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This column by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the November 8,

2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Between the Lines: Sweet Sixteen

Are we getting old or what? November 1, 2000, came and

went without so much as a whisper to mark the day. No party, no

champagne,

no cake with an inscribed legend in icing — and would this have

been delicious, literally and figuratively! — "Sweet

Sixteen."

Not even an E-mail from our Lithuanian correspondent, Peter Mladineo,

who usually can be counted on to remember such momentous occasions.

No, U.S. 1 newspaper marked its 16th anniversary without a whimper.

The paper that Richard K. Rein started with a "sneak preview"

edition of eight pages in the fall of 1984 spent its 16th birthday

doing what it still does best: Unloading three or four tons of

newsprint

from a big yellow truck and sending it out via a score of deliverers

to about 5,000 different locations throughout the greater Princeton

business community. While all that was going on, the boss was strapped

back in his editorial production chair, seemingly working on yet

another

issue — even as the current one was being delivered. Isn’t

Wednesday

supposed to be his "easy" day?

Get a life, we felt like saying, but of course we didn’t. Finally

the boss gave a few hints and we figured it out: It was time —

actually past time by a week or so — for the annual anniversary

interview. We sent our greenest reporter back into the boss’s den,

which had all of its usual clutter, plus a little more. Stacked in

hopscotch-fashion piles across the floor were back issues of another

newspaper, a little quarter-folded tabloid called the West

Windsor-Plainsboro

News. That gave our greenhorn the opening for her first question.

So what’s up boss. Have you acquired an interest in a new

newspaper? Is it our 16th birthday present?

Look kid, I haven’t acquired anything. What I have done is start

another

newspaper totally from scratch in a town that I commute to every day

— we have a Princeton address but we are squarely in West Windsor.

It’s not that much different from what happened 16 years ago. Back

then I saw a niche that nobody else saw and bootstrapped a newspaper

to serve it. This time I saw a niche that everybody else saw and came

up with a different idea for serving it. The niche is two towns that

have a common school district and that have been served by a

succession of paid circulation, weekly newspapers. Each one of them

went out of business, for a variety of different reasons, I suspect.

Could it be that West Windsor and Plainsboro just aren’t

ready for their own newspaper?

I doubt it. Just drive around these towns and you will see that this

is one upscale, fast growing community. "Mac-mansions" is

an apt description of many of the houses. Some of the churches look

like the ones they show on those nationwide religious broadcasts.

And the secondary schools look more like community colleges. I have

heard that some parents are concerned because one of the middle

schools has its own television studio and the other one does not. You

can bet that problem will get fixed.

In West Windsor and Plainsboro you have your traditional soccer moms

and dads in abundance — I am told that the kids’ soccer leagues

have about 2,500 participants. In addition, both West Windsor and

Plainsboro are exciting melting pots of cultural diversity. They are

to Princeton like the United Nations is to the European Union.

When the last WW-P newspaper folded this past spring, I decided that

the problem perhaps was not with the town, but rather the business

model of the newspapers that had attempted to make a go of it. I think

both of our predecessors in West Windsor and Plainsboro decided that

paid circulation was the way to go, in part because paid circulation

was required to obtain the "legal" ads that townships must

buy to meet official standards for notifying the public of their

actions.

But paid circulation doesn’t come easily, and it requires a certain

critical mass of revenue to sell new subscriptions and retain old

ones. And without that you never grow the readership to the point

where advertisers feel they are getting enough bang for their buck.

So you just deliver one to each household. Is that the

secret?

Yes, but I didn’t realize it at the beginning. Back in May I figured

that this would be one of those times for "outsourcing:" For

years now various people have second-guessed my style and said we

would be bigger and better if we didn’t do certain things in-house.

Hire some telemarketers to sell classifieds, they’d say, or get one

of those outside companies to publish our annual Business Directory.

Little matters like editorial control and economies of scale always

made such propositions ridiculous. That’s why you seldom see a

successful

community newspaper without an owner out on the front lines, doing

all the little things that never pop up on anyone’s job description.

