She’s put in 20 years at the , working up the ranks first as advertising rep, next as advertising manager and then as publisher for the past 15 years.
When staffing was lean at the paper, especially during the Silicon Valley tech boom of the late 1990s, Debra Hershon jumped in when she had to, acting as editor, reporter, photographer, and even newspaper carrier, filling up racks around town.
She saw the Review through some significant changes like going to four-color on the cover and abandoning the dark room for digital cameras. She did what it took to educate the community about how newspapers work when it comes to press releases and advertising and to stay relevant as a small town newspaper in an emerging world of online ad networks.
With optimism and grace she weathered the changing face of the newspaper industry as publications, including the Review, made the move online. She held fast by believing in the value of a print ad and the staying power of a print article, ultimately devoting her life to recording the history of a small town every week.
But now at 55, Hershon, who will go down in Half Moon Bay’s history as the Review’s first woman publisher, is retiring.
“My son and daughter are grown and have moved on, I have a granddaughter now, and I remarried two years ago. I suddenly realized that there is a whole other half of my life that I want to experience with a certain freedom,” said Hershon from over the phone in her Kelly Avenue office. “I have this opportunity now to retire, sell my house, take a break, and get a new perspective.”
With only six weeks left at the Review, Hershon admits she’s not exactly sure what all this free time ahead of her will look like. She’s too busy with deadlines, working on getting the holiday content to the printer, and planning to help train the new publisher once hired.
But she does have some big plans for the first year, moving to Marin County to be with her husband, a professional branding expert with an office in Sausalito, spending time with her 15-month-old granddaughter, training for a marathon, and traveling to India in September to visit her sister: “All these years, my kids went to visit her, but I’ve never gone because it was such a time commitment.”
During her stint as publisher and a single parent living in El Granada raising her two kids, Hershon was grateful: “My children were still young when I started, so it was really an amazing thing to have an important job in town doing what I loved to do, a five-minute commute, and to be so close to my children and involved in their lives,” said Hershon, who describes her work style as “capable, creative and tenacious.”
She’s been the Review publisher longer than the other three Wick Communication publishers (when Wick bought the paper from Ed Bauer in 1988, there were three publishers from that time until Hershon became publisher in 1996).
"I’ve known and worked with several dozen publishers in my career, but never known one who better understands the delicate balance between commerce and news," said Half Moon Bay Review editor Clay Lambert, who adds that he'll also really miss getting coffee with Hershon every day. "She has taken a lot of heat over my tenure here, but has always supported us on the news side. Always. She understands that an independent, fearless editorial position is key to the whole business model."
Hershon says she always tried to make the changes that were needed to progress even during hard times.
“We’ve always been really profitable as a weekly newspaper,” said Hershon. “It’s been tough lately, but what we’ve done to cut expenses in half is sell one of our buildings, so we’re spending less money and profit margins are the same or even better.”
The newspaper has a long history of running on a reasonable budget no matter the economy, said Hershon.
“When Ed Bauer owned the paper since the 1960s before Wick bought it, his wife Mrs. Bauer use to sit at the front desk and check your pencil to make sure it was used enough before issuing you a new one,” said Hershon.
Times have always been tough for community newspapers yet one of the most difficult periods at the Review for Hershon, she said, was the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“We couldn’t hire anyone,” said Hershon. “If we lost a reporter, there was nobody applying for the job. Months and months would go by. The big Silicon Valley tech boom made it hard to find good employees in our industry. Today, you list a job on Craigslist and in a couple of hours you are inundated with resumes.”
Another challenging issue Hershon says she dealt with over the years as publisher of a small town newspaper was the political climate of the Coast.
“It’s tough in this town,” she said. “Especially in the 1990s, there were two extreme sides: growth or no growth, and everyone wanted to know what side you were on. There was nothing the paper could do to make these sides happy so both sides were mad at us it seemed all the time. We figured we must be doing something right.”
Election time use to be horrible, too, she explains. Signs were stolen and ripped, and there was a lot of dirty campaigning and nasty letter writing.
“Now it’s just not that way. People got nicer,” said Hershon, "but maybe they are just more apathetic. It seems that this overall attitude change coincided with the downturn of the economy, like the wind was taken out of their sails. With money tighter, people don’t seem as focused on town politics. It’s almost a burnout effect of people saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ It’s calmer and not as negative, but on the other hand the apathy is a little scary.”
Still, one of her favorite things about the culture of the Coastside is the lack of pretentiousness.
