The unlikely history of FAN

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 15, 2017 21:31

Some of FAN’s many key contributors and staff: Front row, left to right: Joan Jackson, Lisa Mayers, Joy Hopkins, Bertha Underhill, Nancy Abbott, Ken Jay. Middle row: Peter Carrillo, Mark Hopkins, Dianne Shannon, Patty Fuller, Sharon Marovich, Suzy Hopkins, Judy Stoltenberg. Back row: Kevin Sauls, Gary Linehan, Chris Bateman, Dave Bonnot, Krista Howell, Bob Holton, Rich Miller, Phil Schermeister, Chace Anderson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A writer who knows nothing about business decides to launch a new magazine just as the nation’s economy collapses. Bad movie plot? Not quite. It’s the real-life history of this magazine, in which our own friends and neighbors play starring roles.

Friends and Neighbors began more than a decade ago with no guarantee of success.

My wife, Suzy Hopkins, knew it was a good idea that just might fly. But she also knew it might not. After all, the still nonexistent magazine had no corporate funding or government grants. No IPO would raise millions to back us, and we were not some big-city fat cat’s hobby.

Instead, FAN came to life as a credit-card-funded shot in the dark.

But Suzy aimed that shot well, and it hit the bull’s-eye. It took us a few years, however, to realize she had been on target in thinking the Mother Lode’s many boomers and seniors would enjoy a magazine for and about them.

The Great Recession hit just as FAN No. 1 rolled off the presses in June 2008. That premiere issue had just 11 percent advertising, a small fraction of the break-even mark. With stocks plummeting, layoffs soaring and businesses suddenly closing, we wondered if this new magazine would ever turn the corner.

It did: Over the years advertising nearly quadrupled, our print run doubled, readership topped 50,000 and FAN stretched over six counties.

What made it a success? Suzy’s vision and work ethic, certainly, but also a series of serendipitous decisions and coincidences that brought together a great team. That team not only embraced FAN’s mission, but many remained on the staff for years.

That’s why it’s hard to say goodbye. But it’s also time: After 10 years, we can say “mission accomplished” and move on. Our lives will no longer be deadline driven. FAN may well carry on with new owners, and Suzy and I will look to new challenges – and have time for vacations.

Our many colleagues? Well, we may sell the magazine, but we plan to hold onto our FAN friends for as long as we can.

That said, let’s crank the clock back to 2007, when Suzy had a notion: “I’m thinking about starting a magazine or newspaper for seniors.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was surprised but shouldn’t have been. Suzy earned a journalism degree, worked for 16 years as a reporter and editor for four Northern California newspapers, freelanced for nonprofits and wrote several seniors’ memoirs.

Tuolumne County’s many older residents, she knew, had stories to tell and could use a clearinghouse for the many senior activities and services available in the area.

With our kids nearly grown, she had the time to realize this dream.

“But what do you know about publishing?” I asked. “I’ll learn,” she said.

Things happened fast. After my 92-year-old mother complained that newspapers left ink on her fingers, Suzy opted for a magazine format, naming it Friends and Neighbors. “The name had to work as an acronym,” she says. She chose FAN from a long list of candidates. Friends and Family, which an absent-minded but determined minority continues to call our publication, was not among them.

Next FAN left home – our home. Yes, some entrepreneurs make a fortune at the kitchen table, but not when they have three kids, three dogs, five cats, a few hens, potbellied pigs and a husband. In late 2007, Suzy rented an office across from Sonora’s Red Church, handy in case we needed divine intervention.

That intervention may have come in the form of bringing a talented cast of writers, designers, photographers, editors, advertisers and those with a talent for ad sales to the right place at the right time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dave Bonnot of Columbine Designs was among the first. His experience reaches back to the ’70s when he interned for Mother Jones – a lefty political mag that might not seem a perfect or even a good fit for the Mother Lode – and was the fledgling editor for the national magazine Bird Talk. Together he and graphic artist Judy Stoltenberg worked magic on FAN.

“We probably worked on that first issue for six months, coming up with typefaces, designs and logos,” recalls Dave, 71. “It ended up looking pretty good.” And the Columbine-FAN partnership continues through the issue you are reading.

But there were other questions to answer.

Like, will FAN have subscribers? Yes, we have faithful readers who are willing to pay for a free magazine, and some have been with us from the beginning.

Will we have a web presence? I said no, reasoning that seniors like me don’t do digital. But Suzy saw the future, recruiting Laura Bowly to design and manage our website, now topping 850 online pages. She’s still with us, as are web readers who enjoy events listings, blogs and our 10-year story archive.

But who will pay the bills? That would be advertisers. For months, while Suzy shaped editorial content, FAN had none. Then, with the confidence of a 13-year-old peddling her first set of World Book encyclopedias, she walked into Bob’s Greenley Pharmacy and stammered her pitch to owner John Williams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I had never sold anything to anyone,” Suzy admits. “I fully expected him to say no.” “I’ll take a half-page,” Williams instead answered.

