The Rise and Fall of Roadside Magazine

Chapter 14

Despite the constant headaches, my stint with Ball Publishing afforded me the opportunity to see all the sites. In June, 2000, I visited the Donut Hole in California with Mark Elliot (left), friend and magazine stringer. (Photo by Mark Elliot)

Road tripping on the company dime is something I recommend highly. Relieved from the burden of personal budgets certainly lifts one’s mood as the miles rack up. If you can’t find a good cheap motel, then check into the Hampton Inns or even the Hyatt if the situation warrants. Then just submit receipts and wait for the check.

Away from the office and free from Jennifer’s daily email leash-tugging, I had never felt so happy to be alive. If simply allowed to track down the needed stories and given proper, enthusiastic support, I was certain Roadside would become a publishing phenomenon.

However, while taking the new Jetta on its inaugural road trip, I received word that we would have another quick meeting back at O’Hare airport to discuss round two of the proposed new logo designs. Three days after arriving back in Worcester, I would fly out to Chicago, returning the same day. I think the prospect of a rectal exam would have inspired less dread that reviewing more logo designs.

Meanwhile, two days before I hopped the plane, I received word from Jennifer the search for staff would soon begin. As I read the email, she sprung yet another piece of information that made my hands shake so violently, I couldn’t type. Our new managing editor, an associate editor, another designer and an editorial assistant would report to Jennifer. Struck by the idea that my editorial staff would not report to me, the editor, but to the publisher, the picture came into sharper focus. Keeping me in Worcester served to box me out geographically and politically. I was livid, and when I told Teri about this brazen power play, she was more so.

It took me a few hours, but I finally calmed down enough to draft a measured response, which I also faxed to Mr. Ball, that expressed my “concern” with the situation, that this unorthodox structure went counter to what one normally found at publishing companies. I signed it off with a platitude about Mr. Ball’s vision for the magazine. I heard nothing in reply, but I did expect the issue to arise in Chicago.

In a windowless conference room in an O'Hare terminal, I again found myself sitting before another earnest effort by our otherwise adequately talented designer. This time, she gave us six designs from which to choose. Also looking on, Jennifer, Martens, and our marketing director, who each stared at me for reaction as she unveiled each idea. While I still considered it a futile exercize, I did see one design idea that at least displayed a sense of humor and picked it. Interestingly, that’s all they seemed to need. We discussed the new logo’s merits for a few minutes, but in the end, they let me pick the new design. I regarded their consideration of my opinion as small consolation. They merely allowed me to choose which gun they’d use to shoot my child.

We broke for lunch, but only Martens and I headed back to the conference room afterwards. Here we go, I thought.

To this day, I still find it hard to believe what transpired for the next two hours. Martens produced a printed copy of my email, with much of it underlined in red pen. He began by talking about the logo.

“Are you happy with your choice of logo?”

“Are you asking me if I think it’s better than what we already have? Because if you are, no, I’m not.”

"No. That logo is dead. You’re just going to have to get used to it.” He again repeated his mantra. “I’m selling access to an audience,” and then introduced a new one:

“This is going to be very hard for you.” I heard this phrase and the more obvious, “This isn’t your magazine anymore,” at least four more times each in the next two hours.

He sat down and began to review my email, using it as an ad-hoc agenda. Referring to certain parts of it, he said the following things:

Regarding Jennifer’s management of my staff: “Jennifer has more knowledge of the publishing business in her little pinky that you and I put together.”

Regarding my trip through Traverse City, home of Martens’s favorite author: “When I give you the name of someone, I expect you to write it down! I can’t believe that you drove through Traverse City and didn’t look up Jim Harrison!”

To which I countered, “And what was I supposed to say to the guy if I did find him? ‘Excuse me, but could you perhaps contribute to a magazine that you’ve never heard of because you’re my boss’s favorite author.’ I don’t think that would work too well, John.”

Regarding the challenge of launching the magazine: “I don’t think you understand what I’m going through here.”

