Corrections or additions?
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
no cake with an inscribed legend in icing — and would this have
been delicious, literally and figuratively! — "Sweet
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
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
issue — even as the current one was being delivered. Isn’t
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
News. That gave our greenhorn the opening for her first question.
newspaper? Is it our 16th birthday present?
Look kid, I haven’t acquired anything. What I have done is start
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.
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
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.
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
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
for a reasonable price — about 11 cents a paper — were a
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.
Do it ourselves, kid. The hardest part of that was coming up with
maps of all the streets in West Windsor and Plainsboro. The
grid system, apparently, is no longer a working model of residential
neighborhoods. Instead you have cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac with
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
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
share our driveway," they’ll tell us. "Please leave two
And guess what, we are doing it for about 11 cents a paper.
coming out every two weeks?
It’s just like 16 years ago at U.S. 1. When the idea popped up I
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
the community tell us they want it more often.
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.
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.
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.
Yeah, how about carrying a few bundles up to the office? I’m feeling
a little twinge down in my stomach.
No editorial has to keep up
Editorial is marketing
Tree outgrowing its roots.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.