Friday, June 07, 2019

Filling in the Gaps

Imagine, a business running for fifteen years - not a great success maybe, as I had put a million euros into it, but by now, worth quite a bit. It was a weekly free newspaper in English that started in 1985 and ran into three editions - Almería, Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol. Let’s tell readers about this great country, I thought, educate them (and me as well) about Spanish gastronomy, history, geography, society and politics.
The weekly print run was anything up to 47,000 copies, making it the 17th largest newspaper in Spain, and of course, the largest foreign-language publication around. For a while there, it was a pretty good newspaper.
Oh, there were problems. The Spanish media-agencies won't advertise in foreign-owned newspapers (did you ever see an advert for Coca Cola, J&B whisky, chocolate milk, Volkswagen, Parador hotels or maybe the Madrid Tourist authority in the Costa Blanca News or The Olive Press?). We received no ‘institutional adverts’ (Government sponsored advertising, ‘bungs’ really), like ‘Come and visit Andalucía’ or ‘Have you paid your taxes this year?’ and so on, the same as the ones that appear every day in all national newspapers.
The official Spanish newspaper circulation-run auditors also weren't very helpful, after auditing the paper for a year at 39,975 copies (thanks, guys), they then told me it was three papers and tripled the price. Which is probably why none of the foreign-language free press has a reputable distribution number (that, and it’s very easy to tell fibs when you are in publishing).
The paper started as a small local weekly. Edition Nº 1 had the adverts at the top of the page and the articles at the bottom. The two British couples who started it – a musician and a photographer and their two wives – evidently had little idea about what they were doing. In fact the guitarist, the alpha for the group, had wanted to open a radio station, but the senior cop in charge of foreigners for Almería had said no.
Speaking nary a word of Spanish, they asked Barbara, later my wife, to translate and – since she had a work permit to drive a mule-taxi – to head up the newspaper as the editor. The police-chief said that, bureaucratically speaking, that would do fine and it was all close enough anyway.
I was invited in after the first three months of production. Encouraged by my step-mother, I gave the guitarist some money in exchange for a third of the business, only to be told by the printer the following day that the newspaper owed an extra seven million pesetas, some 42,000€, and they weren’t going to print until they had that sorted.
The process in the beginning was to type up and collect material around the kitchen table and take it to the printer, La Voz de Almería, in the nearby city, which would be obliged to re-type the whole sixteen-page newspaper (with a couple of Spanish secretaries who had never worked in English before), using the system of the times: copper type-face, wire and screens. This was a difficult process, and it gave rise to multiple spelling mistakes and screw-ups.  Later, we moved the business into a small house I owned in the campo, converted into newspaper offices. Here we had two home-made light-boxes (a glass box with tracing paper and a strong light behind) to ‘make up’ the pages physically with glue sticks, tape and scissors, a couple of computers, a printer and a dark-room housing a large horizontal camera known as a repro-master. I manned the front desk and had a telephone, a fax and a potted plant.
Early editorial included the popular medical column from Terry and a cookery-based story from Jocelyne. We also had a ‘So you want to play bowls’ column which went on for an embarrassingly long time, plus something solemnly translated from the local press for the front page (this still seems to go on) and an encapsulation of the world news recorded onto a cassette in England by a friend, which was then played over the phone and taken down by one of our staff with shorthand skills.
Then by post would come a few months’ worth of Russell Grant’s astrology with the help of some London agency.
Features from various writers would later arrive to HQ along with the adverts, photos and checks by messenger service from the outlaying offices. Our photographer partner’s ‘From Macclesfield to Mojácar’ saga, with black and white pictures of cows, trees and motorway petrol stations, was finally put to sleep...
The paper, printed overnight, would be distributed in that first year around the province in English-speaking areas, which meant in the mid-eighties Mojácar, Turre, Bédar, Roquetas de Mar and Almerimar. The sales-manager (for want of a better title) was another expatriate musician, who spent most of his time either fighting with his wife or standing on his head. The business continued to haemorrhage and I even found myself paying my two partners’ house-rents...

