A Newspaperman in the boondocks - 1965-1988
Surviving The Cape Codder and MPG Communications
When I started at The Cape Codder it had generated $65,000 in advertising for the entire previous year. For the math challenged, that's $1,250 per weekly edition.
When Mal Hobbs fired me twelve and a half years later in 1978 we generated a million a year, averaged 24 full-pages of real estate ads alone each edition. The neewspaper's paid circulation had gone from 4,000 to 16,000 and was audited by the A.B.C. through my wife Patricia's skill at selling subscriptions on the phone while manning the Harwich office.
Mal and I had coffee together every morning for all those years, him reading the news and me doing the crossword puzzle in the New York Times. Perhaps familiarity did bred contempt in his case, but I idolized the man as a surrogate father.
Our falling out was over the paper's coverage of a new school for Brewster in 1978.
That town's leaders and school committee were proposing a second school a decade before one was eventually built, and the newspaper supported the move enthusiastically.
I was by the nature of my job more peripatetic than Mal and his editorial minions, and I was getting a lot of feed-back from people in Brewster complaining that they were unable to get their objections to building the new school published in The Cape Codder, and that the problem was a three year school population bubble like a pig passing through a belly of a python and not a permanent school enrollment increase.
"If you give the readers the right information, they'll make the right decision."
- Malcolm Hobbs, 1978.
I said one morning over coffee that I thought giving readers all the information so they could make a well informed decision was the way to go, and asked him why these people weren't getting their letters or Op Eds printed. He answered by saying that wasn't how you did it.
He said "If you give the readers the right information, they'll make the right decision."
I was astonished as his statement, and asked how that was different than the Communist Soviet Union's attitude that the ends justify the means?
His face paled, he turned on his heels, and a week later I was out the door. He even tried to deny my unemployment check from the state labor department when I applied.
I had simply gotten too big apparently for Mal's britches, but it was a devastating blow to my ego and pocketbook. I had just built a new home overlooking Pleasant Bay and had two sons in Harwich High School about to enter college.
Ironically the Brewster voters turned down that second school that time only to vote for one decades later to solve what also turned out to be another temporary problem because the town is trying to dumpthat second school today.
"With circulation of more than 17 million, Best Read Guides have become one of the largest visitor guide companies in the country."
Onward and upward, I mean REALLY upward
I guess some higher power was taking care of me, because I would have been there still through several new owners in the last thirty years.
Instead within three weeks I had three publishers coming to my house so I could interview them, finally choosing MPG Communications in Plymouth. I soon was earning over ten times what Hobbs had been paying me, at least until I got fired at MPG ten years later.
When I started with MPG in 1978 it consisted of three weeklies and Cape Cod Guide. When I left it owned 23 newspapers, I had created a network of eight vacation guides. It was a powerhouse south of Boston.
I only had to drive to Plymouth three days a week, and worked at a Cape office on other days, but even that became a pain after a few years. At one point the company told me to buy any car I wished to encourage my continued commute.
I bought a Mercedes Benz 500 S.E.L.
But MPG in its heyday was a very kewl and enterprising outfit, spoiled eventually by its leader's hubris.
At the beginning MPG's President Roger Miles - who was married to BOTH the heiresses of the company but not similateously, "knew what he didn't know" and hired the best and the brightest he could find, and listened to them.
Among them was Neil Jorgenson running the printing division and Sheila Smith, a very hot C.F.O. who went on to be Publisher of the The Daily News of Newburyport. A handsome woman with the best legs in journalism at the time.
But power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Miles stopped listening to his people and, using his own engineer's skills made decisions which cost the company it's momentum.
My contretemps with the boss Roger Miles came over my endless nagging him to allow me to franchise the vacation magazine concept I had developed after creating a network of eight vacations guides printed at MPG which included relationships and editions with newspapers like the Newport Daily News and The Vineyard Gazette.
MPG said it was too litigious, even though I reminded them that was what insurance was for, and they could get sued every time a circulation truck left their parking lot.
Instead of getting fired this time however, they "negotiated my withdrawal from the company" by offering me half of my six-figure salary including benefits for two years if I would sign a two-year non-compete. They gave me three months sitting home doing nothing to ponder the decision.
I waited until the last check arrived with the notice "This is your final payment", and I started planning the creation of Best Read Guide.
The last check arrived before Memorial Day, 1988.
The first edition of Best Read Guide CAPE COD was launched July 1, 1988, a month later.
During that month I had to persuade Pat and Steve Sullivan to quit MPG and join me, hire a paste-up staff, editorial help, buy PCs, find a printer who would be able to get the product back to Cape Cod for distribution by July 1st., and find office space.
Ironically help came from a most unexpected source.
Ed Smith and his son Jeff, against whom I had competed for twelve years while at The Cape Codder, called and offered their help.
Without it I never would have made that first deadline.
After the first four monthly issues on Cape Cod that first year, Patricia and I with our friend, fellow salesman and now partner Steve Sullivan, hopped on a plane to Orlando FL where we set up shop and launched the second edition, Beast Read Guide ORLANDO, on January 1, 1989.
In 1990 our bookkeeper stole a half a million from our fledgling company, and I rushed back to Cape Cod to keep the ship afloat until the cash flow started in the Spring.
I felt duty bound to inform the other newspaper publishers who had switched from MPG to follow the Beat Read Guide format, and when I called Albert "Buck" Sherman, the publisher of the Newport RI Daily News, I got another surprise.
After I told him that we were in effect insolvent, he said he had been miffed when I hadn't asked him to invest in my idea two years prior, and he wanted to know how much we needed to stay alive until Spring.
I told him I'd need $50,000.
Buck said simply, "Can I put it in the mail, or do you want me to drive down with it today."
How do you ever say thank you enough to a man like Buck Sherman?
I gave him 5% of our worthless stock for his gift.
After fine-tuning the formats, we launched BRG Franchise Corp. a year later and by 1996 had twenty franchises from Maine to California, when a media giant "made me another offer I couldn't refuse."
This time I was in the boardroom of Morris Communications in Augusta GA in 1998 trying to sell Billy Morris franchises in three of the many cities where he owned daily newspapers.
Half way through my pitch he asked to buy the franchise company instead.
I told him I thought that a great idea.
I had seen the internet coming as few of my newspaper peers had, and I wanted to marshal all my efforts on the web here on Cape Cod by starting a new company eCape.com which is today run by my daughter-in-law Julie Brooks.
Patricia and I had already started our own brochure and magazine distribution company called BRG Distribution Company which my son Jay runs as well as managing the financial of all three of our companies.
Billy Morris suggested he fly up to Cape Cod after his financial people checked our numbers, and we'd talk.
Billy at 70+ was a pilot licensed to fly passengers in a multi-engine jet.
He flew one of his two jets here while his son and staff flew in a second one. We picked them up in Hyannis, and drove to my home in East Harwich.
Very shortly into the conversation Billy asked me how much I wanted for BRG Franchise Corp.
I named a seven figure number.
He countered by offering me a slightly smaller seven figure number.
I said, "I'll split the difference."
Billy replied, "Done", and we shook hands.
The lawyers didn't get us the paperwork for a month, but nothing changed, and I signed up to help start new editions for Morris for one year while retaining the Cape Cod edition for myself.
Buck Sherman got more than his $50,000 investment back when I sold the franchise corporation, and he still owns 5% of Best Read Guide CAPE COD and eCape.com.
As Billy Morris' website states, "With circulation of more than 17 million, Best Read Guides have become one of the largest visitor guide companies in the country."