In circulation, sometimes you have to get your hands dirty
May 6, 2014
By Bob Bobber
A goal without a plan is just a wish
—Herm Edwards, former NFL football player/coach and TV analyst
In the Beginning—March 2014 marked my 42nd year in the newspaper business. I started on St Patrick’s Day 1972 with the now defunct Orlando Evening Star.
I will never forget how it happened. I actually wanted to be a sports writer when I graduated from the school of journalism at the University of Florida, but when I interviewed with the Orlando Sentinel there weren’t any openings for full-time positions, so I decided to teach English at one of the local junior high’s (they weren’t middle schools in those days), primarily so I could coach the basketball team.
One day one of my players was talking to me about college and asked where I went and what I studied. After I told him, he responded that his Dad worked at the Sentinel and that I should talk to him. I had no idea that his Dad turned out to be the general manager of the newspaper. When I interviewed with him there were still no positions in sports but he did have something in purchasing, advertising and circulation. Well, purchasing sounded too boring and the position in advertising was really in Cocoa Beach, which was a good hour commute in those days without the expressway. So, it was down to circulation. When I interviewed with the circulation manager he said he had a district manager job opening. Keep in mind that like most journalism graduates I had no idea what circulation was all about and even less about what a district manager did, but management at 22, I was the man for the job. Just think, I had 20 adult carriers and my own office at a substation. Did it get any better?
Well, the first day on the job comes and I am decked out in white shirt and tie and I go to the substation, which was just an old warehouse with an old desk and a couple of beat up chairs that looked like they came from Goodwill. I set up all my carrier mail on one of the rolling tables and prepared to establish myself as the new sheriff in town. About that time my zone manager, whom I had met for about an hour, comes pulling up and says to me, “We got a down route,” I looked at him and said, “What does that mean?” He replied, “That means you have to throw it until we can get a new carrier.”
Wait a minute, I am a manager. I don’t throw newspapers. What kind of deal was this? Well, long story short, about six hours later with 300 newspapers in my Ford Pinto, a route list that was horrible and a tape recording that was a year old, I finished the route. Hot and sweaty with my white shirt covered in newsprint, I was a mess.
Perhaps the most enlightening moment was as I walked through an apartment complex throwing my papers, one of my basketball players came out of the door and announced to the world, “Look at Mr. Bobber, Mr. Bobber ain’t nothin’ but a paperboy.” It was at that moment that I gained my respect for the district manager and his carriers and how hard they work.
Circulation and the newspaper industry has been good to me. Like a lot folks it had its up and downs. I have worked for the big groups such as Gannett, Tribune, and the New York Times, I was there when Dean Singleton bought his first newspaper and he told me he was going to be a giant in the industry and I laughed at him. I remember sitting in a Society of Professional Journalist’s meeting in Philadelphia and being told about a new newspaper called USA Today and thinking “this will never work.” I also remember making the Gwinnett Daily News the fastest growing newspaper in the U.S. from fall of 1987 to fall of 1992. I have worked for private owners such as Otis Brumby in Marietta, GA, to family papers such as the Dunn-Rankins in Southwest Florida. In my 42 years, I have worked for, contracted with, or consulted with approximately 130 different newspapers and have spoken to literally thousands of circulators across the country. I have even taught at the University of Central Florida School of Journalism. I can’t complain, and, as I can see the finish line in the near distance, I appreciate more and more the hard work the people in this wonderful industry do. All this garbage about print going out of business is just—garbage. Sure the business has changed, but what industry hasn’t. IBM used to mean typewriters and today it is laptops. Maybe the margins aren’t what they used to be, but most papers are still profitable particularly the community and niche papers. The single-copy price for the Orlando Sentinel was a dime when I started and now its $1.50. As County Western singer Tracy Lawrence once sang, “Time marches on.”
Bob Bobber is a newspaper consultant specializing in circulation sales, training and public speaking. You contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.