Alvin Holley, publisher of the Polk County Enterprise and incoming president of Texas Press Association (summer 2000), was inducted into the Texas Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008.
Holley believes he received his best education 50 years ago when he sold newspapers on the streets of Corsicana. That’s where he began his newspaper career in 1950 at the Corsicana Daily Sun.
He learned quickly how to stand on his own. It gave him an opportunity to learn about economics and how to make a living as a salesman. As a hawker, he sold newspapers on the streets for 5 cents — 3 cents was paid to the newspaper and Holley got to keep the remaining 2 cents plus tips, which usually were no more than a nickel.
During his teenage years he developed his own route and sold more than 500 single copies each afternoon, earning the right to claim “most copies sold daily by a carrier at the Corsicana Sun.”
Holley says he remembers well his conversation with Corsicana Sun Publisher Fred DuBose when he was offered a job to work in the office of the Sun.
“I told him if I couldn’t make more than I made on my paper route I wouldn’t take the job,” Holley said.
Holley took the job and recalls it started at 7:30 a.m. and ended no earlier than 7:30 p.m., six days a week. But the best thing was the opportunity. His first paycheck was $65 per week, an amount that provided for him, his wife and baby son.
Holley developed a strong relationship with DuBose, who became his tutor and mentor.
While working for the Corsicana Sun Holley advanced through the ranks as circulation manager, advertising manager and general manager.
In 1972 Holley and David Durham, also an employee of the Sun, bought the Polk County Publishing Co. in Livingston.
After leaving a daily paper Holley expected putting out a weekly paper would allow him to have more free time. He said that dream quickly was shattered when they found there wasn’t enough money to pay the bills due to the limited advertising income.
They did the quickest thing to economize and make ends meet, cut all expenses, including the payroll.
Holley remembers that every job cut was another one left for him to do. Like most weekly publishers he had to “fill all the gaps.” That included as needed, working an average 60 or more hours a week selling advertising, run·ning the press, preparing the mail, delivering all the newsstands and doing all the things later he learned publishers of small weekly papers do every week.
As East Texas began to grow, so did Polk County Publishing Co. Holley bought his partner’s interest in their company. He now serves as publisher of seven newspapers in five counties, The Polk County Enterprise, San Jacinto News-Times in Shepherd, Trinity Standard, Groveton News, Corrigan Times, Houston County Courier and the Tyler County Booster in Woodville. Additionally his company produces four weekly shoppers and does commercial and job printing from two printing plants.
“I recognize that my newspaper career could not have been successful without some good employees and my family,” Holley said.
Linda, his wife, is advertising manager for several of the newspapers. Three of their six children presently are employed at the Polk County Enterprise. All six have been employed there in previous years.
Holley has received several community service awards and was named Polk Countian of the Year in 1985. This year he has been nominated for the Dr. Ralph W. Steen East Texan of the Year Memorial Award. This award is presented annually by the Deep East Texas Council of Governments to someone who has contributed significantly to the growth and prosperity of the East Texas area.
Link to Holley’s newspaper:
Read Holley’s interview:
I’m Alvin Holley. I’m with the Polk County Enterprise in Livingston, Texas. I was born in Corsicana and grew up in Corsicana outside in the rural community of Rome, Texas, which is about five or six miles outside of Corsicana. And moved into Corsicana at an early age and started in the newspaper business actually early as well because I was 10 years old when I went to work at the newspaper. And I guess as much as anything just because I had a friend who wanted to go into the newspaper as well, or wanted to sell papers on the street so I went with him just out of curiosity to see what it was like. And we went up and got our papers and I remember well is that they told me that we had to sell 15 papers because if we didn’t sell 15 papers we’d lose our job. And that, to a 10-year old was, you know, I was sincere about wanting to sell the paper so I remember that first day that I think I sold maybe 25 or 30 papers and I thought well this is easier than I thought.
