Monday, August 8, 2011

39 years ago today

Thirty Nine years ago today, I started a newspaper from scratch.  It was August 8, 1972, in Zionsville, Indiana.  My wife at the time, Cathy, and I somehow rolled the first issue of "The Zionsville Main Street" newspaper off a small press that morning out at some guy's garage in the cornfields.  We celebrated all day.  My folks brought a nice cake for the afternoon party.  Well wishers came from all over town.  It was a genuine hootenanny except without the banjos and harmonicas.  As long as I live I will never forget that day and the twin feelings of exhilaration and fear that filled my being.  I was exhilarated because we finally did it.  We finally birthed a real newspaper.  I was filled with fear because I really didn't know what to do next.

"The Zionsville Main Street" newspaper's first issue was hardly a REAL newspaper.  It was printed on both sides of an 11 by 17 inch piece of white paper and sold for "One Red Cent."  It's quite a story and we're going to attempt to tell it here tonight.

But first....why are we telling this story today on the 39th anniversary instead of next year on the 40th anniversary?  Everybody knows events such as this are marked on the decades of 10-20-30 years.  Well, we're telling the story today because we told DF & LBR Dave E. (AKA: Siegfried) that we would tell this story tonight.

Here's how the whole thing unfolded.  You have to rewind the Waay Back Time Machine to the Summer of 1971.  Cathy had just graduated from Purdue in May.  We decided to do one of those patented "See The USA" tours.  I found an old Nash Rambler four door and off we went in late August, heading up into Canada and then across through Quebec all the way to Prince Edward Island.  Since we were traveling in a Nash Rambler, this distance required quite a bit of time to cover.  We wound up there in the raw cold of an early fall season.  We were actually in search of cheap lobsters. (I am not making this up.)  We took the ferry to PE Island knowing that the world's least expensive lobsters awaited.  Surprise!  All their lobsters were shipped off to earn big money elsewhere and there were NO lobsters available to eat unless you paid the same price New Yorkers paid.  We were so disgusted we jumped back on the ferry the same day and decided to drive from the Far East Coast to the West Coast.  I knew the West Coast and I knew we could get cheap seafood there.  To heck with those haughty Nor-Easters!  Well, we drove heck bent for leather back through the Midwest and stopped off at Cathy's parent's place for some brief R&R before putting the pedal to the metal and driving straight to Seattle.  There we went to the Pike's Place Market and gorged on all manner of gratuitous seafood.  Life was good indeed.

We even decided to put down roots in Seattle and take up residence.  So we rented a upstairs loft from some cranky old woman and proceeded to look for work.  Well, that's back when those famous billboards adorned the gateways to Seattle.  The billboards said, "Will the last person to leave please turn out the lights."  Boeing had laid off everybody and there were no jobs to be had anywhere.  We both finally got jobs in a boileroom full of telephone solicitors selling Time-Life books over the phone.  It was a disgusting job that had only two rules: A)You sold a book on every phone call or the person hung up on you.  You couldn't voluntarily hang up on a recalcitrant buyer.  If you did, you were fired on the spot and escorted rudely to the front door and booted into oblivion. B) You sold you quota every day or you were fired at the end of the day.  No second chance.  Cathy and I did quite well, making our quota every day and bring home real money for 1971 Seattle.  Eventually the famous Seattle rainy season set in.  The TV weather people measured the success of any given day by how many MINUTES the sun had shined.  "Today we had 13 minutes of sunshine," they would say solemnly. Most of the time it was a lot less than 13 and sometimes, just to be twits, they would say, "Today, we had 9.5 minutes of sunshine."

There's such a thing called "Season Affective Disorder" and it's acronym is SAD.  No kidding, you can read about it on Wiki by clicking here.  Well, Cathy got SAD Big Time.  I didn't.  I liked all that goofy rain and the Seattle ambiance.  I dearly wanted to live forever in Seattle.  Real estate back then in 1971 was dirt cheap.  I'm glad my life turned out the way it did but there's always been a twinge of regret about not being able to stay in Seattle.  But I digress.  So, Cathy had SAD and then her little sister in Indiana became pregnant and that was the last straw--we had to go back to Indianapolis in the middle of winter.  That meant we had to drive the Nash Rambler from Seattle to Indiana in January!  Oh, Boy!  We got caught in a classic Wyoming blizzard and battled one of those famous Great Plains blizzards as well.

Practically as soon as we alighted there in Nap Town (as Indianapolis is otherwise known), Cathy parents got on my case about "getting a job."  Nobody could sit around being a slacker in those days.  You HAD to have a job.  Every day it was the same old song, "When are you going to get a job, John?"  On and on and on.  Her parents finally goaded me into getting a real job.  I used my college degree to land a job as the "Managing Editor" of two small weekly newspapers, "The Zionsville Times" and "The Northern Suburbanite."  I was hired by some jerk named James T. O'Neil III.  JTO III was chauffeured around in a stretch limo.  He was a classic petty potentate and he treated everyone like dirt.  When he left our office there was usually two people crying while the others cowered behind their desks like scared puppies who were in the process of being housebroken.

Bear in mind The Zionsville Times was actually founded in 1860, the year before the Civil War started.  One of its first big stories was covering a whistle stop speech in Zionsville by some guy running for president named Abraham Lincoln.  So, you can imagine how entrenched the newspaper was with generations of community members.  JTO III's biggest transgression is that he treated all the lifelong subscribers and advertisers like dirt, too.  Well, them country folks didn't cotton to being treated like dirt.

So, being the young whippersnapper from Purr-DUE, I'd be out making my rounds as a reporter and all I would hear was what a jerk JTO III was.  People would go off on JTO III Big Time and I had to take the brunt of it.  That's all I heard was incessant griping and sniping and worse, day after day, week after week.

