50 Years of Running: Going Big Time

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After the 9/11 tragedy rocked just about everything in American life, people looked for normalcy just about any way they could find it. At the same time, the newspaper industry in which I worked was getting slammed right and left by revenue shifts thanks to the advent of the Internet. First the Recruitment/Jobs advertising dollars migrated online. That cost the company millions of dollars in revenue. Then came the Real Estate market, followed by Auto ads and finally, retail advertising money. Millions of dollars of revenue started disappearing from newspaper pages and the newshole shrank as a result.

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The Daily Herald was forced to look at its business model, and one of the ways that life changed dramatically in my position as marketing manager was the use of “trade advertising” to work out relationships and partnerships. A new director was brought in to run the advertising department after years of phenomenal success under the prior guy, but when business takes a hit, someone has to take the fall. The advertising staff was shocked to see their leader ushered out because he was well-liked and did a good job. Then a “numbers guy” took over, and things changed fast.

We ran fewer “house ads” in the paper as well. These were ads run as ‘section balancers’ when the page counts were off. Newsprint was shooting up in price and it was expensive to throw paper at the issue. The Daily Herald had invested something like $50M in a new printing facility during its high times but when the Internet shock came along the margins to pay for that literal brick and mortar and the giant press it contained suddenly looked far less inviting.


While I’d predicted some of these problems to my marketing boss in the earliest meetings we held, I certainly didn’t view the newspaper’s money problems as mistakes caused by management. Quite the opposite. The measures we took to compensate for revenue losses were intelligent and well-advised. There was no precedent for the economic changes taking place in the early 2000s.

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Amid this environment, I wanted to find ways to promote the newspaper that didn’t cost money. In a previous job at the Kane County Chronicle, I’d organized a literacy program in collaboration with local libraries and the local minor league baseball team, the Kane County Cougars. The Rountripper Reading Program attracted sponsorship that I recruited with Everfresh, the juice company, as well as partners Pheasant Run Resort and others. It was a huge success with thousands of participants.

Big Ticket Reading Project

But the Daily Herald was a regional newspaper, not just a local one. So I decided to replicate and expand the concept of the summer reading program, calling it the Big Ticket Reading Project. First I reached out to ten area librarians and held a meeting with them to share the concept and explain that it was going to provide three levels of incentives for summer reading program participants. Once they approved the idea, I reached out to Panera Bread and landed a primo first-level sponsor. They agreed to provide a free Kid’s Lunch to every child that completed reading ten books. I targeted Panera as a sponsor because their food was legitimate. Real food, as opposed to fast food. Sure, the kids still got cookies with the meal, but treats are good too, right? The libraries tracked and distributed these prizes, so everything was well-documented.

The next level in reading twenty books was a Culver’s Ice Cream Cone, a great mid-summer treat.The final incentive was a booklet filled with free admission tickets to the Chicago area’s leading museums, cultural attractions, and entertainment complexes. The original list of fifteen sponsorsincluded the Art Institute of Chicago, Brookfield Zoo, Shedd Aquarium, Chicago Children’s Museum, and many others.

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The program started with 35 public libraries enrolled and 50,000 kids/families registered. Completion rates shot up to 75% at many of those libraries. That made the children’s librarians look good with well-documented metrics proving their effectiveness.

In 2003 the Publisher at the Daily Herald followed up on the program and called me. “I hear you built a reading program with 5,000 kids in it,” he said. “50,000,” I replied. “There are 50,000 kids in the program.”

“Well that’s great,” he responded. “What’s it cost?”

“Nothing, other than some time,” I told him. “The printing costs are all covered by Jiffy Lube and everyone in the program receives a subscription offer. “Toward the end of the year, I was notified that I’d be the recipient of the Administrator of the Year Award. Going Big Time had its rewards.

Growth and value

Over the next couple years we kept growing the program, adding libraries in every town the Daily Herald served. That was 90 communities, and we started receiving requests to participate from libraries outside our service area. Knowing that the Daily Herald grew by expansions, we added cities on our market borders including Aurora, one of Illinois’ largest cities, and other strategically targeted communities. Our booklet containing admission passes as rewards to those completing the program grew to 27 organizations with an average ticket value of $10. That meant every kid completing the program earned $270 worth of admission passes. With more than 100,000 kids then enrolled in the program, that amounted to a total value of $27M in incentives.