“For the most part, people here are very down-to-earth and real, and that is refreshing,” said Hershon. “Also, good or bad, Coastsiders tend to be more passionate about local politics, and while that can lead to contentious debate, it is still better than apathy — especially when you are running a newspaper.”
What changes the Review makes in the future lies in the hands of the new publisher, predicts Hershon. It could be more content driven to the Review's Website and printing up only the best of the week in the newspaper, “a paradigm shift for a weekly,” said Hershon. “Whatever direction the newspaper takes, it’s really an exciting time for community newspapers. I don’t think the dyed-in-the-wool newspaperman is what the Review needs. Rather it’s an opportunity to find a publisher who is creative and knows about journalism, print, the Web and social media, and is excited about change and willing to make change in a visionary direction.”
Indeed, filling the shoes of someone like Hershon, who has "given her heart to the Review" and is "one of my best friends in the world," said Lambert, is a tough act to follow.
"I’m not talking about the obvious publisher stuff that she does," said Lambert. "She babies the potted plants in front of the building, she personally climbed a ladder and stained the wood paneling when we renovated the building — just today she got out her tools and replaced the door handle on the bathroom. Being publisher of the Half Moon Bay Review is a labor of love."
Here’s what else Hershon has to say about being a publisher, the news industry, life on the Coast, and her plans for the future:
What does a publisher have to do today to run a successful news business?
A little bit of everything — a publisher has to be able to wear a lot of different hats. Most importantly, a publisher must be willing to not only embrace change, but to get excited about change.
What is the biggest challenge the Half Moon Bay Review faces today?
The same challenges facing all media right now whether it’s TV, radio, web, mobile — the downturn in the economy happening at the same time as the revolution in technology.
Do you think advertising really works?
I certainly do. Word of mouth starts with a print ad. Not only do businesses need a good print ad, they also need a great Website. You need a plan beyond word of mouth, which is huge now with Facebook and Blogs but where did that original word of mouth come from? Most likely an advertisement. You need to pay for some kind of adverting and do it at the right time to be successful. Anyone starting a business or in business needs a business plan that includes a marketing plan, which could be networking, sponsorships, going to parties, joining clubs, print advertising and/or web advertising, social media. It’s like a soup. There are a lot of different ingredients that are added at different times. It gets me when businesses think they are owed customers. Instead, they need to get interest going. You can’t wait to see what happens, especially in this economy.
What makes you truly happy:
My family, and not necessarily in the following order: My husband because he is the happiest, most optimistic person I’ve ever met. It’s impossible not to be happy around him. My baby granddaughter Ella because looking at life through her eyes reminds even the most cynical heart how wondrous and lovely life really is. My son and daughter because they were always such a joy to be around as children and are even more so as adults. I am very proud of both of them.
You feel at home when:
I am surrounded by people I love.
Book or movie or life experience that changed your life:
It was the life experience of becoming a mother for the first time that altered my life completely and in unexpected ways. It put everything in perspective.
If you could change something professionally, what would it be:
At this age, I’m finally coming to grips with that fact that I am who I am and where I am because I’m direct and I speak my mind both personally and professionally. There have been times though that I wish I had been a little more patient and diplomatic.
The household chore you secretly hate doing:
No secret about it — I don’t enjoy cooking nor do I enjoy the chores that lead up to and follow it: shopping, carting in groceries, cleaning up the mess, doing the dishes. My favorite chore is folding clean, clothes warm out of the dryer.
What do you love to do when not working:
I love staying in bed later than usual and working on a difficult Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle with my husband. I love having leisure time to go out for coffee or lunch with my mom and my sisters and not have to worry about being anywhere else. I love playing for hours with my granddaughter. I love to travel. I love having a project to work on.
What TV shows do you like to watch:
I don’t own a TV, but I watch plenty of TV programs on my computer or iPad through Hulu and network Websites. I just fit them into my own schedule. Top of my list would be “Survivor.”
Favorite place to eat on the Coast and why:
Really? You think I’d answer that? OK, how about any place that serves a good martini? Actually, I think one of the best things about the Coastside is how many great choices there are for really, really good food. We are very lucky in that respect.
Favorite outdoors place to go on the Coast:
The Coastal Trail would be my favorite place. Walk, run or ride your bicycle the length of it and you’ll see everything that’s best about living in a small coastal town.
Your dream life would be:
I’ve finally figured out that my dream life is simply the one I am currently living — problems and all. If you are always wishing for something different out of life, you miss out on all the great things that are right in front of you.