My name is Tom Mullen. And I own newspapers. My family owns newspapers in the Northwest, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana. We used to have one in Oregon. And so it's a family owned business. My wife owns and operates a paper in Philipsburg, Montana. My oldest son who's here with us Jesse, he's design director for Civitas Media which is about a hundred newspapers more over in this part of the United States. Louie, he's our middle son. He's just purchased four papers in the last couple of years, two in Wyoming, one in Washington, and one in Idaho. And our youngest son Loyd, is training to be a publisher in a shop in Washington which is our largest paper. They're all community papers, they're all of, by, and for the people of whatever county we serve.
“You should be a journalist.” Such was the advice of a Business Law professor my Sophomore year of college. It came unsolicited as I had stayed after class to grill him on the logic of precedent. But based on my unabashed ability to probe, he thought I might be better suited for a job in the press than one at the bar.
Never one for crossing the t or dotting the i, journalism was a career more suited to my style. All I had to do was go out, interview someone, check and then double check what they purported to be fact, then back to office to write the story. If I got something wrong we’d get fixed for the next edition.
Reporting was a joy ride that consumed my waking hours. My greatest mentor, Les Mann of Wayne, Nebraska, schooled me in every aspect of community journalism, from fly-boy (the person who takes the printed editions off the press and gets them to a binder) to monitoring carrier routes (an awful task).
My wife, Annie, was (still is) ready to lend a hand whenever and where ever needed. If an advertising salesperson quit, she’d step in until I filled the position. She eventually took the helm of one of our newspapers in Montana. Despite the economic crash of 2009, she watched that paper grow by double digits in revenue and readership while other newspapers were receding.
Our sons, Jesse, Louie and Lloyd, one after the other, got into the business after trying their hands at another thing or two. We never pushed or prodded them into the business but it was treated as a household chore while they lived in our household. One wintry day I arrived home from work to learn that one of my boys had hiked home after the school bus slid into a ditch. He grabbed a camera and hiked back to shoot the scene of the accident. He was 11 at the time. They all had dreams of other careers but by the time they entered college they knew more about the newspapering than most people who’ve been in it for a decade.
When I left Wayne, Nebraska for Newcastle, Wyoming it was because of the promise of ownership and a chance to be left alone to run my own newspaper. My first business partner, Robb Hicks (a third generation newspaperman) told me “I won’t tell you NOT to do something but I will tell you when I think you’re making a mistake.” And he was true to his word. Within a few years he sold me majority interest in the Newcastle paper and soon after, he, his lifelong friend, Gary Stevenson and I began buying every small newspaper we could lay our hands on. It was wild ride and within a few years we had 20-some newspapers under our combined ownership. Robb’s Dad used to tell me, “treat a partnership like a marriage, don’t sweat the little stuff.”
But I did sweat the small stuff and it strained the partnership. Wishing to have more control, I divorced myself of Gary Stevenson, consolidated what ownership I could and began focusing more of my time on fewer newspapers.
Then the economy crashed. Our boys, one after the other, gravitated back to the business not just because they knew it so well but also because the opportunities out there were few and far between. It was a blessing for our business interests as they all brought different talents to an industry that requires such a variety of abilities. One was strong in design, another in photography, another in business.
Louie was the first to go out on his own. Wyoming is one of the few states where you can still find an owner working at a paper. Because of this, conventions become like family reunions and when it comes time to sell a newspaper, you look to family first. After running newspapers for us in Montana and Idaho, Louie purchased the Green River (Wyoming) Star. A year later he purchased the Thermopolis (Wyoming) Independent Record and brought his brothers in as partners for good measure.
Meanwhile, his older brother, Jesse, was working his way up the corporate ladder at Civitas Media, a conglomerate of about 100 papers in the eastern part of the U.S. Our youngest son, Lloyd, spent a few years working for a university before moving to our largest newspaper in Shelton to learn to be a publisher.
We all take the responsibilities of the job seriously. The newspaper business is built on credibility. Most of our properties have been around for more than a century which means our readers’ grandparents trusted what they read in the pages of their community newspaper. To violate that trust diminishes the business model.
Few of our newspapers still use independent carriers to deliver the product and every paper uses the United States Postal Service to get to some, if not most of our readers. The partnership between newspapers and the post office is, like Hicks’ Dad said, a marriage. We tend to bicker and sometimes blame the other for mishaps in delivery. But it is a marriage that has held together since a newspaperman named Benjamin Franklin, became the first U.S. Postmaster.
We rely very heavily on the post office. In Ohio alone where I work with Civitas Media, we send out tens of thousands of items through the post office almost every single day. In some of our communities we don't have contractors working as paper delivery people. We send all of your subscriptions directly through the post office. And recently it has become more difficult because the post office has obviously been going through significant challenges at the time. We hope that we can get over this and get to a point were the post office can reliably send our papers in a timely manner. But we couldn't do our job on a daily basis without the work that the post office does to get papers to our readers and get the advertising messages to the readers as well.
The Saturday delivery is essential in our little community. We've only got 3,000 people in the whole county. We've got one pharmacy in the county. We've got one flower shop. The flower shop and the pharmacy, the six day delivery is essential to their doors being open. If it should go down to five, they'd just go away and that business goes away. And then our people have to go an hour and a half to get those services somewhere else. And you can just see the decline of small, rural communities even more than is happening now.
It's hard to be in the newspaper business right now, it's challenging. I mean you have to sell your ass off, you know? [laughter]
You can't be a publisher and go golfing four days a week like you could in the late '90s.
Well let's not say that's true. [laughter]
I guess you can, but.
I mean we're competing against so many different industries right now. You have to make your product as good as it can possibly be. And maybe that's not to say my dad had it easy but he had it way easier than we have it.