09-30-08 | Printable Version

Patience, Optimism and Stubborness Pay Off

From 60% revenue growth to staff walkouts, Roy Bode reflects on the first two years of ownership

On any given day on some news desk in America, a couple of editors are probably having coffee, killing time and thinking about buying a corduroy coat with patched sleeves, a pipe for rumination, a big roll top desk, and a country newspaper. There, writing like William Allen White, they plan to dispense sage wisdom to the folks of their new hometown, who will embrace them – and their newspaper – with fierce and undying loyalty and respect.

Well, in this day and age, I’m not really sure how many have corduroy coats or pipes in mind, remember William Allen White or prefer roll tops to desktops. But I am sure the dream of running your own paper still burns bright.

It did for me.

In my new life of seven-day weeks and 48-hour days, there hasn’t been a lot of time to reflect on the choice I made a little better than two years ago to leave a comfortable job cruising toward a pleasant retirement to buy four struggling weeklies and an uncertain future in the Texas Hill Country.

But when I do, an old movie called Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House often comes to mind.

You should see it. Remember, it’s the 40s picture with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy where – with one slap of reality after another – a Madison Avenue ad guy finds his visions of life as a country squire are more easily imagined than realized.

Sure, I knew a lot more about weekly newspapers than the average New Yorker knows about farming and I really wasn’t thinking much about resurrecting Mr. White – though I did find a nice corduroy coat on sale. Instead, as my 60th birthday came into range, my idea was to wrap up my working life by having a little fun … and making some money.

I’d watched friends like Ken Johnson and Will Jarrett build a fortune in short order by clustering small market newspapers into the Westward group a few years ago. Once Ken survived his first heart attack, he seemed to be having a pretty good time.

So here was Phil Murray with the perfect chance for me to find out if I could do this too, even if on a smaller scale – and maybe without the heart attack.

The papers he brought me had fabulous upside: They were in position to dominate an incredible growth market, but were failing both as news and business enterprises. They had long and lustrous histories – one reaching back nearly a century-and-a-half – but had changed large-group owners four times in a decade.

What they needed was for a new owner to step up, personally take charge, set them on course, perhaps go shopping for a few more in the neighborhood, then live happily ever after.

All this didn’t require genius-power analysis.

But it did turn out to be a little tougher than it looked on spreadsheets and it called for more patience, flexibility, optimism, stamina, stubbornness, diplomacy, foresight and improvisation than I happened to stash away in my metro newspaper executive kit.

Right away, I learned a most important lesson: It’s not just how often the press turns that makes big dailies different from big weeklies – or at least from the semi-weekly and weeklies we acquired.

Like most small publishers, they’ve given me plenty of unexpected on-the-job training, allowing me to gain experience as a delivery driver, office clerk, repairman, janitor, photographer and salesman. In the gloomy pre-dawn hours where time for life appraisal always seems available, I’ve sometimes put aside worries of how to grow revenue and cut expense with the comforting thought that new career paths may now be open to me.

Of course, I’ve developed such versatility because this business is mainly about people. Managing employees by the hundreds is a lot easier than managing a couple of dozen. At a weekly, it takes every person and every job to make the presses turn and get the papers delivered.

Soon after he bought his own weekly group, my friend Ike Massey – who once ran metros in the Dallas, Houston and LA markets – observed, “The most frustrating thing about this place is that you can’t come in every morning and fire everyone you ought to.”

It’s also next to impossible – even in a resort setting like ours with lakes and hills, vineyards, championship golf courses, dining from barbecue to gourmet and shopping from box stores to bookshops – to find and keep employees with ambition, ability, an understanding that working at a newspaper is different from working at the mill, and a devotion to the craft.

At first, we were purely astonished when supervisory employees walked out on deadline rather than control smoking breaks, when a newly-hired designer called to quit en route to her first day on the job because the drive was too long, when sales people enthusiastically accepted jobs but never reported for work, or when others simply disappeared from the staff without note, call or e-mail … and, of course, that we could rarely fire anyone when they really needed firing.

Occasionally, personnel surprises still take a little of the zip out of our day, but fortunately they’re no longer commonplace.

Of about three dozen employees here when we arrived, three remain on a staff that – generally – no longer causes me to shake my head in wonderment and say to my wife, “It looks like a newsroom, but it must really be a movie set.”

Getting the right people in the right places hasn’t yet given me much time for striking the William Allen White pose, but it has enabled us to make a host of improvements that have transformed our group’s position to one of complete dominance in advertising, paid circulation and online traffic in the market.

In two years, we’ve increased revenues by nearly 60 percent. So far this year, we’ve managed to grow almost 10 percent despite the national economic turbulence.

We’ve nearly doubled paid circulation of The Highlander, our flagship paper in Marble Falls, Texas, and increased paid circulation of our Burnet Bulletin by about 50 percent. We’ve added rack and counter sale points, ongoing circulation marketing programs, and extended our delivery routes.

We’ve converted our Llano paper from free to paid, merged our smallest paper with it and made its distribution countywide.

Three months into our ownership of the Highland Lakes Newspapers, we reached agreement with every major hotel in our two-county market to distribute our local papers exclusively in all their occupied rooms.

At the same time, we designed a full-color weekly dining and entertainment supplement to all papers, Lake Country Life, that has proven enormously successful with both readers and advertisers and continues to grow.

We’ve redesigned our websites, added audio, video and other features and a heavy program of cross-promotion and sales with the newspapers. We’ve installed new business, design and editorial software programs and new computer equipment.

We’ve added a host of exclusive national and out-of-market advertisers and developed whole new advertising categories that had been absent from our group.

We’ve replaced a black and white Xerox one-sheet rate card with a professional quality digital and print media kit.

We’ve increased efficiencies and added more four-color pages to each paper while radically reducing production costs and other expenses of all kinds.

We’ve developed an alliance with the regional home building and construction association and produce its annual Parade of Homes Guide and other publications.

In two years, we’ve quadrupled revenue from what was the group’s largest special advertising section, developed a new yearly section that is 20 percent larger than that, and added other products – all larger than any special sections done previously.

We’ve enhanced the quality of our advertising and page design, winning statewide awards for both.

Now, we’re launching new business and real estate pages that interlock with our websites.

Best of all, for the first time since 1986, our semi-weekly Highlander won the Texas Press Association Sweepstakes as the best newspaper of its size in the state.

I don’t remember how Mr. Blandings’ dream house turned out, but we’re topping out a quality community newspaper now, reading more of those surveys that rank our area as one of the country’s top retirement and vacation spots, and expecting more boom times with the addition of a regional specialty hospital and expanding Austin and San Antonio market sprawl.

But I’ve finally got the end of those 48-hour days in sight. Maybe next weekend I can take another look at that movie and see how things worked out for Cary Grant.

Roy E. Bode is president and publisher of Bar 30 Media’s Highland Lakes Newspapers. He started in the newspaper business at age 14 for a semi-weekly in his West Texas hometown and has worked for newspapers in TX, OK, KY, and NJ, including the Dallas Times Herald where he was Washington Bureau Chief and, later, editor. He and his wife, Ellen, life in Marble Falls, Texas with their two dogs, Luke and Dolly.