Desk-top Publishing
In 1986, the guitarist-partner went up to Altea (Alicante) to meet a friend, a Swedish fellow, and the next thing I knew, we had a second weekly edition, this time for the Costa Blanca. At least he thought big. The other one, the photographic partner, in charge of camera-work and lay-out, preferred small scenes and scams like dropping adverts on the floor by his light-box (‘they didn’t fit on page’) and selling holiday-snaps of people down at the bar using newspaper-bought camera-film (‘I thought it was a perk’), and bouncing a cheque off me once for fifty pounds.
My by this time father-in-law, Barbara’s dad, warned me that I would never see my money again.
I was foolish, or maybe hopeful, and continued to pour in funds, eventually getting an agreement from the others that I would collect on my investment before any share-out following a successful sale of the business. Not that anyone wanted to buy it.
The Costa Blanca idea had been to sell a franchise, and we nearly did, with the buyers only deciding at the notary’s office to start their own competing newspaper instead. We could have supplied the material: we had IBM computers by this time and the repro-master which was used for taking both photos for paste-up as well as creating the paper’s full page negatives for the printer.
So instead, our second edition began. Larger than the Almería newspaper, our Costa Blanca edition had a staff of seven (including its own editor and various comisionistas, who sold advertising for a 20% bite), plus an office and what eventually turned out to be a crooked sales manager who creamed off the profits for a number of years.
One day, a second printer, Almería’s other newspaper La Crónica, introduced us to desk-top publishing with an Apple Macintosh Classic. Look, you can actually see the newspaper and make adjustments on the cute little screen!
This spelt the end of the photographic partner, who left the newspaper to further his career selling second-hand paperbacks at the Sunday market.
The guitarist-partner, who fronted a local pop group, wanted to play with a leggy superstar due to give a concert in Málaga that third summer. So, he engineered the launch of another, still larger edition, with an office in Benhavís near Marbella (it was somebody’s sitting-room), complete with an alcoholic editor and a junkie sales-manager. This involved a large investment and a massive print-run. We needed extra staff at home and while sending the completed newspaper to the printer via the dial-up modem helped speed things along (do you remember the sound those things made?), it was a lot of work and not much joy.
The musical-partner did indeed open for Tina Turner in that fateful concert, but was booed off stage, while his bassist was struck by a flying hamburger. It seemed that the vast Málaga audience wasn’t ready for Blue Suede Shoes.
Shortly after the launch on the Costa del Sol edition, and following on from running a monthly business insert for the paper for a couple of years from a separate office (where he was sleeping with his secretary), the guitar-playing partner also left the newspaper for good, leaving me as the sole owner (on paper, I already was anyway).
While the wives of the two ex-partners, both fast typists, continued to stay with the paper, a job being a job, I had to find extra staff who were, in theory at least, a bit more professional. I have no head for business and little sense about money (I had inherited 1,000 acres of Norfolk farm-land from an eccentric great grandmother), so carried on paying old print bills, lawyers and bankers, pointless wages, high commissions, rents, wasted trips and so on. A series of local accountants were more interested in various distractions than in controlling the outgoings, culminating finally in an Argentinean who..., well, more on him later.
The paper was huge, 47,000 copies and an unrivalled distribution network. While ordinary newspapers share distribution costs and end up in kiosks and supermarkets, a free-sheet must make its own way. An all-advert sheet can be left in people’s post-boxes, but not in a multi-lingual community, as who knows what language the tenants within might speak? The only answer is to create a hybrid: a paper with enough editorial-content to stimulate reader-interest in the hope that they will pick up a copy.
Our provincial Spanish daily currently claims an improbable twelve readers for every copy sold, which the advertisers apparently believe. Perhaps (and baring in mind current printing costs), other newspapers make similarly improbable claims.

By 1991, the bills were running at two million pesetas - 12,000€ per week. This included 847,000 pesetas in printing plus 241,000 in distribution - around 6,700€. Each week that the agencies were paying late (90 or 120 days), or the advertisers were unavailable, or their cheques bounced, or we were fined for some reason or other (Foreign business: first to be fined, last to be paid), then I would have to make up the shortfall. 
The banks were charging in 1991 an average on commissions, interest and overdrafts at 74,000 pesetas a month - around 100€ a week.