There were some near hiccups along the way. Some moms decided it would be cute to gather groups of kids together to take them to Panera all at once. That flew in the face of the program’s potential value to that sponsor. They legitimately got behind the program to promote “family time” at their many restaurants, and the offer of a Free Kids Meal was generous and a powerful incentive. When moms started showing up with bunches of kids in two, we had to send out word that the practice was frowned up. Sure, they had the legal right to do whatever they wanted, but we stood by our sponsor in principle.

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We also collaborated one year with Krispy Kreme, the “new kid in town” whose donut restaurants caused a massive rave across the Chicago area when the company entered the market. Given the buzz and popularity of Krispy Kreme, our circulation department was eager to meet with them to put together some subscription offers. I held an internal meeting with one of our circulation managers and made it clear to him that there was one rule we had to follow. “No discounting their products,” I told him. “That’s against their entire company policy.”

We were scheduled to meet with the public relations agency representing Krispy Kreme in Chicago and I asked our circulation guy if he needed any help putting the presentation together. “No,” he told me. “This is my specialty. I’ve got this.”

We drove into the city together and rode the elevator up to the PR agency offices. I will admit that I did not like that circulation guy one bit. The first day we’d met in a joint marketing/circulation meeting he’d reached across the table with his ugly chain bracelet rattling on the wood desk surface. He wore thin white short-sleeved dress through which you could see his wife-beater tee shirts and his ties were always a little too short. He wore a combover haircut and some aviator-style glasses with an annoying tint to them. Did I mention that I didn’t like the guy? He was a bossy little asshole who boldly told me that first day, “You job is to serve me!”

Exiting the elevator I noticed a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead. “Oh boy,” I though to myself. “What’s he got up his short sleeve?”

That moment made me recall the day I’d presented a value-added sponsorship program in the company of an advertising rep in the Tri-Cities office. During the presentation he started sweating so badly I was concerned for his health. It dripped off his balding head and his armpits bore dark stains.

I worried that the circulation guy was going to melt down in a similar fashion. We sat down and an account executive from the famous PR firm entered the room and said, “Thanks for coming down today. What have you got to show us?”

Then the circulation guy flipped open his computer and proceeded to show her three different programs discounting their product to help sell our newspaper. She stood up, stepped back from her chair and said, “I gave you specific instructions that our product was not to be discounted. This meeting’s over.” Then she walked out of the room.

I was furious (and embarrassed) but said nothing. He’d fucked up so badly there was nothing else to say. Every suspicion I’d had about his character was confirmed at that moment. He was a small-time thinker whose selfish instincts cost us dearly. Now I’d have to find a way to make up with Krispy Kreme and try to win them back as a partner.

The next day, I moved into damage control, apologizing to the PR rep for his mistakes. After apologizing, I laid out the benefits of working with us on the Big Ticket Reading Project and she liked the program. We’d landed a new, exciting sponsor. As a result, the circulation department also eventually got a deal from them. I demanded to see the final product before it went out. I didn’t trust them, to be honest.

Goals and changes

The original point of the Big Ticket Reading Project was to help our circulation department reach potential new subscribers. As I grew to understand the problems of circulation over a few years of working at the Daily Herald, it was “churn” among existing subscribers that presented a massive challenge. The job at hand was replacing somewhere between 30-40% of dropped subscribers on an annual basis. As it stood in the early to mid-2000s, the paper cited a circulation of nearly 140,000. that made it the third-largest newspaper in Illinois behind the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times. But the truth was something different. Like many newspapers, that circulation mark was essentially a mask worn to project total readership to advertisers and attract revenue.

