Corrections or additions?

These column by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the November 5,

2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Richard K. Rein: Between the Lines Anniversary Column

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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