It was a dank Friday night sometime in the winter of 1988 or ’89, and U.S. 1 Newspaper was operating out of its second home, the old farmhouse that still stands at the corner of Mapleton Road and Route 1, the one that we moved to a few years after the paper was started in my house and garage at 34 Park Place in downtown Princeton.
As was our custom back in those long start-up days, half of the staff was still there on that Friday night, foregoing time with friends and families to meet a deadline with the printer. At 9 or 10 o’clock someone decided that we should order some pizza, to brighten the mood and warm the bodies hard at work in a drafty building that never seemed to get warm enough.
The pizza guy arrived, and he looked around the office at the somewhat sullen faces that greeted him. “So this is U.S. 1,” he commented to no one in particular. “Wow. How did U.S. 1 ever get started?”
I decided to provide a little gallows humor. “It started back in 1984,” I told the pizza guy, “when someone had a very, very bad idea for a newspaper.” The pizza guy didn’t get the joke. Around the office they got the joke. But no one laughed.
As I have counseled my reporters on many occasions, do not totally trust any information provided by office workers to delivery people. Here at U.S. 1 we elicit information from our deliverers every week. But we always follow up that information with a phone call or an E-mail. And on that winter night in the late 1980s, based on the information conveyed to the pizza guy, someone might have concluded that U.S. 1 was the inadvertent byproduct of some bad thinking four or five years earlier.
That would not be accurate. The fact is that U.S. 1 was started 25 years ago and has remained in business ever since as a result of a succession of some good ideas (not all original) along with some bad ideas that proved to be valuable lessons. In this past quarter century, I have not been the only source of ideas for this venture. And I hope to salute some of the other contributors at our reception on Tuesday, November 24, at Tre Piani restaurant.
But in this issue, our 25th anniversary issue, I will share 25 ideas, good and bad, that helped me make the decisions that led to where U.S. 1 is today. This is our not-so-secret sauce.
1.) The Route 1 development was not just a source of traffic jams and suburban sprawl; it was also the catalyst for a new community that deserves a newspaper of its own.
The first idea was pretty simple, but it came to mind only after a fair amount of forethought. I had been excited by journalism since high school, and in college at Princeton not only worked on the student newspaper but also spent summers pounding the typewriter, first with the Binghamton Evening Press in upstate New York, then with Time magazine.
It was at Time, shortly after college graduation in 1969, that I first encountered the seductive idea that flirts through the minds of so many writers and editors: Starting a publication of your own. Around the water coolers at the Time-Life Building, a few young reporters always seemed to be talking about starting an alternative newsweekly.
A year or two later, bored in the one non-journalism job I ever tried, I drove from Pittsburgh into the hollows of West Virginia, where a publisher named Jim Comstock wanted to sell his statewide weekly newspaper, the West Virginia Hillbilly. Not a good fit for me, but I got some insight into the realities of smalltown journalism: Comstock didn’t make his money from the newspaper, but rather from using his photo-typesetting machines to publish memoirs of elderly West Virginians. Nothing’s easy.
Shortly after that foray, I had been fired from my non-journalism job and was back in Princeton, where I had taken a one-semester job as a teaching assistant in the humanities program. From there it was a small step further down toward the poverty line to eking out a living as a freelance writer.
By 1984 I was at least above the poverty line. I had watched two guys who didn’t know much about journalism successfully start New Jersey Monthly, and I was a fairly regular freelance contributor. I had established a steady freelance arrangement with People Magazine, edited by some of my old friends at Time, and I was earning some more steady money as a pinchhitter at Town Topics, the weekly paper in Princeton.
That’s where I pitched a simple little business story about the two new hotels out on Route 1, the Hyatt and Scanticon, that were engaged in a fierce battle for corporate bookings from the new businesses that were moving into the newly built Princeton Forrestal Center and Carnegie Center. What gave the story a little feature twist was that most of the meeting planners were women, and the hotels were showing off by sponsoring after-work parties with free food, drink, and live music. Every single guy in Princeton was showing up at the parties.
I tossed out the idea at the Town Topics office, and Barbara Johnson, then the senior municipal reporter, raised a question: Town Topics’ mission then (and now) was to concentrate its coverage on Princeton Borough and Township. This isn’t a Princeton story, Johnson said, in effect, it’s a Route 1 story.
