It never seems to go away. Sometimes failure is the best learning application you can have in life though, and I would like to tell you about one of the biggest ones I have ever had: Maize Free Press. It’s something I will never forget.
About a year after purchasing The Clarion, a newspaper that covers five towns along the K-96 Highway corridor between Hutchinson and Wichita, Kan., we were coming to some fairly strong realizations about our small community publication.
There were four towns, all roughly the same in size and economic strength, and then there was Maize, the town closest to Wichita, and one that was slowly getting eaten by the larger town.
In the other four towns, there are hometown cafes, everyone knows each other, and the economies are small but mostly steady.
In Maize, there are giant convenience stores, chain restaurants, and million-dollar homes occupied by folks who didn’t want to live in the city anymore and wanted to take advantage of the good schools in the area.
While in Maize one day early in our Clarion ownership, I introduced myself to someone while interviewing them and they hadn’t heard of our paper. That wasn’t something I was used to in the other four towns.
I described the paper and what we covered, and a perplexed look came over the man’s face. He simply didn’t know where Haven (the town furthest away from Maize) was and had never been to any of the other towns outside of Colwich, which is the closest to Maize.
After the interaction and many more like it, I realized that Maize folk largely didn’t care about what was going on west of them in the small, agriculture-based areas we covered.
A new approach must be taken. I envisioned breaking Maize off into a new publication, making it free, and using the massive distribution to attract the big chain advertisers.
Seemed like a good idea.
I created a budget, hired a new person, started pre-selling advertising into the publication and pushing toward a launch.
The first couple issues were alright. We sold some ads and it showed promise, but we never attracted the large chains that mostly occupied Maize. The paper had solid readership and looked stellar, but after nine months of publication and thousands of dollars lost, we pulled the plug on Maize Free Press and looked at the publication as a massive failure and tax on The Clarion’s books. There were more mistakes that led to this decision than I can really account for here, but it all culminated in shutting it down.
So much work, such a good idea (I thought), and yet I failed. I simply wasn’t used to that.
That could be the end of it if you wanted to read it in a vacuum, but here is the rest of the story:
Maize Free Press cost our company a boatload of money. I didn’t take a salary even one day during its publication. It sucked.
But it led me to reach out to a brilliant man in Hillsboro, Joel Klaassen, who ran a free countywide newspaper in Marion County. He liked me, I liked him, and he became a mentor for our company.
Eventually, he asked me to buy him out of his stake in his company and combine our companies into one. One of the best decisions of my life. I never meet Joel without Maize Free Press.
Maize Free Press also taught me a lot about what it takes to launch a new publication. We simply didn’t do the planning to have success in Maize. I don’t know if we would have had more success in Maize with much more planning, but I do know we weren’t prepared enough to have launched so quickly.
Those lessons served me well when Klaassen, Bruce Behymer, and I started scheming up Newton Now and how we would like to launch a competitive newspaper in Newton.
Instead of a three-month planning phase, we took nearly a year. We were intensely picky and tough with details. Newton Now has survived and created quite the niche due to that planning and the experiences of Maize Free Press before.
Finally, that new person we hired for Maize Free Press, well, he turned out to be the managing editor of Newton Now and a stalwart in our company.
I will never see the thousands we lost in Maize again. Those were some of the toughest months of my life. With that said, I am not sure I would have learned many of the lessons I did without that tough time. We came out of that experience with several good connections as well one that led to us purchasing the Hillsboro Free Press, which has been excellent.
Everyone is afraid to fail. I think that is why there is so little innovation in the newspaper industry. People are even more afraid to admit they have failed, which is why everyone is still giving away their content online, too.
This message is really to show that as long as you have some runway time, socked some money away, and don’t kill the big picture in the process, experimenting is a good idea and something that you should do, even if the experiment ultimately fails.
I don’t regret launching Maize Free Press one bit.