The Editor-Writer
By the mid-nineties, the printers could manage full colour. Prior to this we had ‘spot colour’ – a smear of either red, blue or green on the front, back and centre pages. But now, our newspaper was beginning to look good. In the late eighties, we had briefly been considered for acquisition by El Mundo’s editorial company. A few years later, we had attracted the attention of EMAP, who were looking for a title in Spain, but were considered by them to be a little too small. By the late nineties, a stronger buyer, United News and Media, were looking at our figures, but the deal crashed as United was itself bought by a Canadian investor and they quickly pulled out of Spain (their headquarters were in Granada).
I was aghast as my thousand acres in Norfolk had long dwindled to nothing, but I was writing a lot (a public school education finally paying off). One offer of a trip from Southampton to Manhattan on board the QE2 plus a return to the UK on Concorde was too good to miss, so Barbara and I squeezed into our formal-wear and took a rare holiday. Later, the sponsor – a Gibraltar cruise-company – was somewhat miffed when my extended three-week series of articles were reproduced across the editions in a miniscule size seven font by the apparently jealous staff.
Producing a newspaper has its attractions, especially before the Internet came along. The sense of immediacy: where what you write today will be read by thousands tomorrow. It’s hard work though and everything needs to be in the right place at the right time. First, you need to decide how many pages you want, which varies with the printer, but is always in multiples of four or eight, colour here and there, depending on the presses. You must have all the material collected and ready, as adverts often need to be designed from an old business card or a vaguely-worded drawing on the back of an envelope. Classifieds, advertorials (text paid by the advertiser), professional adverts from the British agencies in Marbella, Gibraltar or London: all ready for insertion. Space to add the regular features, something quickly needed for page seven, a photograph to illustrate an article... (before the Google-days came along we had some picture-books for this).
The paper would be printed out page by page and proofed. Repaired. The entire creation would then be sent to the printer on the modem (or driven there by me with the hard drive on the seat next to me in the car) to arrive by around 7.00pm, latest. Then it would be printed before the local daily newspaper which was prepared around about 11.00pm, but which would naturally take precedence if we were running late. Then the truck would take the copies – 27,000 in the case of the Costa del Sol – off to meet the local distributors who would then take them around to the many points we had – supermarkets, shops, bars, offices, agents, realtors and so on. Meanwhile, the sales-reps would be out selling adverts, and I would be at the bank or the printers discovering that, generally speaking, business is not about doing what you like, but rather what you don’t.
The Internet has of course killed all this. Why spend two euros to produce, print and distribute one copy, with restrictions on article length, pagination and delivery, when you can spend nothing (except time) to produce a cyber-newspaper without any limits to it whatsoever?
Barbara was long apart from the newspaper, and had started a centre for riding for the disabled with eight horses and four donkeys, introducing this novel therapy to Spain. It was called Ánimo, and had of course the support of the newspaper. She was once invited to meet Pilar de Borbón, the old King’s sister, another time she met the head of the ONCE (the Spanish blind association) and once even received an article from The Pope to put in as a ‘special’ within the newspaper. Padre Ángel, the director of Mensajeros por la Paz, came down from Madrid just to visit us. Of course, as equine therapy became known in Spain (and the, ah, commercial opportunities thereof), several centres sprang up, and the one in Seville was given half a million euros by the regional government – even though it was on the first floor of a building surrounded by gravel – not really being of much use to those imprisoned in wheelchairs.
Barbara’s Ánimo was naturally shunned by the fundsters, and the head of the ONCE told her shamefacedly one day that he had recently been in Australia where a senior charity leader said to him ‘Spain? You must know Barbara Napier...’.
A few more Norfolk acres had to be let go to keep it going for a while longer...
But back to the newspaper...

