Wednesday, February 28, 2018

What works, and what doesn't work

The long-running trend in the U.S. for companies to be owned and bought by "chains" has not worked for the newspaper business.

The best newspapers are strongly local; the standardization forced on them by chain ownership works against that. Also, the cash flow is notoriously erratic, and can vary widely. The tendency for "bean counters" to set the bottom line for accounts receivable at the lowest possible cash flow level means many newspapers appear unprofitable on paper.

You can make a living from a newspaper, but they are not profitable enough in general to pay out large dividends. Attempts by corporate owners to generate that kind of profit usually leads to cutbacks to the point the newspaper can't produce a decent, interesting product. Plus corporate owners often cheat employees by giving then workloads that can't be accomplished in a 40 hour work week, thereby forcing them to work off the clock (they never approve overtime).

Owner-operated small newspapers will be around for many years, but we will probably see the demise of daily newspapers, and newspaper chains, within my lifetime.

I've gotten by over the years by pretty much trying to always work for locally-owned newspapers whenever possible.

If I ever write my journalism autobiography, I'll call it "I'm a Fugitive From a Newspaper Chain Gang".

Friday, February 23, 2018

Hopefully resolved

It took weeks of effort, but it looks like we finally solved the problem with new subscribers not getting their papers. It has been especially intensive the past two weeks, and took getting both a new label printer and a new computer. We now can print the mailing labels in-house - before we were sending a file via email to the press and having them run off the labels. That was convenient, but as I've noted before, somewhere along the line the subscription list wasn't being updated and no one who subscribed to the paper since Jan. 1st was getting one.

This week the press had a set of labels delivered to them. I think starting next week we will simply label and sort the papers ourselves in Clarksville.

Yesterday was the first Thursday in weeks we weren't inundated by irate subscribers who didn't get their papers. It was actually becoming a disruption to office operations.

We've picked up at least a couple of dozen new subscribers since the start of the year - which is great! - but you can imagine the hassle when 24 people call, ranging from irritated to angry because they didn't get their newspaper.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The subscription saga continues

The new printer was delivered to the Clarksville Times office today, and we got it up and running. We were able to print mailing labels - the first that's been done in the office since last summer - but couldn't complete the set because we were short of blank labels. The labels were in a box, but it turned out they were set on the top of a pile of labels that weren't the right kind. It was a box of Avery labels with the sprockets on the sides, but the labels that work with our printer don't have the guide sprockets and are friction fed. Sometime in the past someone got a box of the Avery labels at Staples, not realizing they were the wrong kind, and put the last of the old - correct - labels on top of them.

This circulation saga has been the death of a thousand cuts.

You can't buy the friction fed labels locally, you have to buy them from the circulation management company. So not only is the printer proprietary, so are the labels.

The circulation company has pledged to overnight the set of our mailing labels to the printing press so they will have them on Wednesday. They also said they will send us some blank labels so we can run off the labels in-house next week.

The one bright spot is that once we ran off the labels today I could check for the subscribers who haven't been getting their papers, and I could see they have labels being generated. For the past month and half the labels were being printed from a file we exported and emailed to the printing press, so we couldn't actually be sure the labels were being printed. If the circulation company ships the same labels as we ran off today in the office, these people will finally get their papers. I have no idea why the labels were not being generated by the exported file in the first place.

The circulation company followed through on its pledge to train us. I spent two and a half hours on the phone with them, and Patricia spent two hours herself.

I've had sinusitis for a week now, and I'm feeling sweaty and feverish. I'm keeping a fan blowing on me when I sit at my desk, both at work and at home. I assume I'm sick because of the stress and high blood pressure. This fiasco has to come to an end.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Big hassle

I haven't posted much this past week. We've had a crisis at the newspaper. When Patricia and I bought it at the start of the year, we inherited a printer for the subscription labels that didn't seem to work. We got by that by emailing a file of subscribers to the newspaper that prints us, and having them label the papers as they exit the printing press.

That means. however, we don't see the labels before they are put on the papers, and during the past few weeks we have gotten complaints that people who bought subscriptions since the start of the year are not getting their papers in the mail.

The company we pay to service our mailing list - sort it according to postal carrier route and otherwise organize it for bagging to the post office - has not been helpful at all. We must be doing something wrong, but they have not been able to help us. Soon we will have to start refunding subscriptions.

Last week I gave up on them and decided to hit the reboot button. As difficult as it would be, I decided we needed to look for another servicer

The Clarksville Times has used the company for many years, but Patricia and I just took over, and apparently we don't know the system well enough. Customer service finally offered to train us like new users, but set the date as March 2.

I told them forget it, by then we'll be sending out refunds.

