By David Ross
While being clueless isn’t a prerequisite for earning an MBA, it’s a good start.
I had my introduction to the global economy during the first week in December of 2012 when a new owner purchased The Roadrunner after it had been owned and operated by Dale & Shirley Good for nearly 20 years. Before that it had been owned by a consortium of five owners after being founded in 1974 by Van Quackenbush, who brought me on board in 1984. I edited the publication for about 27 years.
San Diego North County has had its share of traumatic newspaper events over the years, the most devastating being the recent purchase and subsequent murder of the North County Times by Doug Manchester, owner of the Union Tribune. Valley Center’s experience might be considered as a microcosm of that regional upheaval in that it has led to the near destruction of a trusted local source for news.
The new owner of the paper, whom I shall simply refer to as “the MBA,” immediately told us that we were all fired and would have to interview to “keep” our jobs. During the interview process, I explained my beliefs in community journalism and how I believe that a local newspaper is a key to a community’s identity. A community newspaper should provide the kind of news that can’t be got anywhere else. That’s what I believe and that is what I have practiced all these years.
That philosophy appeared to appeal to the MBA, who told me he wanted me to continue working at The Roadrunner. “We like you. You ARE the Roadrunner,” he said. I thought that was a fairly promising beginning however, I soon discovered that we were all being thrown into a corporate environment much different from what we were used to at our little community paper.
The MBA has two other newspapers, one in Riverside County and the other in Nevada, near Las Vegas. He owns a corporation that provides services to other newspapers, such as assisting them in creating an Internet presence, in developing newspaper “apps” for Smartphone and for incorporating videos into the newspaper coverage they provide. That corporation is based in Beijing, China. Yes, you read that correctly! Beijing has a large contingent of expatriates living in a European quarter. Americans and British residents are willing to work for what in this country would be considered subsistence wages for the privilege of living in one of the most culturally vital places in the world.
Once a week all of the employees in all three papers and Beijing would get on a conference call, with the folks in China just starting their day while those of us in the states were finishing ours. We would hash out our various problems. Or try to. It turned out that the MBA is a devotee of “process.” He will spend hours working on procedures, check lists and scripting processes. He is fascinated above all else by trying to come up with a process that takes all exigencies into account. So, if, for example, I were to complain, as I often did, that several people had come into the office to say that their subscriptions had been messed up or that the yard sale classified ad they put hadn’t actually run, the MBA’s answer always was: “We need for people to follow the process.” When confronted with a truly monumental screw-up, such as the time that a deli owner gave explicit instructions for an ad for Father’s Day for a special promotion for which she purchased hundreds of dollars’ worth of product, only to see the ad misplaced in Beijing, the MBA’s answer upon being confronted with the problem was, “Let’s come back to that.” And of course we never would.
It became fairly obvious that the MBA was bored when anyone other than he was speaking, which he is capable of doing at great length, often for two or three hour stretches, during which time the hapless victim is left with contemplating ways of escape, like a fox whose paw is caught in the jaws of a trap and is forced to gnaw his own foot off to free himself. The MBA’s eyes would glaze over when forced to yield the floor for even a moment, and he would mutter, “OK, well, let’s look at that, but for now, just to make it easier. . . “ and go on to another topic on a long agenda list.
The MBA’s plan was to modernize The Roadrunner by revamping our Web site presence, by the introduction of a Roadrunner phone app and by integrating videos into our news presentation, or as he wrote in his book, “profiting from the convergence of web, email, mobile and print.” It all sounded very good and very hip, and just the sort of shot in the arm that a slightly musty newspaper a little bit set in its ways could use to bring news to the community.
As we all soon learned, the MBA’s solution to almost everything involving newspapers was to downsize and outsource---to China. Our proofreader and the part-time graphics designer were quickly shown the door. A few weeks into the New Year the production of the paper had been outsourced to China, where the MBA has a crew that mixes American or British journalists with some Chinese staffers for whom English isn’t necessarily their strongest language. The ads were still being designed in Valley Center by our extremely talented designer, Sheena, but the paper was being produced in China.
