Local ownership revival?
In the three months since Clifton Robinson and his son Gordon took ownership of the Waco Tribune-Herald, the response has been overwhelming and the change has revealed what local ownership can mean to a community.
In the last eight to nine weeks alone, the paper has generated about 1,500 new home delivery subscriptions, said Gordon Robinson. “We believe the corporate ownership was little bit
out of touch with this community, meaning the slant of the newspaper was leaning a little more liberal than our community was. The readership had also been falling, which it had been transnational.”
Clifton and Gordon Robinson purchased the daily Waco Tribune-Herald of Texas from Cox Enterprises in July. They were in the midst of having a conversation with retired Tribune-Herald publisher Dan Savage when he suggested the two Waco businessmen buy the paper from Cox, which had put it up for sale in August 2008. Although they had never owned a newspaper before, they believed that their local ties to the community could help make it better.
What they changed in the paper could be considered somewhat unconventional. At readers’ request, they increased the size of the crossword puzzle and each week a section of the paper welcomes new subscribers. In addition, appearing on the front page of every edition are the words: “In God we trust,” which Robinson noted has been popular with the community.
In 2009, various corporate-owned papers have gone back to their roots: local ownership. The latest in this series is Nick Sloan, a former reporter for the Kansas City Kansan, who purchased the paper from Gatehouse Media early last week. Launched in 1921 by Sen. Arthur Capper, Gatehouse closed the print publication in January, opting to keep the online version active. According to The Pitch, the one-man show has kept the publication’s three main advertisers and is looking for an office in downtown Kansas City.
In April, the Hearst Corporation put the weekly Ballston Journal (Ballston Spa, N.Y.) back in the hands of local ownership when Angela McFarland, who also owns several other local monthly publications, purchased the paper and took the reins.
A month later, Gene Hall of Charles City, Iowa, bought the Charles City Press, which he had sold 21 years before, back from Gatehouse Media. “I am coming to the realization that in order for community papers to be the best that can be they must be locally operated and better yet, locally owned,” he said in an article from the Iowa Newspaper Association Bulletin. He goes on to say: “What has and is ruining American media is that, like even baseball, it came to be run solely as a business. Newspapers are more than a business. They have obligations and responsibilities far beyond what a big-box retail store or widget manufacturer has.”
Then in June, after many months of negotiations, Richard Connor finally took ownership of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and associated papers from Blethen Maine Newspapers, The Seattle Times Company’s Maine media holdings. The other publications included the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, Web sites and other niche publications.
While much of the country’s media is still corporate owned, is it possible that there could be a revival in local ownership?
“For nearly 40 years, newspapers have been acquired by publicly traded corporations or ever-expanding privately held, but highly leveraged, companies,” wrote editorial page editor Ryan Blethen in an editorial for The Seattle Times. “In the detritus comes real opportunity. Some of the remaining Bigs are going to have no choice but to get out of the newspaper business or shed a number of what corporate types call “properties.” This jettisoning of newspapers and the near valueless Wall Street assessments could give rise to an era of independent and local ownership.”
Indeed, the 2009 State of the News Media, an annual report put out by the PEW Project for Excellence, said that in the last several years “more than 10 percent of the industry passed back into private hands.”
While the resurgence of locally owned newspapers as a majority may be a long way off or may never happen, the communities that do have locally owned media appear to be content. Everywhere Robinson goes, people within the community thank him for putting the paper back in local hands, he said. “The entire newspaper industry is changing as everyone is well aware of. The days of corporate ownership as far as community newspaper are certainly waning.”
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