I’m not that old. Seriously, I’m not. But in my work with newspapers, I’ve worked with so many younger people that I sometimes feel like Yoda (for you Star Wars fans) to a sizeable group of up-and-coming publishers in our business. In addition to all these young publishers, I hear from regularly, I also hear from a lot of publishers who are retiring and moving on to enjoy the fruits of their labors and – as happens in many science fiction movies – and there are times when these two worlds collide.
Joey Kent, the young (at least he used to be young) publisher who has made a name for himself in Kansas and beyond, stopped me at a convention three years ago and asked, “Why are you working so hard to make me famous?” Joe didn’t realize it at the time, but I wasn’t the one making him famous. He was becoming famous on his own, starting newspapers in his home state. I was simply spreading the word.
Hardly a week (or is it a day?) goes by that I don’t hear from a former student (I spent 21 years directing The University of Tennessee Newspaper Institute) or young journalist thinking about buying or starting a newspaper. At the same time, it’s rare when a week passes that I don’t hear from a longtime publisher searching for the right person to take over their newspaper. Now and then, I introduce them to each other.
This has been an exciting month as I watched one of my favorite students, Jessica Prevatt, buy the newspaper she worked at for more than 20 years. Jessica attended my Institute every year, and we’d often have conversations about her purchasing her own newspaper. The Baker County (Florida) Press has been very successful – with significant market penetration – and Jessica always believed there was a bright future for the paper. So, I wasn’t surprised when she swore me to secrecy – I’m an excellent secret-keeper – a few months ago and told me she was going to buy The Baker County Press. I was a proud mentor.
While I was having conversations with Jessica about her budding future as a rising star in the newspaper business, I also had conversations with my friend Lesa Van Camp, publisher of the newspaper in Drayton, North Dakota. I met Lesa when she first purchased the paper and, by her admission, didn’t know a lot about running a newspaper. She heard I was in the area, working with a larger paper, and asked if I could come by for a few hours to help learn how to produce a newspaper. The few hours turned into a day, then I asked if she’d like me to stay into the evening and redesign her newspaper, and the rest is history. Due to some health issues, Lesa knew it was time to find a new owner for her beloved newspaper. But she didn’t want just any owner. She wanted someone local who would care for her paper in the way only a local owner can. For a while, it looked like Lesa would be forced to close the paper without selling it, but I received word a few weeks ago – again, I was sworn to secrecy – Lesa had found a local buyer. Last week, Lesa published her final edition of Valley News & Views, and the new owner will publish next week’s issue.
A couple of months ago, I heard from a young (it’s a relative term, I know) journalist who I’ve met many times through the years when speaking at conventions and training events. She came searching for solid advice about buying a newspaper. At that moment, it felt like all my experience and connections came into play, and I connected her with Joey, Jessica, and another friend who had traveled similar paths. After a few minutes of group conversation, I hung up the phone and allowed them to carry on without me.
When working with newspapers these days, I spend most of my time helping papers create better publications. In 30 years of consulting, the one constant I point to most often is that growing, thriving newspapers continuously work to improve their products. I’ve seen hundreds – probably thousands – of the latest gimmicks to make newspapers rich. I’ve heard speakers and seen vendors pushing ideas and products that promise to line the pockets of newspaper owners, only to see these same speakers and vendors quickly fade away (or come back with new “incredible” ideas a year or two later).
I’m convinced Jessica will continue to grow her paper in Florida as a publisher. I’m confident Joey will do the same, as will the young journalist mentioned previously who is considering purchasing her first paper. It’s all about improving the product.
I’m a proud Yoda.