At first those of us on this side of the planet had no way of catching mistakes or typos before the paper was sent electronically to the printer, who was based in the U.S. The first few issues that were produced in Asia were as filled with as many typos as there are poppy seeds on a Kaiser bun. I had very little creative control. In a few instances stories that I asked to be put on the front page were not even put in the paper. After a few weeks of this increasingly frustrating situation, I decided to “go on strike.” I told one of the two associate publishers in Beijing to remove my name from my articles and to take my name off of the masthead of the paper.
The public, which is extremely perceptive about subtle differences in the product they have relied on for many years, noticed these changes quickly. The MBA himself learned of them after a couple of weeks, when he confronted me to ask what was the matter?
“I’m not going to have my name on a product when I have no control over that product,” I said. “If I’m the editor then I should have the function of an editor.”
The MBA agreed and with a slightly puzzled expression said, “Well, the associate publishers are supposed to take his orders from you. They work for you.”
“Then you need to tell them that,” I snapped.
Eventually, by a process of trial and error, I was able to establish my domination over the associate publishers in Asia, so that I provided direction on what story should go where in the paper, and to see proofs of the paper so that I could find mistakes before they were printed. It wasn’t as good as producing the paper in our office in Valley Center, but it was a step in the right direction.
As long as our longtime ad designer, Sheena, remained at the paper, customers had an extremely competent human being they could come into the office and interact with. She could design an ad to their specifications and then forward the completed ad to China. However, the MBA was obviously gunning for her from the start. He told different individual staff members that the paper didn’t bring in enough revenue to support a fulltime Graphic artist, or a fulltime receptionist for that matter (Jeanne, our longtime “face” of The Roadrunner, a woman who did such a great job of public relations with customers who walked in the door). He would forget who he had told what. So he told Jeanne that he needed to make the graphic designer a part-time position, while telling Sheena that he needed to make the office receptionist part-time, while telling me that both of them needed to be part-time. He was obviously grooming Dan for bigger things than sports editor, and once told him that “Dave will be retiring soon, and you will be able to become editor!” Apparently he didn’t expect any of us to compare notes! So when Jeanne decided to finally quit because as a part-time worker she no longer qualified for medical insurance, the MBA assured her that he had NEVER intended to phase out her position!
With her own job so obviously in the crosshairs of our MBA, Sheena decided to relocate with her husband up north in Washington State. Her departure left a tremendous void that was impossible to fill, despite the MBA’s assurances that anyone was qualified to do the job of a graphic designer. The people in China knew better. Only the MBA insisted that “anyone” was competent to do Sheena’s job. Anyone needed to be someone, and no one was available to fit the bill.
For close to five months The Roadrunner was without an ad salesperson, because the sales manager under the Goods, Chelsea Good, chose to leave the paper to go the Washington D.C. to work for the American Cancer Society. The function of an ad salesman was divided among the remaining employees (I even ended up trying to design a couple of ads) while we interviewed what seemed like dozens of applicants. None of them ever quite worked out. I put this down to what I call the “analysis paralysis” of the MBA.
In May, a couple of weeks shy of the ad deadline for the Western Days magazine that we produce every year, we brought on board Colleen, an energetic “mom” dialed into the community’s network, who, although without experience in selling ads, was a natural for the job. During the two months that she worked at the paper before also departing for Washington, Colleen managed to repair many bridges with advertisers who had become actively hostile toward the newspaper because of neglect and the inability to actually connect with a person who could meet their needs. Lest you think that only the “old hands” at The Roadrunner disliked the new regime because they were resistant to change, by the time she was ready to go, Colleen was discouraged by The Roadrunner’s systemic problems, and was seemingly eager to make her escape.
