Rising from the ashes: Rebirth of locally-owned weeklies given the corporate axe
When editor Bill Doak was told several months ago that the East Hartford Gazette in Connecticut was printing its last issue, it took him all of a “negative nanosecond” before deciding his course of action.
A week later, Doak launched a new and improved version of the fallen weekly: The Gazette. “Asked about my plans, I informed my former publisher of my intent to print a newspaper the following week. And I did,” he said in an e-mail interview.
While it might seem daunting to gather a staff, create a Web site and launch a 15,000 circulation paper in just one week, Doak admits his mission to preserve his community weekly began in early 2008. That’s when CEO Scott Wright of Journal Register Company (JRC), owner of the East Hartford Gazette, met with employees to hash out ways to improve the company’s bottom line. “He told us that none of us could afford to publish our newspapers as they were currently being operated,” Doak said. “Those words became my personal challenge.”
In the last several months, similar tales have spread as corporate-owned papers fold and displaced employees take up the community newspaper torch, putting their papers back in print and some up on the Web.
Outside Philadelphia, Olney Times general manager Jean Pleis went into a meeting last December and two hours later came out shocked that the newspaper had been closed by JRC. Holiday ads were already in, but the paper never went to print. Fast forward to May and she’s back in business with the launch of Your Community Voice, a monthly print-only paper with a 15,000 circulation that she started with the help of state Rep. Mark Cohen and several volunteers. In an interview, Pleis said that the support for the new newspaper has been amazing. “It’s vital to the community,” she said, “It’s like the Bible.”
In Indianapolis, Kelly Smith, former operations manager of the Gannett-owned South Side Spotlight and East Side Herald, couldn’t imagine life without her community paper. So with help from the papers’ former assistant editor Denise Summers and ad rep Jeanie York, The Southsider Voice launched this past February with 25,000 copies and a Web site.
JRC, which filed for bankruptcy protection in February, also closed the doors of The Independent (Hillsdale, N.Y.) in early February. But the news chasm left in the wake of the paper’s demise was quickly filled. Parry Teasdale, editor of the now-defunct paper, also considered ways to keep the news flowing for Columbia and southern Rennsselaer County. Around mid-February, The Columbia Paper was born online, with a print edition quickly following.
These stories show there is some optimism and salvation for struggling local papers. Recent reports even place community weeklies in a better economic position during uncertain
times. This can be a powerful tool for PR professionals pitching to a local paper, which is also often beloved and well-respected in the community. Yet, while some communities are getting their voice back through these new papers, many weeklies have still gone under for good.
These chain-owned weeklies are “victims of corporate frostbite” often involving daily newspapers, said Doaks. “Large companies were overextended ‘acquisition mountains’ pressed by promised returns on investments,” he said. “To save the main body – the daily newspapers – the extremities are the first to go.”
He also blames the “cookie cutter” approach for the corporate-owned weekly’s demise. Under such circumstances, instead of strong local copy, much of the same content runs in every paper, creating a Stepford wife-esque community newspaper readers abandon.
Suburban Publisher, a publication of Suburban Newspapers of America, said much the same thing in its February issue: locally-owned community papers are stronger financially. Community newspapers “deliver news that is unduplicated; they live and breathe community and hold a place of honor among local businesses.” In the issue, Jeanne Straus, president of Straus Newspapers, said that local advertising model sustains the community by making “the phone ring for the pizzerias and the guys selling firewood.”
Doak, who understands the community paper business model, hopes that in the near future The Gazette will find a balance between revenue and expenses, allowing him and his modest newspaper to exist as a successful small business. Despite an uncertain future, he remains positive: “It’s a great time to be a journalist, for what true journalist doesn’t love chronicling change?”
–Katrina M. Randall
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