WHEN YOU think you’ve figured someone out by their appearance, you usually get fooled.
A tad more than three decades ago, I went to a county seat town on the southern edge of Central Texas to publish a weekly newspaper.
I inherited a staff that was somewhat dysfunctional.
An editor’s pretty red hair and nice figure had somehow distracted my predecessor. There was a reporter much more talented than the editor. The bookkeeper was busy protecting her job and that of her daughter, who worked in composing and who worked on the publisher (on the redheaded editor’s day off), to preserve both her and her mama’s jobs.
There had been a photographer, a little spitfire who was enormously talented and also worked in composition. She’d quit in a snit a couple of weeks earlier because she felt she’d been mistreated and grossly underpaid. I rehired her.
A mid-thirties, quiet, stocky woman did most of the ad composition. She was talented, smart and did a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.
AN OLDER retired woman worked part time in composing, helping set display type and put ads together.
Selling advertising was a raven-haired single mom whose idea of a sales pitch was, “You don’t wanna buy an ad, do you?”
A bright young man ran the press, assisted by an older, military retiree, who sopped up booze like a sponge and serviced the news racks.
Phone answering and reception were handled by default.
Despite all this dysfunction, the paper was moderately profitable.
As soon as the departing publisher left and we got an issue of the paper out, I called a staff meeting and announced Sheriff Publisher’s no-no rules.
“We’re going to publish an excellent product and expect it will produce a nice profit for ownership because they deserve it. They’ve invested a significant amount of money and created jobs. If we do that, then we will prosper individually in relationship to the performance of the newspaper.”
WELL, IT was trouble right there in River City, folks, and the horse I was ridin’ hadn’t even made the second jump out of the chute.
Seems the previous publisher was coming to town one day a week, having mama-daughter “host” a beer bust and supper so the departed boss could cajole any employees willing to listen. He wanted everyone to threaten to walk out if they didn’t get raises (he was mad at ownership and wanted to destroy the paper).
The next day everyone but mama and daughter chickened out. When they came to me and made their demands “raises or we walk,” I assured them I didn’t want the door to injure them as they hurried out.
I called raven-haired ad salesperson into the office: “Can you do anything besides give away ads?” I pointed at the huge Radio Shack computer we used for accounting and billing and said, “Do you know how to run one of these?” (Because I didn’t.)
She reached and flipped the switch and the machine lurched. “You’re the new computer operator. I’ll sell ads.”
The editor had given notice that she’d accepted a job at a larger paper, so I grabbed seething reporter and said, “I’m the publisher AND editor now, and you’re the managing editor. I’m rehiring the photographer. She can shoot pictures and help in composing.
I hired a reporter fresh out of the University of Texas, returning our news staff to full strength.
AN AD for office help produced a woman who looked like a ‘Holiness street preacher,’ hair up in a bun, long dress, no makeup but a nice, friendly smile and quiet demeanor to be the receptionist-classified person.
When she reported for work the next day, her hair was down and flowing, she was in jeans and had a cigarette hanging from her mouth. And, she handled the traffic — phone and walk-in — with grace and aplomb. Classified revenue shot up. I forgot to ask if she could type. She could, with each index finger. But, she had few mistakes in classifieds, got the bills out on time and was one tough biddy on collections. Somehow, she knew every deadbeat in town and it was CIF (Cash In Fist) for those turkeys.
She preached all right. I loved her sermon…and her Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.
Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher of more than 50 years experience. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.