MaryLee, my wife and business partner, and I closed on the sale of the Cushing Citizen in February.
The first month was successful. We showed a fair profit and prepared to move forward with our business plan.
“Everybody has a plan until they get hit.” —Mike Tyson.
On March 11, the Cushing Citizen took it right on the chin — and it hurt.
The month of March was a roller coaster of withering uncertainty. We lost half our advertising revenue as casinos and restaurants closed their doors in the interests of flattening the curve.
With very few businesses remaining open to sell to, we furloughed our advertising representative. To generate quick cash infusion, we initiated a $10 a year local subscription special and invited customers who were renewing to take the money they were saving and sign up their friends or neighbors. We also promoted a “restaurant stimulus” package and encouraged the entire business community to “adopt” a restaurant and sponsor their menus in our online edition. A menu from virtually every restaurant in town can now be found on the Citizen Weekender online.
We used our Facebook page to collect photos of residents and their activities while in self isolation and sold sponsorships for a picture page.
But it wasn’t going to be enough. By Friday, April 16, as we watched the company bank account dwindle below four figures, we did not know if our livelihood — the newspaper into which we had poured our home and every penny we were worth — would survive another two weeks and have enough to pay our three remaining employees.
We had done everything we could to keep the Citizen afloat and were waiting for news that would change everything — waiting for light at the end of the tunnel.
The dream of ownership
It sounds cliche, but it really felt like fate brought me to Cushing. In January of 2019, I was an out-of-work newspaper editor when the Citizen’s publisher David Reid called me for an interview. I cleaned up and put on a tie. By the time the interview was over, Reid, who has a far-reaching reputation for his abruptness, said, “You’re dressed for it, you might as well cover tonight’s chamber of commerce banquet. It starts in a couple hours.”
I guess I was hired.
By April, I was going full blast, working as a one-man editorial department, covering news and sports at a frenetic pace.
In June, Reid and I were having a conversation about the newspaper business in general. He talked about how he and his wife were ready to slow their lives down. He ended that conversation by saying, “Meisner, you ought to just buy this sucker.”
That statement stirred something in me I hadn’t felt for a long time — the desire to own and publish my own newspaper.
MaryLee and I prayed on it and discussed it, and put numbers to paper. We created a business plan that balanced, and dredged up the means to make a purchase. We were going to make a run at it — what could go wrong? Oil was at $52 a barrel and the Cushing economy seemed rock solid. The schools were in great shape and the city had solid leadership. Circulation was on the rise, ad sales were strong and the community was behind us.
If we would have somehow been able to see a year into the future, our decision might have been different.
We finalized our purchase on February 1, 2020. In March, the world imploded.
Lessons from forest firefighters
On March 16, the city commission approved a disaster declaration, issued safe-at-home orders and shut down nonessential businesses. The next day, Cushing was an economic ghost town. The newspaper felt the effects almost immediately as the attitude of advertising clients took on a frugal and self-preservation quality.
We made cuts where we could and prepared for a worst-case scenario.
After 20-plus years of news reporting and editing, one thing I can say for certain is, I know a tiny bit about a lot of things.
When covering a massive forest fire in New Mexico as a young reporter, I was compelled to tell the story from the perspective of how the incident was managed from the top down. I thought that learning from incident commanders about how they made decisions and managed the overall logistics of a massive forest fire would help me put together a rich story for my readers.
Absorbing knowledge like this always felt like a fringe benefit of being a newspaperman. I’d have never guessed that what I learned from those U.S. Forest Service guys would be instrumental in mitigating the impact of a pandemic on my own newspaper a quarter of a century later.
Incident commanders on large forest fires create a progressive series of action plans, well ahead of any need to implement them. They also establish a series of triggering conditions — for example: If the fire threatens structures, or critical habitat (trigger), aerial attacks are called in (action). If the wind shifts in a favorable direction (trigger), a back burn will be set to starve the fire of fuel (action).