The paper sold for, at that time, a nickel apiece and we were able to, well we were responsible for every paper that we didn’t bring back that they issued which was actually if they gave us 25 papers we were responsible for pay for 25 papers if we sold them. If we didn’t, they’d check us in at 7 o’clock at night and we started usually about 3:30, as soon as we got out of school and could get to the newspaper. And go down and pick up our papers on the street and just walk up and down the street and we didn’t get off work until 7 o’clock at night.
And we had very strict rules, we couldn’t gather together, we couldn’t play in the alleys, we couldn’t do all the things that kids wanted to do and if we did we got laid off for three days. And that was kinda like it wasn’t the fact that you got laid off and didn’t make the money, it was the fact that you didn’t want the mark on your record at that time to be laid off for three days.
But anyway, we did all the things that they told us not to do. We played in the alleys. We did a lot of things that I guess kids, you know, you learn to— all the things that kids weren’t supposed to do you quickly learned the cuss words, you learned all the things that kids slipped around and shouldn’t do, that’s the things that you wanted to do.
It was always such fun at that time and you didn’t, it wasn’t a matter of having to have the money because my parents were, I mean we didn’t have any money as far as the family goes, but we never really had to work because our parents told us we did. My parents told me that whatever I made that it was my money and I could spend it as I wanted.
I remember my dad telling me that you could have it, you could do anything you wanted as long as it wasn’t immoral or illegal, meaning that I guess I got the message and did whatever it amounted to. But I was able to save a few bucks and went through, I was pretty frugal I guess, because I, you know, to think that you didn’t make but sometimes 50 cents a day for working for four hours and it was, it was a fun trip. I mean to be able to do that each day but at the same time you got a lot of valuable lessons.
I moved up in the newspaper business, though, because I stayed with it and went on up and went to work later in the office after working there for several years because I was so successful with my paper sales that I actually went into selling the papers on the street and before I went on up into high school I was selling about 400 to 450 papers a day and this was not like on a route, this is where you actually sold them for a nickel apiece and you had to check that money in each night.
And to sell that many papers, to distribute that many papers and sell them individually is a lot bigger job than just throwing a paper route and riding a bicycle. And I had little ways that I would. For example we got to move to the front of the line, the person that sold the most papers, got their papers out, they were the ones that got out first. So I soon worked my way up to the front of the line and I learned that I could go to the location for all the, where the domino parlors, the pool halls, all the places that had sort of an accumulation of people and I could just run in those places and I would pitch the paper in there and I could make one block and distribute a hundred papers and come back around and the next time come back around and was able to collect my money for those things.
In other words I could get my five dollars for the papers that I’d distributed at that time. And that, it really was, as the intent of kids selling papers, it really was a merchant’s program; it was called the Little Merchant’s Program. And it gave me an opportunity to see what you could do by working hard and as I think about it, I learned such a valuable lesson in doing that and I was still in high school.
I married early in my high school, before I got out of high school was selling newspapers and I remember my boss telling me that you know it doesn’t look good for you to be married and selling papers on the street. And I told him I made more money selling papers. And at that particular time, well taking a step back, I had a very loving family and my dad was just a common laborer and I remember that at that time he was making $40 a week. And I could make about, almost $50 a week selling newspapers in the afternoon so I was making more in three hours than he was making as a laborer all week long.
Cash: And tell us when this was, Alvin.
Holley: This would have been, when I started was in 1950, but then when I graduated from high school it was 1959 and this would have been at the time that I was making my most on my paper route. And but I would make from $40, $40 to $50 a week at that time.
And the reason I bring this up is because the owner of the paper, or the publisher of the paper saw that I was a hard worker and he felt like that I had the potential to do something with the newspaper and he offered me a job in the office.
And I remember so well that, his name was Fred Dubois, he was the publisher, and he offered me the job. And when he offered the job I said “Fred, I can’t take the job unless you’re willing to pay me more than I can make on my paper route.” And he said, “Well it looks pretty bad for you to sell papers and you’re married and you’ve got a child coming and here you are peddling papers in the afternoon.”
