By: Sean Stroh
As consolidation of newspapers become more commonplace, another reality begins to emerge—a decline in local ownership.
This year has been particularly hard for many longtime newspaper families, with a number of them selling to larger regional chains and corporations. In March, the Randall family announced the sale of the Frederick (Md.) News-Post to Ogden Newspapers, headquartered in West Virginia. The family had owned the paper since 1883. A few months later, the Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale, Calif. was sold to a new entity called Antelope Valley Press Inc., led by Canadian newspaper executive Steven Malkowich. In that case, the paper had been family-owned for more than 100 years. William Markham, former publisher and co-owner of the Valley Press, said in a statement that “now is the time for our family to make way for others with greater resources than ours.” And just last month, the family-owned Morris Publishing Group sold 11 of its daily and non-daily newspaper holdings to GateHouse Media.
Despite these changes, Dirks, Van Essen & Murray recently reported that 82 daily newspapers that have been owned for more than 100 years still remain in business, the majority of which are family-owned.
E&P spoke to a few community newspaper leaders to get their perspective (for some of them, newspapers continue to be a family affair). While undoubtedly operating with fewer resources than a large media corporation, these publications are critically important in today’s world and serve as the backbone for the industry as a whole.
When it comes to the town of East Hampton, N.Y., David Rattray considers himself an expert. As editor of The East Hampton Star, which has been owned by his family since 1935, he also understands the importance of locally owned newspapers quite well.
“We have no plan to call it quits or consolidate with others. I think it’s really unfortunate because for community newspapers family ownership is critical,” Rattray said. “It gives people the sense that their paper is by and for members of the community.”
The small quirks of a paper like the Star, Rattray said, can help cut through the sameness displayed through corporately owned publications.
“For example, we try to let our writers have a voice, and don’t necessarily expect them to conform to a certain sort of style,” he said. “Ultimately, we are selling a product that readers have to identify with, and if it feels corporate or dialed in, then I think there’s going to be a degree of rejection.”
The Star, a paid weekly, currently maintains a circulation between 7,500 and 9,000, depending on the season. Its reporting team consists of about a dozen or so full-time and contributing writers.
“I could use twice that if I had the money,” Rattray said. “It’s fascinating, in some cases, the smaller the story is, the greater the interest and engagement is from readers.”
Whether it is a public safety concern, school board meeting, or a fire down the street, residents regularly look to the Star for information pertaining to their own neighborhood. It’s a need, Rattray said, that’s not limited to East Hampton.
“That desire for communities to know themselves I think is universal, and consequently, what fuels micro-sized news gathering organizations like ours,” he said. “We can step into that niche and provide that service.”
Admittedly, Rattray said his paper bears the unique distinction of maintaining a considerable amount of print real estate advertising from various national and regional companies. With its large, broadsheet pages, big real estate brokers still find the Star as an attractive marketing tool for houses in the area, that in some cases, can sell as high as $30 million. The real estate advertising category is their largest revenue source, ahead of other forms of display advertising, circulation, and the classified section.
“It has allowed us to have a news operation that would probably be out of scale for a community of this size in 2017,” Rattray said. “We are a broadsheet newspaper, and if you want to flex your muscle, that’s one of the few avenues where you can do so.”
However, even with the dire circumstances, many local papers are going through, Rattray acknowledged the surge in both the quantity and quality of resumes they’ve received over the last year.
“Once Trump became the (presidential) nominee, the number of quality applications we received started to spike. People wanted to be a part of what we were doing,” he said. “I didn’t feel that for a couple of years, but I’m feeling it again. It’s amazing.”
While the Star coexists with two free weekly papers in town, Rattray noted that there are still areas that can be considered “news deserts” in East Hampton. With a staff about half the size it once was, the newsroom was forced to leave some parts of town without coverage.
“I think it’s a huge problem,” Rattray said. “Without local journalists, you are essentially leaving politicians and government officials to their own devices to do whatever they want. The watchdog function of the local press just goes away.”
Knowing Their Job
For The Acorn weekly newspapers in Southern California, understanding their role in their region is crucial. Despite operating in the same space as the Los Angeles Times, Daily News and Ventura County Star, co-owner and publisher Lisa Rule said they “remain faithful to the print product.”
“A lot of them want to be a multimedia company. It’s not that we don’t embrace the social media side of things because we certainly do, but the print is still king for us,” Rule said. “I think that’s where we differ.”
Since purchasing The Acorn in 1996, Rule and her husband, Jim, have launched four additional free distribution community papers. Their circulations range from 11,800 to nearly 40,000. Each paper maintains its own team of reporters.
“It’s different now because in the very beginning we understood that our place was a training ground for the larger papers. You wouldn’t expect younger people to stay more than a few years,” Rule said. “As the dailies have continued to downsize, we’ve seen more people remain with us for longer periods of time. We also have reporters who don’t want the rigors of a daily and decide to end their careers here as well.”
Over the last two decades, the newspapers have won multiple reporting, writing and photography awards under the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
“I think we’ve been able to weather the storm because we faithfully serve our readership,” Rule said. “Each paper is devoted to the community it serves and there is very little overlap in content.”
