with no one at the rudder. I thought my

inventory would show more `time wasters’ than it did.

"In addition, it showed that — the peanut gallery’s criticism

notwithstanding — I actually have done a lot of delegating. In

fact, my list of tasks includes considerable time coordinating the

efforts of the staff and several key consultants, particularly in

the technologically-challenging areas of information processing and

the Internet."

How are we doing on the Internet?

"Lucky, kid, lucky. With my perfect 20-20 hindsight, I can say

now that we probably should have put a lot more money into the Internet

in each of the last three years. We must allocate some substantial

money in this area soon, and we are going to have to do it the same

way we did it when the paper was first started — with no expectation

of return.

"On the other hand I can safely say that — no matter how much

money we might have spent — we still wouldn’t be much further

ahead. That’s how quickly the Internet game has been changing. And

lots of people have discovered that last year’s bells and whistles

may be nothing more than noisemakers at this year’s millennial New

Year’s party.

"We have developed an E-mail edition that seems to be a worthwhile

complement to the print edition. It’s called the U.S. 1 Sneak Preview,

the same name I used for the first edition of the paper 15 years ago.

Back then I knew the print edition would eventually become a weekly

publication, but I didn’t know exactly when — that’s why `Sneak

Preview’ was the perfect title for the first issue.

"Now it’s a good title for an electronic version. But at this

point I still don’t have a clear vision of what it will become or

when and to whom it should be circulated. For now we are pushing it

out there just to see what happens.

"The trick will be to reach the people who don’t ordinarily read

the print edition, then to figure out what we have to offer them in

terms of content, and from that to build a new and different audience.

And do it before a half dozen competitors do the same thing."

I have a friend in advertising, and my brother works in radio.

Maybe they can give you some marketing advice.

"You’re a pal, kid. Let me remind you of something we said at

the top of this interview: Fifteen years ago I might have wasted minutes

or hours taking your offer seriously. But early on I learned: This

venture is not a marketing study, this is a matter of content. If

you want to really help, get back to that compelling reading that

you are creating. We’ll talk more in a year. Unless we decide to hang

you out at the corner of Alexander Road and Route 1."


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