By Marshall Smith
After 22 years at the Town Crier (TC), 13 of them at its helm, Publisher-Editor Becky Clark told her staff on Sept. 10 that she plans to retire effective Nov. 13. She’ll remain in a consulting role until the end of the year. In true newspaper fashion, Clark learned the workings of the the TC and newspaper managemen, in a traditional way, by working her way up through a variety of positions.
Clark started part time with the Crier in 1984 as a type printer under previous owners L.B. and Dorothy Hunsaker. In 1989 she took on the front desk and classified position. Six months later the Hunsakers sold the TC to San Francisco based Chronicle newspaper chain. The new editor Carole Brennan appointed Clark to Operations Director as soon as she took over. U.K. based Tindle Newspapers LTD. (TNL) bought the TC in 1994. In 1996 when the then editor resigned with only two weeks notice, Tindle promoted Becky to the publisher/editor position.
“I raised my kids at the Town Crier,” said Clark. “Now I want to spend time with my grandbabies, husband and family.” Attorney husband Jack is retiring next year and Becky said she and Jack want to travel. “I’ve never even been to Canada,” said Clark, a Florida native.
Now is the right time, she said, since this is the best staff and in-house team she has ever assembled. “You try and try to get it right [staff hiring] and I’ve finally got it right with this staff.”
Clark announced her intentions at a 3 p.m. staff meeting attended by Robert Stiby, director of Idyllwild Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Tindle Newspapers U.S.A., the American corporate division of U.K.-based Tindle Publications Ltd. (TPL). Tindle acquired the Crier in 1994, making it the only U.S. newspaper in Tindle’s chain of more than 220 community newspapers. TPL has weekly circulation of more than 1.4 million.
Started by Ray Tindle in south London with 300 pounds sterling demobilization money at the end of World War II, TPL operates under a “strictly local” philosophy, providing local news to its readers and fixing the peripheries of each paper’s coverage to the town or area environs.
As TPL’s sole shareholder, Tindle is better positioned to ride out tough economic times such as the current recession affecting both the U.K. and U.S than are corporate-owned papers that must juggle stockholder concerns and dividend payments in calculating bottom lines. At a January 2009 U.K. TPL managerial meeting, Tindle reminded managers that Tindle Newspapers had never borrowed money and that it had cash reserves to help see it through the looming recession.
At the Sept. 10 staff meeting where Clark announced her retirement, Stiby affirmed the Tindle model of dedication to local news and noted that by and large, smaller local papers are doing better in this recession than larger corporate-held dailies. He and TPL are particularly proud of its American unit, headed by Clark.
“Becky’s contribution to the success of the Town Crier has been without parallel. She has led from the front and cared passionately, not only about her newspaper and staff, but above all, about Idyllwild itself, the area we serve. She is a phenomenal individual who has created one of the best community newspapers in California,” Stiby said on behalf of Sir Ray.
Under Clark’s leadership as TC publisher-editor, total revenue has almost doubled, and at a time when most newspapers are suffering circulation decline, TC circulation has remained steady. Clark noted the paper’s growth. “During my tenure, I think the paper has improved in quality both in printing and journalistically,” she said. “We have added many more community and visitor information features.” Recently the Crier added blog sites including “Breaking News,” which during the recent Cottonwood Fire, kept readers both on and off the Hill informed of the fire’s progress and received nearly 7,000 hits over five days of fire coverage.
Clark, who holds a bachelor's degree in mass communications and journalism from City University of Seattle and a paralegal certificate from Chapman University, said one of the highlights of her tenure has been her association with the California Newspaper Publishers Association. “Sitting around with other publishers you find the issues are the same, you learn the best ways to cope, and that it’s not about you, it’s about the job,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who is in the job [of publisher], there will be heat. It’s not personal. And you have to learn to laugh.”
Clark said she had some regrets, almost unavoidable in the crush of reviewing and approving fairly volumonous recurring advertising, editorial, budgets, outside features and staff issues. Clark said that it took a while to getting a handle on hiring the right people for TC staff - people with talent but also the ability to work productively together, since getting out a newspaper is a collaborative effort in which no staff position is superfluous. "I've learned to make better staff choices." She also said that she might have handled some public utterances differently. Clark holds press freedom and the public's right to know as the lodestars of journalistic practice, a passion the public sometimes misunderstands as personal with Clark rather than professional.
Laughter, sometimes called newsroom gallows humor, is a unifying thread at the TC and Clark’s laughter has been a huge part of that. Loyalty among the staff is solid. “It [retiring] has been a difficult decision to make but it was made easier knowing the paper will be in good hands,” said Clark, referring to her current staff and the timing of her retirement decision.
Asked to name another highpoint in her TC tenure, Clark, a fierce advocate of open government, noted with satisfaction attending a public meeting and hearing someone in the audience tell the officials they are violating the Brown Act open meeting law.
Stiby, who is also retiring, said he believes a new management team will be put together from within existing staff and that it has been Tindle’s policy to promote from within. Stiby’s replacement, TPL’s CEO Brian Doel, will visit the Crier in October to confer with staff and help facilitate the management change.
The grandbabies Clark is looking forward to spending more time with are Carter, 3, and Evey, 2, children of Clark’s son Zac Johnson and wife Mandy. Johnson is a Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class stationed in Central California at the Lemoore Naval Air Station. And granddaughter Mina Clark, 6, daughter of Jack's son, Jeff, and his wife, Lael, who live in Lake Elsinore, are on the agenda, as well as the expected December arrival of another daughter. Clark’s daughter, Halie Johnson, lives in Del Mar and is an assistant editor with the La Jolla Light and its four sister papers.
Clark stresses she has been discussing her eminent retirement with her husband and TNL executives for several months. She says the decision doesn't come easily and that she will miss her staff and the constant challenges of putting out this important national award winning paper. Clark says she wants this next part of her life to be about her family, travelling, and paying attention to the the important little things like cooking. For her recent anniversary she prepared for Jack the signature boeuf bourguignon recipe from Julia Child's seminal French cookbook "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."
Asked if she could change anything in her life to date, she said, "I'd be taller!"