A friend of mine is dean of the business school at Emory University. At dinner one night a few years ago, she said she would like for me to tell the story of my newspaper start-up to her students.
Flattered, I tried to envision my audience and asked her, “Oh, you mean your graduate MBA students?”
She laughed and said, “Oh no. The graduate students would tear you apart! You didn’t have a business plan or a five-year growth strategy or start-up capital. They’d think you were nuts. I meant the undergraduate students. They love hearing stories about entrepreneurs who had an idea one day and started into it the next. They’re much more forgiving.”
When I was at the University of Virginia, I avoided math, business and science courses and instead, loaded up on English and History. Later, when I was working at the newspaper in Greenville, SC, the publisher invited me to enter “management” and suggested I pursue an MBA. I first had to take six college-level business courses.
When The Charlotte Observer recuited me, I told the general manager I was about to begin my MBA-level course work and could continue it in Charlotte. “We don’t care that much about graduate schooling here,” he said. “We learn on the job and have our own training program. Your grades will be your performance and results.” Thus ended my formal schooling career.
When I did concoct the crazy idea (seven years ago this month) to start my own newspaper, I tried to design one that could be distinguished from the other local publications. One such characteristic was mailing the paper to all the homes in the area. In so doing, we were able to build readership, foster a sense of community and guarantee an audience to the advertisers. It was a good idea, but it proved to be a very expensive one.
A month after my first issue was delivered, the post office raised its postal rates by 20 percent. But I have doggedly clung to the belief that mailing the paper was crucial. It hasn’t been easy. To encourage quick delivery, we have worked closely with the post office. If neighbors called to report they haven’t received their issue, I would flag down that carrier and ask about their delivery plans. We’ve delivered doughnuts to the post offices for what has generally been excellent service.
Over the years, business consultants have urged me to abandon the mailing costs. We spend more than $100,000 a year in postage. Last fall, we invited some advertisers to lunch to discuss our products. When I asked about mailing, many said it wasn’t as crucial as long as we could get the papers in the hands of our readers. We found a service that could deliver the papers very quickly to our 35,000 home subscribers – for a quarter of the cost of mailing. It allows us to get later news and fresher advertising to our readers.
As postal rates increased again this year, our costs have soared. We’ve also been touched a little by the slowing economy, though we are ahead of last year’s revenues. By cutting postage costs, we can keep on track to repay our business loans, expand distribution and continue bringing you a quality, positive community newspaper each month without a drastic change in our format.
All this is to say, beginning this month, the 35,000 households that normally got this newspaper inside their mailbox will now receive it outside it. As for me, I can close another book in the advanced degree I am pursuing called Successful Atlanta Newspaper Management.