Corrections or additions?
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
"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."
"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
"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."
"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."
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
"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
"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
"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
"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."
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."
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.