No free breakfast with Joe

Friday, May 14, 2004

By Mark Kneer

Joe Sullivan is the best newspaper editor I've ever worked with in my 20 years in the business. For most readers it might come as a surprise, but editors and circulation managers rarely speak at some newspapers. In fact, one of the industry's leading newspaper groups is having a conference later this month for editors and circulation managers on communicating with one another. Joe and I don't need to attend.

Joe has been my hero since the day he arrived at the Missourian. The first thing Joe said to me after we were introduced was, "Nice to meet you. Whatever I can do to help grow circulation, let me know." My jaw almost hit the floor. An editor actually wanting to help grow circulation? Wow! He is a man of his word.

After several years of working together, we have developed a ritual of going to breakfast at Brenda's Place several mornings a week. This ritual started as just a Friday morning get-together by the two of us to discuss news items that were going to appear in the newspaper. It has now expanded to at least three times week.

We selected Brenda's for our meeting place because it has the best breakfast in town (I'm hoping that comment is good for at least one free meal) and the most interesting and colorful group of regulars one could hope for.

What was once a meeting to discuss stories has turned into a meeting of the minds. In 20 minutes or less, we can solve all the problems at the newspaper, the city of Cape Girardeau, surrounding towns, sometimes the entire state and all national issues -- and occasionally we can fix the entire globe. Most often, if I'm not ranting and raving about something newspaper related, I get to listen to Joe weave a tale about his weekend traveling adventures, his lovely wife, gardening around the house and on and on.

I often drift in and out, because over time I've discovered Joe is just testing out ideas for his upcoming column. On Friday mornings I get the newspaper, turn to Page 2, look at the first paragraph of Joe's column and stop reading -- I've already heard the story he is telling at breakfast earlier in the week. I'm not sure how he decides which tales to tell. Maybe it's the ones he thinks I actually listened to.

Walking in Brenda's with Joe is like Norm arriving at Cheers. The gentlemen from St. Mary's Cathedral always greet Joe with a big hello as we walk in. It's hard to eat breakfast with a famous person like Joe. Be prepared to have your meal interrupted. It's OK. Joe loves the attention.

Joe's columns have created a special interest in several projects (like the Downtown Golf Course), and the regulars at Brenda's sometimes feel compelled to discuss, in detail, their thoughts with Joe. He listens intently.

Most editors are quick-witted and use tact when dealing with customer service, and Joe is the master. Once a gentlemen at Brenda's brought over the paper to point out a mistake. Joe took the comments in stride and congratulated the guy on being able to read at the eighth-grade level. Another day, Brenda, the owner, was poking fun at Joe about an article, and Joe started poking back about her cooking. I suggested that plan of attack was not the smartest move and he should wait until our food was served.

So, anybody who wants to meet Joe and discuss the topic of their choice is welcome to come to Brenda's and sit down with us during breakfast. There's no free breakfast with Joe. You will be required to pick up the tab.

Mark Kneer is the circulation director of the Southeast Missourian. He is filling in for editor R. Joe Sullivan this week.

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