To cover those churn numbers, the most effective form of circulation sales was person-to-person. Our marketing department booked more than 200 annual events at which the circulation department worked our booths and sold subscriptions. The contractors earned about $35 per sale so it was the incentive to earn hard cash and the ability to recruit subscribers that served as the lifeblood of the newspaper. They also traveled door-to-door selling subscriptions, targeting neighborhoods with special offers, usually discounts as low as $.99 per week versus the $4.99 many longtime subscribers paid. I found it a bit disturbing that our most loyal subscribers paid so much while new and often flighty households got the cheaper price, but the circulation department hated the idea of creating a “flat rate” for everyone. Many newspapers played that sort of game in those days, protecting baseline revenue while covering churn with special offers.

We also partnered with non-profit organizations offering to make a contribution from a paid circulation to a given group. I was responsible for many of those relationships, managing their respective trade advertising packages in exchange for using the names of those non-profits to sell subscriptions. One of the “best sellers” was Special Olympics, with whom we worked as partners at many levels. I attended Winter and Summer State Games, got to know their PR and management teams, and visited their big fundraising events of many kinds.

So our circulation people had the right to sell using the Special Olympics name. Then one day I received a call from the Director of Illinois Special Olympics with a complaint. “One of your people stopped by my house and told me they’re from Special Olympics and invited me to make a contribution and get a free subscription to the Daily Herald. What’s up with that?”

“Well, that’s clearly wrong,” I quickly admitted, then hung up and contacted our circulation department to receive a grudging admission that “some of our people might have done that.” So we put a quick stop to it. I’d worked hard to build trust with the Special Olympics people. I also understood the pressure to sell subscriptions, but doing so by deceiving the public was not acceptable. Few other methods worked as well as direct sales, so it was vital to keep the circulation sales dynamics working.

Tough sell

On the Big Ticket Reading Project front, we integrated a newspaper industry program called Newspapers In Education by bringing sponsors in to pay for copies distributed to libraries to provide “samples” of our product that counted as paid circulation. But the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) was at that time cracking down on third-party circulation schemes because so many newspapers were playing games to cover circulation losses, and the ABC was responsible for readership integrity. So that ended.

And yet, the Big Ticker Reading program continued growth every year. By 2005 it passed the 100,000 participants mark. That’s when I lobbied to build a free-standing website. The regular Daily Herald website was deemed out of bounds for a promotional program because the newspaper so concerned with grabbing readership on the site and maintaining editorial integrity that there was no essentially “no room at the inn” for a program that wasn’t a mainstream product.

So I took a small budget of $5K to produce a Big Ticket website. Admittedly, I had little experience with website development at that point, so the initial site was basic at best. Working with a third party, we launched a website providing program information, sponsor listing and participating libraries.

What I really wanted to build was something far bigger than a mere portal or hub. The dream I had in mind with the Big Ticket Reading Project was to create a “community” all of its own, a “literacy hub” offering content focused on reading for everyone from kids up to adults. Back in the Roundtripper Reading Program days, I’d worked with an author named James Lehman conducting events at which he read his children’s book and families flocked to hear him. I saw the Big Ticket site as a potential revenue-producing entity all its own with content centered around reading but also drawn from the DH site as backlinks to the main website. I was frankly way ahead of the curve on that, and because the Daily Herald was so absorbed in its own website challenges, it was a struggle to get management to look beyond immediate matters and think bigger about what online “communities” might look like in the future.

Life interrupts

Into this mix of purposes, a hard shock of reality came into my life. During the winter of 2005, my wife Linda began experiencing severe menstruation problems. Her family wasn’t keen on rushing to the doctor, believing most problems resolved themselves in time, so she wasn’t eager to visit a doctor about all that. Besides, we were working with an HMO through the Daily Herald health plan which meant dumping the longtime family physician that had delivered both our children. Our new doctor through the HMO was a somewhat gruff former military doctor.

Despite these changes, I researched and found a female gynecologist and made an appointment for Linda. A scan showed some potential issues with Linda’s ovaries. That made me think back to when she’d had large ovarian cysts removed during the first few months I knew her. After that operation in 1981, I visited her in the hospital where proceeded to yank up the gown to show me the Bikini cut scar and I thought to myself, “Well, I guess we’re serious.”