The Final Years
We had moved out of my guest-house (I had to sell it anyway for printers’ bills) and into a rental-office on Mojácar beach. A couple of computer whizzes were now working for me, using the latest publishing programs and always asking for new, faster computers... Besides the worry of taking (somehow) 25,000€ a month in advertising income to cover all the costs, it had become fun creating the three editions.
To save something on those costs, I fired the editorial staff in both Altea and (by now) Fuengirola, preparing, writing – or collecting – most of the editorial myself.
Hard work, with huge financial issues to face (a print-run, and we had three every week, was and is very expensive). In those later years, from 1994 to 1999, I was also putting out a monthly Spanish newspaper, which I have to say, was a lot more interesting.
‘Good-will’ is important in a newspaper, as the advertisers need to feed off of your estimable reputation. Be on time, be smart and don’t accept crooked adverts (like the 6.000€ ostriches or the Costa Rica jojoba plantations which both featured among the advertisements in a rival publication). Watch out for independent financial advisers, as some of their customers may not be happy with either them or with you for recommending them.
We had a new office manager in Fuengirola who had come down from Alicante to take over from the previous one who had suddenly decamped with his new girlfriend, one of our more productive sales-reps (The intrigues that go on in a newspaper would make a great TV comedy show).
He told me over the phone that he had hired an energetic couple blessed with a distinctive Manchester whine who habitually wore matching track-suits.
This couple were very good at sales, working together with the sales equivalent of a good cop bad cop routine. They had been in ‘double glazing’ in the UK prior to their precipitous arrival in Spain in 1997. Soon they were running the Costa del Sol office and not much longer after this development, I had them (or maybe they had me) running the sales side of the entire business.
In 1999, they teamed up with my Argentinean accountant and obliged me to sell the business to them with a three-year buy-out for a considerable loss.
There wasn’t a choice.
I had a major business,  fifteen years of good will, three offices, staff, a truck and a personal mortgage on my house for 120,000€ for old printers bills. Within ten minutes of being braced, I was locked out of the main office and all the back issues of the paper (around 800 editions) were in the bin.
In the end, the risible agreement was never honoured and I was paid nothing.
Not a bad deal for the new owners – a business where all of the teething pangs have gone, where experience, routine and customers were in good shape and with possessions paid for – computers, office furniture and a truck. All one might need would be to change the name on the masthead while keeping the edition number, buy out the accountant and move the business to Benalmádena.
They say that history is written by the victors, but it must seem odd to readers how a successful multi-million business just appeared out of thin air.

The Last Lap
Barbara died in 2014 following a long and terrible illness. We had lost the private health insurance by around 2006 but were treated well in public hospitals in Madrid, Granada, Almería and Huercal Overa (plus, earlier, a private one in Pamplona), all of which cost money we didn’t have.
Now, without her, my living-costs are less.
So, I must count my blessings – such as they are. I’m still alive, still eating and still reading and writing. I can’t afford any luxuries, don’t have a pension and rarely see my three children (they are all in the USA). I now have nothing in my name, not even the car. As best I can, I help Alicia, my hard-working new Spanish wife, in our house outside Almería.
Along the way, I kept my honour intact.
Maybe it’s a public school thing.


Ob1Kn00b said...

It takes balls to run the gauntlet like that. What counts as a successful endeavour when the suit you could have worn would only need you to carry it around? There's very little prose on the life out here.

Anonymous said...

Dear Lenox,
I am a massive fan of your writing style. Is it perhaps time for a book? Driving over Cacti perhaps. The non Disney version of life in Spain :)

Unknown said...

interesting story, well written! Unfortunately the South of Spain can be dangerous for the good and innocent....

Norman said...

Remarkable. Definitely a book.

Unknown said...

Dear Lenox all is true, the experience never as enough, you have a lot, probably the most dificul business you can make in Spain a resault of opinion-publicity sales-reputation. From the beginning was very hard till the end, I do my best, my obsesión every week when I recibe the newspapers was back home safe with no damage in ours employers ......13 years with more than 1.000.000km and nobody has a bad car accident is a GOD-Bless, like The Entertainer was for all of us. Un abrazo de pulmón a pulmón. Elendil.