International Newspaper Institute Features Free Press Editor


Reprinted From: The International Society Of Weekly Newspaper Editors


Brake Finally Having Fun With Upstart Paper

By Allison Rosewicz

Junior Communications Major

Missouri Southern State College

Running a newspaper alone seems next to impossible, but Jon Brake, editor and publisher of the Manhattan, Kan., Free Press, makes it happen.

"I sell the ads, write the news, attend the meetings, take the photos, lay out the paper, take it to the press, deliver to the stores and do the billing," he said.

Unfortunately, that is not all the work being the sole staff member entails.

"I also clean the bathroom on Saturday," Brake said.

The Manhattan Free Press is published on Thursdays, so Wednesdays can be hectic. Brake’s wife, Linda, owns Roche’s Family Hair Care in Manhattan, but she occasionally helps out with the paper.

"She will come in on Wednesday if I am running late," Brake said.

Although he loves what he does now, Brake has not always been involved with Journalism. He attended Kansas State University in Manhattan for two and a half years as a history major before being called for active duty in Berlin, Germany, in 1961.

At age 22 Brake began selling advertising for a twice-weekly newspaper in Marysville, Kan. After seven years in that job, he switched careers and became a real estate broker. Ten years later, in 1980, Brake returned to journalism business.

"I was tired of being fired by others," he said.

After more than 20 years of working in journalism, Brake started his own paper, the Manhattan Free Press, in 1991. The paper was started with only $487. The first office on Poyntz Avenue cost $300 a month, but the office owner offered Brake a special of six months free rent. Brake also convinced a computer store to sell him a used Mac in exchange for free advertising.

Following that exchange, however, advertising went downhill.

"The first issue was one week late because I could not sell the ads," Brake said. "I had the news ready to go, but every time I talked to an advertiser, they thought it was a good idea, but they wanted to see the first issue. Which comes first, the newspaper or advertising?"

The second week Brake came up with a different strategy. He offered a double-truck ad to a furniture store and a full-page ad to a car dealer at half price if they paid in advance.

"That did the trick," he said.

"That first Thursday morning was special."

Brake had 2,000 newspapers in bundles of 100. He planned on rolling the newspapers, loading them into his car and throwing them up and down the streets of Manhattan.

"After about 15 minutes, I could see that this was going to be a much large job than I had planned," Brake said. "About that time I heard people coming down the hail."

His brother, Clark, and his 78-year-old mother had driven 45 miles to help, and they continued to do so each week.

"For the next two years, the three of us looked like the Beverly Hillbillies," Brake said. "Our mother would be in the back seat rolling papers, and Clark and I would roll and throw the papers. ‘A good time was had by all.’"

Today the Free Press is distributed in is locations within Manhattan. And advertising definitely picked up after that first disheartening week.

"For the first two years, I had advertisers that paid every week," Brake said. "I still have advertisers that reach for their checkbooks when they see me coming."

The current circulation of the Free Press is 2,000. It is a free distribution paper, but 200 people subscribe for $25.38 a year. "Most subscribed because the Free Press would be gone before they could pick one up," Brake said.

The Free Press currently runs 20 to 24 tab pages. Brake would like to get up to 32 pages by the end of the year. He would also like to see a slight increase in the size of his staff. "Four employees would be nice," he said. "If and when Linda retires, I hope she will work full-time here. She knows everyone and has a good, real interest in the news of Manhattan."

Brake and his wife stay very busy, so it is hard to find time for the rest of their family. Brake has two sons with one grandson and one granddaughter, and Linda has two sons with four grandsons. But Brake said no matter what, he and Linda make time to be with them.

On top of the stress of a small staff and finding time for family, Brake has to worry about competition with two of the best newspapers in Kansas. The Manhattan Mercury is a 10,000-circulation daily, and the Kansas State University paper, the Kansas State Collegian, has a pressrun of 12,000 each weekday of the college’s fall and spring semesters. But Brake does not allow the competition to intimidate him.

In fact, he said having the KSU paper near helps him. He uses the university’s news service items, and if its paper has a good story, Brake uses it and gives KSU credit. He also takes photos at all the Wildcat football games.

Brake said the Free Press has its own place between the Mercury and the Collegian because his paper deals solely with community issues rather than national and college news.

"I think a newspaper should report on everything the city, county and school district is doing," he said. "We run a lot of memos, minutes, and charts. I have never seen any budget that I did not want to run."

Although Brake loves running a community paper, he said it does come with its disadvantages. He said government employees are often difficult to deal with because they do not want to open public records.

"In most cases it is because their office has done something they do not want the public to know about," he said. "Several years ago a county clerk would make me wait three days each week to get the approved minutes of the County Commission. Today all of my requests for open records must go through the city manager’s office. It is next to impossible to get the county attorney or attorney general to look into open meeting or open records violations."

Despite these difficulties, Brake continues to believe that working for a large newspaper pales in comparison to practicing community journalism.

"When invited to speak to journalism classes, I tell them that they cannot work for other people and do what I do," he said. "We cover city, county and the school district in a way that a large newspaper cannot."

So although Brake has not always been interested in journalism, and even though he left the field for a decade, he eventually could not resist the draw of running a community newspaper.

"It is more fun today, more fun than anything I have ever done," he said.