I learned from those officials, that with a plan of action prepared for every possible triggering condition, they were ready to respond efficiently and effectively.
Last month, as the pandemic worsened, we applied this methodology at the newspaper.
We first established every triggering condition we could think of that might require action on our part: restaurant closures, school closures, cancellation of high school sports, cancellation of the NCAA tournament, shelter at home orders, loss in revenue, work from home mandates, the shut down of our printing facilities, possible exposure (or infection) of any or every member of the staff, zombies — everything.
We held a staff meeting and created a plan specific to each triggering condition, so that we would be able to respond sensibly, instead of scrambling for a solution unprepared.
We made sure that our bookkeeper, who did not have home internet service, got it installed and operational.
Our ad rep was as ready as anyone can be for his furlough when that trigger came in the form of a 50 percent loss in revenue.
We contacted several printing presses to establish print windows and deadlines.
My wife, a school teacher now relegated to distance learning oblivion, volunteered to help out where she could. Until now, her involvement in my journalism pursuits consisted of constructive criticism of my weekly column. Now, she was all in.
We innovated. When the NCAA basketball tournament was cancelled, we cancelled our bracket promotion and contacted everyone who had sponsored it and convinced them to repurpose that commitment into a “restaurant rescue” promotion. We got all 28 local restaurants sponsored. In return for that support, we pledged to run the restaurants’ phone numbers, every week on our front page, and promised to run their full carry-out menus in our online product until the day they were allowed to be fully open again. Those commitments are still in place.
We upgraded our website and took down the paywall to allow everyone access to vital news as COVID-19 spread. We cut our local subscription rate by 50 percent for the month of April. We signed up more than 50 new subscribers in the first two weeks.
Because of our planning, we were hyper-prepared when the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster and Payroll Protection Program Loan applications came available. MaryLee and I filled them out immediately, then learned, two days later, we had to do it again because of a last-minute change to the form.
We complied and got the forms and required documents to our bank. The date was Friday, April 10.
What followed, was one of the most emotionally draining weeks we have ever endured.
Our bank, Payne County Bank, is one of the few remaining locally-owned banks in the area. They also happen to be a preferred Small Business Administration lenders, but that Friday, they found themselves unable to help any of their clients as the big East Coast banks clogged servers with Payroll Protection Program loan requests and locked the majority of U.S. banks out of the system.
I reached out to my congressional delegation and received an immediate response from U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe’s staff, which promised to do everything they could to help.
By Monday, I received an email from the bank — they were in — our application had been accepted, but uncertainty remained. We knew we did not have the requisite year’s worth of data from which to figure average payroll — we had only been in business for two months. Our application was a wild card.
Tuesday was rough, with no word from the feds. On Wednesday, the bank said they’d have the paperwork for us to sign before the end of the week. Things were looking up. Then on Thursday, the news broke that the program had run out of money. We were shell-shocked. What did that mean for us? What part of this were we in?
We barely had enough in the bank to cover the next pay period and although our receivables were looking pretty good, there was no cash flow.
On Friday, the bank emailed us the federal loan agreement. We signed it and I raced it to the bank in person, delivering it just after lunchtime.
The stress was unbearable.
Right around 4 p.m., Emily Clayton, the rockstar bookkeeper, hollered at me from her desk.
“We got it!” She said.
Our bank account had been infused with the exact to-the-penny amount we had requested. I wanted to drive to the bank and kiss my banker on the lips, but I knew he was probably in a meeting — besides we’re still practicing social distancing and all that.
We know this isn’t over, but I have to believe that our planning and innovation is keeping us in the game — planning that was a product of something I learned as a cub reporter some 25 years ago.
The Cushing community still values its local newspaper, and that is the light we see at the end of this long, dark tunnel.
J. D. Meisner is the publisher and co-owner of the Cushing Citizen. He is a native of Grants, N.M. and attended New Mexico State University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here.