|Map by The Rural Blog; to enlarge, click on it. The Grayson County papers have since been consolidated into one.|
For decades now, rural weekly newspapers have been bought by corporate chains. Sometimes that's been good; chains can set standards, provide capital, training and insulation from pressure by advertisers and others, and money to fight legal battles for records and open meetings. But they can also aim for a return on investment that makes good journalism more difficult to do.
One chain that was generally viewed as good for journalism was Landmark Community Newspapers, which once owned almost 60 papers, almost all weeklies, in 10 states. In May it was sold to family-owned Paxton Media Group of Paducah, Ky., giving Paxton about 120 publications in 14 states and about a third of the newspapers in Kentucky. It was one of the largest recent sales of rural papers, and has come under scrutiny from The Daily Yonder, an online rural news site.
Yonder reporter Liz Carey's object example is The Lebanon Enterprise, which was one of Landmark's better papers and was run by Stevie Lowery, who won the 2018 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism from the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.
|Stevie Lowery (2018 photo)|
Carey writes, "Advertising clients couldn’t sit down with their ad reps and talk about their ad. Laying out the paper, one of Lowery’s favorite aspects of the job, moved to a graphics hub . . . and as the company switched the paper to their new billing system, some customers received duplicate bills or their gift subscriptions ceased entirely. To make matters worse, she said, Paxton eliminated the papers’ voice-mail system, leaving customers with limited ways to get in touch with newspaper staffers. Changes affected some staffers’ roles, as well. One 43-year employee opted to leave rather than take on a different role when her position was eliminated. When she left, another 43-year employee left too. Without them, Lowery said, the changes to the paper were just too much."
The Enterprise's editor and general manager is now Denis House, a veteran community journalist who came from The Kentucky Standard, a larger Landmark-to-Paxton paper in nearby Bardstown. Group publisher Mike Weafer told The Rural Blog, "Paxton Media purchased the Landmark papers with the expectation that all the local news staff would remain on staff. No local editorial positions were eliminated. Paxton believes in local journalism and gives the local editor the authority to decide what is news for each local newspaper. The changes that are implemented are predominantly back end processes around production and business office functions that are far more efficient if done in a consolidated manner. These changes are necessary to offset reduced revenues local newspapers are experiencing. Any reduction in local reporting noticed has been because of the labor shortage every industry is facing now. We have many open positions we are struggling to fill. We are sorry to see any employees leave because of necessary back end process changes. But Paxton Media Group remains committed to local journalism."
Lowery still lives in Lebanon, where she grew up and her father was publisher of the paper under Landmark, but “I can't bring myself to look at it. It hurts too much,” she told Carey. “The Lebanon Enterprise that it once was is gone.”
Carey writes, "Similar situations are happening across the country as some rural newspapers are being bought by corporations. . . . While these purchases may keep local papers running for the short term, they can damage the journalism that comes out of them."
Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism, told Carey that the overall impact of the Landmark sale isn't clear, but departure of staffs in Lebanon and another former Landmark paper “is very concerning, because it's difficult to publish a good weekly newspaper without local staffers who are invested in the community and have enough experience, courage, and integrity to make the tough calls that are often necessary in community journalism: what to cover, how to cover it, how much risk to take and how to deal with the fundamental challenge of community journalism: managing the ever-present conflict between journalistic obligation to public service and personal preferences for friendships, lack of conflict, business success and other pleasures.”