So I knew that when the gynecologist recommended a laparoscopic surgery I should be there for Linda after surgery. I took a day off from work and sat in the ambulatory surgery center during the operation. After an hour, the gynecologist came out carrying several photo sheets and took me to a private room. “There were cysts on her ovaries,” she told me, handing me photos of what looked liked like a busted up meatball. “I did my best to remove them but they broke.”

I sat there for a moment trying to grasp what that might mean. Then she intoned: “We’re sending these off for tests because we’re concerned they might be cancerous. I’m sorry.”

Linda came out of anesthesia and I had no idea what to say to her. By the year 2005 we’d been married for twenty years. Our two kids were in high school and middle school. I was pragmatic in talking with her that day because we didn’t know what to expect. “Maybe they’re benign?” she offered at first.

Several days later the test results came back. “Your wife has ovarian cancer,” they told me. “It is Stage IIc, but it’s an aggressive form of cancer.”

I was on my way to work that morning, driving on the 30-mile commute from Batavia to Arlington Heights that I typically covered five times a week as well as drives to satellite offices in Dupage, Lake, and Kane Counties. I was constantly on the move in that job running events like golf outings, awards banquets, bowling tournaments, editorial symposiums, and collaborations with pro sports teams and non-profits such as the American Cancer Society…

Suddenly, in the midst of all that hubbub, I was the husband of a wife with cancer and the father of two children to whom I’d need to explain, if at all possible, what it all might mean. At the end of that first week, my former track and cross country coach Trent Richards got news of our situation and called me up. “Your whole life has been a preparation for this,” he told me. His words resounded in my brain. He was right. All the pressures and preparation I’d done in running, the competition and training, and conquering fear in the face of the unknown contributed to a sense of self-control in many situations.

But that wasn’t the last bit of bad news that spring. In May, we received the news that my mother was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma. She chose to be treated with oral medication rather than doing chemotherapy because she was the main caregiver for my father, a stroke victim living with partial paralysis on his left side as well as apraxia and aphasia, the inability to form words or speak.

Carry on

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The emotional duress was considerable, but we launched the Big Ticket Reading Project in June 2005 despite the fact that one of my assistants miscounted the 75,000 Krispy Kreme free donut vouchers we’d been granted and sent bulks of them to just a few libraries and suddenly “ran out.” I had to let the KK people know the problem and they threatened to charge us for all 75,000 if they were somehow “lost” but fortunately we’d built a great partnership with our libraries and they counted them up and resolved the issue within a couple days.

That was payment for being as forthright as possible during the entire formative years of the program. I held annual program critiques with a panel of librarians that volunteered from within their ranks to troubleshoot each year. They knew that we were committed to doing things right. If mistakes happened, as they sometimes do, we communicated and solved them as quickly as possible.

Then the newspaper assigned a woman to “oversee” the program. Her title at the newspaper was Quality Control but basically, her job was hunting around to find things to stick her nose into so that she could justify her own salary. She pushed her way into our meetings with an insistence that the job at hand was making the program sell more newspapers and generate its own source of revenue. I explained that both of those things were possible with actual support from the organization, but she was determined to prove that she was the one that knew how to make things work going ahead. I will admit that I despised her intrusion, especially in the company of a Circulation Department Vice President whose people had behaved so badly on so many fronts. I told her, “We have enormous potential here. This could be its own source of revenue if we keep building it the right way, in collaboration with our partners.”

She was having none of that. “We want to see some revenue from this or we’ll kill it,” she told me.

A Facebook Moment

My goal all along was to create something “new” for the newspaper, an opportunity to capitalize upon “down the road.” I’m not saying that I’m Mark Zuckerberg, or that there was necessarily FACEBOOK potential to the Big Ticket Reading Project. But as Zuckerberg was shown speculating in the movie The Social Network “We don’t even know what this is yet,” I had a feeling that the program had potential beyond the traditional concept of newspaper business models. I was trying to go Big Time and the smaller thinkers and bean counters were having their way. Look at this video at about 1:40:

Unfortunately, I would struggle from that point on to control anything in my life, but especially corporate expectations. Life was hitting me from all sides in 2005. The only thing I knew how to do in some ways, given my long competitive history, was hit back. That’s not always the best strategy.


About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and genesisfix.wordpress.com Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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