Now that was a light bulb going off. And it went off in front of guy who had his eyes open, a guy who was looking for an outlet for his writing. All of which proves that chance favors the prepared mind.
2.) Combine business and entertainment news. This was not an obvious course of action for the new publication. In fact, when U.S.1 was launched in 1984, there were already well established models for successful community business publications and entertainment magazines. City business magazines were sprouting up everywhere, with editorial content that often included long lists of stock offerings and real estate transactions and write-ups of promotions and new product offerings served up by corporate PR men. Every once in a while they would have a special “focus” section: “The Amazing New Power of Office Copying Machines,” for example, and it would be sponsored by some copier company, naturally.
At the time so-called “city magazines” were flourishing, with an editorial offering that was heavy on entertainment listings, restaurant reviews, and singles ads — lots of singles in lots of exotic categories. Their business coverage was mostly confined to rants against big business. “How Bank of America Terrorizes Immigrants” would be a typical headline.
I chose to straddle the two worlds mostly because I wanted to double my chances of finding compelling editorial content for what seemed like acres and acres of open space coming at me. In fact, while I conceived of the paper as a weekly, I was so pessimistic about the prospect of both filling space and selling ads that I retreated first to bimonthly and then to monthly frequency before the first issue was printed.
But I wasn’t sure business and entertainment was the right choice for the long term. A year or two into U.S. 1 we decided to do a story on the new field of electronic journalism, and elicited the views of two Princeton-area companies deeply involved. One was Dow Jones Information Services, which boasted its news retrieval service. The other was a fast-growing start-up company out by Princeton Airport founded by a guy named Mike Bloomberg.
Dow Jones submitted a nice op-ed column written by a mid-level company executive. The Bloomberg company suggested that I talk directly to the founder, who was extremely busy but had a telephone in his car (!) and might be able to do an interview with me while he was fighting traffic between Princeton and New York. In the interview Bloomberg said that one of the keys to his success in placing his terminals on brokers’ desks was that the information provided always included something having nothing to do with work — the weekend ski reports, for example.
Good idea: In the age of working women, in particular, it’s hard to imagine any workplace that does not include a certain amount of personal business.
3.) Find a model and follow it. Starting any new business generates a mind-boggling set of choices — about products, pricing, and personnel just for starters. Often there is no apparent correct choice. That’s the time to check out your model and just do what they do. I modeled U.S. 1 after the Town Topics, with which I still had my freelance writing arrangement, and the Daily Princetonian, where I had invaluable access to the legendary production guru, Larry DuPraz, whose name still graces our masthead.
4.) Make the paper free. Town Topics is a free paper; the Daily Princetonian in 1984 generated a fair amount of revenue from paid circulation. What to do? I opted for free because I didn’t want to spend precious time and resources consummating a series of nickel-and-dime transactions to create a circulation base. But I also kept another idea in mind:
5.) Remember that readers pay for it with their time. Even in those simplistic pre-Internet, pre E-mail days of 1984, we lived in a cluttered media environment. Cable was looming with its hundreds of alternatives to the dozen or so broadcast channels we received in central New Jersey. Trenton had its two daily papers, but the biggest selling daily in town was probably the New York Times. Princeton had the Town Topics and the Packet, as well as the Princeton Shopping Center News and the Woman’s Newspaper, which claimed a monthly circulation of 60,000.
The challenge was to deliver at least one article in each issue, and possibly more than one, that would made people think the publication was worth reading. (As an aside, I doubt that many website producers or bloggers consider the value of their viewers’ time when they plan their content.)
6.) Deliver the paper as close as possible to the readers’ desks. Given that our circulation model, the Town Topics, delivered its papers by throwing them into driveways, and given that almost no business in our target area had driveways, we had to do something different. We had no wire racks to place in lobbies, and no news boxes to locate on sidewalks.
So we just walked door-to-door through office parks on Route 1, Princeton Pike, Nassau Street, etc., and placed the papers onto reception desks. Receptionists, we discovered, were often bored, and our delivery was a high point of the day. (As the years went by we noticed fewer and fewer receptionists, and more empty reception areas.)
It was our pre-Internet version of “push technology,” though we had never heard the term at the time.
