One of the dubious challenges of working at a community newspaper is taking the pulsebeat of local businesses during seasonal flurries of activity when business is anything but business as usual. The Thanskgiving-Christmas season is a good example. So is the topsy-turvy period of retail wackiness surrounding the Presidents’ Day holiday.
These are the times that try ink-stained wretches’ souls, because these are the times that, for the 3,457th time, an editor will blearily raise his or her head from a mustard-stained desk and declare, “Hey, call around to local businesses and see how the (Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s-Presidents’ Day) sales are going. What are the hot gifts? Who are they shipping with? What’s the last day I can feed my hamster?”
Twenty or 30 years ago, this was a relatively easy task in communities like Fairfield or Vacaville. The designated reporter could simply pick up the phone and ask the folks at Vacaville Book Company or Fairfield Office Supply how business was going and get a reasonably cordial, and printable, response.
These stories are neither rocket science nor major investigative efforts.
(Major investigative efforts invariably require at least two hours to put together).
No, these stories are the local equivalent of bumping into Joe the Haberdasher on the sidewalk and asking “Hey, how’s it going, Joe?”
But that was then and this is now. Many local businesses are now part of multinational corporations based anywhere but here. The corporations employ local folks, they sell to local customers, but when it comes to asking the local guy “Hey, how’s it going, Mr. Manager-of-a-Nationwide-Franchise-Store?” the sky darkens, thunder rumbles and the timid fellow who answered the phone gets reticent.
“Uh, er, is this for the newspaper? I, ah, can’t talk about that. You’ll have to contact corporate. I can’t talk to the press. I can’t even talk. In fact, I’m not here at all. You must be calling somebody else, ’cause if you were calling me, I wouldn’t have answered. OK? Good-bye. Have a nice day…”
Corporate paranoia – don’t ya just love it?
The biggest problem with this kind of approach to the dreaded news media – at least on a local basis – is that “corporate” is invariably based in Dallas, Chicago, New York or New Delhi. Those folks can tell the hometown newspaper about national sales figures and new products, but they’re rarely in touch with what’s happening with the franchise store on Harbison Drive or North Texas Street.
Worse, many of the locals who timidly refer the hometown newspaper bum to “corporate” have absolutely no idea of how to reach “corporate.”
What happens at this point? One of two things: The reporter either spends the rest of the day trying to get someone at corporate to speak 10 words that might loosely apply to their Vacaville outlet, or the reporter gets thoroughly frustrated with the whole process after four or five hours and simply gives up.
I realize, of course, that some of you out there may not agree with my assessment of this rather complex situation.
Hey, no problem. Call corporate…
Originally published January 7, 2007