By Riordan, Tom
Editor & Publisher , Vol. 128, No. 33
ROBERT TRIBBLE PURCHASED three tiny, faltering Georgia weeklies -- all gasping for life -- in 1968.
Between them, the hapless trio grossed a meager $70,000. Tribble paid $40,000 for the lot. He quickly turned each into a money-maker.
That began Tribble's career as a hands-on publisher capable of working wonders with winless weeklies.
By 1984, his Trib Publications, Inc. included 15 papers grossing $2.6 million with a combined circulation of 42,325.
Currently he owns 30 small-to-medium properties, plus seven web off-set plants in which to print them. His operation has spread to Alabama, South and North Carolina. Total paid circulation by 1995 reached 96,650. Gross sales top $6.5 million.
His smallest property is the Talbotton New Era in Georgia, with 900 subscribers. His largest is the Western Star in Bessemer, Alabama, circulation 9,500.
For Tribble, buying weeklies is like eating salted peanuts. He just can't seem to stop.
"He's tireless. Few details escape him," said W. H. Dink NeSmith, Jr., president of Community Newspaper in Athens, who once owned four paper with Tribble. "His even temperament and determination to be fair have always impressed me."
Bob Williams, owner of the Blackshear Times and two other weeklies, notes, "Tribble is an amazing fellow. He knows how to squeeze a nickle harder than anyone in this business. And Bob is one of the pioneers understanding how to do a lot of things in one place (for a group of papers)."
From age 15, Tribble's hometown has been Manchester, Ga. After graduating from high school, he spent two years in the army, took a few courses at three different colleges and got married. But he still had no solid idea of what he wanted to do.
"So I took a job as a used car salesman," man," Tribble shudders at that experience. "I remember being broke and needing to sell a car before I could buy groceries and head for home. One day I asked God to help me find something meaningful to do"
Two weeks later, he was offered an opportunity to sell advertising for the weekly Manchester Mercury. Tribble found he loved newspaper work -- and the regular pay check.
A year later he was named editor.
The Mercury in 1967 was merged with the town's other weekly and became the Manchester Star-Mercury. Tribble told his new boss he had mentally calculated changes that could enrich the bottom line and would like to buy into the operation. The owner offered a 10% share. That wasn't what Tribble had in mind.
So at 33, he quit.
With encouragement from his wife, Frances, he bought his first papers -- the Harris County Journal, Meriwether Vindicator and Talbotton New Era -- combined circulation: 3,500.
"I made a five-year sates projection of $200,000. In three years we'd surpassed 250,000," he said.
In 1976, Tribble landed the Manchester News-Mercury and made it his flagship paper.
Mike Hale, who went to work for Tribble in 1970 and is now general manager of Manchester's seven-paper-group, said, "Bob Tribble has earned everything he ever got. He's a good businessman. He's also a good newsman. But he knows you have to have those ads to pay the bills."
First step in buying
Tribble's acquisition philosophy begins on a no-nonsense business foundation.
"When I buy a paper, my first motive is to make it turn a profit," he said. "If not, I'm on a one-way trek heading in the wrong direction. It's amazing to me how many people don't know how to run a [newspaper] business. You've got to be more than a great journalist"
In making his weeklies succeed, Tribble focuses a mental camera on four basic subjects and keeps snapping pictures:
1. Salaries (Constant control.
2. Collections (You must be paid for what you do.
3. Cash flow (Keep it steady.
4. Increases (in what you charge, quality of product and knowledge of running your business. …