Don Rogers: Yoda’s answer
So what does a publisher do, exactly? Great question, and maybe the wrong one, too.
I used to wonder myself, and I worked there. But I was the editor then, at a handful of papers, and the question probably had a bite. I sized up my publishers mainly by how much they got in the way.
Something of my bad attitude stuck when I took the role. And dear lord, what was I thinking? But it was only supposed to be for the interim, they said. Just long enough to get a real pro in place, they said. You know, help the operation through a rough patch while the economy cratered.
Now I understand the camel’s nose in a whole different light. And here I am, 10 years a publisher as of April Fool’s Day. My overlords always did have a sly sense of humor.
So what do publishers actually do? Now that I know? Well, scoop poop and dream, mostly.
Oh, there’s the occasional Cinderella’s night out, too. I think some of my publishers truly believed their glass slippers fit, that they themselves were recognized as real pillars of the community. But it’s not you. It’s never you. It’s the role. Don’t be fooled.
By scoop poop, I mean the publisher gets all the crap too big or tricky or weird for the department heads to bear alone. News, advertising, delivery, finance, general operations, personnel, personnel, personnel. We’re talking Harry Truman on steroids, or so it can feel. But you’re where the buck is supposed to stop. That’s your job.
By dream, I mean grand vision and smart initiatives, sure, and being a kind of Johnny Appleseed sprinkling ideas good and absolutely ridiculous. I often think sowing ridiculous ideas is better. Seems to help make others less wary about throwing in theirs.
Ideas are sparks. Get enough going and something’s bound to catch fire. The flames roar when it’s their idea, not yours.
There’s also the darker side: Nightmares to be gleaned for preparation, even execution. More grinding, though, is a low-grade frustration with the gap between the grand vision and the daily reality. How you handle that makes all the difference. But isn’t this the way with all things human whenever we’re Tom Sawyer trying to get a fence painted?
I’ve watched publishers burn out more than once. Mental health was a risk even back when the job was easy and we just didn’t know it. Some became drinkers or at least bigger drinkers. A few swelled with self-importance, the smartest person in every room, and then popped, deflated with a pinprick.
I’ve watched some master the role like real life Yodas — Yodas with sales skills. That is, all my publishers came from advertising, the more usual progression. My overseer in Colorado declared the best publishers came from news, like me. I wouldn’t know. Anyway, that was during the sales pitch.
When my transfer to California was announced, Brian, our editor, emailed congratulations and how much he was looking forward to working with me. We already knew each other from company meetings and maybe more so from drinking beer together during the best, more productive parts of those meetings.
Hah, be careful what you wish for, I warned. I always dreaded having a news side publisher. They know how it really goes in a newsroom, and they have their own ideas about how it should be.
My ad-side publishers were occasionally annoying, but mostly they wanted their editor to take care of the news side, which generally intimidated them. Kind of like how I deal with sales, lifeblood of the business.
A paper-online news operation takes flight as sales and distribution and news feed each other in a virtuous circle. The publisher’s real role is to make that circle spin just right. The trap lies in the “make,” as if you make it spin.
But that’s not quite right. The real object is the interplay, the spinning, the flight. The publisher sticking a fat finger in the middle easily can destroy the balance, making the whole thing clatter to the floor.
So what do you do? It’s a koan, really. There’s a lot of quite strategic not doing, I’ve discovered.
It’s the hardest work I do.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.