The time I bought half-interest in a newspaper from a man with wooden teeth


Part One: Plans go awry.

(Editor’s note: This posting originally appeared in November 2006. I rerun it here with only spellling fixes and minor changes. I hope you emjoy this true parable of folly. Merry Christmas!) 

For some time I’ve been pontificating about new media from the relative security of a day job. It occurs to me that the reasonable reader might ask: who does this guy think he is?

Well, who I am is a story more than 50 years in the making, but the distilled version is that I am ABD from the University of Trial and Error — a perfect example of which is the embarrassingly true tale of the time I bought half-interest in a newspaper from a man with wooden teeth.

To understand this particular boo-boo, I have to take you back to 1980 when I graduated the University of California after having more or less majored in putting out the campus newspaper, the Daily California. That experience convinced me of two things: that newspaper reporters were a sick, bitter breed, and that I was perfectly suited to be one of them.

The sensible strategy would have been to gather my clips and resume and go looking for a job, presumably at the Nowhere Gazette, where I could work long hours for low pay and begin my career climb. But I had other plans. At Berkeley I had been what was then called a “nuke nut” and I feared that nuclear war might be imminent. Plus I had been an editor in Berkeley and thought myself quite the businessman as well. Finally, having been raised in Brooklyn, where the proverbial tree grew, I thought it would be a good thing to return to the land. So rather than job-hunting to be a reporter, I decided to become a gentleman-farmer and publisher in the Northern Californian city of Eureka.

The choice of Eureka was dictated by a careful study of nuclear fallout maps, which showed the cities of central and Southern California bearing the brunt of any missile attack and the radiation being blown eastward by the offshore winds. The fact that I wanted to become a community publisher in a community that I only discovered in the summer of 1980, as I was laying these plans, did not seem at all troublesome. (I recently heard Shel ( Naked Conversations) Israel say something apropos: in Silicon Valley the only thing that changes is the faces of the 26-year-olds; the constant is their conviction that they can’t fail. I was 26 at the time.)

So with the appropriate hubris I set my plan in motion. I had convinced a partner to join me in this quest and she had a $10,000 insurance settlement that we used to buy the typesetting machine we would need to produce the text and advertising copy for our community paper. We rented a space to live and work. By late summer everything was ready. All that remained was for us, or rather me — I would do sales and editorial, my partner, production — to get out into the community.

I can still remember the revelation that punctured my carpetbagging scheme. I was listening to the radio when a commercial came on that mentioned “Friendly Henderson Center.” And it struck me that I had no idea where to find this oasis of amicability. All at once the preposterousness of the entire plan hit me. Doubt ushered in self-defeat. I knew I had been foolish and now the question was what to do next. We were about 270 miles north of San Francisco, with a typesetting machine and a layout table. As a fallback plan I came up with the idea of opening a job shop to do graphic design, brochures, company newsletters and whatever else local businesses and organizations might need in the way of printed materials.

This whole process played out over a period of several months and by roughly October of 1980, through hustle and hard work, word had gotten around that we were a cheap place to get good work. Thus appeared at our door one day a most improbable character who called himself Rama Bhagwan. He plopped a ratty-looking eight-page tabloid newspaper down on our reception table and told us that this was the first issue of a newspaper he had started called the NorthCoast Journal and Barter Bank. He said he wasn’t satified with his current typesetting vendor and wanted us to give him a competitive bid. (to be continued … )