The folks that are missing the paper have been very good about it. Many who live in the city are just coming to the office and picking theirs up. We've also been doing some home delivery and dropping papers at people's houses. Which is ridiculous because we are paying this company to prepare our mailing list.

Friday Patricia and I delivered two papers to people who live in the Clarksville zip code but live out in the country. It was a 40 mile round trip.

And people who live in other counties are not getting their paper at all.

The circulation company now says a they are shipping a printer that works and it should be at the office tomorrow. They also have promised to give Patricia and I each two hours training on Monday.

This has been so stressful my health has declined and I'm fighting a cold again because my immune system is obviously weakened.

Tomorrow we'll see if the current circulation management company follows through and we keep them, or whether we switch to a new provider. Having to make a switch will bring its own set of problems, but we may have no choice in the long run.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

It's about time!

Because she is recovering from her sickness, we let Millie sleep in the house last night. Normally she would sleep in my "library", which is an old bunkhouse across the patio from the rear of our house. That's where the kennels are.

So she was in the kitchen this morning as I was cooking breakfast, a skillet of scrambled eggs and sausage. Her appetite seems to have returned to normal, and she just stared at me with those big puppy eyes as I loaded up my plate.

I looked at her, and I looked at the plate, and said to her:

"You know what? After 12 years you've earned a human breakfast. Here you go."

I put the plate down and she disposed of it very quickly. Then she went to snooze on the couch with what I thought was a look of satisfaction.

I will be using the drive-through at McDonalds this morning. But I think I did the right thing.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Feeling puny

Got a scare this weekend - Millie got sick and was hacking like she was nauseous. She lost her appetite, which is a very disturbing symptom for a Labrador. Took her to the vet first thing this morning; he said she was running a fever. He gave her a shot and a prescription for antibiotics. She's much better and seems to be recovering. She's got her usual ravenous Labrador appetite back.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Grab the rug, and pull!

Back on Jan. 28 I mentioned how I got my first long-term newspaper job in Texas, and how it brought me to the city where I met and married Patricia.

I noted that when I became managing editor of The Cedar Hill Chronicle on July 4, 1987, I followed an editor who quit and essentially stole everything at the paper, with a mind to starting his own. He also persuaded the staff to follow him.

He was arrogant and didn't think his importance hadn't been properly acknowledged by the owners. I knew what he was like and I expected him to do what he did. I took it as an opportunity to start fresh and put my own stamp on the paper.

I mentioned that in the fall after he started his own newspaper I essentially sank it with a clever little ploy I improvised. For brevity's sake I did go into that on Jan. 28, but at least a couple of you said at the time you'd also like to hear that story, so here it is.

This guy called his business a newspaper and typesetting business - remember, this is before desktop publishing was common - and that tipped me off he planned to get some extra money from other sources.

Like many journalists with inflated egos, he overestimated how much people valued him as opposed to how much they valued the newspaper.

I assumed when he started the paper that he planned to get his "friends" in the local athletic booster club to pay him to typeset the fall football program. He could pick up hundreds of dollars for that.

I had no idea how to prevent that - it was a private group and not obligated to go out to bid or anything like that.

Then one day a member of the booster club called me at my newspaper and asked if we wanted to buy an ad in the program. They were calling all the businesses in town.

Inspiration struck. I suggested that, rather than give them fifty or a hundred dollars for an ad, I could contribute much more, by typesetting the program for them myself, for free.

They thought it was a generous offer, and accepted it. It took working extra hours at night and on weekends, but I did it.

As I suspected, in only a month or so the competing newspaper went away. He had counted on that money for typesetting the football program, and I pulled the rug out from under him. I didn't get the money, but neither did he, and I calculated correctly that while my newspaper could survive without it, his couldn't.

One final note: I always believe in having pride in your work. In composing the football program, I wanted to bring some cohesion to the pages, which had been a jumble of photos and ads. I came up with the idea of making a template of each page, consisting of a border with the school mascot bracketed at the top of each page.

That organized the pages better and brought some consistency to the whole. It looked good.

I followed through and typeset the football program - at no cost - for the local booster club for the next few years. Then I eventually moved on to another paper.

Some years later, the team from the city where I worked at the time played Cedar Hill at Cedar Hill. When I arrived at the game and got a copy of the program, I saw they still used the format I had invented years earlier, with the border and the mascot at the top of each page.

Made me feel proud.

Anyway, that's my story of how thinking fast, and strategically - instead of just looking for the bottom line - produced most welcome results.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Legal crooks

My wife and I had a mortgage for many years with a company called Nationstar. They were a typical big bureaucratic mortgage company - no real customer service and difficult to deal with. But while we were flush with money it didn't bother us. However, starting in 2015 we started to suffer a drop in income, and then it became a problem. They were absolutely no help with refinancing. Once you fall behind in payments you realize what they call "customer service" is really collections.

