Sunday, August 12, 2012

My Career in Newspaper Circulation Part Two

Dennis Concordia, my circulation manager at the Oakville Journal Record could have tried to hold onto me, but instead he was willing to help advance my career.   His friend, Eric Prosser who visited the office periodically made a strong impression on me.  Eric had been given the opportunity to set up the circulation department for a new newspaper in Kitchener, Newsday.  Dennis helped set me up and advised me.

Kitchener had a fascination for me going back to my university days.  In case you were wondering I still have not attended an Oktoberfest.

I met Eric for an official interview which went well.  Shortly after this my wife and I decided to buy a house in Kitchener and spent a Saturday looking over available houses.  We made a conditional offer almost right away.  A few weeks before we were able to sell our house in Hamilton and move.  At this time, Sharon was on maternity leave.

I commuted for a few weeks.  Eric and his crew believed in long hours.  I took part in some of the hiring decisions. Helped set route boundaries, trained and supervised new district managers.

A lot of canvassing was involved before the first paper was printed.  In fact we set a record for the fastest growth of a newspaper in Ontario--10,000 new subscribers.  Eric and his assistant Dick Killen wanted to make a strong impression and rented a bus and took the whole team with their spouses to the CN Tower for dining.  One of Eric's favorite sayings was that "half a promotion budget was like flying half way across the Atlantic Ocean."

We worked long hours on average over 70 per week.  I remember Dick Killen feigning forgetfulness when I phoned him on a task and then said, "Oh, the part timer."  I felt I had a reason to work hard, but that they unnecessarily made the staff work too many hours.  They felt it bonded them

The newspaper as a whole seemed very innovative and the staff very enthusiastic.  They were definitely going to do a wonderful service for Waterloo county.

One impression Eric made on me and the other zone manager Bob Tanner was to take us both to a very nice restaurant, Charcoal Steak House.  Both Bob and I were planning to unload a lot of complaints, but before we could get started we were each handed a $100 bill and thanked for our contribution to the success of the sales campaign.

Although I started out as a zone manager my experience was discounted at first.  I came to appreciate that I had received better training than I likely would have gotten at a larger newspaper.  In the end on a couple of points it was conceded that I had the better idea (I am thinking of one promotion plus design of collection cards).

From my point of view we were progressing in the right direction, but unknown to me trouble was brewing.  The owners were in the construction business and felt they had been dealt unfairly by the Kitchener daily.  Somehow they were persuaded to put up some big money to start a rival newspaper and start hiring staff.

They didn't really understand the newspaper business and at first just went along with the advice of some who claimed expertise.  Unfortunately some took advantage and abused expenses.  When the owners caught on they were furious and started to distrust everyone.  They refused to pay bills and as a result we had to look for new truck rental company each week.  I learned that part of our strategy was to get free trials of new equipment.

My boss was distrusted.  Although Eric worked over 70 hours a week and was responsible for the tremendous growth he chose to sleep in on the one day of publication.  This was not acceptable to the owners and he was fired.  His assistant Dick Killan quit in protest.  After a retired American circulation man was brought in I was recommended to take over the head job.  The editor was fired.

Morale was terrible, we had trouble getting trucks and bundling equipment.  Before too long the owners had had enough, refusing to pay bills.  When I got my notice of the newspaper termination.  I had just taken off my first day after thirty straight days with no break and it was Valentine's Day. Actually I was asked to stay on to help collect from carrier bills.

At one point my pay was not given and I was advised to go to small claims court.  Although still consciously working for Newsday I was shocked to get a legal notice that disavowed not only all of my claims, but that I even worked for them.  Ironically I was asked to get as much of unpaid carrier invoices as possible.  Morale was also very bad amongst newspaper carriers, but I was able to persuade them to pay their obligations.  I was by this time looking for another job and taking off time for interviews and sending out resumes.  Nevertheless I collected much more money than the boss's daughter who had no experience and probably got more flak for abandoning the newspaper carriers.  I was able to use the collections as leverage to get my pay.

I found Dennis's name worked magic.  I got a call from Winnipeg and it turned out it was the result of a letter to Owen Sound where the circulation manager was a national president and he passed my letter around.  It turned out the Winnipeg manager knew Dennis and on his word approached me.  I was advised not to accept a lower level job as it would be very hard to work my way back up.

In the end I needed work; my daughter was just 1 and my wife was able to do some part time work for her old boss back in Burlington.  Dennis' word was strong enough that a new position was created for me at the Globe and Mail office in Hamilton.  I became a trouble shooter and found myself commuting back to Hamilton and then triangulating to handle Brantford until I was able to hire a manager.

They could not justify a salary so in effect they created a new district where I would get double commissions on half the number of carriers and have to collect them.  A lot of long days.

At about this time I was offered an interview with the Hamilton Spectator, literally just across a bridge from the local Globe office.  I took the interview and then was told I had to go for a test in Toronto.  I had taken the test before and had not gotten a job.  This time I had to weigh that my time was stretched between Kitchener, Brantford and Hamilton and I was expected to help train managers.  On top of all that I felt it would let Dennis down as I had only been on the job a short time.  I learned later that the test was considered a formality and I would have had the job.  My life would have been quite different, but not necessarily better.

Just before summer vacation the Globe had a tradition of sending selected managers into cottage country to help set up summer distribution, mostly through dealers. I ended up near Bancroft which was close to where I went to high school in Haliburton.   I was able to collect some money and start some new dealers.  I also uncovered some problems.  In an effort to boost their circulation figures the Globe often sent papers to places that were only open during the summer vacation causing a lot of hard feelings.  

The Globe seemed to feel that because they were such a good newspaper (no argument there) they could run roughshod over the circulation department.  I did not feel comfortable with some of their practices.  One example being when the head office felt they had a big story they automatically charged all carriers with a few extra papers expecting them to sell them.  A lot of resentful district managers swallowed the loss.  I decided that was not for me and quit after giving notice.  Dennis was right, I did learn a lot in a short time and it was not by any means all negative.  

Still a few more years of circulation "adventures" left, but this has been enough for one post.  At this point I felt I was confident of my abilities and had undergone a lot of very educational experience.  I found out that not everyone shared that viewpoint.  Read it here:  http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2012/08/my-career-in-circulation-part-3-winding.html

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