Pete Kaufman: New Publisher Shows Why It's Called the Newspaper Business

A look back at the history of the Lemon Grove Review.

In our last two columns, we traced the history of the Lemon Grove Review, our hometown newspaper, from 1948 to 1989. Today, we look at the Pete Kaufman years of the Review, from 1989 to 1995. We are indebted to the estimable Steve Saint, the last publisher of the Review, and his ace reporter, Cheryl Cohen, for insight into this phase.

Act 5: The Kaufman Years In 1989, the old pro, Max Goodwin, who had edited the Lemon Grove Review for 37 years, sold Homeland Publishing and its weeklies to Pete Kaufman, a Duke University graduate, former CPA and early computer geek. Goodwin's circulation—more than 5,000 subscribers—had plummeted to a few hundred and his publishing company, with its aging linotype machines, couldn't compete with the new laser prints and computers, technologies familiar to Kaufman. For two years Goodwin tried to sell the business. Then, after a year-long negotiation, Kaufman closed the deal.

Kaufman moved the Review into the digital age a decade before the widely recognized start (1998) of the tech revolution that has altered life around the globe. Though he came to journalism as a CPA, Kaufman had actually racked up 21 years in the community newspaper game, first, on the business end of Community Newspapers, Inc., in Louisville and Shelbyville, Ky. There, he was tasked with eliminating handwritten accounting methods and installing computer systems that tracked inventory, profit and loss, and demographics. In the process, he learned the newspaper business.

Community Newspapers became a division of Landmark Communications, which purchased the ailing Daily Californian in El Cajon. Remember the Californian's glory days? A big building on Pioneer Way run like a big-time newsroom with dozens of reporters and columnists, an Associated Press feed, trucks toting issues to countless newsstands, a $2 million printing press, and a killer overhead. Enter Kaufman in 1984 to downsize the weekly into a leaner, meaner operation computerized to track accountability and profitability. He moved national news to the middle section and local news to the front page—why continue to compete with the region's major daily newspapers, the San Diego Union and the Evening Tribune?

Kaufman ran The Daily Californian until 1987 and reached break-even—but he who hires, fires, trims and prunes to cut losses wins no popularity contests, no matter how solid his track record. With his first marriage in tatters and citing "differences with management," he departed, yearning to run his own business and stay in San Diego County. The Lemon Grove Review and the Spring Valley Bulletin were his ticket to ride. He started Forum Publications, bought $10,000 worth of computer equipment and issued his first paper on Feb. 23, 1989 with the help of volunteer reporter Karen O'Rourke and a few renegades from The Daily Californian.

Kaufman used colored logos and eliminated bylines—there were no employees, so he couldn't attribute every article to a lone writer, especially if he was the writer. He bought the La Mesa Forum and derived his major income for all three weeklies from legal ads, long the pacemaker of the business.  He hooked up with a native son, Pete Smith, who had trained at the prestigious Brook Photography Institute, Santa Barbara, and was already an award-winning photojournalist. Between them, they saved all of the original Review editions and stored them with the Lemon Grove Historical Society, which, through an ongoing fundraising effort, is digitizing all 50 years at Carmel Business Systems, Spring Valley.

Newspapers are a tyrannical mistress.  he 24/7 slavery increased when Kaufman took on the Santee Star, El Cajon Eagle and La Mesa Scout, making six weeklies all demanding non-stop attention. Kaufman's second marriage dissolved under the double whammy of uncertain income and a schedule guaranteed to work the publisher into the ground. Pete Smith recalled Kaufman moving into a one-bedroom apartment "with a microwave somewhere between his fax and his computer" and a tower of box springs and mattresses left over from his three-bedroom house. Kaufman recalled struggling to sustain the triumvirate of circulation, advertising and high-quality editorial. He walked door-to-door, giving away copies to entice subscribers, and felt guilty when he sold an ad, knowing it would have almost no visibility. Like Goodwin before him, he yearned to be a local business booster and herald for a growing East County.

Kaufman's biggest struggle was with good editorial content. He couldn't afford to hire writers, so he relied on area school personnel and parents, service clubs, sports organizations and others to provide the stories needed to spark reader interest. His company name, "Forum," meant open, unbiased discussion, wide-ranging opinions and you-are-there coverage of local issues. This democratic outreach backfired when a 17-year-old Helix High School student sprayed KKK graffiti on the Forum's wall and threw a rock through the window. Alex Curtis was arrested six months later after anti-hate crime groups worked with authorities to track him down. Given the Review's long-time support of schools and students, the vandalism by a local kid "who had a lovely mother and a nice dad," according to Kaufman, was ironic.

It wasn't only the vagaries of running newspapers that affected the fate of Forum Publications. Lemon Grove and East County, in general, had been prey to market forces well before Kaufman arrived on the scene. Local institutions like Conrad Mortuary and Lido's Italian Foods, and chains like Piggly Wiggly, Food Basket, Don Diego Market and Spears Ford brought stability and prosperity to Lemon Grove in the 1950s—but College Grove opened in 1961 and generated $30 million in retail sales in its first year.  Broadway between Kempf and Imperial (today, Lemon Grove Avenue) became a dangerous "fly-through" for motorists en route to College Grove. By 1960 Lemon Grove had lost 1,200 acres of agriculture land. and Walter Denlinger was almost the last grower left—and he was subdividing his 7.5 acres into residential lots.  

Miller Dairy was sold for condominiums in 1984, the year the global economy tanked under pressure from rising energy costs, defense deficits and huge consumer credit card debt. All over California overbuilding and defense budget cuts yielded small towns plagued with vacancies and fewer jobs. In the mid-1980s also came Grossmont Center and Parkway Plaza with their siren song of shopping as entertainment. In 1982, College Grove was sold for half of what it cost to build and occupancy fell below 50 percent. On Broadway in Lemon Grove vacancies sprouted like some evil midnight mushroom and ad revenue sank further at Forum Publications. 

Still hopeful, in 1994 Kaufman started a seventh weekly, the Lakeside Leader. Yet, as Steve Saint observed, the multiple forays into community journalism did not bespeak a love of journalism, for Kaufman was "first and foremost a businessman." Close ties to a community was good business. It was possible to juggle the balance sheet beyond break-even into actual income if your paper tapped the local heartbeat. But, ultimately, local economies and a killer workload took their toll.  In 1995 Kaufman sold out to Steven Saint, whom he'd already hired to write and lay out the El Cajon Eagle. Kaufman retired to Point Loma with his third wife and doesn't miss the newspaper business.  

"If I'm working, I give it 24 hours a day. But when I'm gone, I'm out of there," said Kaufman.

Next week: The Steven Saint Saga, the Lemon Grove Twist, the end of the Review, and the dawn of Lemon Grove Patch.com.

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