Jack Durham: The Press Endures The Worst, Falters But Resists Seedy Suitors – August 23, 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Note: In celebration of the 15th anniversary of the McKinleyville Press, Editor Jack Durham looks back on the newspaper’s history in a four-part series. Last week he wrote about the weekly grind and the paper’s growth. Here is the third installment. – Ed.

In 15 years of printing, the worst-selling edition of the McKinleyville Press was the one that came out on Sept. 11, 2001. It was printed and mailed the day before the terrorist attacks.

The top headlines in that edition included “Philp says leadership needed in Sheriff’s Dept.” and “Wrangling continues over McKinleyville subdivision.” In the days following the terrorist attacks, people didn’t care at all about this local stuff, and I can’t blame them.

I was sleeping in the morning of Sept. 11, which was a Tuesday. I woke up, turned on the news and stared at the TV with disbelief. Surely this was just some weird aviation accident, right?

The horror unraveled, and I watched just long enough to get a sense of what was really happening. Then it was time to get to work.

After seeing what I had just seen on TV, I was a little paranoid, and I thought others might be feeling the same way.

So when I decided to go to the Arcata-Eureka Airport to see what was going on, I chose to do so on a bicycle. I knew there would be guys there with automatic weapons. Maybe they’d  be a little paranoid too. But a guy with a dorky bicycle helmet on a 10-speed is nice and non-threatening. When I arrived, there were deputies with rifles. It was surreal.

On Central Avenue, I came across Terrie Smith, who was holding a giant flag and marching up and down the street. That may seem odd now, but I understood what she was doing. On that day, and the days that followed, there was a tremendous amount of grief and a sense of powerlessness. You had to do something, even if it was just a symbolic act.

My job was to cover the Sept. 11 attacks, but from a purely local angle.

I interviewed the late Danny Wright of Westhaven, whose son, Tim Wright, was at the Pentagon when a jet smashed into the southwest side. Danny related that his son heard and felt the explosion, and that he assisted with recovery.

I wrote about the madness at the Arcata-Eureka Airport, where bomb walls were going up. McKinleyville residents were organizing blood drives and fundraisers.

Jen Butler, my McKinleyville High School correspondent, wrote about how students at the high school were coping. Jessie Faulkner found out what was going on at the elementary schools. All the Press opinion columnists weighed in on the attacks.

Hyper-local coverage

The post-Sept. 11 edition is good example of the paper’s mission to focus on local issues.

Sure, the big story of Sept. 11 was taking place 3,000 miles away on the other side of the continent. But it wasn’t this paper’s job to cover the story unless it was local.

Our job was to report what was happening on Central Avenue, not 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I used to joke that if a nuclear bomb goes off in Humboldt County, it’s not a story that will appear in the McKinleyville Press unless the reporter finds a McKinleyville angle.

But I’ve loosened up over the years. I quickly realized that we needed to expand our coverage area, and that there are county-wide issues that can’t be ignored. When Daniel Mintz joined the Press in  2000, he offered to cover the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission on a regular basis. I wasn’t going to turn that down.

Ever since Mintz joined the paper, we’ve had regular, consistent county-government coverage. We lost Jessie Faulkner to The Times-Standard a few years later. Then along came Elaine Weinreb after the Humboldt Advocate faded away.

Stories and names

When I sat down to reminisce about 15 years of newspapering, I envisioned writing about all the interesting stories that we’ve covered and all the scoops.

But why regurgitate old news stories that everyone has already read? I decided against doing that.

I’m also hesitant to name all the people who were part of the McKinleyville Press and helped the paper out over the years. Years ago, in a previous anniversary edition, I attempted to make a giant “thank you” list with all the people who helped – the writers,  photographers, columnists and others who pitched in and saved my hide time after time.

After that issue came out, I realized I left some names off it, so I thanked those folks in the following issue. After that, more names popped into my head. There are just too many.

But if you ever wrote for the paper, or helped me out, you know who you are, and you have my appreciation. Thank you.

McK Press becomes a broadsheet

The McKinleyville Press started as a tabloid. That’s a term most people associate with Hollywood gossip rags, but it actually refers to the size and format of the paper.

The Press was in a tabloid format, like today’s North Coast Journal but with fewer pages.

In October 2011, the Del Norte Triplicate informed us that its paper stock would be narrower, making the tabloid size even smaller. It was long overdue for the McKinleyville Press to grow up and become a broadsheet, like it is today.

A few years later, the Press started printing in full color. Then we split the paper into two sections – an A and a B. Eventually we were lured away from the Del Norte Triplicate in Smith River by the folks at Western Web. We started printing on their press in Fairhaven.

We were growing and I was always trying to make the paper bigger. When people would ask me how the paper was doing, I’d say “Great!” It seemed like the paper was booming. And maybe it was, but I couldn’t really say because I wasn’t in charge of the books or the banking. That was all done by my business partner.

I had faith that the business side was taking care of itself. The rent was getting paid and the electricity was still on, so it looked fine to me.

Little did I know that there was trouble. Behind the scenes, some checks were bouncing. Bank fees for “insufficient funds” were increasing.

Here it was my job to know what’s going on, to keep tabs on local government, but I was blind to what was happening to my own business.

Something was wrong, and I didn’t even know it.

Paper up for sale

It’s hard to say exactly when my relationship with my business partner began to fall apart. Maybe it was 2004, 2005, or 2006. I guess I was like a frog in a frying pan; I didn’t really grasp what was happening until it was too late.

Things got worse and worse, until finally she wouldn’t even speak to me. It was a miserable existence. The joy of being a newspaperman was almost sucked out of me.

I lobbied her to hand the whole paper over to me, but that didn’t work. I would have bought her out, but I didn’t have any money. The paper was just getting by. Barely. I was stuck. Things were dire.

At the time, I would have gladly handed the paper over to her just to get out of the situation, but she didn’t have the technical skills to put the paper out by herself. The idea of closing down the paper and just walking away from the nightmare was something I never considered.

Then, out of the blue I was approached by a potential buyer who would give each of us a chunk of change for the paper, thereby terminating the partnership. After the paper was sold, I would be hired on as the editor. It sounded wonderful. I would have a steady paycheck. I would still get to run the paper, but without the hassles of owning a business.

I was eager to close the deal, but there was always some sort of complication. Month after month dragged on, and nothing happened.

Desperate, I decided to let the cat out of the bag and list the paper for sale. My desire to sell the paper was now public knowledge.

An article titled “Stop the Press” appeared in the North Coast Journal, in which I said I wanted to sell it because it was time for a change. That was an understatement.

After that article came out, complete strangers were calling me up and telling me how sorry they were that I was selling the paper. They praised me for all my years of work. They wrote thank you cards and heartfelt notes. My response: I cried, then carried on.

In the first couple months, there was a flurry of interest in the paper. Locals and people from outside the county and even the state were inquiring about buying the McKinleyville Press.

There were a couple of potential buyers who were pretty serious about it. But then the economy started to crumble, and they were scared away.

Unfortunately for John Frederick, my real estate agent, I was the person that all potential buyers had to talk to regarding the nitty-gritty details of the newspaper and its finances.

Looking back, I think I was subconsciously trying to subvert the sale by scaring off potential buyers. The McKinleyville Press was my baby. I wanted to keep it, but not under those conditions.

There was one buyer who came along and offered to pay exactly what I was asking. There was only one problem – he was a dope grower. Did I want my paper to end up in the hands of a dope grower, who would probably end up closing it down anyway? No deal. There are more important things than money.

Next week: Gray whales, love, Italy and an appreciation for small businesses.

Jack Durham is editor and publisher of the McKinleyville Press.

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