Their reporting may not steer the national conversation like bigger peers, such as The New York Times or The Washington Post, but local newspapers are still the only source of news about politics, business, sports and culture in small and mid-sized towns and rural areas across the U.S.
Thus, it may be a matter of some concern for readers that scores of local newspapers are trading hands in a wave of consolidation across the country, often leaving longtime family owners for bigger corporate bosses. And they may or may not share share the same connection and commitment to the communities.
In Maine, the family-owned Sun Media Group, which publishes the Sun Journal in central Maine, as well as a number of local magazines and weekly newspapers, has been sold to MaineToday Media, a larger regional chain that publishes the Kennebec Journal and Portland Press Herald, among other papers.
The transaction marks the end of over a century of ownership by the Costello family, which has published the Sun Journal since the 1890s. Sun Media Group employs a total of around 225 people, and the new owner promised that “most” of the employees will be rehired after the transaction, which closes August 1.
In upstate New York and New Jersey, GateHouse Media’s New Media division recently bought a number of newspapers from Calkins Media, which publishes titles across the two states, including The Beaver County Times, The Bucks County Courier-Times, Ellwood City Ledger in Pennsylvania and Burlington County Times in New Jersey for a total of $17.5 million.
Calkins Media, which has been family-owned for over 80 years, is also selling The Uniontown Herald-Standard and the Greene County Messenger, a weekly community paper, to Ogden Newspapers, based in West Virginia. A member of Calkins board of directors, Stan Ellis, was quoted as saying the decision to sell was motivated solely by “the economics in running a paper in today’s world.”
Further south, Appalachian Newspapers Inc., publisher of the Appalachian News-Express, announced the acquisition of The Floyd County Times and Hazard Herald. The new owners plans to merge the Times with the competing Floyd County Chronicle to form a new newspaper, The Floyd County Chronicle and Times.
In the Midwest, Lee Enterprises bought the Small Newspaper Group, owner of the Dispatch-Argus, which also publishes a number of smaller community weeklies in western Illinois, for $7.15 million. Lee president and CEO Kevin Mowbray noted that the Dispatch-Argus and affiliated community papers complement Lee’s existing properties in Davenport and Muscatine, Iowa.
The deal ends half a century of ownership by the Small family.
Also in the Midwest, North Carolina-based Civitas Media sold the Sedalia Democrat to the Phillips Media Group. At the same time, Civitas is selling 16 daily newspapers in Ohio, as well as one in West Virginia, to AIM Media Midwest, plus four other newspapers in West Virginia to HD Media.
Civitas also sold a number of newspapers in North and South Carolina to a new company, Champion Media.
Adams Publishing Group acquired the Eau Claire Press in Wisconsin, ending four generations of ownership by the Graaskamp and Atkinson families. The Eau Claire Press publishes local newspapers including The Leader-Telegram and Country Today, a weekly agricultural newspaper.
ECP president and CEO Pieter Graaskamp disclosed that “at a board strategic planning session, we discussed the long-term viability of an independently owned family media company. We came to the difficult decision nearly a year ago that selling was the best option for our employees and the communities we serve.”
Of course, there are good economic arguments in favor of consolidation. Combining local newspapers allows publishers to reduce costs for activities like printing, distribution and ad sales. The danger, however, is that the well-known financial pressures facing the industry will prompt them to try “rationalizing” editorial functions. For example, by using regionally relevant content across several local publications.
Content sharing would be fine if it meant providing even more useful articles for readers — but it could just as easily provide cover for gutting editorial staff.