It’s that time of year: The first Wednesday in November, a decided pause between the seasons, but an ominous edge of change in the air. As it has done every year since November, 1984, U.S. 1 on this occasion sends forth its most callow youth into service, thrusting him or her into the editor’s cluttered — always cluttered — office.

The assignment: Get an interview with the Boss, ask the most impertinent questions you dare, and then escape from the clutter to write about it and fill this space. Herewith the 19th anniversary exercise:

So how does it feel — the Big 1-9?

Stop right there, kid. Who says it’s 19? I could easily make the case that this is the 20th anniversary — the beginning of the 20th year and the occasion for all sorts of special issues and other gimmicks that publishers use to suck in advertisers who otherwise would never think of placing an ad in a 19th anniversary or 21st anniversary publication. But we aren’t doing that.

Why not?

Because we still think that you can do an OK business by simply delivering a reasonable publication at a reasonable cost to a reasonable group of people. So we aren’t going to give you a 20th anniversary issue this week. We are just going to tell you what’s happening on Friday night (when you might want to impress the little woman — or little man — in your life) as well as what’s cooking on Saturday morning (when you’re trying to buy some points from the kids in your life), and we will tell the story of the amazing Nakashima furniture collection of Arthur and Evelyn Krosnick and what will happen to it when they retire to Arizona.

If this newspaper ever goes up for sale in my lifetime (and there’s no guarantee that will happen, given my health and the current economic climate), I will make this argument to any potential buyer: Sure the paper made X in the past year, but remember that the true profit potential is X + BS — BS being all the marketing crap that publishers can throw on the table whenever they want to drive up their bottom line, even if it won’t last long.

So how is X anyhow? We hear that business is still down.

X is not as big as it was in 1998 or 1999 or even 2000 and it’s possible that it never will be again. If you think about it, the profit of those years rode on two principal things:

1.) An economy and world political climate that were running in picture-perfect form; and

2.) A business enterprise headed by an 80-hour a week, 52-week-a-year CEO who minimized overhead by handling virtually every management and operational detail he could.

Maybe point No. 1 could repeat itself in our lifetime. But point No. 2 just won’t ever happen again, given that the "CEO" is now 56, afflicted with coronary heart disease, and also spending half his time as the single father of two growing boys, now almost 12 and almost 10, who need more attention rather than less.

So how is your health and the company’s — should we be racing to the bank if we hear you seizing up on the production room floor?

If I were you I’d sure as hell wouldn’t want to be last one in that line. But before you get too nervous keep in mind some simple facts. First, while it’s true that CHD (coronary heart disease) is the No. 1 killer in our land, remember that lots of those future victims are people walking around with s–t-eating grins on their faces and no clue as to what CHD even means. In other words they are people just like I was before I got lucky and discovered a 90 percent clogged artery.

But having dodged that bullet, I’m living a more healthy lifestyle (did you walk two and a half miles this morning in 30 minutes, kid?); monitoring my health more frequently than ever (what’s your lipo-protein (a) count?); and taking enough drugs to keep a street corner alive for a month in Haight-Ashbury during the ’60s (wanna try some Plavix, kid?).

Alright, alright, I get it. But the economy for sure has had a major heart attack. Are we alright?

Good transition, kid. Sure, the economy is down. But the important fact is that we are still in business. I think the savings grace was the reasonable business, at a reasonable price, aimed at a reasonable audience. Back in 1998 or 1999 we probably could have made a temporary fortune by creating an Internet model of U.S. 1. I hate to think where we would be today. I’d probably be selling those drugs on the street corner.

But we didn’t do that, we’re still in business, we have expanded our business opportunities (by starting the West Windsor-Plainsboro News); we have beefed up our information processing infrastructure (shedding Novell in favor of Windows 2000 as our network operating system); and we paved the way for making our production 100 percent digital (by dumping our 1980s vintage desktop publishing program in favor of QuarkExpress). That’s a lot of positive change occurring in a bad economic climate.

Meanwhile, like a lot of other people we do business with, we keep feeling signs of a rebound in the economy. In this past month, October, every issue of both U.S. 1 and the WW-P News ran ahead in sales compared to the same period a year ago. Of course, kid, I have to remind you that roughly the same thing happened about six months ago, and then we had a succession of issues with advertising even worse than in 2002. And of course we have more overhead today than we had a year ago — thanks to my continued efforts to shift portions of my load onto other shoulders. So you have to take it all with a grain of salt.

Forgetting the economy for a minute, what’s the biggest challenge facing U.S. 1?

That’s easy to answer: Shifting U.S. 1 from an owner-operated business to a staff-operated business.

But it’s harder to do than I ever imagined. The first thing you hear in business after you make your first penny is that you had better start delegating. The failure to do so is always laid at the feet of the owner. The staff views the owner’s unwillingness to delegate as some sort of cosmic flaw — how could a guy so smart to start a successful business be so stupid about delegating.

Let me tell you, kid: You learn a lot about people when you start asking them to do things they were not hired to do. You discover that some people who are great at doing a job are not great at supervising others; some people don’t want the extra responsibility; others are afraid to make a mistake and the one thing that surely will happen when you run a business like this is that you will make mistakes — typically about one a day.

So that’s the biggest mistake you made in the past year?

Where should I begin. How about thinking that we could cobble together a home page for our sister newspaper and then end up sinking countless of hours of staff time into it without ever getting it right? Or not insisting that we all use the same E-mail, the same E-mail software, and sign every one of our articles and sections with an E-mail address?

What’s the smartest thing you did in the past year?

Nothing comes to mind.

Surely there’s one little thing.

Since you’ve pressed me (and there will be something extra in your next check for that) I might say it was going ahead with the infamous "finger" cover when several key people around here challenged the wisdom of that decision. The argument was that it was rude and that U.S. 1 could and should play a role in making the world a kinder and gentler place.

I’m a little leery of journalists who suddenly think they can set the standard for what’s polite and what’s rude. It surely wasn’t polite of Woodward and Bernstein to knock on people’s front doors at night to get the Watergate story. It wasn’t polite of Roger Mudd to grill Teddy Kennedy about Chappaquiddick. And it was downright rude of the media to pry into the sex life of Bill Clinton. But that’s the job.

Sometimes in this business you need a little edge to break through the clutter and make your point. See this finger, kid?

Yeah.

That signifies a one. See these? That’s a nine. It’s 1-9, kid. Not 2-0, not yet. Have fun and we’ll see you next year.

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