The big lesson was that free circulation is not necessarily easy circulation. It needs to be controlled circulation. Early in our operation I visited the owner of the Princeton-Windsor News Agency near the Princeton Junction train station. The Woman’s Newspaper was being delivered, all 30,000 (not 60,000) copies of it. Then a liquor salesman showed up and loaded a dozen bundles into his trunk. Where did those papers go? Far and wide, it turned out, to liquor stores from Princeton to Edison and in between. The guy liked to have something free to give to his customers.
A few years later the Princeton Packet launched its biweekly Princeton Business Journal, distributed primarily through wire racks placed in lobbies. Our deliverers continued to walk on by those racks and open the doors of the businesses from the top floor down. The PBJ never really caught up.
More recently the Daily Princetonian converted its campus circulation from paid to free. I suspect the undergraduates initially thought their circulation challenges would be over once they stopped charging. But I’m quite certain a new set of challenges arose.
7.) If you are going to own and operate a newspaper, call yourself the editor and publisher.
The modest circumstances of many start-ups, I suspect, make it easy to assume an egalitarian approach. In my case the biggest single expense of the first issue (eight pages, 3,000 copies) was the printing bill: less than $1,000. I remember thinking that the title of editor & publisher was presumptuous — chief cook and bottle washer would have been more appropriate. But if the venture turned into anything substantial the power title would be needed. Somewhere down the line one of your own people would challenge your authority, and you wouldn’t want your title to obscure the fact that you are in charge.
8.) In the start-up phase, don’t worry about a business plan or even a budget. The idea is simply to keep expenses as low as possible and to try to maximize income. I still think this is good advice for any start-up: You can mire yourself down with financial planning tools and business planning, but — sooner or later — if you don’t see a little more money every month in the bank account there is not going to be a need for all those tools.
But that idea led to another idea, a bad one, one from which we have never fully recovered.
9.) Just keep your expenses as low as possible and your business will be okay in the long run. This turned out to be a bad idea for two reasons: First, as you become profitable it gives you no incentive to establish the financial reporting methods to ensure the orderly operation of your business. In our case U.S. 1’s management still grinds to a halt every year when I scrounge through stacks of paper strewn about my desk to get the income tax done.
Second, there comes a time for every business when you need to spend money in order to make money, as well as to maintain your presence in the market. At U.S. 1 we were late launching any number of business initiatives until I finally realized we couldn’t afford not to spend some money.
10.) Pick suppliers and stick with them. These guys become your consultants.
No matter how much you know about your core business, there are bound to be dozens of operational details about which you have no knowledge. This is the time to trust your salespeople. U.S. 1’s first computer network was installed in 1988 or so by Pete Soloway of Lan Solutions. U.S. 1’s current network was also installed by Soloway. (He’s also the father of Anna Soloway, who wrote the November 4 cover story on Princeton’s night life — it’s a small world.)
11.) We are more of a data management company than a desktop publishing shop. A quarter century later I wonder how I — an English major in college with no significant real world experience outside of journalism — could have even contemplated such a distinction.
Technology, I suspect, helped me see the choice. In 1984 personal computers were overtaking the desktops of America. And there was a choice: IBM PC or Apple. Apple is what U.S. 1 would want, the guys at the new computer store, Clancy-Paul, advised. Apple was better at word processing, and it was the leader in the all-new desktop publishing method of newspaper production.
I wasn’t so sure. My father worked for IBM, I was raised in an IBM town in upstate New York, and as an Explorer Scout in high school I got to program an IBM mainframe computer — Fortran on a 1401. Besides that, I thought that a lot of our content and our business information would essentially be data and that we would need to have some way to organize that. We bought a PC — an IBM XT, I recall, with a tractor-fed printer and a color monitor. Price: around $5,000.
12.) Whenever possible convert information into databases. This is easier said than done, but we had an immediate advantage thanks to the initial software loaded onto that $5,000 powerhouse computer. It was called Q&A, and it was recommended by a neighbor of mine, Frank Ruck. Ruck was (and still is) a very talented folk guitar player as well as a computer programmer. Q&A, Ruck told me, was not only a word processor, but also a database manager, and you could access one from the other.
So you could enter all those companies on your delivery list into a computer database and use that database to manage your circulation and also to generate a word processing document listing, say, night spots that offer live music, or companies that constitute an annual business directory.
