Before becoming a Coffee News publisher ten years ago, Steve Herman worked in television broadcast, production, and sales for 25 years. And he learned a thing or two about how to approach reluctant advertisers. Many people have declared print a dead medium for quite a long time. When potential advertisers tell him this, Steve offers them a deal: “Can I prove to you that print works?” he asks. They’re intrigued. “I would like to offer you a free ad,” he says. “Absolutely free. But there is one catch: I get to write the ad.”
“What are you going to say?” they want to know.
“I’m going to say that you’re out of business”
That alarms them. “You can’t say that!”
“So I tell them, ‘Well, if nobody reads it, what are you worried about?’ Nobody’s taken me up on that offer so far,” Steve says, laughing.
He owns six editions in and around Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plus one seasonal and one he calls a mini-edition of only 400 copies. When a friend moved to Brandon, just outside of Sioux Falls, the friend asked him to start an edition there. Steve objected. “My key operating statistics say I need 50 locations and 1,500 papers. I don’t think you come close to that over in Brandon.” But Steve offered his friend a deal. “If you’ll help me and if we can get to 25 locations, I’ll print it.” His friend agreed and they got started. “Lo and behold, I now have 40-plus locations in Brandon. It doesn’t support a large print run, only 450 copies.” But it’s a small community of about 6,000 people. So, to Steve’s way of thinking, 450 papers in an area that small is comparable to 1,500 in a larger area. “They like it and they support it. It’s a little bit less advertising than I get in my other editions. But people are interested in it. And now it’s been around a long time.”
In nearby Okoboji, Iowa, he runs a seasonal paper for fifteen weeks every summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The lakeside town has a full-time population of 6,000 people that swells to 100,000 in the summer.
When he started his first Sioux Falls edition in December 2007, the nearest Coffee News was 237 miles away in Minneapolis. “Most people in Sioux Falls had no idea what it was,” he says. They embraced it. Steve decided to put his early energy into distribution, rather than sales. “I say you’re selling an empty bag if you don’t have distribution. Put all your efforts into distribution and, if you do, eventually people will come around.”
From the start, he was making deals. “I basically found some—I’ll call them ‘strategic advertisers’—and I offered them free space in the first couple of editions. My hope was that if other advertisers saw these people, they’d say, ‘Wow, they’re pretty smart. Maybe I should be there, too.’ And that’s how it worked. My very first advertiser, who was in my very first edition in December 2007, is still in my paper.” But they’re paying now.
Here’s a deal he offers to continuous advertisers: if they come into Coffee News and never leave, their rate will never go up. “Now that first advertiser is probably paying about half the rate of anybody else, but that was my promise and you’ve got to honor it, so I did.”
As a Coffee News publisher, he loves working for himself. Steve’s wife handles the distribution and he has five part-time delivery drivers. He loves the flexibility of having a home office. “I tend to be a night owl. The other night, I put my editions together and sent them out at 2 in the morning. I have a home office. I can go down there to do it and nobody bothers me.” Mondays, he says, are his office days. “Sometimes I don’t get out of my pajamas.” But discipline is important. “I can go down there after dinner and spend three or four hours. It takes a lot of discipline, and I don’t always have it, to be firm about saying what is office time and what is family time.” And that’s the deal he is making with himself.