The "Mayor" of Taunton, MA: With Newspapers Dying, How Can Tommy Clark of Park News Be All Smiles?
On Broadway in the heart of downtown Taunton, MA, Tommy Clark, owner and operator of Park News,shown here with his wife Anna, hears of the latest price increase by The New York Times from an unlikely source: me, a walk-in stranger he has never laid eyes on – but whom he greets with a warm smile nonetheless.
"What do you think of the Sunday Times going to six bucks and the weekday paper going to two bucks?" I ask him on the first day of my week-long, grandchild-sitting visit to the Taunton area. I am at Park News to get my daily New York Times fix.
"Price increase? Another one?," Tommy says, obviously taken by surprise. "Six bucks for Sunday's? No, I haven't heard anything."
"Well, that's what I heard, " I said. I heard about the increase from the guy who puts the Sunday Times together at a White Hen convenience store in the Tatnuck section of Worcester. "I'm in a state of shock," I told Tommy Clark. "That's a fifty percent increase for the Sunday Times in less than two years and a hundred percent more for the weekday Times."
Seeing that he cannot easily escape, I continue my rant. "The Times is catching up with The Wall Street Journal, which has doubled since Rupert Murdock took it over a year ago." I'm angry at the Wall Street Journal, too, another habit of mine.
The name Rupert Murdock, the Australian Press magnate, does not ring a bell with Tommy. As I learn later, he does not read newspapers; he just sells them. He is 77. He has owned and operated Park News for 59 years, since he was 18.
18? "My dad helped me," Tommy said. "He knew everybody in town and everybody knew him. Plus I got a lot of support from the rest of the family. I have always done this and I never wanted to do anything else."
In the photo, he is shown at the nerve center of Park News with his wife of 51 years, Anna. The two have been selling newspapers together since they got married. "Actually, "Anna said. "I do the work and he talks to the customers, just like what he is doing now."
As she says this, she is waiting on a customer while Tommy combs his hair to get looking his best for the photograph. Previously, he had good-naturedly waved off my request to take a picture of him. This photo of the two of them came about only because Anna stepped in.
When I told her he wouldn't let me take a picture, she turned to him and said, "Why not? Let him take a picture of you for crying out loud. What do you care?" Tommy promptly did what he was told.
Tommy says that marrying Anna was "the best thing I ever did." He met her in Park News. "She went to high school down the street and would come into the store every day and buy some candy." Then he went away to the service for two years. When he came back, Anna came into the store and said, "You're not married?"
He said, "No."
"Six months later, we were married," Tommy said.
That was in 1948, before the advent of television, when newspapers were king. People came to Park News for news, to get the latest on what was happening. Since then, while raising five children and being blessed with eleven grandchildren, Tommy and Anna Clark have sold a lot of newspapers.
But, gradually as people got more news from TV and, more recently, as a full-blown Internet age has taken hold offering news 24/7 with a couple of mouse clicks – and much of it for free – Park News has been selling fewer and fewer newspapers.
Readers are turning instead to news "aggregators" like Google and Yahoo and to thousands of bloggers and webzines like Huffington News. The newspaper section at Park News has shrunk to a small section at the front of the store. Tommy gets only a few of copies of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, which are bought by newspaper dead-enders like me.
"What I make from the newspapers, it's not worth turning the cash register on," Tommy said.
Park News' best-selling paper is the Boston Globe and the local newspaper, The Taunton Daily Gazette, but the sales of both are way down from earlier years. The New York Times owns the Globe but is itself fighting for financial survival. Faced with $1.1 billion in debt, the Times raised $225 million on a lend-lease of its building. It borrowed $250 million -- accepting stiff terms -- from one of the richest men in the world, Carlos Slim Helu of Mexico. Pushing the financial misery down the line, the New York Times has threatened to shut down the Boston Globe unless it comes up with $20 million in cost reductions.
Lois Souza, a waitress at Jimmy's restaurant a couple of doors away is a throwback newspaper junkie who reads three newspapers a day (Taunton Daily Gazette, Boston Globe, and the New York Post). She has a dim few of the future of the Taunton Daily Gazette."The only thing selling the Gazette are the obituaries," she said. But Tommy Clark says that he gets a much better cut from each copy of the Gazette sold than he does from either The New York times or the Wall Street Journal.
After three or four visits to Park News to pick up my New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Tommy begins treating me like one of his regulars. Taking advantage, I ask nosy questions such as: Exactly how much money do you make on newspapers? If it's as little as you say, how do you stay in business?
One day when I come in, Tommy decides to provide some answers. Picking up the phone, he said, "I'm going to find out about that price increase. I'm going to check on exactly what I'm going to make on The New York times and The Wall Street Journal." He gets the distributor on the phone and takes down notes as they talk.
