Jim Hopson is crossing the country, on foot, visiting small newspapers along the way.

Catching the Katy Through Missouri

It would take a mental patient to characterize walking 20 miles a day with a 50-pound backpack as fun, but the walk across Missouri was as close to fun as I have experienced on this trip across the U.S.

The trail across the eastern half of Missouri follows the abandoned roadbed of the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, or the MKT. Natives nicknamed the railroad the “Katy,” and the trail is now the Katy Trail. It snakes west from St. Charles along the Missouri River, framed by high limestone bluffs on the north and the river or its lush bottomland to the south. The trail is paved with crushed stone, and, thanks to railroads’ aversion to hills, is absolutely flat. A more inviting walking surface one could not imagine.

The railroad spawned the development of many communities along its route, so I walked through dozens of little towns along the way — towns with places to eat and sleep, unlike much of my journey. Missouri was settled by beer-loving Germans, so most of the eating places along the trail were small-town taverns. I visited a score of them during my two weeks in Missouri and found them to be friendly clubhouses where everybody in town congregated to gossip, eat, listen to bad music and drink beer. Grandmothers, babies, grizzled farmers, bicyclists and hikers all gathered at day’s end in the friendly, lively taverns along the trail. Most nights found me eating a cheeseburger at a bar, rehydrating with cold Budweiser and listening to local history from garrulous, friendly natives.

My wife has tried for years, with little success, to persuade me to stay in bed-and-breakfast inns. I never wanted to share a bathroom down the hall, and I recoiled at the prospect of sitting at the breakfast table with strangers, but on this walk across Missouri, B&Bs were often my only choice of accommodations. And miraculously, I enjoyed every one of them! Maybe I appreciated the company after walking for hours without talking to another person. Maybe this trip has distilled a lifetime of elitist ignorance out of me. I just know that the proprietors of B&Bs in Augusta, Rhineland and Rocheport charmed me, fed me great breakfasts and sent me back on the trail happy and eager to visit again.

The strangest place I stayed was a barracks next to the trail in Tebbetts. A benefactor has outfitted a big building with two dozen bunk beds and a shower to shelter Katy Trail bikers and hikers. I arrived ready to crash after a 27-mile day. The shelter was locked, so I wandered over to Jim’s Bar & Grill across the street and learned that the keys to the shelter were hanging on a nail in a telephone pole nearby. I unlocked the door, dumped my gear, ate a pizza at Jim’s and returned to the shelter. But sleeping was far more difficult than I had hoped because a biker and a couple of bowhunters had showed up. They kept me awake long into the night with a stentorian symphony of snoring and farting.

One surprising aspect of the walk across Missouri was the virtual absence of animal life. In every other state, I saw deer, skunks, turtles, lots of birds. Along the Katy Trail I saw only a few snakes — skinny green snakes, big blacksnakes and one tiny (6 inches), but still-scary rattlesnake. Maybe the towns and bottomland farms along the trail chased the critters to wilder terrain.

Halfway across the state I detoured to Columbia and met with people from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, from which I graduated back when God was a copyboy. I was worried that the Mizzou faculty is preparing journalists for the world as it used to be, not the world in which newspapers, magazines and TV networks are losing market dominance to newer, faster media. I worried for nothing. It looks like the kids now coming out of Missouri’s J-School will flourish in today’s dynamic media environment.

I also talked to a couple of publishers along the way. Scott Jackson is publisher of the 2,600-circulation Boonville Daily News. He’s a local boy, and he’s been publisher since 1988. His circulation has remained steady and his ad revenue from local stores is growing despite the explosion of new retailers in nearby Columbia. He’s successfully using lavish coverage of local sports to attract the readership of young families.

I was attracted to a copy of the Montgomery Standard that I saw atop a bar in Rhineland because it must be the widest newspaper published in the U.S. I just read where Gannett is planning to shrink its web width again, to 44 inches. By contrast, the Montgomery Standard prints on a 62-inch web! My arms were just barely long enough to hold the paper fully open.

Owner and publisher John Fisher told me that his circulation, now about 3,500, has declined only 100 copies in the last 10 years. He said disciplined focus on local news, issues and people has sustained the steady readership and prosperity of the Standard and its companion weekly, the Wellsville Optic-News. Although his advertising mix has changed over the years as Wal-Mart and shopping malls have gobbled up retail dollars, ad revenues continue to grow.

Fisher grew up in the newspaper business, but none of his children is interested in carrying on. He is concerned about the continuity of ownership when he finally decides to hang up his pica pole. But in the meantime, the ferociously independent Fisher and his newspapers continue to thrive and prosper.

