Monday, August 3, 2009

A NEW LIFE: Journalists on how they reinvented themselves - Part 1 - ME Sprengelmeyer, from Washington correspondent to weekly newspaper owner

During the series, "Pulitzers Lost, What a cost," the idea of a new series telling the stories of journalists who had reinvented themselves took shape. The feedback I was hearing told me that journalists appreciated reading about others in the business who had found their way after they had lost their job.

At this time of great disruption in the business, I hope it's encouraging for those caught in the storm to see that there's life after your newsroom has no place for you anymore.

I begin with the incredible story of someone I've known and worked with for a long time. ME Sprengelmeyer used to be a stringer for me when I was city editor of The Albuquerque Tribune 20 or so years ago. He went on to become the final Washington correspondent of the Rocky Mountain News. Today he's running his own weekly in New Mexico.

If you'd like to tell your story or know someone else whom I should ask, please let me know.

Thank you.


ME Sprengelmeyer - Former Washington correspondent for the Rocky Mountain News


(Photos by Mark Holm)

I shed tears twice this year.

On Feb. 26, 2009, there wasn’t a dry eye in the Rocky Mountain News newsroom after we got word that we’d be working on the paper’s final deadline – just weeks short of its 150th birthday.

It meant the loss of Colorado’s oldest business and oldest friend. And for a couple hundred great journalists, it meant the end of something really special. The Rocky was not your typical big-city paper. It had a soul.

John might not like this, but I always thought the alternative weekly Westword absolutely nailed it with a May 25, 2006, description of the two Denver papers.

“Based on front pages from twelve days in May, the paper seems like a slightly off-kilter relative who’s prone to the occasional rant but is seldom boring, whereas the Post comes across as a steadier, more solid member of the community, albeit one apt to drone on drearily at cocktail parties.”

I’ll take that juxtaposition, especially when you consider the four Pulitzer Prizes the paper won under the off-kilter relative’s leadership, and the innovative coverage we tried (sometimes with success, sometimes not) day in and day out.

But it wasn’t just an institution that died in February. Hundreds of veteran reporters, editors, artists, photographers and support staff lost their vocations. Diving into the current job market is like going head-first into a kiddie pool in the middle of a drought.

I knew that long before the Rocky’s closure.

I saw the handwriting on the wall a couple years ago. As the Washington correspondent via Scripps Howard News Service, I watched corporate chain after corporate chain drain the talent pool at the national bureaus, which started being referred to as “cost centers” in corporate lingo. I watched “paper cuts” inflicted in newsrooms all over the country. It was clear, even two years ago, that if I ever lost my dream job in the D.C. bureau – the one that had led me to Iraq and Afghanistan and too many adventures to count – then I would be hard-pressed to find anything nearly as satisfying…anywhere.

So a few years ago, I hatched a harebrained plot.

I’ve known John Temple for years. He was my city editor when I was a stringer at the dearly-departed Albuquerque Tribune. And he became my big-boss editor for ten years at the Rocky. But here’s something even he doesn’t know.

In early 2007, after Denver was awarded the Democratic National Convention, I pitched a radical idea to pack up the D.C. bureau, move it to Des Moines, Iowa, and go start-to-finish following all the presidential candidates of both parties – including the one who would eventually be the star of our show in Denver. It was a bold, multimedia plan, and I’m proud of the hundreds of thousands of words that made it into the paper, into the “Back Roads to the White House” blog and my memory banks for political coverage after that.

But I had a quirky ulterior motive, too. I knew that the back roads would take me to little dots on the map where little weekly papers have been standing for just about as long as the Rocky Mountain News. I had the fantasy – and a whole lot of reporters I know have had the fantasy – of one day being a one-man newsroom at a tiny little paper like the one in “The Milagro Beanfield War” and so much great literature.

I landed in Iowa in April 2007 and would have to chase the candidates to places you’ve never heard about. As a reporter, one of the best ways to understand a candidate and a message she or he is spinning in that area is to wander into the local newspaper and get the lay of the land from the editor, publisher and staff (if there is a staff). So I’d rush ahead of the candidates, pop into little newsrooms and get the lay of the land. And, heck, while I was there, I’d always sneak in a few questions about the state of small town journalism.