The most immediate impact of this approach was with our events database. Until U.S. 1 came along, the central registry of events in Princeton was a big book at the Princeton Public Library, where organizations penciled in their dates for major galas, etc. Our database soon took over that role. Even today organizations planning any kind of event can look at our events database online and see what else is planned on any given day.
13.) Deciding to run a column. This idea didn’t take long to gel — I was a freelance writer watching his copy get carved up by one editor after another. It took me a while, though, to see the value of injecting some personality into the editorial mix.
Ultimately I came to compare the paper and its operation to a chef-owned restaurant. The Between the Lines column at the beginning of the paper was our equivalent of a maitre d’, greeting the public and giving them an idea of what is on the menu. The contents are our offerings, served buffet style, and we don’t expect everyone to sample every dish. My column at the end of the paper is our version of the chef coming out of the kitchen and having a post-meal drink with the regulars.
My column was also an invitation for other writers to use their own personal voices in the paper. Barbara Fox, one of our earliest editorial hires (another good idea), wrote a blog recently about our 25th anniversary and referenced a book called “Personality Not Included: Why Companies Lose Their Authenticity — and How Great Brands Get it Back,” by Rohit Bhargava, a marketing guy with Ogilvy (http://princetoncomment.blogspot.com/).
Authenticity is communicated by both intentional and accidental spokespeople. As Fox notes, this newspaper’s chief intentional spokesperson is the founder. “Even though you never read a column of his, you can discern his voice, because he sets the tone: No business too small or too big to write about. No cow too sacred to gore. No subject too ‘adult’ to write about or photograph. (We’ve been banished from several school lobbies.)”
And the paper’s “accidental” spokespeople are its writers and freelancers. “For instance, sometimes staff editors Jamie Saxon and Scott Morgan will write personal columns. You get the undiluted ‘voice’ of Jamie (jazzy, hip, young) and Scott (to-the-point, wry, unabashedly honest),” Fox writes. “Freelancers get a similar opportunity to write in their own voice. Bart Jackson, Pat Tanner, Simon Saltzman, Elaine Strauss, Richard Skelly — regular readers don’t need the byline to know who’s writing.”
Maybe, but it wouldn’t be the only success factor. I have eavesdropped on many conversations about U.S. 1’s appeal, and I have heard some favorable comments about my column, as well as about features by any number of writers. But all those instances combined do not equal the number of times I have heard someone say, in effect, I like that paper — it has the best listings of events. See bright idea No. 8., and thank you, Lynn Miller, events editor.
14.) No schools, no sewers, no doom and gloom. In addition to the idea of a regular column by the editor, the rest of the ideas that formed the cornerstone of the paper — numbers 12 through 17 in this list — all came to mind in a few days after I first decided to start the paper.
The “no schools, no sewers” motto came from an unlikely source: Sam Hamill and Harry Sayen of what was then called the MSM Regional Planning Council (now called PlanSmart NJ). I visited with Hamill and Sayen because they seemed to have the best view of the mushrooming Route 1 development. When I mentioned the idea of the paper covering the various municipalities that the highway passed through, they said to forget it — it was essentially head-in-the-sand posturing that would do no one any good. They urged me to take a broader view, and I did.
A few years later the New York Times sent a reporter out to do a story on the new paper. We made the first page of the B section on October 30, 1987. “Over the last decade or so, there has been such an up-welling of sober-sided office parks, glossy hotels, and flag-spangled shopping malls that the whole [Princeton-Route 1 corridor] has come to stand in people’s minds as a separate place, not yet a city, no longer just a zoning variance, from the handful of townships it slices through.
“All this new place needed was its own Walt Whitman to sing of it, and that is what Rein decided to become.”
15.) Why now? This was an editing principle employed at People magazine, one of the publications I was working at prior to starting U.S. 1. It helps you separate interesting topics, which are being suggested to you continuously by clever PR people, from timely stories.
16.) Let stories be long if they need to be. Two years before U.S. 1 was founded, the Gannett newspaper company (the same people who awarded me a newspaper boy scholarship that paid for my tuition, room, and board in my first year at Princeton) launched USA Today newspaper. (In our early days, we were surprised at how many business and entertainment heavyweights returned our calls so quickly. It turned out that lots of people heard U.S. 1, the community newspaper, and mistook us for USA Today, the national publication.)
