Sally Fowler Francom is relying on the world’s oldest and simplest formula for a successful business. Find a market demand that isn’t being met, meet it head-on and make some money.
It’s an unremarkable strategy, except that the product for which she found demand is a newspaper — a good, old-fashioned paper with ink that stains your fingers. It makes what she is doing remarkable, indeed.
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When I call her, it is with the impression I am about to speak to someone who might have invested in buggy whips just as Henry Ford started his assembly line, or who might have knocked on Alexander Graham Bell’s door trying to sell a carrier pigeon.
But I am mistaken, as I learn when she anticipates my first question before I can even begin.
“Who in the world would start a newspaper in 2016?” she says with a laugh. “Are we crazy or what?”
Crazy as a fox, perhaps. Time will tell.
You don’t have to be media insider these days to know that newspapers are dwindling. Those who own them are desperately trying to find ways to keep them relevant in a world where information flows freely on the Internet and a couple of bucks can buy you a website and the chance to compete with the New York Times.
Except that Francom isn’t competing with the New York Times. The Times doesn’t cover Lehi. Neither does anyone else, for that matter, at least not to the degree the new Lehi Free Press intends to do it.
Nobody is reporting on that new building under construction, what crimes were committed in town, who died or what the City Council is doing.
“We’re not conservative or liberal,” she said, “ but we do intend to shine a light on things that are happening here that no one has been reporting. There are lots of interesting people here to do features about. If we’re covering the school play, the fun run, high school football, people (readers) will come.”
I suppose there aren’t many people in this business who haven’t, a time or two, romanticized about owning a small-town paper, becoming thoroughly involved in its daily activities and making a difference in the lives of its people. I lost that dream when a former editor, a man who once owned such a paper in New England, gave me a dose of reality.
It’s all fun and games, he said, until the press breaks and you find yourself with your family at 2 a.m., stuffing thousands of sections together and pasting mailing labels, or until a prominent citizen pulls you aside and threatens to pull advertising if you write about his son’s arrest.
Francom hasn’t had to deal with those issues, yet. But when they come, she’s well equipped. Her mother, Betty Fowler, was editor of the old Free Press — the one that disappeared more than a decade ago — for more than 20 years. Francom grew up knowing that the little things in her life, such as concerns about a prom dress, would end up in her mother’s column. But she also observed her mother dealing with all those other issues, as well.
Since then, Francom became a media saleswoman in the San Francisco area. She learned to sell ads, everything from the old fashioned newspaper kind to the digital kind.
The first thing Francom did in Lehi was sell ads. She said only one person has turned her down, so far.
And that may be her secret to success. A lot of newspaper writers have romantic notions about small-town papers. Francom knows if she doesn’t take care of making money first, the romance means little.
And for all my interest in the hard-copy issues of the Free Press, available every Thursday, there is a website version, as well, at lehifreepress.com. Francom is no Luddite.
As the digital information age washes across the planet, small towns, with their local governments, their beauty pageants and their school plays are being set adrift like seaweed. Maybe Francom is onto something. Maybe entrepreneurs with media skills should start similar papers in cities across the Wasatch Front. Maybe what she’s doing will be a grand success.