Friday, June 29, 2018

Passings in My Profession: 5 Killed at a Newspaper, the Sale of My Employer of 32 Years

I was touched by two events Thursday, one that made national headlines, the second another example of economic realities in today’s business environment. 

Both events involved my chosen profession, journalism. 

When news broke of the fatal shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, my mind raced back 41 years. In early 1977 I turned down a job offer at the newspaper. I had left my newspaper job in New Haven in September 1976 to work as press secretary to a congressional candidate in a race both he and I knew he would lose. But the opportunity to leave The Register for “something” was too appealing to pass up. For two years management had frozen our salaries after the editorial staff voted in the Newspaper Guild. It was not easy living on $200 a week (as one of six bureau chiefs on a staff of 100 I was one of the better paid reporters. About a year later the union won a contract. Had I stayed I would have been paid about $450 a week). 

Once the congressional race ended as expected, I began searching for another newspaper job. The Gaston Gazette in Gastonia, NC, a suburb of Charlotte, offered $200 a week. After all, the editor reasoned, it was a lot cheaper to live in Gastonia than New Haven. When I demurred, he upped the offer to $250 a week and membership in a country club (I don’t think he knew I was Jewish). There was one catch, however. Instead of the two reporters he hoped to hire, for $250 a week he expected me to do the work of two staffers. Again, I resisted the call of the South.

My next possibility was a job at the Capital Gazette. Again, $200 a week. As my brother and his family lived some 50 miles away in Rockville, MD, Annapolis appealed to me. However, the state capital and home to the Naval Academy was a high priced community to live in. No way $200 a week was going to cut it.

A few weeks later I answered an ad in The New York Times from a trade publisher. I started at Lebhar-Friedman’s Nation’s Restaurant News March 14, 1977. A year later I transferred to Chain Store Age, a title that appeared on my business cards for the next 31 years. I retired in June 2009.

On Thursday, family-run Lebhar-Friedman, founded in 1925, was acquired by Chicago-based EnsembleIQ, a portfolio company of RFE Investment Partners, a private equity investor. At one time L-F had as many as 16 publications, half covering the retail industry, the rest healthcare, employing more than 500. At the time of the sale, only three books remained, Chain Store Age among them, as well as two CSA conferences, SPECS and X/SPECS dealing with store construction and facilities. The company employed fewer than 100. 

What happened? Consolidation of the retail industry at the same time more publications entered a shrinking field. These competitors were more nimble, with lower operating costs, allowing lower advertising rates. L-F always used internal funds to power growth. But an ill-timed, ill-advised acquisition into the healthcare field saddled L-F with heavy debt just when revenues toppled. The Internet sapped classified advertising while forcing investments that did not pay off. 

No need to elaborate any more causes. My bottom line: The 32 years I spent at Lebhar-Friedman as a staff editor, editor-in-chief and publisher afforded the opportunity to support my family and treat them to pleasures not experienced by many others. We travelled across the country and to distant lands. My children attended top schools. During the summer they went to camp or travel programs. Our home, I like to say, is the “house that Chain Store Age built.” 

Working on Chain Store Age from 1978 through 2009 enabled me to meet and at times befriend some of the most important retail luminaries of the last half century, including Sam Walton, Charles Lazarus and successive heads of Walmart, Sears, Kmart, JC Penney and many chains no longer around including TG&Y, Caldor, Zayre, Rose’s, Woolworth. Equally, if not more importantly, working at L-F introduced me to some great creative professionals. 

I am saddened by the loss of the Lebhar-Friedman nameplate. But I am comforted that Chain Store Age-SPECS-X/Specs will continue to provide, in the words of David Shanker, CEO of EnsembleIQ, “a comprehensive view of retail insights and information.”

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