But of course I, you know, what I expected to do when I got out of high school was to work some part-time jobs. And always have and still do as far as that goes, I’ve always got something on the sideline. But he offered me $65 a week. And I thought then, I said well sure that’s good. So I went ahead and made the move to $65 and I went to work at 7:30 in the morning and I got off at 7 at night. And you know it makes me wonder what kind of decision that was to give up three hours a day for 12 hours a day. But that was I guess more of a reflection of what I wanted to do with making a change in my lifestyle and with my family.
And went from there, Fred was a person that was I guess probably the mentor of my life as far as business because other than maybe my grandmother who told me things that I needed to do in life and kind of directed me along with my parents. But my grandmother lived in our home with us and since she was always the one that tried to direct me with morality and saying don’t do this and don’t do that and she would always be wise in telling me what to do. Anyway, Fred Dubois was the one that, that was my sort of my idol I guess in terms of business after I learned more about Fred. And he was a person that had a lot of, I don’t know, he was a hard businessman, very few people could work for him. And later, because I could work for him and he respected me for my hard work, we became the best of friends and until the day that he died we, even after I made a move to other newspapers, well he was my best mentor as far as business goes.
But anyway, we — I moved from the circulation department, finally moved into the composition department, into the composition into at that time which was hot metal type and hand-setting type and it’s nothing like the days of computers today where you sit down and punch a computer and all the typing that was going on with Linotype machines and different things in the back shop.
And then from there I moved up into the front office and went into ad sales and that’s where Fred really was my mentor as far as directing me in making a living and he showed me the importance of dealing with life and dealing with people and being able to get along in life really is what it came down to.
I don’t have any education other than a high school education and the opportunity, I think, that maybe Fred gave me was the fact that he could show me ways that you, you be aware of the people around you, you be aware of the opportunities and use those opportunities to develop your life and to build something that’s worthwhile. And I’ll always respect him and believe that anything that I’ve got, he probably was the one that led me in my business life. And that was something that I’m very thankful for, that I had that opportunity to work for him.
Now he was a hardnosed business man and very few people could work for him, but he would challenge me as far as my work and I would go out and do it.
Cash: Did he help you towards your next opportunity in newspapers?
Holley: He moved me into the ad department and then when I went into the ad department, after about two years of running proofs and doing whatever, you know when you worked for a newspaper then you just worked in the newspaper. You didn’t work as a specialty person to work in a certain area. And I can remember if he didn’t have me busy selling ads then I may be unloading cottonseed hulls out of the back of his trailer at his farm.
But what I’m saying is that he taught me about the effects of hard work in developing a career and that gave me the opportunity to build and to see that I could do whatever I wanted to do. He would — At the end of the day when I started out in the ad department I would make my calls and when I would come back in he said, “Alvin what did you learn today?” And I would say, “Fred, I don’t know.” And he’d say let’s sit down and talk about it. We would, you know, sit across from each other and I remember the newspaper was so cramped that at his desk we were about three feet apart so we’d look eye-to-eye to each other and he’d say, “Well what did this account tell you? What about this? What about that?”
And usually the ones that would tell you that I don’t want an ad or I can’t buy an ad, he would say go back tomorrow and talk to them again. And I’d say, “Fred, I’ve already talked to them three times this week.”
He said, “Go back and talk to them again” and the persistence that he taught me to be able to learn that life is that way. I mean it’s not just selling ads, the way that you get along in life is not hard-sell; it’s just a matter of being persistent and pursue your goals. And once you reach for those goals it’s up to you to make them happen is what it amounts to.
But anyway, from that, that’s sort of the beginning of my career in the newspaper business and this, I’ll always be grateful to him for all that he did. And then from there Harte-Hanks Newspapers bought the chain out, or bought the Corsicana paper out and it gave me a different view and a broader perspective of what newspapers are about besides just Corsicana being a small newspaper.
And I stayed with them until 1972 and moved on up to general manager of the Corsicana paper in 1972 and David Durham a man that was in my classified, he was my classified ad manager, was associated with Harte-Hanks directly through a family relationship and he wanted to go and make a move to buy a newspaper and he went to Livingston, Texas, and bought the Livingston paper.
