Sunday, August 5, 2012

My Career in Newspaper Circulation Part One

My mother volunteered my services as a paper boy because she was unhappy with our family's delivery service from the old Toronto Telegram.  Luckily she went with me on my first day of deliveries as I had to listen to a lot of angry customers.

Very conscientious about getting my deliveries done on time, but hated collecting so much that bad habits quickly formed.  Collecting sufficient money to pay my bill and go to the Saturday matinee was enough for me.  Customers complained when they had a big bill, so I often discounted what they owed.  I feared phoning in cancellations so I ended up dumping papers.  In the end the main thing I had to show for four years of service was the bond they forced you to pay with your bills.  My negative experiences did help identify common problems of some carriers.

A few positive things were picked up as well.  I hated canvassing (selling by knocking on doors), but found it hard to say no when the boss asked.  Two calls really stand out in my mind.  One was when a man came to the door with a butcher knife in his hand and blood on his apron.  Stunned I went ahead with my standard sales pitch and he signed up.  Another time I stumbled on a prospect who signed up for a small life insurance policy.  You can never tell where you might make a sale or what form it might take.

Sales meetings were intimidating.  One remembered meeting had a presentation from a head office manager.  I enjoyed reading the paper and was familiar with some of the writers and columnists, but I failed to answer a question asked about the paper.  The manager was just dramatizing how important it was to understand all about whatever it was you were selling.  Good advice for any sales.

One sales contest prize was a trip to Toronto which is only a half hour drive from my Oshawa home. My first experience being away from family, staying overnight in a hotel and sight seeing with other carriers from all over Ontario.  Newspaper carriers can be made fun of by their school friends, so it is good for them to appreciate they have kindred spirits.

I finally gave up my route after a year of  high school and then a year or so later we moved to a rural area (Haliburton) where there was no newspaper delivery.  I went to university and after graduation got a job as a social worker for a Children's Aid Society.  I didn't leave there voluntarily, but with a good reference.  Another six months later I got a job as an insurance inspector.  I learned a few things, but didn't really feel comfortable.

A man I met on a previous job told me about circulation jobs in newspapers.  The more I thought about it the more interesting it seemed.  Working with young children and right inside a newspaper was very appealing.  Nearly 100 newspapers were sent a resume.

I really lucked out when I met Dennis Concordia, circulation manager at the Oakville Journal Record.  First I learned his philosophy which I adopted that the best time to interview someone is when you don't need them.  He knew sooner or later an opening would come up and he wanted to be prepared.  Second, an opening did occur a few weeks later and my education advanced.   At the beginning I didn't really appreciate what a unique situation I was in.  When I was in university and then going through two jobs Dennis who was a year or so younger was working for the Globe and Mail which I learned was a great learning opportunity.

I worked for the Journal about eight years and through a lot of changes.  The paper started out as an afternoon daily, then it switched to a morning paper and finally back to an afternoon paper mixing paid and free distribution.

At one time needing more money I accepted the opportunity to start the Sunday Sun (precursor to the Toronto Sun)for home delivery in Burlington which pretty much assured I was working seven days a week.  I was reprimanded when it was found about my conflict.  

All this time I mixed up two functions that are difficult to mix.  Selling and collecting.  Mostly I didn't do either as that was what the paper boys and girls were supposed to do.  In a sense the managing function was what I learned.  My strength I developed with the help of Dennis was collecting.  There were a lot of problems at the beginning, but talking to Dennis I learned better ways of handling them.  I gradually became the manager with the highest collections, with the least credits and paid the quickest.  All that was accomplished with the least turnover.  I was asked to take on a neglected district which was a little tougher, but proved I could handle that as well.

Dennis developed a contest involving the Toronto Blue Jays.  He found out that they didn't have a trophy for the first Blue Jay to hit a home run so he offered one.  This gave us a chance to let one lucky news carrier to throw out a pitch.  We secured a lot of new customers as the carriers vied for the honor and many others got to attend a game.