Well, eventually, the light began to glimmer and then burn a little brighter and finally shine with the glory of an idea: Let's Start a Newspaper to compete with The Zionsville Times!  YEA!  An idea.  Well, nobody in their right mind or even their unright mind would EVER even THINK of attempting to compete with a paid circulation country weekly newspaper that was (at the time) 111 years old.  That's beyond unthinkable, that's ludicrous.  Well, heck, it's worse than ludicrous but I can't think of a word any more emphatic than ludicrous.

As you know, being young and dumb does have its advantages.  When you are young you don't really understand a lot of stuff and you are largely unaware of the inherent risks you are taking when you make life decisions.  Also, young people are predisposed to think they can't fail and, generally, that older people don't know diddly about what they are doing.  All of these factors were "in play" during the late spring and early summer of 1972.  Meanwhile, small town gossip being what it is, people got a whiff that I might be thinking of starting up something to compete with JTO III and they did everything they could to become enablers, facilitators and cheerleaders for the idea.  Heck, it wasn't their life and their money so why not.  Besides, deep down, everybody loves a real good, knock down, drag out, old time cat fight.

So, what with the goading of the community and even paid staff members of The Zionsville Times, we up and quit our safe, paid position and proceeded to figure out how to publish our own newspaper.  Trust me, we didn't have a clue what we were getting ourselves into.  Since The Times was published on a Wednesday (as are most country weeklies), we decided to published on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday so you could have a whole week's worth of news for a mere three cents.

Looking back, that seems so utterly ridiculous but at the time it made "cents" in more ways than one and nobody gave it any real thought.  It wasn't like we sat around and obsessed about how much we should charge for the newspaper--we just declared it would be "one red cent" and everybody shrugged and forked over their penny and life went on.  Simple.

Well, it's not so simple filling three issues a week, even if they are only both sides on one sheet of paper.  I have never worked harder for longer in my entire lifetime than during those days. Whatever fears I felt August 8, 1972, were eventually fully realized at some point in the ensuing year. I can safely say I worked a full year of 16 hour days and many days were much longer and some of them were 24 hour days with no sleep whatsoever. It was as grueling a grunt as one could possibly imagine.

It was also a genuine Horatio Alger success story of the first magnitude.  We didn't give up.  We didn't give in.  We went toe-to-toe, hand-to-hand and often eyeball-to-eyeball for a little over a year before we won.  We took away JTO III's subscribers one-by-one.  We won over each of his advertisers one-by-one.  Pretty soon, no one was subscribing to or advertising in The Zionsville Times.  Punky little JTO III had his chauffeur help him spirit away the remaining files in the dark of night and he defaulted on his purchase contract with the prior publisher.   That former publisher guy had no choice but to sign over a new sales contract to us for pennies on the dollar and we were then the proud owners, editors and publishers of both The Zionsville Main Street and The Zionsville Times.

Of course, a lot of things happened during that year of blood, sweat and tears.  We went from one single sheet to a full newsprint multi-page tabloid format and we made our paper fat with readable stories and fun photos and all the sorts of stuff small town people slurp up like contented kittens at their warm milk dish.

When we finally literally ran JTO III out of Zionsville in the dark of night, we were the toast of the town.  It was an awe-inspiring feat and the townspeople knew and truly appreciated what we had done.  We had given them THEIR newspaper back the way THEY wanted it to be.  We treated everyone with respect and honor and we covered all of the things they wanted to read about.  We didn't demean any of their traditions or sacred cows, we celebrated them.  Right then and there, the people loved us--we were heroes to them.  I've never had so many friends whose names I didn't know way back then.  It was better than a tickertape parade.

We went on to be greatly successful there in Zionsville.  The stories of those successes and how we came to part ways with the place could fill a book.  We'll spare you any hint of all that.  Suffice to say we're really glad we're here and not there.  Life has a way of shepherding you where you belong.  Thank God for that!

So, that's the way it was 39 years ago today in Zionsville--the dawn of a new life chapter.

Have a great evening & Many Cheers!  jp

PS--I am definitely "math-challenged" tonight.  I have been thinking it was 29 years ago.  it's actually 39 years ago.  Thirty nine years seems like such a long time but the events above feel like they only happened a short while ago, um...say perhaps 29 years instead of 39. 


Marti Spudboater said...

So, perchance do you have a copy of one of those papers still laying around? It would be fun to see your writing style back then. That was a great story,especially the comment about housetraining puppies. That lounge lizard newspaper owner sounds like a real piece of work. Glad you got the best of him.

The Goatherder said...

It's like a Jimmy Stewart movie. GREAT story!! Thanks!!

siegfried said...

Whew!!! Thanks, John for that epic tale. What I had surmised was that you started out as a reporter for some local paper, did that fora while, then moved on to other things. The reality is positively staggering!!
Guess you've always been a hard,but intelligent worker. Like I said on the phone you remind me of one of Robert Heinlein's self-sufficent men.
Thanks for doing the blog every day. I'm sure that it must be a chore sometimes.
I'm sure glad I met you, all those many years ago.

Dave E. (Siegfried)

John Parsons said...

Thanks for the comments, Spudboater, GH & Dave. I really appreciate them. Thanks, Dave for your kind words. I think it was 30 years ago when we met. Wasn't it 1981 in Chicago at Norman Winski's gig? I remember sleeping in a sand-filled sleeping bag out on the balcony of some Chicago high rise hotel. You and I hit it right off and have been Best Buds ever since. Nothing will ever top that Grand Canyon trip in 1983. Thanks for your Steadfast Friendship over all those years!