And all the time that he was going there he was asking me do I want to go do this and be a part of it and all like that. And I was hesitant to do it because I hated to go because I’d already built a good career where I was. And so from that point David and I were the best of friends, I mean that’s the key that put us all together because we were not only good workers together, but I decided that the best thing for me to do was to go ahead and go with him because if I stayed with the Corsicana paper and with Harte-Hanks the best I could look for would be to take a step up, I might be able to get a publisher, a publisher position but not at the Corsicana. It probably would be somewhere halfway across the country because they were a growing chain at that time and I knew the last publisher that was at Corsicana went to Ypsilanti, Michigan, and I didn’t want to get to Ypsilanti, Michigan, or someplace like that and they were still buying papers and that was sort of my goal to see that I could kinda fulfill a dream of having my own newspaper.
So David and I bought the papers in Livingston, Texas. And then from that point we began to build on the basis of Lake Livingston and the growth of what we thought was gonna be Lake Livingston and so we built that or we built it from the one newspaper to seven newspapers that encompassed Lake Livingston as well as two abutting or two connecting counties.
And altogether now we have, or I have, I bought the newspaper chain or the rest of the group from David and we put that together in addition to buying the Houston County Courier which is Crockett and the Tyler County Booster which is at Woodville. And that completed ours and actually just stopped at that point in buying other papers. We had other opportunities but we just felt like that was, and it has worked out to where it was probably best to just hold what we’ve got there because it’s, it’s a pretty good chore just to keep up with them and the way that the industry’s changing now it’s extremely hard in a small newspaper to make money and pay people, qualified people, I’ll say, that can do a good job in developing the amount of revenue it takes to produce it.
One thing I’ve found with small newspapers is if you don’t get somebody that’s from the local area, I mean if they’re not from the community in which you have the paper, it’s extremely hard to maintain and keep them there. They come and they — especially college students, that when they get out of college, they’re looking for a new career and they’re not looking for a small town to stay in. They want to get the stepping stone and take the next step forward so you’re always looking for somebody. And we found that the best way to have people working there are people that actually have an investment in the community. I mean they’re, they enjoy being in the community or they wouldn’t be there and therefore it’s an opportunity for both of us.
Cash: So you have kind of an in-house training?
Holley: Yes. That’s mostly what it is and of course we — From time to time we have people who come to us that are looking for employment and so if they do and if it’s a good mix we certainly will hire them if we can put it all together. We’ve been very fortunate though because some of the people that we have that are key people have been with me at the newspapers, some of them for 30 years, Greg Peak has been there about 30 years, our sports editor for about 30 years, our bookkeeper 28 years, I think.
And all these people are people who evidently like the style in which we operate. And that’s something that I’m proud of because all of the people that we have pretty well have an opportunity to run their operation, or their part of the operation as they want. So it’s something that we’ve — that’s made me very proud and I am very proud that we have, well people that are just good, good people.
The things that I see with the newspapers today though is that there’s so many changes because of the fact that we have, the way the news is reported and the way that, the methods that we have to be able to carry it to the public. And particularly with the Internet and all the things that have changed is that I don’t know whether our, whether it’s in the schooling or whether it’s just the fact that we have the students are coming out that are more aggressive and they’re looking for a quicker approach.
I do know that because the world is moving so much faster with the Internet, with other ways of carrying the news to the public is that we are, we’re finding it harder and harder to get people to be in the newspaper business. They come, the young people are coming out of college and they seem to enjoy the glamour and the quickness of getting to the, either the television or getting to their own forum of covering the news. And the Internet has brought about a lot of that because they can, they can report it and put it right out in front of the people so quickly.
Cash: But you have an Internet presence with your publications.
Holley: We do. But it’s still not as, somehow you — It’s just hard for somebody and that’s made these changes through all this, you know, going back all the way from hot type to say you go to offset and then going to offset and here we are in the Internet process. It’s just a, it’s moving so fast and the fact that competition could come in and just walk in and start doing this so quickly. I mean, they just start putting it together and it’s something that it’s a real challenge is what it amounts to and we’re gonna have to do — In our company we’re gonna have to make a lot of changes is what it amounts to be able to get, to keep up with what’s happening.