He was among seven first-issue advertisers who stayed with FAN throughout its decade-long run. Also included: Area 12 Agency on Aging, Sonora Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery, ATCAA, Edward Jones, Seniority Lifecare at Home, and Sierra Repertory Theatre. Many others have been with us for almost as long. Today 70 businesses and professionals choose FAN, which doubles as a business directory of key senior services.

Next came a question with a long answer. Who will write the stories and columns?

Early on we got lucky: The Mother Lode’s funniest writer needed beer money. Suzy hired veteran journalist Ron DeLacy, who cranked out a series of classic columns – including an unsparing yet hilarious look at bladder cancer, the very disease that would kill him far too early, in 2013. We’re proud to still showcase Ron’s “Adventures in Aging” on our website.

But laughs aren’t the only thing FAN’s readers wanted.They needed information on a host of subjects, so we recruited experts to provide it. Krista Howell (“Fitness First”), Jim Gianelli and Tamara Polley (“Estate Planning”), Dr. Marv Ordway (“The Vet Is In”), Jennifer Clarke (“Animal Advocate”) and Joan Jackson (“Caregivers’ Corner”) have been with us from the beginning.

Joan was the easiest to find, as her office was in the same building as FAN’s. When she stopped in to welcome Suzy, she mentioned she’d been a Bay Area newspaper editor before counseling caregivers and their families. Hired! Not only did Joan turn out a regular column, but she also wrote features and provided advertiser services from our now-shared office.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amid the yearlong run-up to FAN No. 1, another question occurred to Suzy: Who’s going to keep the books?  We needed someone as good with figures as we writers think we are with words. Our sister-in-law, Joy Hopkins, was willing to go beyond her day job and devote two nights a month to letting Suzy know how much money FAN was losing. And in later years, thankfully, how much it was making.

When our debut Summer 2008 issue rolled off the presses, our readers loved it. “A breath of fresh mountain air,” wrote one. “Well done, well laid out. Love the big print for senior eyes,” added another. “Quite sophisticated,” said a third.

That last one was a problem. One doctor’s office told us patients weren’t taking FAN home with them “because it’s glossy, professional and looks like it’s from out of town.” (It helped when we changed the tiny “Complimentary Copy” on the cover to a sizeable “Free.”)

But looks alone wouldn’t carry FAN. Suzy, who wrote most of the stories for that first issue, needed more writers. So she set up what amounted to a journalistic employment agency (or maybe halfway house) for former Union Democrat staffers.

If our bylines look familiar to Tuolumne County readers, no wonder. Almost all our writers are one-time colleagues of ours at the Sonora paper. Democrat alums who wrote for us over the years include Patty Fuller, Amy Nilson, Russell Frank, Mike Morris, Amy Lindblom, Sharon Marovich, Robert Dorroh, Diane Nelson, Kevin Sauls, Gary Linehan, Kerry Holland and Bob Holton. Former UD photographers Ben Hicks and Richard Miller signed on, as did graphic designer Dianne Shannon, who is our photo tech.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And joining us from the paper in 2008 was proofreader extraordinaire Nancy Abbott, who during her four-year tenure compiled event listings, edited copy, wrote stories and even sold ads. Although she now has a more lucrative if perhaps less enjoyable job, she still drops by FAN to do a little proofing for old-time’s sake.

“Who can resist working in an office where there’s a golden retriever sleeping under your desk?” she says.

Nancy was among those early employees to witness FAN’s quarterly delivery drill: A truck dropped five pallets of magazines (10,000 in all) in the Red Church parking lot. We’d unstrap and offload hundreds of boxes into a pickup, drive it onto the sidewalk outside the office, then lug them into the break room. Over the next week or so, no one took breaks. Instead, we’d heft the boxes out to Suzy’s SUV, also on the sidewalk, for distribution.

This routine got old fast. Within two years we solved the problem by renting a mini-storage unit, in FAN parlance our “archive.” By 2010, that’s where the magazine was delivered and where distribution drivers (Suzy, me, our sons, other staffers’ sons and later, paid contractors) picked up loads for ever-longer drives as we expanded into Calaveras and Amador counties and our press run climbed toward 20,000.

The drives were often exhausting, but a 2012 Christmas-season find at our distribution box at Arnold’s Big Trees Market made my day (and Suzy’s). The box was empty, but in its plastic window was a hand-lettered cardboard sign: “Thanks for Caring.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the years went by FAN’s staff grew and so did the magazine:

2009: Press run increases to 12,000; we move into Calaveras County.

2010: “Cooking with the Clubs” debuts. Columbia College student (and future UC Davis grad) Stephanie Eaton joins us as an editorial intern, as does Nancy’s daughter, Justine, who would also graduate from Davis.

Our dog Jack, who appears with Suzy in each issue’s “Editor’s Welcome,” hides a biscuit among our stories and ad copy. It was the first in a still wildly popular hide-and-seek contest that was Joy Hopkins’ idea, brought to life by designer Judy Stoltenberg’s ever-inventive dog toys, biscuits and more. Each quarter we get more than 40 emails and letters from readers.