One critical element of USA Today’s success was that articles should be short — rarely breaking from one page to another. The argument was that people were just too busy to turn a page to follow a story.
I didn’t believe it and knew from the get-go that we would run some very long articles. On June 13, 1990, we ran a long piece by Larry Tabak on the infamous Menendez brothers. Tabak was not only a freelance writer, but he was also a tennis instructor, and he had been hired by Jose Menendez to provide some higher-level competition for Lyle and Erik when the boys were still living in Princeton. Tabak’s U.S. 1 piece rivaled anything in the national media.
On our sixth anniversary, in November, 1990, we ran a 10,000-word excerpt from Robin Herman’s book on the Plasma Physics Lab, “Fusion: The Search for Endless Energy.” A few years later we launched the annual Summer Fiction issue. Busy people could still find a way to read stories, turn pages, and possibly even chew gum at the same time.
17. No matter how busy he is, the editor needs to get out of the office to do some reporting. I did a lot in the beginning. One of my pieces was titled “New Hope in the Plague Years — A Tourist Town Faces a Volatile Issue, AIDS,” in December, 1986, a few months after the owner of the popular Havana restaurant in New Hope had died of what was then still a misunderstood disease.
Eventually the reporting forays were limited to playing assistant to longtime U.S. 1 photographer Craig Terry. Rounding up the subjects, suggesting situations to Terry, and kibitzing with the sources during the photo process turned out to be a reporting bonanza. Many years before, when I was just beginning my freelance writing career, I asked journalist and Princeton resident Brock Brower if he had any advice. The reporting is never really done, he said, until you have sat down and had a drink with your subject. That’s when the real story comes out. I would say something similar about hanging out at a photo shoot.
18.) On a weekly newspaper, no one should regularly work on weekends (except me.) This idea was one of several related to streamlining our operation — a bullet that most fledgling enterprises have to bite sooner or later.
The Friday night pizza party referenced at the beginning of this column was not an unusual event in the early days of U.S. 1. At the start-up newspaper in town days turned into nights, Fridays morphed into weekends, and there always seemed to be one more stone to turn in the quest for business survival. But eventually you need to re-set your organizational pace from a dash to a marathon. The fact is that the rule of diminishing returns applies sooner than writers and editors believe.
The wake-up moment was literally that: One Saturday morning at around 3 a.m. I answered the phone at our office at 870 Mapleton Road. It was Barbara Fox’s husband, George, wondering if she was still there. She was — sound asleep in a chair. At that point I decreed there would be no more weekend work. Barbara and everyone else got their office work done within the five weekdays.
That was a great streamlining idea; the next one was very bad.
19.) A business owner can maximize his efficiency by delegating whenever possible. Possibly true, but a bad idea, I have since concluded.
The knock on small business owners, including me, is that they do not delegate enough. “Your problem, Rein, is that you are afraid to delegate,” a haughty employee once yelled at me. But the truth was that I had delegated a lot, otherwise neither this employee nor anyone else would have had a job at that point. Somewhere around 1989 or 1990, in fact, I delegated so much that I stopped writing the column, except in a few rare instances, and I stopped going out on the photo shoots.
What’s so bad about that? The downside, I think, is that when the boss stops going out and taking some chances, everyone else stops taking chances, as well. We got to the point where the prime goal of a U.S. 1 cover was not to offend anyone. I fixed that one week by creating a cover for a “road rage” story that featured kiddie cars driven by two adults, one (played by me) giving the finger to the other.
20.) Somewhere, somehow there is a Northwest Passage for your business. The passage will enable you to take your product to more people at lower cost than you could possibly imagine. You just have to find it.
This is a great idea, but you don’t want to stake your business on it. I have been tempted to go on two Northwest Passage expeditions in the course of running U.S. 1. The first was to install a FaxBack system in our office in 1994. The idea was this: You would set aside several separate phone lines, fill a computer with an equal number of fax modems, and people could call a main number, get an automated attendant who would guide them through the process of retrieving up to three stored documents that would then be faxed to a number of their choice.
Our Faxback system was loaded with train schedules, daily event listings, publication schedules, and so on. We envisioned ads across the top of each Faxback page. It was a great idea — and eventually we built an audience of about 100 users. Everybody else was happy to receive their information the old-fashioned way.