But this time — putting newspapers into little plastic bags and

then throwing them into 8,500 driveways — outsourcing seemed

right. So I called around. And called around. The only people who did

it

for a reasonable price — about 11 cents a paper — were a

family-based

business that had no intention of adding new customers and the family

was talking hopefully about imminent retirement.

Everybody else was out of the ballpark — economies of scale. Then

I considered the U.S. Postal Service. Our free circulation pretty

much precludes second class mailing. Third class would have meant

that our "news" paper would sit around at least two days

getting old before hitting people’s mailboxes.

So what was the solution?

Do it ourselves, kid. The hardest part of that was coming up with

maps of all the streets in West Windsor and Plainsboro. The

old-fashioned

grid system, apparently, is no longer a working model of residential

neighborhoods. Instead you have cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac with

looping

connector roads that take you into and out of various developments.

At first we thought we were just slow learners, but then we learned

that most everybody has had the same problem — and pity the pizza

deliverers.

So we drew up maps, bought plastic bags, and rented a U-Haul truck

to use for our stuffing operation. The first issue went out June 9,

2000, and I was out there at 6 a.m. moving bundles from the printer’s

truck to our truck. We got to about 90 percent of the houses with

driveways on the first day.

Within a few weeks we had a database containing virtually all the

streets in the townships, and then began fine-tuning the system. Now

the best calls we get are from people who have not received the paper

but offer us helpful directions for getting it to them. "Two

houses

share our driveway," they’ll tell us. "Please leave two

papers."

And guess what, we are doing it for about 11 cents a paper.

You said the other papers were weekly? How come you are only

coming out every two weeks?

It’s just like 16 years ago at U.S. 1. When the idea popped up I

envisioned

U.S. 1 as a free circulation weekly, a classic model. But within weeks

the realities of a self-financed, bootstrapped operation set in. I

scaled back in my brain from a weekly to a biweekly to — at first

— a monthly. And that’s how the paper began.

With the West Windsor-Plainsboro News my immediate concept was

a free weekly paper, but that we would begin slowly — every other

week during the summer and then weekly beginning in this fall. Then

I had a little physical problem and spent some time reconsidering.

We are now coming out every two weeks, skipping the week between

Christmas and New Year’s, and will keep it that way until the

advertisers and

the community tell us they want it more often.

Was that "little physical problem" your hernia?

Wait, kid. Don’t ever say I had a "hernia." It was a double

hernia, damn it, and never forget it. Actually, kid, if you have to

have a double hernia you might as well let everybody know it —

you’d be surprised how many people suddenly start lifting bundles

for you, as if it were contagious.

On a more serious subject, couldn’t you jump start the

frequency by spending some money on marketing?

Oh, kid, you still don’t get it. If we were a bunch of accountants,

hidden away in dark little cubicles, then some "marketing"

might let the public know we exist. But we are a newspaper and we

come into people’s driveways or offices once every two weeks or once

every week. The best marketing we can do is offer some informed and

entertaining editorial content, presented in a readable format.

And after 16 years in the business, I have recognized that there is

natural pace to a newspaper’s growth. Sure we could slam this paper

into people’s driveways each and every week. But — in this

cluttered media environment — will they take the time to

appreciate all the editorial content we have to offer? I suspect that

in the beginning we are all better served by a newspaper with a

longer shelf life.

You can’t let the tree outgrow its roots. That was the lesson offered

to me 30 years ago by Don Stuart, the founder of Town Topics, the

free weekly that serves Princeton borough and township.

We heard someone say that the WW-P News is the Town Topics

of West Windsor and Plainsboro.

Well that’s a compliment. And hopefully it will stay around 50-plus

years like the Topics has. Now I have a question for you, kid.

Really?

Yeah, how about carrying a few bundles up to the office? I’m feeling

a little twinge down in my stomach.

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Out below

No editorial has to keep up

Editorial is marketing

Tree outgrowing its roots.


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