How did this ink wind up in my blood?
It’s hard to say.My parents subscribed to both the morning and evening paper when I was growing up, so maybe that was it. But we also watched Walter Cronkite every evening, and I never had a hankering to get into television.
The printed product was the thing.
I was a paperboy for the Evening Tribune when I was still technically a year too young to qualify for that job. In fourth grade, I published my first newspaper (the second issue didn’t come out until the following year).
So I started young.
That first paper — four pages, with the back page left blank for students to write their own notes. That wasn’t by design. I had never heard of Publick Occurrences. I just ran out of things to say.
Later in life, running out of things to say wouldn’t be a problem.
I was also on the staffs of the student papers in junior high and high school.
But I wasn’t always a news guy. I liked to write and I loved music, so in high school I was the music critic. I also realized our business operations sucked, so I appointed myself business manager.
So there is a trend developing … by 11th grade I have experience in circulation, publishing, writing and advertising/business.
By 11th grade, I had also discovered James Joyce. I thought there might be something to this literature thing. I entered the Air Force at 18, which gave me ample time to read and developing a growing passion for Joyce, Anthony Burgess, T.S. Eliott and Hart Crane.
I went to college as a literature major expecting to become a college professor and be a writer.
But there was this journalism thing.
I found myself hanging out in the newspaper office a lot. And it wasn’t just to be around the cute girls there.
And I wasn’t particularly impressed with how the paper was run. I thought I could do better.
As a sophomore, I manage to win the editor’s job, beating out seniors in the process.
But still, this is just a hobby, not a career, or so I thought.And then the board of trustees run a little interference in the academic freedom arena, and I jump on the story. Me and two staff members do all the reporting. We go 72 hours without sleep and produce this well-researched, well-documented story about how this teacher is getting screwed by the administration because he wants to study something some trustees don’t like (this was a private Christian college, Point Loma Nazarene College, and the professor had associated himself with a religiously liberal academic organization).
The experience was exhilerating.
I cut myself, and the blood runs black. It’s in my veins and I can’t escape.
Before the end of my senior year, a friend and I buy a small weekly newspaper in Ocean Beach — The Beacon. Keith is the executive editor and I’m the general manager. I write a column, do some reporting, but mostly I handle circulation and sell ads. Keith does page layout (on one of the first Macs, with PageMaker 1.0) and runs the affiliated bookstore.
Fun times. No money.
To make more money, I take a job as a reporter. That’s a good gig, but a year later I get a shot at a job as a reporter for The Daily Californian, based in my home town of El Cajon, Calif.
I cover the Santee beat for a year. I spend a year on the desk as a wire and copy editor (I was a horrible copy editor). I serve another year as the La Mesa beat reporter.
The job is hard. The paper is a word mill.Â I have fun, though. I win some awards. I break some big stories. I make some lasting friendships. I meet my wife.
With a new wife and a feeling that my career is stalled — we’re in a recession — I take a job working for a politican.
That doesn’t last and two years later I’m out of work. I start freelancing, and I’m doing pretty good at it until in the summer of 1995, I get assigned a story by the San Diego Business Journal about what local publications are doing online.
My first interview for the story is with Ron James (now with SignOnSanDiego.com), who is running the web site for San Diego Magazine. Ron and I knew each other back in my Ocean Beach days. He wants me to become his site’s “East County correspondent.” I have a better idea. A friend owns six community weeklies.Â Ron gives us free server space, and East County Online is born — it’s the first group of weeklies in the US to go online (as far as I know).Â A year later, when Wired does a survey of top online news sites, it comes in at #67.
We do some cool stuff with ECO — we get a handful of community leaders to write online-only content for us; we solicit free online classifieds (this was before craigslist); we create a directory of local web sites (before the words “hyperlocal” and “portal” were invented); we start a community for members called the East County Online Club (we hold monthly dinners and theater outings for all four or five of our members).
However, going into business for myself proves not to be a great financial move. The world isn’t ready yet for a hyperlocal news site. I’m making less money than I was as a free-lance writer.
But I love this online stuff.
A job opportunity in Ventura comes along and I take it. I’ll be online editor for Affinity Group, Inc.Â AGI owns the Good Sam Club, MotorHome and Trialer Life magazines.
At AGI, I found two online communities — The Open Roads Forum and RV-L.
Starting RV-L was a good career move.Â It teaches me a lot about running online communities, and it also helps me develop a relationship with a core group of enthusiastic RVers.
When AGI decides to move its online operations to Kentucky and lets me go, that group becomes the basis for starting an online RV community, RVClub.com.
I learn even more about virtual communities.Â Study hard. Work hard.Â I get invited to speak at a conference in London on virtual communities. The club, initially, is doing pretty darn good financially. Life as an entrepreneur is good.
But the VC community doesn’t quite get this “web 2.0” thing yet (the term hasn’t been invented), and I can’t get backing to expand. I sell the club to an RV start upÂ that promises funding, but their funding never materializes.
Revenue begins to trend downward.
In late 1999, I see an ad in the Ventura County Star for a content producer. I interview for the job with a simple mesage: I’m not the best graphic designer you’ll find, and I’m not the best programmer you’ll find, and I’m not the best journalist you’ll find — but I’m the only guy you’ll find who can do all you need done and do it well. I get the job.
By 2001, we’re winning awards and growing revenue rapidly. I’m now the #2 guy in the web operation, and the primary application developer. I develop a Top Jobs app that later is rolled out to all of E.W. Scripps and copied by countless newspapers.Â We win best news site and best verical awards (for an auto site I played a key role in developing) fromÂ NAA and E&P.
In 2004, I’m named online director. At the end of 2004, VenturaCountyStar.com wins ONA’s general excellence award.
The Star’s online operations are, by now, recognized thrhoughout the industry for its innovative approaches to content and advertising. We’re leaders in blogs, user-submitted content and multimedia.
The Bakersfield Californian comes calling. Bakersfield.com is in woeful shape, and they want somebody to fix it. I have family in Bakersfield. Ventura housing is way too expensive, and TBC makes an attractive offer. IÂ take a job as VP of Interactive Media.
Within six months, we launch a brand new Bakersfield.com. Audience is up, revenue is up and the site would go on to win awards (including the Inland Press Associations first-ever General Excellence award) and industry kudos. It’s innovative for its web-first publishing philosophy, focus on local news, video, blogs, UGC and social networking.
My career at TBC is brief but fruitful.
Over the summer of 2006, I start talking to Bill Blevins at this “start up” newspaper company, GateHouse Media. I’m a little unsure about this whole thing. I knew Bill by reputation and immediately take a liking to him, but what was this GateHouse and it’s wild plans to acquire lots of small newspapers?
Eventually, Bill lures me in and in Sept. 2006, I become director of digital publishing. That’s where I am today — working for one of the few newspaper companies around that is actually expanding. And I’m having the time of my life.
Of course, now I’m fully a digital guy. But all the things I’ve always loved about journalism — serving the community, keeping people informed, shining a light into corners of darkness — are still a part of my daily motivation, but now I’m helping lead the change to a new way of doing things, a new form of journalism, one that I think is better and more useful to society. That’s just plain exciting.
I can be contacted at howard owens (oneword) at gmail (dot) com.