This brings up one of the greatest sources of friction between The Roadrunner and the community: the lack of a land line. Because of his belief in the supremacy of technology, the MBA decided that telephone lines were passé. He replaced the newspaper’s land lines with internet telephony, which had the practical effect of making it almost impossible for a customer to make a direct call to our office. Often callers were directed to our central office in Riverside County, or occasionally to China itself. Employees, such as myself, who insisted on people being able to reach us directly, were told we could give people our cell phone numbers.
This was at variance to what the MBA originally told us, which as that his company policy was that we weren't supposed to give out our cell phone numbers to anyone. He actually suggested that we change our cell phone number from time to time, ostensibly for our "safety." Another illustration of how little he understands our small town.
We were even given a small weekly stipend for our willingness to use our personal cells for business calls. Most customers, especially advertisers, wanting to talk to a real person about their ads were continually frustrated, particularly since the creative team responsible for their ads was 12 times zone away—which made it hard to talk to them directly.
In that same vein the MBA kept insisting that I should institute a “meet the editor” once a month to allow local residents to meet me and suggest stories and make suggestions. To the MBA’s intense frustration, I insisted that my door at The Roadrunner was always open and that anybody could come in and talk to me whenever I happened to be free.
Probably half of the friction involving “the MBA” and myself revolved around his insistence that our sports editor, Dan, should spend less of his time writing sports and more of his time in the office, taking care of ad inquiries, taking subscriptions, and generally being a receptionist, since the MBA had decided that he could dispense with a receptionist and office manager.
Both Dan and I protested on innumerable occasions that sports coverage was a vital element of the newspaper, that Valley Center is an extremely sports-oriented community and would notice if its team coverage was diluted. The MBA insisted that much of the sports coverage could be handled by “volunteers,” and he told Dan, after being pressed, that he wanted him to purposely reduce the quality of the sports coverage to be “good enough” so that Dan would then have more time for the front desk.
Several times before I actually quit the paper I threatened to quit over this issue. In the meantime, to pressure Dan, the MBA began advertising for a new “entry level” journalist. The community noticed this and frequently members of the public would ask if I or Dan was leaving the paper. For six months this advertisement appeared in the classifieds and Dan was told that he would be allowed to interview for his own position.
The MBA put it this way: “We have had at least three conversations and I have sent several emails to you about your workload and about your difficult attitude toward meeting expectations for operational aspects of the company. I have also formally notified you that we would be looking for your replacement. I told you that while looking for your replacement, we would consider keeping you if your performance and attitude improves and you are the best candidate.” He later added, “It is not worth the time and energy to manage any employee who is resisting.” Thus he dismissed the work of a dedicated journalist who has devoted eight years of his life to bringing sports news to his community.
The final chapter of my 29 year extended novel at The Roadrunner was written when the Back to School magazine -- normally delivered a week before school starts -- wasn’t printed soon enough, and in fact, was delayed until the first day of school. I hit the ceiling upon learning about this fubar.
So, why did I quit? I felt that my personal reputation was being trashed by association. In the many lonely days in the office where I was basically there by myself, I wearied of being on the receiving end of complaints about no one answering the phone, and classified ads messed up and of people who had paid for subscriptions only to not receive the paper. As long as I remained at the paper, I lent it legitimacy. Now that I have withdrawn that legitimacy, the paper must stand on its own two, not very sturdy legs.
I don’t intend to give up writing about my adopted communities of Valley Center, Pauma Valley and Palomar Mountain. I have a personal brand to maintain and I think that there are people who will continue to follow that brand and read what I have to write.
For now, look for my byline at Valley Center Press. You can help support such local journalism by making a donation or buying an ad. Think of this as sort of an experiment. Valley Center will get the news coverage that it deserves and wants. But people need to put their money where their mouths are.
David Ross is the former long-time editor of the Valley Roadrunner and new editor of the Valley Center Press, www.ValleyCenterPress.com.