West of Boonville the trail shifted to roads, over the course of the old Santa Fe Trail to Lexington. There an old fraternity brother picked me up and took me to his home to Kansas City, and the end of the journey for this season.

I’m making preparations to head to my place in Florida for the winter, where I can fatten up and plan for next summer’s assault on the western half of the U.S. Read more

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Friday, Sep. 07, 2007

Delaware to Illinois: Reflections on the First Leg

I started walking across the U.S. on April 30, heading west from the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes, Del., and stopped July 29 when I was hauled off to the hospital in McLeansboro, Ill., about 100 miles east of St. Louis. Severe dehydration combined with rhabdomy-something-or-other knocked me out off the trail, at least until it cools down a bit.

The heat index exceeds 100 degrees today, so it’s a perfect time to sit in my air-conditioned office in Granville, Ohio, think about what I learned as I walked 1,100 miles across the country, and write an interim report.

My purpose –- besides proving that I was tough and determined enough to make the trek — was to see the country and talk with publishers of small newspapers along the way. I wanted to test my theory that the market forces that were bleeding readers and advertising dollars from the big dailies were not affecting small-market papers in the same way.

“America the Beautiful” isn’t just a song title. The countryside everywhere filled my days with joy — from the Delaware beach, to the magnificent view of the U.S. Naval Academy from the Severn River bridge in Annapolis, Md., to the mountains and sheltered valleys of West Virginia, to the high bluffs above the Ohio River in southern Indiana. No blisters or backaches or fatigue could ever diminish the daily pleasures of the scenery.

Some of the vistas — like the Potomac River boiling and crashing over Great Falls — were spectacular, but often the woods and meadows were just quietly, deeply moving. One scene outside of Williamsburg, Ohio, sticks in my mind. I had camped next to a farmer’s field, off the road and behind a patch of woods. As they did every day, the singing of birds woke me in the morning, and I clambered out of my tent to see two whitetail deer, glowing with early morning sunshine, slowly striding across the field. The air was so pure and clear that every leaf was etched in high relief. There was nothing remarkable or special about the moment — it was simply perfect.

The days of walking, however, were hardly idyllic. The difficulty of walking all day with a 50-pound backpack never got easier. Hills made it harder -– West Virginia and southern Ohio damn near killed me. The good news is I got skinny from burning far more calories than I could consume, and I never had a problem falling asleep.

The trip was lonely. I walked on trails and back roads much of the time, and on an average day I saw few people except for the occasional guy driving a pickup truck. Though friends had warned me about encountering violent and predatory people, and some urged me to carry a gun, the dozens of people I met were all friendly and kind. They gave me directions, food and shelter; refilled my water bottles; let me camp in their backyards; and offered me encouragement and welcome. I never felt threatened or heard a hostile word.

After awhile I began to modify my route, walking on busier roads and passing through little towns where I could find food and people. I didn’t much like big trucks and speeding cars whizzing past, but access to food, cold Gatorade and the occasional motel room was worth it.

With a few exceptions, the little villages I passed through were pretty depressing. Most were a collection of ramshackle houses and trailers, an auto repair garage, a Baptist church and a combination gas station/grocery/hardware store/video rental/pizzeria. At first I couldn’t understand why anybody would live in a town with a population of 750, where there are no jobs and whose best days were 100 years ago. Most people I know live where their careers take them. My dad moved us around, I uprooted my family as I got bigger and better jobs, and now two of my kids work in New York City and the other lives in Seattle. And yet people stay in desolate burgs like Murray City, Ohio, Vienna, W. Va., and Sulphur, Ind.

Then one day, while I was eating a microwaved sausage biscuit and drinking bad coffee outside the only gas station in Shawnee, Ohio, a young fellow sat down across from me. He was an out-of-work cement finisher looking for a job, any job. I asked why he didn’t just move to Columbus, 60 miles north, where there was plenty of work. He looked at me like I was crazy and responded he would never consider moving away from his mom, dad, brother and cousins. He was willing to endure near-poverty and frequent unemployment to live close to his mother. That seems to be the reason grungy little towns with dead economies persist.
 
I talked with newspaper publishers along the way, and I found that many small weeklies and dailies continue to thrive despite the circulation and advertising losses at larger market dailies. For the most part, the publishers I spoke with claimed steady circulation and growing ad revenues.

In isolated markets such as Keyser, W.Va., and Maysville, Ky., daily and weekly newspapers increase ad revenues and maintain circulation by focusing on hometown news and lavishing attention on local advertisers. The markets are isolated (the nearest malls are an hour’s drive away), and too small to support the national retailers that have devastated mom-and-pop stores in bigger towns. For local news and advertising, these publications remain the only game in town, not exposed to Internet competition that is stealing market share from their big city cousins.