How’s it going? Are the ads still flowing? What about the Internet? Is it much of a threat out in the sticks? How many people does it take to put out a quality product? What if you made some strategic investments in quality content here and there? Would your franchise do any better, or had it already maximized the local potential?

I didn’t always find healthy newspapers. But invariably, I saw potential, because if you look very closely, the small-town newspaper’s business model does and always has resembled a miniature version of the direction the big-city papers will eventually reach.

They have tiny staffs – only what the day-to-day cash flow can sustain. They aren’t afraid of reader-generated content. They outsource many functions, such as printing and distribution (USPS and a few boxes). By accident, they keep their communities addicted to the print product because they either do not give away a whole lot of material for free on the Internet (or they do not cannibalize themselves very well).

Some small town newspapers are profitable. Some are not. Location has a lot to do with that. But because they have a physical presence, provide intense local coverage, stay within their financial means and tailor their content quite intensely to match the needs of the people who wander into the front door to complain every day, they provide a service that has lost little value over the past two decades of stunning technological changes. If the Huffington Post, Gawker, Drudge Report, Craigslist and their friends decide to open up bureaus in thousands upon thousands of small towns across America, more power to them. But until then, small town newspapers are only increasing in importance to both readers and local advertisers. And in many, but not all, cases, they are capable of showing a profit.

And so, one week after the Rocky closed, I returned to D.C., hopped in my car and drove back to Iowa to kick the tires at some charming little papers that were for sale. I researched papers in every region of the country, spoke to publishers about intense financial details. I got some candid assessments of markets that had gone dry. I learned about some that are booming in the middle of the so-called “newspaper collapse” because the big-city papers have pulled back their ad-sales and coverage areas, leaving mini-monopolies out in the sticks.

In the end, I decided I needed to come home…home to New Mexico. This weekend I took over as editor, publisher and owner of The Guadalupe County Communicator. It’s the sixth-smallest weekly in the 36th most populous state. And there’s no place I’d rather be.



Over the weekend, a caravan of great journalists arrived to help me remake this paper, top to bottom. Rocky Mountain News copy desk and page design gurus Mel Pomponio and Kim Humphreys led the way, and they brought a dozen old Rocky Mountain News boxes I’ll use to expand my circulation up and down Route 66. Rocky (and longtime New Mexico) photographer Mark Holm made the trip, coming out of corporate-imposed semi-retirement to have the time of his life shooting the Guadalupe County Fair. Rocky cartoonist Drew Litton and his wife drove down, scouted some terrific local sights like The Blue Hole, county fair and Route 66, and began brainstorming on the local cartoons I’ll run on page two. (A week earlier, former Rocky photographer Chris Schneider made the pilgrimage and produced such stunning images of Santa Rosa that some local residents gasped at a preview.)

The “surge staff” and I held non-stop brainstorming sessions, did some training with the paper’s longtime page designer, “WWF Mike” Gallegos. And on Sunday, after our last family dinner, we walked out to the parking lot, exchanged the warmest hugs I’ve felt since a dark day in February, and my eyes filled with tears again.

But this time, the tears were different. It wasn’t sadness. It was mostly joy at having watched those great journalists casting aside the uncertainty of unemployment and showing off the talent they had at the Rocky – and still have.

And when they left, I cried some more, because then I was alone again, facing my first week on the job with the scariest boss in the world: myself.

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Here's a link to the Facebook fan page for the Guadalupe County Communicator.

20 comments:

  1. For those of us still on the gunwales, M.E., good luck and Godspeed with your new old venture!

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  2. What an inspirational story. Go get 'em -- and never stop having fun doing it!

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  3. What a great story--living the dream of just about everyone who's ever worked in the newspaper biz. (As someone who used to cover the county commission, at the Alb Journal—across the aisle from John Temple in fact, this was always a dream of mine, too.)