Bertha Underhill, the Mother Lode’s best saleswoman, joins our staff. “I was sold on FAN the first time I talked to Suzy,” says Underhill, 74. “I know a winner when I see one.” So did we. With an infectious personality, a memory for names and enduring enthusiasm for FAN, she remained throughout our run and is largely responsible for keeping our ad count well above that once-elusive break-even line. Ken Jay and Peter Carrillo round out our ad team.

We move to a new office on the second floor of our building. Suzy’s brother Mark, newly minted “maintenance supervisor,” hauls in desks and filing cabinets and hangs shelves and lights.

2011: After retiring from The Democrat, I become FAN’s “associate editor,” which apparently means I associate with the publisher. I also make coffee, empty the office trash, write features, edit copy, sell ads and tag-team with Russell Frank – now a Penn State journalism professor – writing the Fanfare essays that close each issue. There I explore the lighter side of impending death with pieces on bucket lists, writing your own obit, choosing a pet that won’t outlive you and shopping for a burial plot.

We gain new subscribers, many from out of town. The fall issue hits 72 pages and 67 ads, which now require two columns to list. Too numerous to list are the writers and columnists who have contributed so far: Isabelle Drown, Frank Smart, Eric Hovatter, Richard Carty, Dr. Matt Personius, Joy Conklin … and many more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2012: Chace Anderson, after a 32-year career as an English teacher and associate principal at Sonora High, joins our staff. Because he knows more than we journalists do about where to put commas, he becomes FAN’s “Chief Grammarian.” But Chace, 67, is best known for telling the stories of the Mother Lode’s World War II veterans. Over the years he wrote 14 FAN stories on WWII vets, and wrote or co-wrote 13 books for the Tuolumne Veterans History Project.

“My dad was a naval officer in World War II, serving on a ship at Leyte Gulf,” he says. “I never asked him about his service, then he died at age 45. His story went untold, but I was determined not to let that happen with my veteran friends here.”

With photographer Ben Hicks’ departure, Suzy admits to being “slightly desperate” to find a replacement. She hits the jackpot: After discovering that a National Geographic photographer lived in Tuolumne County, Suzy called Phil Schermeister.

Phil quickly agreed to work for FAN and has shot numerous covers since.

Friends and Neighbors has a lot of interesting stories and I really enjoy getting to know the people FAN writes about and shooting them the way they are,” says the 63-year-old Schermeister, who wedges FAN assignments between trips to Antarctica, Greenland and Baja, California, for National Geographic. “The work brings me back to my journalistic roots.”

2013:  FAN’s press run reaches 20,000 as we expand into Amador County.

We announce the winners of our “Great Neighbors” contest, the first of several FAN contests, including “Tales of Adventure,” “Joy of Grandparenting,” “Unforgettable Animal Tales” and in this issue, our “Cookie Recipe Contest” (spoiler alert: the winning recipe includes potato chips).

 

 

 

 

 

 

2014: With rising readership, ad contracts and page counts, Suzy’s workload mounts. So she advertises for an office manager who must, among other things, “care deeply about misplaced apostrophes.” More than 20 people apply, but a few of their letters include wayward apostrophes. Lisa Mayers’ letter does not. She aces our grammar, punctuation and writing tests to claim the job.

“I saw that ad and laughed out loud,” recalls Lisa, 48. “I just had a feeling that might be a great job, and it turned out to be the best one I’ve ever had. I love the people, the variety and the spirit at FAN.” We like Lisa too, as her nameplate attests: “World’s Best Office Manager.”

I buy Suzy a striking 55th birthday gift: A blue-and-green neon sign that fits perfectly in our second-story office window. It greets thousands of southbound drivers coming into Sonora on Washington Street, blends in with the neon adorning the city’s taverns and dives and has become part of FAN’s identity. Now directions to our once hard-to-find office are easy: “Look for our sign.”

2015: We launch a redesigned website, seniorfan.com, which today is home to most of the stories that have appeared in FAN, along with online-only features and blogs.

2016: The Tuolumne County Commission on Aging asks FAN to lend its name to its annual Senior Expo. In June, the Friends and Neighbors Expo attracts 60 exhibitors and hundreds of visitors, and then is repeated in 2017.

New advertisers continue to join us. Once occupying a small fraction of a page, the ad index now is a full-page, two-column, small-print list. We couldn’t be happier, and again thank our advertisers and the thousands of readers who support them.

Which brings us to 2017 and the end of this FAN chapter. In 10 years we printed more than 640,000 copies of FAN, ran thousands of ads and published hundreds of articles. Those stories, which highlighted the region’s wonderful, talented boomers and seniors, are a key reason for the magazine’s success. “I love reading about people I know,” Suzy and I have heard from readers again and again.

We hope to find a new owner – one who recognizes this strong connection between magazine and reader – to carry on what we have started (details, seniorfan.com/sale).

But sale or not, what the Friends and Neighbors team has accomplished in the past decade stands on its own as a chronicle of our community and its most experienced citizens.

So at this point, what’s left to say to the advertisers, readers, staff members and other contributors who made FAN a success? I can’t improve on those three words I found in Arnold on that cold day five years ago:

Thanks for caring.

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 15, 2017 21:31
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