Terminated for the inability to stem circulation decline, the outgoing circulation director gave his replacement three envelopes with instructions to open them when needed.
As circulation continued to fall, the new director opened the first envelope, which read, “Blame previous circulation director.” He did, and that bought him some time. But the declines continued and he opened the second envelope. “Announce new initiatives,” it said. He did that, again buying time. But as circulation fell again, he opened the last envelope. “Prepare three envelopes,” it read.
Circulation directors at the Courier News came and went but few stayed very long. The Courier News became known as the circulation director’s graveyard and the quality of people attracted to the job declined. One of the last full-time directors in the late 1980s had a refrigerator full of beer in his downstairs office and drank heavily. He sold vend boxes out of the garage for $20 apiece to someone from Reflejos (“Make it cash so it doesn’t screw up accounting,” he told the buyer) and was fired for stealing a company VCR.
Others displayed varying degrees of inefficiency. Sales initiatives were spotty, and often consisted of selling papers in places we offered no news coverage. (“Can you guys start covering Maple Park?” we were asked once). The parade of boobs continued well into the new millennium. Our single copy manager who collected the quarters from the vend boxes could be regularly seen at the quarter machine at Grand Victoria riverboat until he was terminated.
Neglect breeds complacency and by the mid-1980s, the economy had rebounded, but circulation was stuck at about 31,000. As the decade rolled on, something dreadful became apparent; Elgin was growing, as was South Elgin, East and West Dundee, and all of the areas we covered. Our circulation was not. Other publications like the Northwest Herald, the Daily Herald and even the Tribune began to circulate on our periphery. Growth was everywhere, except in our circulation numbers.
Management convened a summit. Circulation blamed editorial, editorial blamed circulation and advertising blamed both of them. One Saturday, all 10 managers each called 10 “stops” or people who had stopped their subscription. Over 70 quit because of delivery problems.
Circulation service became a temporary focus. We offered “Silver Platter Service” in which we promised you would receive your paper on a silver platter if you didn’t get it the first time.
But blame is transitory and soon, circulation claimed people who quit because they “have no time to read” were really editorial stops because if there were something to read in the paper, they’d make time.
The focus shifted to the second floor.
Challenging times call for inventive, shrewd management. And our third managing editor since I started responded to this crisis by loading a golf game onto his work computer and idling away the afternoons; To reduce stress he said. He also used newsroom personnel as his personal staff; he once asked the newsroom secretary to repetitively call the Bulls ticket office to get him tickets for a play-off game. In summers, he had his pre-teen daughter check in hourly _ with the newsroom secretary. On weekend trips to the new publisher’s Wisconsin cabin, they would take the walkie-talkies to exchange banter en route, leaving reporters and photographers with no means of communication.
He did, however, possess the compensating virtue of being absent for long stretches of time so as not to be in the way of people who actually worked. His inattention to details was notorious. The news editor, essentially doing two jobs, suffered a stroke and was never right again. If the managing editor felt any contrition he hid it admirably.
Publisher D. Ray Wilson’s proximity to retirement spawned an annoyed disinterest in any aspect of the newspaper’s operation. He occupied his days using Courier News time, resources and personnel to assemble travel books, which he sold for extra income. The material was typed by others into our editorial system and the copy set on our typesetters, often spewed out in reams of text right on the editorial deadline.
In the meantime, the serious lack of leadership, newsroom management, or a cohesive circulation/editorial/advertising strategy became more pronounced. While the doctors argued, the patient bled to death. Well, the doctors seldom argued because they were usually playing golf.
Wilson retired and was replaced by his long-time assistant whose office was under the staircase, safely away from machinery or moving parts. His only qualification appeared to be that his father had been James Copley’s chauffeur. If the new publisher had any business acumen, he kept it well hidden. Manager meetings were often held at Elgin Country Club where managers were urged to eat and drink heartily to help spend the monthly requirement mandated by membership rules.
A consultant hired to arrest the alarming circulation decline of the past 10 years advised two courses of action; 1). Expand the McHenry County bureau to capture the growing market there, 2). Abandon Streamwood/Bartlett and Hanover Park because they were in Cook County and irretrievably lost. Perhaps the chauffeur’s son misunderstood because he immediately closed the McHenry County Bureau and attempted an expansive circulation effort in the tri-villages.
Hundreds of loyal subscribers in the fast-growing area north of the Dundees were ultimately abandoned and the hard fought gains that came on the backs of many, many people vanished. Meanwhile the tri-village expansion was a spectacular failure. No one in the growing communities to the east wanted Elgin news, just like the consultant said. Circulation dwindled, slipping under 30,000.
Ironically, although circulation elsewhere stagnated, the Courier News was stronger than ever in Elgin, South Elgin and the Dundees. A contentious city council provided wonderful drama. Excellent photography, an ambitious staff that worked for its own pleasure and motivation produced well-written, timely stories.
Perversely, that only enabled less attention from management. Few projects were planned, fewer strategy meetings were held. It was Lord of the Flies for adults.
But the newspaper business was changing and with the growth of the suburban area, competition emerged. Newspapers had to serve a region instead of a single city because people commuted to work, traveled to other cities to eat, shop and be entertained. The Daily Herald understood this early on and slowly invaded former Courier News strongholds, offering a variety of news, entertainment, sports and features more timely and urbane. The Daily Herald’s push into the Dundee area in the late 80s and early 90s elicited little more than a shrug from Courier management.
The calm seas of the 80s deluded all of us into a fatal stagnation, a numbing illusion that while business would fluctuate, the Courier News would always exist.
Had someone had a sudden epiphany, the ship could have been righted and lost ground reclaimed. Instead, the vessel rode higher on the rocky shoals.
And two horrible decisions within a five-year period in the 1990s forever and finally cast the Courier News on a downward course that would end in tears.(To be continued)