Additionally, Rule attributed accessibility as an important factor to their ability to thrive in a somewhat crowded market.
“We don’t have to jump through hoops for anybody. We can look across the room, discuss something we may want to do and then act on it,” she said. “Anyone in the community who wants to reach us can do so very easily as there isn’t much of a buffer system to get to Jim or I.”
Although both the Acorn newspapers and the East Hampton Star co-exist in areas with multiple publications, residents in cities like Blackshear, Ga. have to rely on a single newspaper source.
Robert Williams Jr. has owned and published the Blackshear Times for more than 40 years and said that if not for his paper, the town would lack local news coverage.
“As time goes by, the consequences of people not having local news sources is going to start showing up more and more,” he said. “It takes guts to write without fear or favor when you may be sitting with the person you’re writing about in church on Sunday or across from them at the Rotary club meeting on Tuesday.”
For Williams, newspapering at the local level equates to holding a mirror up to the community it serves. Just like the New York Times is a reflection of the size and scope of its vast coverage areas, so is the Blackshear Times, albeit on a much smaller scale. With a print circulation of 3,600, the paper focuses on the intimate details unique to Blackshear.
“On the rare occasion where something happens that brings outside media here, the first place they always come is to the local newspaper,” Williams said. “They want us to point them in the right direction, tell them where to go and who to talk to because we know everybody.”
While print still remains the number one focus, Williams said Facebook serves as a useful tool to help promote their content. Through the end of July, the paper’s Facebook page had more than 9,000 likes.
“Everybody talks about digital and pays attention to it, which can be very helpful but it doesn’t pay the bills,” Williams said. “Print continues to do that, and the vast majority of our folks still want it.”
The changing landscape of the newspaper industry, particularly at the local level, is somewhat indicative of what’s going on across various industries throughout the country, Williams said.
“The local mom and pop businesses that have been customers of ours for decades are retiring or selling to larger corporations. Advertising decisions are now being made by someone we’ll never actually talk to,” Williams said. “They go by numbers, not the community.”
In one town, in particular, Rhoades said Walgreens came in and bought out several local pharmacies, all of whom had been longtime advertising clients. A similar problem took place when four farm implement dealers were also purchased and merged together under one corporate owner.This issue is one of the biggest concerns for Mark Rhoades, whose family has owned the Enterprise Publishing Co. based in Blair, Neb. since 1880. The company publishes a dozen community newspapers in Nebraska and Iowa.
“They have an ad agency that tells them this is what we’re going to do and why we’re doing it,” Rhoades said. “You can no longer have a conversation with someone at the local level which is incredibly frustrating.”
Room to Grow
To address the growing problems related to local advertising and diversify its revenue sources, Enterprise Publishing Co. offers printing, marketing, and digital services to customers. In 2015, the family decided to make a big push into digital marketing by forming Courtside Marketing, overseen by Mark Rhoades’ son, Chris.
“We had a lot of customers wanting to increase their presence online and would regularly field questions about it,” Chris said. “We knew that if we could not help them, then competitors would surely move in to the market and offer the digital services that we do now.”
Less than a year later, the family purchased CiShirts, a screen printing shop that focuses primarily on printing apparel and promotional products.
Though not a significant source of revenue quite yet, the services have seen interest from small businesses steadily grow. In one case, Chris said a local company spent six times the amount of money in clothing and apparel than they did in print advertising over the course of a seven month period.
Expansion for the Kramer family, based in Pinal County, Ariz., has taken shape in the form of a new weekly print publication, the San Tan Valley Sentinel. Donovan Kramer Jr., co-publisher and managing editor of the family’s company, Casa Grande Valley Newspapers Inc., said that while the new publication remains in its early stages, he is optimistic about the future of their latest print product.“We’ll always put a majority of our effort and emphasis into our core products, but we also will be starting to place even more focus on this agency concept,” Chris said. “By being in a position to offer a wide variety of marketing solutions, we can truly sell in a more advisory role, instead of always just pushing promotions in the newspaper.”
“The thing that made it natural for us to do this is the fact that we were already covering a lot of the news there. Most of that area is part of the Florence School District, which we do some great reporting on,” he said. “We’ve also seen our online readership in the San Tan Valley grow quite a bit over the last year.”
Their flagship paper, the Casa Grande Dispatch, currently serves as Pinal County’s only daily newspaper. Kramer said his family plans to continue their hands-on approach to management of the Dispatch and its sister publications.About 1,000 copies of the debut edition of the Sentinel were printed and distributed for sale on July 21 through various stores in the community. The size of the paid publication moving forward will ultimately be determined by how many papers they sell, Kramer said.
“I think it’s great that members of the family have taken on roles at our different community papers. While the work can be pretty demanding, all of us are very committed to it,” Kramer said. “Corporate ownership has brought many innovations to newspapers, but lately it sometimes has resulted in too-severe cuts that have damaged the product and industry. There’s nothing like local ownership for being close to the customers and responding to their needs.”