By Al Cross, director and professor
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky
One of the largest chains of community newspapers, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., has undertaken an unusual consolidation of its northeastern Kentucky weeklies into a daily.
"Welcome to a change," read the April 29 headline in The Morehead News, over a message from Group Publisher Patty Bennett, informing readers that the paper "will merge with our sister newspaper, The Daily Independent in Ashland," because of lack of advertising during the pandemic. "The Daily Independent will undertake coverage of Morehead." In other words, Morehead, a university town of 7,000 in a county of 25,000, no longer has a local newspaper.
message appeared in the Grayson Journal-Enquirer and the Olive Hill Times, essentially the same paper with slightly different content, in Carter County, between Morehead and Ashland. CHNI also killed off the Greenup County News-Times, a weekly in another county adjoining Ashland and Boyd County; it's in the metropolitan area of Ashland and Huntington, W.Va.; Carter County is not, though it is oriented to Ashland. Rowan County is neither; Morehead is 55 miles from Ashland, and 65 miles from downtown Lexington.
Many dailies have swallowed up sister weeklies, but it's unusual if not unprecedented for such a consolidation over such a distance. It dismayed people in Morehead, home to Morehead State University and some recent economic developments, including a huge complex of greenhouses intended to provide vegetables to the Eastern U.S.
"This county has been booming," said Keith Kappes, a former MSU spokesman who was publisher of the News for six years. He said a local economic developer told him, "I can't say to a prospect, we've got everything you want in a small town, except a newspaper."
"There's kind of a shock effect," Kappes told The Rural Blog. "How are we gonna follow our schools, our athletics? How are we gonna be informed about what's going on in the community, how are we gonna know the good things and the needs?... If you don't have a newspaper in your community, how backward are you?"
Kappes said that when he became the paper's publisher in 2010, it was making nearly $500,000 a year, a figure that gradually declined to $180,000 by the time he left three years ago. "Even at this low ebb, The Morehead News was still profitable," he said. "I know that from the people who work there." He said the other papers were not. Bennett
Bennett told subscribers that they would receive each Wednesday's Independent "and a special offer to subscribe. They will also be able to sample local, regional and state news about the covid-19 pandemic and other news and sports on The Daily Independent’s website, dailyindependent.com. We hope this experience will result in your subscribing to the merged newspaper and its robust website." She said subscribers who wanted refunds could ask for them by email, and invited readers to ask her questions "about our restructuring plan."
Kappes said he is talking to people in Morehead who want the town to have its own newspaper. "Its a source of pride," he said. "I think we're gonna end up with a 24/7 online newspaper that may publish once a week" in order to qualify for public-notice advertising, he said. Under Kentucky law, the newspaper with the largest bona fide circulation in a county gets the "legal ads," but if a county does not have a paper, only those in adjoining counties qualify, so the Daily Independent does not. The Kentucky Press Association explains the details and reports on newspaper frequency changes.