I respond: “Sure I do, John. I understand it completely. Here you are, safe in your business having just made all four titles profitable, when along comes George with this nutty magazine about diners and says, ‘Here. Make money with this.’”

And finally, regarding my relationship with Mr. Ball: “Before you go to George, you had better make sure you have all your ducks in order!”

The meeting ended with Martens exuding an air of self-satisfaction. Not waiting for me to finish a quick trip to the men’s room before we parted, he left me at O’Hare without so much as a handshake. I stood my ground, but walked away knowing that my days were numbered. Clearly, all these people wanted from me was to show them how to set up their quirky travel magazine, then they would plug in every standard industry practice and formula learned from “Publishing 101” while supressing my role and influence.

Despite my two-year contract, I knew they would find a way to jettison me soon after the launch, if not before. More likely, they wanted me to quit and seemed to do everything to force my hand. Since Mr. Ball never responded to the faxed copy of the email, I had to assume he was now party to this brazen powerplay. The only thing I could do at this point was go along for the ride and fulfill the most basic requirements of my job.

To me, this photo and caption pretty much revealed Ball Publishing's true regard for people I regarded as heroes. (Original photo by Teri Dunn)

In preparation for the first issue, I faced extended trips to Pittsburgh and to California. The excitement of the travel was offset by the stress of dealing with a perceived ineptitude too unbelievable even for a Dilbert strip. I began to notice during my first trip to Pittsburgh, that I had developed a daily throbbing headache that no amount of aspirin could soothe. Not normally prone to headaches, I came to realize the stress had triggered this affliction, and that I now had a job that affected my health.

That June, the company finished the first direct mail solicitation for subscribers. Jennifer emailed me daily while on the road asking me for help in writing the copy for the piece. At this point, I had developed a new tactic. I had decided that if they believed they knew better than I did how to sell this magazine, I’d simply let them.

“Well, I’m not really a copywriter, Jennifer. Besides, you guys really seem to know what you’re doing. I trust your judgment implicitly.”

In the beginning of July, the company mailed 100,000 copies of a standard, direct mail piece with such choice nuggets of copy as:

    “Preservatives are good for you – if you’re a once-charming main street, a neglected historical landmark, or a suffocating community ready for mouth-to-mouth.”

    “Where to find the gem-quality places to eat, sleep, and stop that make America’s roads like none other in the world – and the people behind them.”

    “Visit Pittsburgh – of all places!”

And in the kicker, they had captioned a photograph taken by Teri of Brad and Regan Thomason at the counter of their Blue Moon Diner in Aloha, Oregon, “The local yokel redefined…” Ball Publishing neither owned this photograph nor did they ever get a signed release from the Thomason’s to use their image for commercial purposes.

Last April, when we first discussed this piece, I suggested sending this audience something with intrinsic value, something immediately recognizable. Why not, I proposed, send out something that looked like a vintage post card booklet? For whatever reason, they dismissed the idea, opting instead for a standard accordion-folded piece of junk mail.

During my second exploration of Pittsburgh, Christine des Garennes flew out to meet me for the first time. Here we are overlooking downtown on Mount Washington. (Photo by Laine Goldman.)

In the middle of July, Jennifer had her first hire, our new managing editor, Christine des Garennes, who flew out to meet me during my second and final Pittsburgh exploration. I thought the idea of having her come out and see me “in the field” was one of Jennifer’s best ideas yet. I liked Christine and I sensed that she’d probably do just fine in her new job. I doubted I’d be around long enough to see her grow into the position, but I nevertheless did my best to convey my enthusiasm for the subject.

Meanwhile, I kept calling Mr. Ball, leaving messages on his voice mail. I would have to return to Worcester by driving through Warminster, so I hoped to arrange a meeting. With my head pounding daily and knowing with absolute certainty that Ball Publishing would blow Roadside up on the launch pad, I felt I had little to lose.

I would call Martens’s bluff.

Next time: Quack.