Dailies in or near markets big enough to support shopping malls are not faring as well. Those near Louisville, Ky., and Columbus, Ohio, are feeling the same advertising and circulation downdraft as the big dailies. It appears that both big-city and suburban daily newspapers are diminished by the competition, including online, that comes with a larger market.

But in suburban markets as diverse as suburban Washington, D.C., and Boonville, Ind. (outside Evansville), weeklies are avoiding the troubles of nearby dailies. A dramatic example is the Gazette weekly newspaper group around Washington. It grows readership and ad revenues in the same market in which The Washington Post, its corporate parent, is hemorrhaging circulation and ad dollars. Like publications in isolated markets, the suburban weeklies survive by focusing on news and advertisers too small or localized to attract and sustain competitors.

Yet none of the publishers I spoke with are carefree. They worry that young people are not reading as their parents do. They worry about what appear to be permanent losses of automotive and real estate advertising. They worry that the troubles of big-city papers may eventually trickle down to their markets. But even with that uncertainty, they don’t want to trade places with the big guys.
 
I’ll get back on the trail after the weather cools off a bit. The walk across Missouri, on a rail trail that follows the Missouri River across the state, looks too good to pass up.

Jim Hopson is planning to resume his walk in St. Louis on Tuesday. He plans to walk to Kansas City, Mo., over about three weeks. Read more

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Wednesday, Aug. 08, 2007

Evansville, Ind., Can Be Anywhere, USA

Greetings from Evansville, Indiana. I am banging away at a computer in the lobby of an Econolodge, located on a busy highway that could be anywhere. The shops, the traffic, the sprawl make the outskirts of Evansville look exactly like the outskirts of just about every city in the US. Local color may be lacking, but progress isn’t — I’ll be out of Indiana and into Illinois in two days.

This has been a very productive week. Walked fast on roads all week and covered lots of ground. My strategy has been to walk on roads that pass through towns that are likely to have places to feed me. Not only has this kept me reasonably well nourished, but my route has been direct and efficient. Have logged several 25-mile-plus days, far more than I could have by wandering through the woods and dirt roads specified by the American Discovery Trail. The only downside to my alternative to the ADT is traffic. In a couple of spots the truck traffic booming past me was scary and uncomfortable, something the ADT route avoids. I’ve chosen to trade off bucolic quiet for progress, and as long as I don’t join the possums and raccoons flattened on the side of the road, the trade-off is paying dividends.

Talked with three publishers along my route this week, each with a different story.

John Tucker is the publisher of the Evening News in Clark County, and the Tribune in neighboring Floyd County, located across the Ohio River from Louisville, Ky. I read the Tribune when I stayed in New Albany last Saturday, and found it to be a solid, entertaining community daily. It wasn’t always that way, Tucker told me. In the years before he got to New Albany, the papers had lost a lot of circulation and total revenues had fallen for five years — and this was before the rest of the newspaper industry was struggling. Tucker attributes the losses to his predecessor’s single-minded focus on cutting expenses, which gutted the local content of the papers. The Louisville Courier Journal had gained a circulation lead in the home territory of the Evening News and the Tribune.

Tucker’s strategy to turn the situation around was a disciplined focus on local content. He said that the Ohio River creates a logical separation from Louisville, and his efforts to exploit that separation and the separate identity it creates have been successful. Circulation has started to grow again, regaining parity with the Louisville daily, and local advertising revenues have boomed — up 15 percent in the last two years. He’s also beefed up revenue with new special sections and niche publications.

John’s winning strategy — focus on local content and nurture his Mom and Pop advertising base — is consistent with what we’ve learned elsewhere.

John O’Bannon, publisher of the Corydon Democrat, took on a different set of chores when he and his wife left big jobs in Indianapolis to come home to run his family’s paper on the death of his father, former Indiana governor Frank O’Bannon. The paper’s franchise was strong, but its performance was sluggish. John has responded by trimming some jobs while adding new newsroom positions and niche publications. His wife, an ace pharmaceutical rep, has injected new focus and energy into the sales effort, and ad revenues are trending up.

The historic Corydon market (the city was Indiana’s state capital from 1815 to 1825) is growing robustly, but the growth is fueled by thousands of Louisville commuters who have moved into the market in recent years. John’s strategy to hang onto his loyal readers and attract the newcomers is similar to John Tucker’s — provide great local coverage that the Louisville paper cannot possibly duplicate. And he’s growing ad revenues with sales hustle and new products.