    But, M.E., I'd really love to understand the economics. If Wikipedia is to be believed, Santa Rosa had 2200 residents 7 years ago. Even assuming a population boom since then, how in the world do you scrape out a living wage for yourself and your employees?

    This isn't an idle question: I live in a town of 15,000 people in Northern California, and even assuming a Web-only "newspaper," whenever I do the math, it just doesn't add up.

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  4. Good luck to you. One of my former colleagues at the Burlington Free Press in Vermont did the same exact thing once he got laid off earlier this year after many years of service. His name is Ed Shamy and he now owns the County Courier, a weekly in Enosburg Fall, Vt. You should get in touch with him if you need any tips on one-man-band small town journalism. www.countycourieronline.com

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  5. Wonderful story. Hope it inspires many former "Houston Chronicle" journalists. Good luck to you always!
    Sharon Dotson
    Bayou City Public Relations - www.bayoucitypr.com

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  6. As your first college editor, Mikee...good luck, Godspeed, and I am so proud of you I could burst!

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  7. I remember sitting on the balcony at the Rocky with M.E. on our last night there, sharing a cigarette (against building rules but what the hell) and being sad. This week I, too, am shedding tears. But like you it's because I'm so happy and so moved by what you are doing, and by the support you have received. Keep a seat warm for me, my friend, and best of luck to you. Thanks John for sharing this.

    Sara Burnett
    Denver, CO

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  8. Awesome! Good luck, M.E. I hope you will blog about how it's going from time to time. I started at the Durango Herald, and have many of my fondest memories from that time.

    Maybe you can go home again...

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  9. Amazing story. As a Gen Yer who cut her teeth at the North Platte Telegraph in North Platte, Nebraska, I've long wished someone would save the paper. I still think there's an answer out there that doesn't include being owned and gutted by the Omaha World Herald.

    A good journo/business person could immensely impact the entire Western part of my beloved home state. I hope more people will continue to invest in hyper-local solutions that uphold the voice and heart of the American small town.

    Best wishes.
    Crystal Olig
    crystal.a.olig(at)gmail(dot)com

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  10. FYI

    http://tinkink.blogspot.com/

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  11. Thank you for the responses. Great to see how ME's story is inspiring so many. Especially gratifying to see JQ on the site. I hope we can catch up one of these days.

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  12. J.Q. Batavia, N.Y. is 15,000 people. My wife and I are making a living with The Batavian (though our coverage area is 60,000, all of our advertising comes from either the city or town of Batavia (total pop. 20K). The Batavian is our only source of income.

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  13. Congrats,ME "Our Publisher/Editor of Guadalupe"

    Doug Hacker

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  14. I wish him well, and as a former weekly editor who worked for a metro paper for 26 years and now tries to help rural journalists, I invite other metro refugees to follow his lead. --From The Rural Blog: http://irjci.blogspot.com/2009/08/his-metropolitan-paper-closed-political.html

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  15. great followup story here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/12/business/media/12communicator.html?_r=2&ref=business

    M. E. Sprengelmeyer, formerly of the Rocky Mountain News, now owns the weekly Guadalupe County Communicator, circulation around 2,000, the New York Times reports. Richard Pena-Perez writes on October 11, 2009:

    SANTA ROSA, N.M. — Between pleading with an advertiser, fending off a complaining reader and taking a break to watch a scorpion scuttle down the sidewalk, M. E. Sprengelmeyer gives a visitor to his office this advice: “Watch out for the hole in the floor.”

    He isn’t joking. Eight months ago, Mr. Sprengelmeyer, 42, worked as the sole Washington correspondent for The Rocky Mountain News, the Denver newspaper that went out of business in February, but his job these days is a far cry from the Senate press gallery.

    In August, he embarked on a new life in this isolated little town as owner, publisher, editor, primary writer and sometime ad salesman, photographer and deliverer of the weekly Guadalupe County Communicator, circulation about 2,000.

    “I covered the war in Iraq and the presidential campaign, and I knew I was never going to top that, even if I found another reporting job,” he said, sitting on a battered chair in his single-story storefront space. “I just wanted a completely new direction.”