Another thing I liked at the Oakville Journal Record was the freedom I was given to develop promotional ideas.  I was not very good at actually canvassing, but I helped design contests and I came to appreciate that Dennis was a great teacher in that regard.  I also came to appreciate that learning at a small paper gave me a broader experience.

Dennis picked up the idea for an auction.  Perhaps because I had a loud voice he asked me to be the auctioneer.  In the middle of the auction I discovered a problem--we were trying to auction off multiples of some prizes such as hockey sticks.  I could understand that they would go for different prices and we could be stuck with a lot of auction bucks.  My solution was to bring them altogether and count backwards from a high number and assure the crowd that everyone would get the lowest price with the last one--the catch was only those who stood up were guaranteed to get one and it became interesting at the end with some carriers trying to guess where the lowest price might end up.  We got rid of all the sticks and at a good price.  I learned a few other tricks that not only were good for the company, but also for the carriers.

There is more to circulation than dealing with newspaper carriers.  Newspapers have traditionally been sold through retail stores and coin operated boxes.  My first experience came when after a series of late papers and upset drivers I took on a driver run.  This meant getting up at 3 am and sometimes working right through to 8 pm.  I ended up hiring a driver and thus started to manage adults.

There are other people I remember who taught me things.  John Landry, who later worked for the Toronto Sun;  John Giguere, who moved to Halifax, a place I later came to love.  Steve Albl,  was the person I replaced and a few years later came back when another opening appeared.  Rick Hill who was once an auto mechanic, enjoyed playing the piano by ear and was a karate expert.   Mary Lou Lascelles who was both our secretary and mother of two of my carriers.   I learned from all of them. One of my top canvassers was Troy Labelle and his younger brother Jay.  Jay later actually bought an ad in another publication from me for a company he founded.

Hub Foley became publisher .  In an earlier blog I commented on his view of marketing and sales, but will repeat here.  Selling is taking products on hand and persuading other people to buy them. Marketing starts before any product is made and involves determining what product would generate the most profit.  Many years later I learned from his former secretary while working for a horse newspaper at a horse event that he had died from an insect bite.

The Oakville Journal Record is where I started with newsletters.  My first newsletters were with a Gestetner machine which might be found in a museum if you look hard.  I found with a hundred or so carriers it was hard to communicate with them all and wanted to encourage them to be better.  My favorite idea was to fill my newsletter with lots of tips topped off with a contest.  The contest was a crossword puzzle that required the reader to search the whole newsletter (and sometimes our paper) to get all the clues and win a prize.  It was intended to make them think of delivering, collecting and selling (and product knowledge).  Somewhere on this project I came across a circulation manager in Watertown, New York where my wife had relatives that we visited.  He also did a newsletter and we traded ideas.

I had gone as far as I could.  A friend of Dennis, Eric Prosser had been given an opportunity to help start a new newspaper in Kitchener.  Eric was somebody I already admired from a few contacts through Dennis.  Kitchener had been my original target when I wrote letters for a circulation job.

Before moving onto what happened in Kitchener in another post I would like to explain some of the philosophy and practices I learned.

I always felt that being a newspaper carrier was good training for future business people (or anyone with responsibility).  The first key questions in interviewing a new carrier with his family was "How do you think you make money?"  The answer I led them to was you make money by satisfying some need or want that someone else is willing to pay for.  A newspaper met many wants such as information, entertainment and a time filler.  The time filler could turn out to be critical such as the time between a husband getting home from work and supper time

Naively complaints from carriers and readers about lack of stories in the paper led to a discussion with the editor, John Strimas  He pointed out he is only allotted space based on how many ads were sold.  The only thing we could do is to increase the number of readers so more ads could be sold. Advertising was what kept newspapers going and editorial provided content that readers might be willing to pay for.  We in circulation had the job of making sure delivery could be timely and reliable.

The key to collecting money is not to let it get out of hand.  Problems start when customers owe more than a week or two.  At some point the newspaper seems to be more expensive than they previously thought and they might think they don't get value out of it.  They might move.  A regular routine assures the least problems.

My circulation career had many twists and turns ahead, but the Oakville Journal Record provided a good foundation.  You can read the next step at:

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