The great FaxBack idea gave way to the great E-mail newsletter idea. As the Internet came of age in the late 1990s, the E-mail newsletter looked like a much better idea. Instead of asking customers to punch in their fax number every time they wanted to access information, the E-mail newsletter would require a single sign-up, and then we would “push” that information to them. When we signed up recipients for the E-mail newsletter we gave them options for special business, arts, and dining alerts. We anticipated a daily version of the E-mail newsletter. Another great idea, another 100 or so respondents.
21. If you are going to create a new facet to your business, pick something that will complement your product line, not compete with it. After the failures of FaxBack and the E-mail edition, I wasn’t eager to start anything new, but then in the spring of 2000, the technology bubble burst, and little business papers like ours felt an immediate drop in ad revenues.
At that same time I noticed that the community newspaper in West Windsor and Plainsboro had closed up shop. I promptly started the WW-P News, a biweekly publication that was the opposite of U.S. 1 in most every way. It targeted people at home, not at work; it sold ads to residential real estate brokers, not commercial. And finally, we had a publication that would deal with sewers and schools, and even a little doom and gloom.
The News has never done much more than break even, but it has allowed us to expand our staff and extend our capabilities. And with a circulation of 12,000 copies, it has a lot more than 100 readers.
22. Never take for granted the free time of your audience. Time is the most precious commodity of all. As I ponder all the new media channels we have explored, and contemplate all the new ones looming on the horizon, I am at a loss to forecast who among us will still be standing 25 years from now. But whoever it is, I predict, will provide a communications medium that maximizes the time of its audience.
23. Whenever you think there’s nothing more important than your business, think again. Think of your physical health.
This little detour in my business planning began in a most roundabout way in the spring or summer of 2001, when I was locked in a death grip trial with my former wife. Her attorney, understandably hell bent on painting me as a rich, white, privileged fat cat with a golden goose of a business, prefaced most of his questions with grand assumptions about my status in life. “Mr. Rein, you’re a graduate of Princeton University, majoring in English, are you not, and so you must have a profound understanding of words and their meaning,” he might begin.
I eventually primed myself to contradict whatever underlying assumption he would bring to his question. And then he asked a question undoubtedly meant to establish that I would be a rich, white, privileged fat cat for many years to come: “So Mr. Rein, you’re in excellent health, are you not?”
My response: “No, I don’t know that I am.”
Later that day I thought back and realized I was 54 years old, hadn’t had a complete physical in years, and I really didn’t have a clue whether I was healthy or not. I scheduled a physical exam for Monday, September 10, 2001. When the doctor asked if I had any problems to report, the best I could do was to mention some mild heartburn I occasionally experienced. He scheduled a nuclear stress test, which led to an angiogram, which led to the discovery of a 95 percent blocked left anterior descending artery.
If the physical had occurred one day later I never would have complained about anything.
24.) Whenever you think there’s nothing more important than your business, think again and think of your mental health. Shortly after the medical battle began, I took stock of what I was doing with my working hours. Lots of different things, but very little of the work that had led me to start the paper in the first place. So in May of 2002 I walked over to an art auction benefit for the Princeton Young Achievers. I bought a picture of Muhammad Ali towering over the fallen Sonny Liston and turned it into a column, picking it up after an absence of almost a decade.
I figure I’m batting about .333 with the column. A third of the time I just can’t come up with an idea; another third ends up with a column that isn’t all that memorable; and a final third (if I’m lucky) turns into a little after-dinner mint that the late-night diners at a chef-owned restaurant might appreciate (see No. 13 above). And that makes up for some of the dank and dreary days that go along with the job.
25. Have someone or something to inspire you. You will need some inspiration on those dank and dreary days that confront all entrepreneurs.
I had a powerful source. In the summer of 1984, as I was dithering over whether to start the paper, and what the consequences would be if I failed (me, a failure!), and all the other considerations that make it easier not to do something than to do it, my 16-year-old nephew was in the final throes of a two-year battle with brain cancer. In all that time I never heard him complain. And in the 25 years since then I have reminded myself of that on many occasions.
Another 25 years? I could not have predicted the first 25 years, and I won’t predict the next. But I will get started on next week’s issue, which could be one of our best.