The Corydon Democrat‘s website is also beginning to attract readers and advertisers. John said that low broadband penetration in his market has dampened Internet use, and that the relatively low rate of Internet acceptance in the market is giving him time to develop a strong gameplan that can take his family’s business into the future.

I had breakfast this morning at the Locust Street Cafe, just around the corner from Gary Neal’s office on Boonville’s town square. And then I walked the short 12 miles or so into Evansville. Gary is
publisher of the Boonville Standard, a 4,500-circulation paid weekly; and the New Burg Register, an 11,000 free weekly. Both papers are part of a group of dailies and weeklies around Evansville.

My question to Gary was how does he successfully compete with the big daily just down the road? The answer won’t surprise you: Provide disciplined, encyclopedic coverage of his local market, nurture the local advertisers, and add to revenue growth with new niche publications and special sections. That’s the same approach that is working in the other small markets I’ve visited. And it’s certainly working for Gary: Revenue grew 8 percent last year, and paid circulation is up 8.6 percent this year.

All three publishers noted that auto and real estate advertising have slowed down, but that the small local retailers and service providers that continue to thrive in the shadow of the nearby big-city malls offer plenty of opportunity for ad revenue growth.

Today was a short day on the trail. Checked into my hotel early, got a haircut and did laundry. To bed early tonight to rest up for the sprint into Illinois. Read more

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Friendly Folks and Healthy Papers

Greetings from New Albany, Indiana, just north of Louisville, Ky. I’m about a third of the way through Indiana. Easy-walking terrain and some creative modification of the American Discovery Trail route has contributed to solid progress this week.

Went to a foot doctor the day before I got back on the trail to figure out why I keep getting blisters in the same spot on both feet, whether I’m wearing new or old walking shoes. He explained that the problem is the shape of my feet, but that strategic application of moleskin and frequent sock changes could prevent the blisters from coming back. Bless his podiatric heart, his advice was perfect and my feet were happy and productive again!

Indiana has been so far characterized by good eating and particularly nice people. My route has taken me through lots of little towns, so I have been able to find enough to eat without ever reverting to my own inadequate cooking. Now that I’m getting enough to eat I have more energy, walk faster, cover more territory, and am generally jollier that I was when trudging through West Virginia and some of Ohio.

Most of these little towns (eg. Freedom, Cross Plaines, Canaan, Lexington) don’t offer a variety of  dining options. I usually eat at the one gas station-restaurant-general store-video rental these little burgs can support. And often I’ll pass through a town so small that it won’t have anyplace to eat. But every town, without exception, offers someplace to get cars fixed. If you wonder where old cars go to die, it’s in rural West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana. I’ve never seen so many junkers on the roads, all shedding rust and spewing black exhaust on me as I walk along. Sitting on the front stoops of these little stores while I eat my lunch I’m able to observe commerce at a detailed level. And the single most purchased item is motor oil. It’s really amazing. People buy bread and milk and beer (lots of beer), gasoline, baby diapers — the usual assortment — but almost without exception when they buy anything they’ll also get some oil to replenish the crankcase that’s leaking it out the bottom almost as fast as the motorists can pour it in the top.

But I’ll not make fun of the people driving old cars. Lots of people have helped me on this trip, offering directions, water, sometimes even rides to the next town, but never have I been helped by somebody in a new car. In fact there seems to be an inverse correlation between the condition of one’s vehicle and their owner’s generosity toward a skinny old vagrant.

My best Good Samaritan story of this week involves a guy named Patrick Davies. As I was walking in a gloomy valley near Milton, Indiana, a big storm brewed up. The sky was black and the wind was blowing hard, and I was looking for a place to hide out when Patrick pulled alongside in his pickup. He motioned me into his truck, and I slung my pack into the truckbed and pulled the door shut just as the rain started pouring down. Patrick said he owned a fishing cabin just down the road where I could stay the night out of the weather. The cabin was pretty primitive, but was watertight, and I was dry and happy as he wished me well and headed home. A couple of hours later he and his son brought me a plate of supper. He said he brought his son along to witness the old fool who was walking across the US.

Just before I left Ohio I talked with Lee colleague Bob Hendrickson, who is the longtime publisher of the Maysville, Ky., Ledger Independent, a 9,500-circulation daily on the Ohio River.

Despite the loss of much of the business from his car dealers, Bob continues to grow ad revenues. The core of his business remains the small retailers and service providers that still flourish in Maysville. Because the market is small and isolated (about 60 miles from both Cincinnati and Lexington) the big boxes have not wiped out his retail base (“If you look at my top 25 advertisers you’d laugh your ass off,’” Bob said.) and neither has the market attracted much competition for readers or advertisers. “We get our business from advertisers the big papers wouldn’t even bother with,” he said.