Hanging up, he said, "Yes, you're right, prices for The New York Times are going up, effective June 1st. The Sunday Times is going to six bucks. It will cost me five fifty-three.
I'll make forty-seven cents. The weekday Times goes from a buck fifty to two bucks. I'll make thirteen cents. I make a dime on the Wall Street Journal."
He explains that in the old days, and for many years, he made a steady 20% on the Times and the Journal. "Not any more," he said. "What's my percentage now? Less than half that?"
For the Sunday New York Times, Tommy's forty-seven-cent cut comes to 7.9%. For the daily Times, his thirteen cents is 6.9% of the new $2.00 selling price or perhaps .65 for the three or four copies of the daily Times that he sells. He continues to get about 20% on sales of the Taunton Gazette.
For the six copies of the Times I bought from him during my week in Taunton, Tommy made a whopping .78. I would say that is cheap enough, considering that if deprived of my Times for a week, I would be dead.
Tommy Clark makes next to nothing selling The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He gets a much better cut from each copy of the Taunton Daily Gazette sold, but the local paper's sales continue to slide. So how does Tommy Clark stay in business?
"Cigars," he says. And sure enough, hanging out at Park News, I see a steady stream of customers, all men, buying cigars. But I must hasten to add that customers also buy a lot of cigarettes, lottery tickets, and magazines.
Customers are on a first-name and nick-name basis, so much so that I get little looks that say: Who the hell are you? Friendly joshing and wise-cracking is non-stop. Many customers have obviously grown up together and have been coming to Park News all their lives.
With Park News' name a mere leftover from a once great and dominating newspaper era, with its future now on a day-by-day basis -- the money coming in is enough to pay the bills, at least for now -- Tommy Clark's place remains stubbornly vibrant. It is a Taunton social center where people stop by for a cigar, to see old friends, to catch up on gossip, to skewer dumb politicians, and to flip a buck or two to the "mayor" of Taunton.
Presiding over it all, is the ever smiling and happy Tommy Clark. A typical longtime customer stands outside on Broadway watching Tommy schmoozing a bunch of customers. "Look at him," he said, " the mayor is working the crowd like a big-time politician. He knows everybody and everybody know him. He ought to run for mayor. He's a better politician than that guy across the street."
"Who is that?"
"Barney Frank. That's his office right over there," he said, pointing.
"Yeah, but he's never there. He spends all his time in Washington living the high life on our tax money. Tommy should run against him. He could get elected."
Tommy has two things about him that absolutely do not go together. The first is that ever-present smile. It was the first thing I noticed and it doesn't go away. The second is that he has multiple sclerosis, which is evident when he steps out from behind the counter.
In the characteristic MS way, his body is twisted and he drags a leg as he moves with difficulty around the store waiting on customers. Yet in the several times that I talked to Tommy Clark, he never once mentioned his MS and I saw no reason to ask him about it.
MS is not important enough for either one of us to mention, not even in passing. Though Tommy's MS is in plain sight for all to see and doesn't go away, it does diminish into nothingness before your eyes. Somehow, some way, Tommy Clark has managed to render MS irrelevant in his life.
I ask him if he has any plans to retire. "Retire," he replies. "Why would I retire? I love doing this. I've been on Broadway longer than Mickey Rooney. I want to die right here on the floor."
Note to medical researchers: find out how Tommy Clark does it – and bottle it.
So long and keep moving.
Postscript: This blog was supposed to be about how and why the newspaper that I know and love is dying a slow death – but Tommy Clark killed that idea just by being himself. Because of him, I didn't cite facts and figures, such as the number of journalism jobs that have disappeared last year; or describe iconic newspapers that have folded (such as the centenarian-plus Rocky Mountain News); or explain how Craigslist has eviscerated local newspapers by ripping away their advertising guts: the classifieds; or show how investigative journalism is slowly but surely becoming enfeebled; or document how news and journalism itself is now in a mad, headlong, desperate dash for the Internet, hoping to somehow survive in digital form.
Just as well, because, unless you live in an underground bunker, we all know all of this. However, for a good discussion of the financial issues facing the New York Times and the Boston Globe -- and, by extension, the Taunton Gazette and other newspapers, click here.
But there is one thing I must and will say. Newspapers like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal will not survive in paper form and both know it. Both are powerful national brands that have already established strong electronic editions, though the WSJ has been far more successful at monetization than has the NYT. I have already resigned myself to getting a notebook computer on which to read the NYT and the WSJ in the morning with my coffee. The notebook will be my new "blankee" – as my son Greg calls my New York Times that I carry with me at all times. On it I will be able to read at all times "all the news fit to digitize." If Tommy Clark can adapt, keep smiling, and be happy so can I, dammit!
NOTE: My novel, State Kid: Hero of Literacy is now available on Amazon and for the Nook.