It became very frustrating, and ultimately I have absolutely nothing positive to say about the company. I'm glad we are rid of them.

Apparently I'm not the only person to have such an experience with these fools, and I recently learned that last fall they "rebranded" themselves. The new name?

Mr. Cooper.

I'm not kidding. What a farce!

I went to a Yelp page for the outfit. Here are some of the comments:

"Classic case of the ad agency (tail) wagging the dog (ivory tower marketing). Mr. Cooper brand, at best, is creepy, paternal, invasive."

"They're gonna keep getting bad reviews until the government shut Them down legal crooks Worry about your future customers don't worry about the customers you are screwed you're not gonna fix it"

"Again they try to give me their customer service representative is nothing but it joke Just thieves."

"Stay away from them bunch of crooks and thief Customer service is really bad nobody speaks English."

"I had a mortgage with Nationstar once before several years ago. I couldn't refinance quick enough to get away from these hucksters."

"I'm at the point of paying down the mortgage to get out from under Mr. Cooper ASAP. They SUCK. Run, don't walk, away...far, far away from Mr. Cooper.

"My girlfriend's mortgage was sold to them back in July from Citi Mortgage and she has faithfully made payments to them since
Well surprise she was served foreclosure papers today. My father is dying from cancer and now we have to deal with this. I believe she was scammed by this place. She will be taking legal action."

And on and on.

These guys are based in Dallas. Texas has a pro-business economic climate, but they remind of Ambrose Bierce's definition of Piracy in "The Devil's Dictionary":

"Commerce without its folly-swaddles, just as God made it."

If you are unfortunate enough to have a mortgage being service by these idiots, I'd try to get away as fast as possible.

Things are going well

Although its hard row to hoe, being your own boss, but so far so good. The newspaper closed out January firmly in the black, and our revenues are on a steady rise. There hasn't been a day since we took over Jan. 1st that we haven't made a bank deposit; many days we've made two.

Just this afternoon after lunch, at the very end of the week, we picked two two ads for next week - one for Valentine's Day, the other for multiple weeks. One was completely out of the blue, the other responded to a previous message and agreed they wanted to join our team.

Mind you, before we took over, the paper wasn't even open Friday afternoons.

And January is traditionally one of the slowest months for advertising in a newspaper, following as it does the busy Christmas and New Year's holidays.

Between this week and next week, we've picked up FIVE new advertisers on a multiple insertion basis. Probably six. The deadline for next week's paper in noon Monday.

So yes, things are going well. It's very gratifying.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Mea culpa

Over a week ago I posted information which I believed to be correct at the time, to the effect that an on-line presence named Camestros Felapton was a professor of philosophy at an Australian university.

Felaptron has been a harsh and bitter critic of the so-called Sad Puppies for many years, and I resented how he recently attacked Richard Paolinelli for starting a new writers' group.

Some friends of mine pointed out information to me that indicated Felaptron's identity. I looked at it and thought it checked out, so I posted it.

After a few days - amidst the usual on-line screeching you get if you're not 100 percent politically correct - I realized I may have interpreted something wrong. It took me a few days to parse; I'm self-employed now since my wife and I bought the local newspaper Jan. 1st and my first commitment in time is to my business.

But a few days ago I realized I could not stand behind my original assertion, and I went on Twitter to apologize to both Felaptron and the spouse of the person who I originally named. I asked for their forgiveness, and they were nice enough to accept my apology.

It took me a few days to get back here on the blog, but while accusations were flying I went to disable it so I wouldn't have to moderate comments, and I accidentally did something that kept me from accessing it myself. I finally figured it out this morning.

Ninety-five percent of my time has always been tied up with life in the "real world" and not the looking glass existence of speculative fiction. Now I am self-employed that percentage is almost 100 percent.

Too many people have too much time on their hands. Of course, I'm unhappy that when I stumbled I was piled on, but I do resent being attacked. Even a rat will bite you when you step on it. Some of my on-line "friends" jumped into the fray and said other things I never would have said myself in a million years. Although they are free to exercise their right of free speech and opinion, I thought some things were just in poor taste and unnecessarily abusive.

People who know me and have met me in person think I'm friendly and easy-going, but social media brings out the worst in me- as it does in many people.  I think my subconscious doesn't think these phantoms of the web are "real" and the normal social safeguards don't kick in. It may be a generation thing - I turned 61 a month ago.

In any case, since I made the original post here, I wanted to publish the retraction here, now that I am able. I also went back and deleted the original post and some follow-ups.

Anyone interested?

I have some surplus copies of anthologies I have participated in