Circulation has remained amazingly steady, fluctuating little during the whole 30-plus years Bob has been with the paper. And he said that 90 percent of his readers have subscribed for more than a year. Unlike many of the West Virginia and Ohio towns I’ve visited, Maysville’s employment base has remained solid, and that has contributed to a stable workforce and population. Young families are not fleeing the market in search of better jobs in the big city.

So Bob’s story gives us another example of a little daily bucking the declining revenue and circulation trends of the big dailies. And it looks increasingly like the success variables include isolation from big markets and the absence of the big national retailers. Might be too soon to generalize, but it appears that publishing a newspaper in a town too small to have a mall may be the key to success these days. We’ll keep talking to publishers to learn more.

Moving fast through Indiana. Expect to be in Illinois in less than two weeks. Read more

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Friday, July 13, 2007

The fundamental goodwill of dogs

I’m writing from a hotel in Milford, Ohio, just outside Cincinnati.

Made excellent progress this week by staying on roads, and, as a bonus for avoiding the Buckeye Trail, passed through a bunch of sweet little Ohio towns. Bought a Dr. Pepper in Locust Grove, where the population of the pretty hilltop cemetary is certainly larger than that of its still-vertical citizens. Decatur has a nice little park with a gazebo, and claims to be “Home of Sam Cooper, World Arm Wrestling Champion.” Georgetown, birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant, has lots of Civil War era homes along its shady main street. Williamsburg was big enough to have a chirpractor and a tatoo parlor, and is home to two “cafes,” neither of which serves food. Walked into Williamsburg looking for dinner last night and drew the hostile stares of beer drinkers at the cafes in my hunt for someplace to eat. Eventually found Mama’s Grill on the other side of town, which served only Coca Cola products and sweet iced tea.

Got caught in my first gullywasher rainstorm this week. I’ve been sprinkled on a few times before, but never seriously. On Tuesday I was walking from Russellville to Georgetown and the sky got blacker and blacker, and the wind picked up briskly, so I started looking for someplace along the road to hole up away from the storm that was certainly headed my way. Just in time I found a garage under construction and dashed inside. The rain pounded down for about an hour while I napped sprawled atop my pack. Nothing short of the building being carried away by a tornado could have kept me awake!
 
People I meet along the way ask the same set of questions: Where did you come from? How long have you been walking? Why are you doing this? How much does your pack weigh? Are you ever bothered by dogs?
 
I am chased by dogs every day, often a dozen times a day, but I’ve never been bitten, or ever really worried about being bitten. There’s a lot about this world I don’t understand, but I actually do understand dogs. When they come racing out from under the front porch to bark and snarl at me, they’re just defending their homes. They don’t want to hurt me, they just want me to go away.
 
I see the same behavior in our own dogs at home. When somebody rings the doorbell they holler and carry on until we can reassure them that the visitor is welcome. They would never bite anybody; they’re just acting like dogs.
 
So I assume that the dogs that are chasing me down the road will give up as soon as I cross their property line, and that assumption has proven true except in two instances. In the first I stopped by a little house in an Ohio hollow to refill my water bottle. The black mutt on the front porch barked ferociously until the lady inside calmed him down. After she had refilled my bottle I started walking and the dog followed me. I kept trying to shoo him away, but he tagged along even as we got farther and farther from his home. In about three miles I came to a farm with a whole pack of dogs that started chasing me until they saw my new dog friend. Then the pack of dogs accomplished what I could not, and sent him running for home. The other instance happened yesterday, when I was attacked by this little terrier who didn’t understand that he was just supposed to bark at me. When he actually tried to bite me I whacked him in the snoot with my map, and he retreated.
 
And I must confess that I’m glad the four German Shepherds that came after me this morning were stopped by a fence. My assumption about the fundamental goodwill of dogs has held up so far, but I didn’t want those brutes to test it!

Buying new boots has not cured my recent blister problems. They are flaring up a bit, so I got off the trail today at the first civilized hotel I spotted, to give my barking dogs a chance to calm down before I walk through Cincinnati and into Indiana in the next couple of days. Read more

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Back on the trail (and not getting off anytime soon)!

I have been slogging through southern Ohio for a while now. If it seems like I’ve been stuck here for an unreasonably long time, it’s because I have found every possible excuse to come home and avoid walking. Not surprisingly, I have discovered I enjoy the company of my wife, air conditioning, proximity to a full refrigerator and the rest of the luxuries of home far more than I enjoy walking in summer heat and sleeping on the ground at night. And wimp that I am, I have seized upon every opportunity to get out of the woods and return to my nice life at home.