Cash: But the core focus of your journalism has been community service?
Holley: Community service and I don’t see how anybody in smaller communities can look at it in any other way. And I think that there’s a great opportunity in that respect because we’re seeing the metropolitan papers and you look at the numbers of circulation, of their circulation department and how it’s beginning to go down and the numbers are depleting and our numbers are staying up and it’s nothing more than the fact that we’ve got a core business that people want.
We still report the smallest things that happen in our community and you don’t see that in a metropolitan paper. And there’s no way that they can produce that and that’s the reason that the Internet is working so hard against them. Now, we probably will have to adjust ours because we know that there will be people who will come in with an Internet presence that we’ll have to compete with. If we do then we’ll meet that head on as we get into that. But, and maybe we’ll get a head start on it, but at the same time it’s a different world.
It’s a new time that we, for an old guy that’s been in the business as long as I have, it’s hard to make those changes and we’re gonna have to get some new and fresh blood in to be able to lead us and direct us in those directions.
Cash: What would you, what would you say to that new fresh blood? What would you say to the aspiring journalist?
Holley: That they have a great opportunity to just walk right into it and build the same type of career that I built except that they’re building in a new phase. I mean if they build it in a new direction but there’s nothing more than the excitement of covering a good news story or, you know, even going out and selling a good ad campaign.
I can remember starting out early in the ad department and I had one account and I would go out— when the paper came out and would see people actually standing at the door waiting for the door to be unlocked for them to go in and buy. And there’s nothing that would excite the person that develops an ad program any more than that and if you can get an honest relationship with an advertiser where they’ll actually tell you what’s happening then you can build with them and they work with you and it’s still just as good as it ever was. I mean it’s—
And the same way with the news, you know, communities, the community news, the things that are happening in your city and county government, we all have this battle about we won’t release this information, we won’t let you have this, you can’t do this or do that. We have no more rights to anything anymore than the citizen, but at the same time it’s our obligation to be able to report it and if we have good reporters and good news content we’ll always have a good direct route to the public. And the public will respond to that and it makes for a good community, it makes for good newspapers and it makes for better government and that’s just a plan simple formula for all of it.
But all of this is, I’m just as excited about it now as I was, you know, when I was maybe 17, 18, 19 years old when I started because I’m just that kind of person.
I enjoy challenge and the fact that this is a challenge to me and I’ve been through a lot of challenges in my life and I know that this is not the end of the row, all I’ve got to do is just find the right route and get on it. And that’s I think anybody should be, a young person, whatever they’re in, whether the news business or newspaper, publishing business, there is so much opportunity for them but they’ve got to be willing to pay the price. It’s just the bottom line is that you’ve got to be able to—
Nothing is free. You work for it and there’s plenty of people who, who will help you get there if you just show them that you want to be there. There’s a good relationship between you and a publisher, a good relationship with anybody in business.
I hope these are some of the things that people will follow and maybe direct young people to do this and I’d be happy to share it with anybody that wanted to learn it. I mean it’s, it’s been fun for me and well it continues to be fun for me. I’ve got a family of six children that and all of them are adult, of course now, but all of them came up through the newspaper business and I’m very proud of all of them. They’ve all, four of them still work for me, or work with me, I can’t say for me. They work with me and my wife works with me and it’s just a family relationship. And we know that this, it’s not just a business but it’s something that links us to the community and the community ties us all together in some way or another.
Cash: Any closing shots?
Holley: I think I’ve already, you know, basically said that if anybody would use that opportunity, I mean a young person coming into the field, it’s still wide open for anybody and it’s up to the individual, it’s not something that there’s a closed gate for this one and an open gate for that one.
It’s up to the individual that wants to get there is the way I look at it and I still feel that way. I don’t care age, or in this day and time I think that ethnic, you know, being— you can do anything that you want because the opportunity is there in whatever challenge you want to take. Just accept it and do it.