    Of the thousands of paths taken by journalists who have been cast off by shrinking metropolitan newspapers, Mr. Sprengelmeyer’s is one of the more unusual, and one of the more hopeful. While bringing some big-city professionalism to a distinctly small-time operation, he says he is making enough money to support himself, and he has been able to assign some freelance work to a few underemployed former colleagues.

    At least half a dozen veterans of The Rocky and other papers have contributed to The Communicator in the last two months — most paid, a few pro bono — and more are in the pipeline. Two have become regulars: Mark Holm, a photographer and former photo editor at The Rocky and several other papers, and Drew Litton, a former Rocky cartoonist.

    “It’s the Tom Sawyer business plan: I’m trying to convince all my friends how much fun it would be to help me,” said Mr. Sprengelmeyer.

    Santa Rosa lies a two-hour drive east of Albuquerque, on a vast plain of prairie grass speckled with juniper and mesquite, where the old Route 66 and Interstate 40 cross the Pecos River. Mr. Sprengelmeyer gave up Washington for a town of 2,600 people, most of them Hispanic, with a per capita income about half the national average, where the biggest political dispute is what to do with a giant water slide the local council bought from an amusement park.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/12/business/media/12communicator.html?_r=2&ref=business

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  16. continued:

    But Michael Sprengelmeyer (he became “M. E.” two decades ago, when it turned out his full byline would not fit in a column width) plays his own tune. A vegetarian teetotaler who tries not to wear leather — he favors old-fashioned canvas basketball shoes — he also fights his weight and smokes. He likes to sketch his paper’s page designs on paper plates. The two suits he owns, but never wears, used to belong to the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now jailed, and are the subject of a lawsuit between the power broker and his tailor (a baroque tale Mr. Sprengelmeyer once told in The Rocky’s pages).

    His new career turn was not a desperation move caused by the closing of The Rocky. He has thought about it for a while. For a couple of years, he scouted small-town papers that were for sale, including some in Iowa that he visited while covering the presidential caucuses there. After The Rocky’s demise, Mr. Sprengelmeyer, who grew up mostly in Albuquerque, turned his sights on New Mexico.

    He would not disclose what he paid for The Communicator, but in a city where the median home price is about $100,000, he is a renter because “I could either buy a newspaper here or buy a house here, but not both.”

    The paper came with a staff of just three part-timers and a single, more or less full-time reporter, Davy Delgado, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Santa Rosa. Mr. Delgado, 54, does not own a phone, home or mobile, and since having a stroke two years ago, he cannot drive extensively.

    Santa Rosa actually has two weeklies, The Communicator and the smaller Santa Rosa News. In recent years, each paper was aligned with one of two rival groups in City Hall; one of The Communicator’s former owners, Jesus Roybal, is the town administrator.

    Mr. Sprengelmeyer has criticized both factions, increased the amount of serious news in the paper, and markedly improved its writing and appearance. Michael Gallegos, a clothes store manager who also does The Communicator’s page layouts, said he learned as much in a crash course of a few days with two former Rocky editors as he had in two years on the job.

    People around town say they have noticed the difference. The greatest compliment may have been paid by Roberto Martin Marquez, editor of the Santa Rosa News, who wrote in his paper that “M. E. is making me a better newspaper man.”

    Sales of The Communicator are up, in part because of eight sidewalk boxes that Mr. Sprengelmeyer bought from The Rocky and posted around Santa Rosa. He will not say how much money the paper makes, but says it is more than enough to support him, and he has visions of expanding to two days a week.

    “If a house burns down, everybody here knows it, saw it, knew the people, probably hugged them, but they still want to read about it in a paper that comes out four days later,” he said.

    The experience has made him an evangelist for small-town papers, which he says offer a hidden opportunity for unemployed journalists, but he acknowledges it isn’t for everybody. He works to the brink of exhaustion, fueling late-night production sessions with nicotine and caffeinated energy drinks. After a few hours’ sleep, he makes a three-hour, round-trip drive to pick up his press run in Clovis, where the paper is printed.

    “I couldn’t do this if I had a family,” he said. “But it feels like it matters, and I’m having fun.”

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