But now it’s time to make tracks. I have spent hours studying the route through Indiana, Illinois and Missouri, and I’m ready to walk purposefully to this year’s finish line with no more malingering.

Got a new pair of boots over the weekend. The last pair was starting to give me blisters. And I bought some bad tasting, heavy-as-lead energy bars to eat on the trail. I am as prepared to march as money can make me. I just need to start walking, which I will do this morning.

A couple of notes from the past two weeks:

Stayed in the campgrounds of two different state parks, and have discovered a whole culture I never knew existed. People lug astounding quantities of stuff to campgrounds in an apparent effort to recreate their home-life out in the woods. One day I staggered into Hocking Hills State Park and was assigned a campsite next to a family who had brought two tents, a gazebo, three dogs, four bicycles and a forest of tiki torches to make their campsite cozy. My little backpacker tent next door looked puny and pitiful by comparison. And the guy next to me on the other side brought his own firewood and started his logs a-burning with a blowtorch. Looks like camping and roughing it are not synonymous.

Beer and heat injury are a toxic combination. One day Julie was to pick me up at a little store in Tar Hollow and bring me home for a visit from our New York son. I walked about 18 miles in high heat and
humidity and got to the store a couple of hours before Julie’s scheduled arrival. I was elated to see that the store sold sandwiches and beer! Bought a gigantic ham sandwich and a can of beer and sat at a picnic table outside to consume them. Heaven on earth! Next thing I knew I was nauseated and so dizzy and disoriented that I couldn’t even sit up, let alone stand or walk around. I crawled on my hands and knees to a patch of shade and lay there for an hour, until my head cleared enough that I could at least stagger to my feet. And I was shaky for the next 24 hours. A little computer research revealed that I had the classic symptoms of heat exhaustion, and that drinking beer was guaranteed to produce the effects that I experienced. I stand now as living proof that temperance is not only virtuous, but also by far the safer alternative to consuming alcohol. Too bad!

I have now figured out how to avoid the Buckeye Trail, or at least follow it only when it suits me to do so. By walking on roads, I can steer around difficult terrain and make considerably greater progress than if I followed the fiendish trail through the woods and brambles. Some days I started and ended at points on the trail, but walked on roads in between, and shaved ten or 12 miles and hours off the prescribed Buckeye Trail route. The only exceptions I make  to my new commitment to Buckeye Trail avoidance are in cases when the trail is the best route, or the trail follows roads, or the trail passes through territory worth visiting. I stayed on the trail through the spectacular rock formations and gorges of the Hocking Hills, and was glad I did. The rest of the time I opted for faster walking and greater progress on roads.

Last week I looked so scruffy and pitiful that a guy in a pickup truck pulled up alongside me and offered me a five dollar bill. I laughed and thanked him for his kindness, but passed.

I’ll start up today in Sinking Springs, where I stopped last week, and will drive relentlessly to Cincinatti and entrry into Indiana, the next state on the trip. Read more

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Reflections: Buckeye Trail=bad, Logan Daily News=good

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim sent this post several days ago, but due to some technical difficulties, we’re putting it up a little late. Do not fear, though, he’s still out on the trail. Stay tuned for more.


Made it to Logan, Ohio, where I had a nice talk with the publisher of the Logan paper, who has a pretty good story to tell.

Here’s the update:

I resumed walking where I had stopped, in Murray City, Oh. It’s such a rundown, tired-looking burg that if I were the Murray family, I’d have my name taken off the place.

My troubles with the Buckeye Trail started up again soon after I left the road out of Murray City and entered the woods north of town. The terrain was actually manageable, and the hills and ravines I
encountered were not particularly steep, so I marched along at a pretty good pace through the woods. Then I got lost.

The trail is marked by smears of blue paint on trees, and most of the time the markings are easy to spot and easy to follow. But I came to one place where I couldn’t follow the trail. I searched in every
direction, looking for the trail, and walked around in circles for a couple of hours. Finally got myself out onto a road, and asked a couple of friendly kids to help me figure out where I was. Once I
found my bearings, I had a short walk to a nice campsite next to Lake Tecumseh, just outside Shawnee.

Today I outsmarted the Buckeye Trail. Instead of meandering through the woods and getting lost again I figured out how to walk on roads that intersected with the trail often enough that I could follow the trail’s route, but do it on nice, quiet country roads. I made great progress (about 25 miles today) and didn’t get lost once!

Wound up in Logan, Ohio, where I found a hotel civilized enough to have a computer for guest use, and where I had a nice chat with the publisher of the local daily.

Monica Nieporte has recently become publisher of the Logan Daily News, a six-day daily with 5,200 paid circulation that distributes in Hocking County, 35 miles south of Columbus.

Monica said that her market had felt the loss of manufacturing jobs in recent years, but that a new highway has put bustling Columbus within reasonable commuting distance. So the economy of her market is in transition from a depressed manufacturing town to a blossoming suburb. New homes are under construction for the first time in years.

Business has been solid. Circulation is up by two percent, and ad revenues are growing. Monica said that the ad revenue growth is completely attributable to local Logan businesses, who don’t have other print options besides the Logan Daily News for reaching their customers. Ditto local readers, because no other paper makes an effort to cover the market. There’s a Gannett daily in nearby Lancaster, and the Columbus Dispatch sells lots of Sunday papers in Logan, but Monica said that local readers “still look to us to lead the way in local news. Nobody else will cover the Washboard Festival.”

So Monica’s good news adds another data point to my informal publisher survey. We have a daily that’s growing readers and ad dollars. Not consistent with what I’m hearing from other dailies. On the trail tomorrow I’ll try to figure out how to explain the difference. Read more

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

NEW

Back on the trail tomorrow, to resume the Buckeye Trail through Ohio, with high hopes and lots of energy.

I am rested, fattened up (ice cream for breakfast is a wonderful thing!), and ready to lug my pack up and down more hills.

Thanks to those who wrote or called expressing concern about how much weight I’d lost. I’m feeling fine and have gained back ten pounds and a hint of my old pot belly. Several of you recommended that I try a high carbohydrate gel as a supplement to my diet. I plan to buy some today. One of my pals who urged me to buy some said, “It tastes like shit, but the stuff really works.” Yum! Can’t wait to try it!

Didn’t waste my entire week off by eating and loafing around. Interviewed two publishers of different size operations. I’m trying to figure out why some small papers are thriving and others may be
struggling. This week’s interviews may shed some light on the question.

I talked with Jean Ellerman, publisher of the Grafton, WV, Mountain Statesman, a Monday-Wednesday-Friday newspaper with 2,700 paying customers. It’s located in Grafton, an economically depressed town in the middle of what used to be coal country.

Despite the loss of jobs and the continuing flight of young people looking for work, the Mountain Statesman‘s circulation remains constant, and Jean told me that her ad revenue grew upwards of 10 percent last year. Her advertiser base is local service businesses, legals (25 percent of total ad revenue) and retailers from nearby Clarksburg who need the Mountain Statesman to reach their Grafton customers. There isn’t much in the way of competition for ad dollars, and no competition for local news.

I also met with Bob Robbins, my successor, once removed, at the group of county seat dailies I once managed in Central Ohio. Circulation volumes and advertising revenues for Bob’s group are slumping, and reflect the trends of dailies in larger markets. Even though Bob’s papers are relatively small (circulation volumes range from 7,000 to more than 35,000), their performance characteristics are more similar to big market dailies than to those of the smaller weeklies I’ve studied.

Maybe the key performance variable is daily vs. weekly. Can’t be proximity to a big market. Bob’s dailies are near Columbus, Oh., and are struggling to grow. Chuck Lyons’ weeklies near Washington, D.C., are booming. Can’t be isolated markets vs. suburban markets. Lee Enterprises and Gannett publish lots of small-to-medium sized dailies in isolated markets that are losing readers and ad dollars. It may be
that weeklies are not feeling the competition that is eroding daily revenues and circulation.

We’ll keep talking with publishers as I plod along, and maybe I’ll be able to hatch a persuasive theory by the time I reach Kansas later this summer. Read more

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Home for a quick break.

I’m writing from my home office in Granville, Ohio. Off the trail for a few days to attend to family business and get some food and rest. While I’m here I’ll have a  chance to do some phone interviews with publishers I’ve missed along the way, and add some Ohio publishers
I’ll miss because the fiendish Buckeye Trail keeps me in the boondocks.

I crossed the Ohio River from Parkersburg, W.Va., into Ohio, on a sunny, cool Saturday morning. The omens were all good. I had a belly full of eggs and sausage, I started the day with a shower so I smelled better than average, and best of all, the Ohio terrain was much friedlier than West Virginia’s. Sure, there were hills, but they were relatively gentle and manageable.  The meadows and neat farms I passed were just beautiful, and I got cold water and a warm welcome from the Ohioans I met along the way. The Smith family let me pitch my tent under a couple of big pine trees at their house, just west of Vincent.

The second day in Ohio was almost as good. Nice weather, nice people, manageable terrain. My goal and stopping point was Chesterhill, a little town with a grocery store. Not only did the store sell groceries, but they made sandwiches! My dinner was two gigantic ham sandwiches, consumed on a bench in front of Chesterhill’s city hall. As I ate I was surrounded by a swarm of boys on bicycles who wanted to hear all about my trip. I found a quiet spot behind a hedgerow to set up camp for the night.

Then my Ohio adventure took a turn for the worse.

At Chesterhill I picked up the southern leg of the Buckeye Trail, an established hiking trail that circumnavigates Ohio. In Ohio, as in most states, the American Discovery Trail incorporates existing trails, but the difference between the Buckeye Trail and those I hiked in Maryland and West Virginia, is that the Buckeye Trail had been laid out by evil bastards who wanted to do me harm.

The first part of the day was just very hilly, with some segments gaining 200 feet of elevation in half-a-mile, and frequent long uphill grades that made my 50 pound pack feel like I was carrying a Frigidare on my back. But the sadists of the Buckeye Trail saved the worst for
last. I wanted to finish alongside the lake in Burr Oak State Park, and the last few miles into the park followed very rough terrain through a thicket of poison ivy and brambles all the way to the campsite. I covered over 20 miles that day, but it took 11 exhausting hours.

I slept late, made a big breakfast, and vowed to take it easy of Tuesday. I only wanted to travel a little more than ten miles, around Burr Oak Lake to the dam on the other side, and then just into Wayne National Forest for the night. Should have been an easy day, but the
fiends of the Buckeye Trail made sure I suffered grievously. Walking that ten miles took nine hours.

Burr Oak Lake was created by damming up a stream that eventually filled a long, deep valley to form the lake. Running into the valley at frequent intervals were smaller streams that cut deep ravines into the hillsides. So the route around the lake led me alongside the lake for a few hundred yards to the edge of a ravine, which the trail avoided by heading down and away from the water until the stream that cut the ravine could be forded, then back up the steep other side. Over and over and over. Up and down and around the long lake to the other side. Carrying 50 poinds of dead weight on my back. As the crow flies, the distance I covered was about a mile.

I camped on a hillside in Wayne National forest that was so steep that I had to climb uphill on my hands and knees just to exit my tent. But I was so tired and frustrated by the day’s walk that I didn’t care. I just slept squashed onto the downhill side.

The terrain the following day was similar to Burr Oak Park’s for awhile, then onto very steep, very primitive back roads into the town of Murray City. I stumbled into Murray City’s ramshackle little grocery store about 2 p.m., starving (no dinner or breakfast) and demoralized. I cured the starvation by wolfing down a handful of microwave sandwiches and a couple of Gatorades. And then I spotted the payphone. I was so far out in the boonies that I had not had a cell phone signal for three days, so I had not talked to my wife. I had planned to come home Friday, to dogsit while Mrs. Hopson visits her parents, but I decided to pull the plug early. Called home and was mercifully rescued. Beaten down and demoralized by days of hard slogging that yielded very little forward progress.

Got home and stepped on the scale for the first time since April 30. 161 pounds. I weighed 185 when I started walking. I’m just not eating enough to keep my weight and strength at a sustainable level, and not exactly sure how to fix the problem. Luckily my home is central enough to the territory I’ll cover this year that I can get home to eat and rest from time to time.

I’m sure that everyone who attempts this cross-country hike hits a rough patch from time to time, and I’m sure that home cooking, hot water and air conditioning will restore my customary energy and optimism. So for the next few days I’ll eat, sleep late, enjoy my wife’s company, and gear up for an assault on the rest of the evil Buckeye Trail. Read more

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Across the Ohio River Tomorrow!

I finally found the most lovable part of West Virginia — because it’s level and there are no hills!  Trains can’t go up and down hills easily, so the former railroad beds I walked on were flat.  

On Tuesday morning, Mrs. Hopson dropped me at the start of the North Bend Rail Trail, a flat trail that winds through river valleys from Wolf Summit to Parkersburg, and took me the last 70+ miles to the Ohio River.

Seat and body are fine, but I am having trouble eating enough. I’m burning more than twice as many calories as I am eating. Gives me a nice flat belly but I get tired easily. Tonight, in Parkersburg, I ate a bowl of chili, two platters of all you-can-eat shrimp, a big plate of french fires and a chocolate milk shake and that feast did not replace the calories I burned today. Once I get off the trail, I’m really going to have to eat less or I’ll gain 50 pounds overnight!

I cross the Ohio River into Ohio tomorrow morning. Read more

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