RURAL NEWSPAPER OWNERSHIP

In a buyer's market for weeklies, where are the buyers?

By Al Cross
Director and professor, University of Kentucky Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
               Most days this summer, I have written a story about goings-on in Midway, a small Kentucky town where my students and I publish the Midway Messenger. When students aren’t around, I pick up the slack, but it’s a labor of love to provide coverage for a proud community that once had a paper of its own and has adopted ours, even though after 11 years I’m still something of a parachute publisher.
I’ve been in the newspaper business most of my life, but never as an owner, and our mainly online, non-commercial enterprise is as close as I am likely to get. But there are plenty of opportunities out there.
“It’s a buyer’s market right now for weekly newspapers,” former weekly publisher Gary Sosniecki writes, in a package of stories that we’re publishing to attract potential owners to community newspapers. This article introduces that package.
You might have chuckled at the “buyer’s market” line, since all the bad news about metropolitan newspapers may lead you to think that a newspaper is no longer a good investment. That’s not true of most community newspapers, because they are the sole, reliable source of news about their communities, and most of them “are doing fine financially,” says Kevin Slimp, the leading consultant to community papers.
“In areas where decreased population, diminished area businesses and other forces beyond our control are at work, it might not be viable to sustain a local newspaper,” Slimp acknowledges. “Having said that, I’ve worked with many newspapers in the past year in towns with fewer than 600 residents who are finding ways to be successful.”
Helen and Gary Sosniecki
Gary and Helen Sosniecki found success with weeklies in three Midwest towns, the first with only 900 people. “If the population is stable, if most storefronts on Main Street are filled, if the town has its own school and the all-important sense of community, the prospects for a weekly newspaper succeeding long-term are good,” he writes.
But this is a buyer’s market with not enough buyers. When the West Virginia Press Association voiced concern that some newspapers in the state might close because their owners couldn’t find buyers, Maryanne Reed, then dean of the West Virginia University College of Media and now the university provost, got some foundation money and started a program called NewStart to develop the next generation of community newspaper owners.
The program's director, Jim Iovino, writes in this package about the success that Michael E. Sprengelmeyer found in a New Mexico weekly, the Guadalupe County Communicator, after the closing of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where he was a political correspondent and had the byline M.E. Sprengelmeyer.
Jim Iovino says his first group of fellows in the program are expected to start in June 2020.
That will be none too soon for the Texas Press Association, which has seen a rash of closures and mergers, and hears talk of more. As in West Virginia, buyers are hard to find. We suspect it’s much the same in most of the country. “Many owners of our generation waited too long to sell and – unable to find buyers – are shutting down their papers,” Gary Sosniecki writes.
Those of us in this informal group see at least two potential groups of buyers who need to be recruited: local business people who never thought about becoming publishers, but know their communities and the value of a newspaper, and know how to make a profit; and the thousands of journalists who have been laid off by metro newspapers.
“It’s a conundrum that independently owned weekly newspapers are closing for lack of buyers at the same time that journalists who would make good weekly-newspaper owners are being laid off in record numbers by metro newspapers and national newspaper groups,” Gary writes. “The challenge for our industry is to convince these unemployed journalists to explore the joys and rewards of owning a small-town newspaper.”
Helen Sosniecki gets down to the nitty-gritty of that in another article, giving advice on how to go about buying a newspaper and testifying about the experience.
“It won’t be all fun and games, “ she writes. “The hours are long. The financial payback may be less than your corporate salary. But the rewards in your accomplishments as a community newspaper owner can overshadow those drawbacks. . . . You live there. You chronicle the town’s history. But you’re also one of them. It’s your town, too. It will fill you with pride when the school basketball team wins that first state championship. It will bring you to tears when you and your neighbors bury that young volunteer fireman with the pregnant wife who died along with another volunteer on the way to a brush fire. It will be your job, your business and your life – and you’ll likely love it more than anything you’ve ever done.”
Kevin Slimp and I agree that the keys to success as a community newspaper publisher are the right market, the right management and the right content. “Job number one is to put out a good product,” he told The Washington Post recently. He told me in an email, “It’s time we began to focus on publishing the best newspapers we can.”
There are thousands of Americans who could put out a good newspaper. They need to give themselves the chance. We’re here to give advice if you need it.
Al Cross edited and managed weekly newspapers before working 26 years for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. For 15 years, he has directed the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, where he is professor of journalism.


Need a great job? Buy a weekly newspaper.

By Gary Sosniecki

It wasn’t my idea to buy a weekly newspaper.

I was content having transitioned from political reporter to sports editor of a 30,000-circulation daily newspaper. The pay was good. I had become part of the management team. I had been allowed to hire some bright young reporters. We were making a name for ourselves journalistically in traditional sports coverage and in-depth pieces. And the sports-department ethics policy I had written was being recognized as one of the first in the country.

My wife was not so content. She was managing editor of a smaller, competing daily, a position she won after refusing to train the man her boss wanted to hire for it. The 1970s were not an easy time for young women breaking into the newspaper business. This was her second job out of college, and Helen had fought sexual discrimination in both of them. In this job, her boss even had told her she didn’t need a raise because her “husband made good money.”

It had been Helen’s lifelong dream to buy a weekly newspaper. So she quit her job and started contacting newspaper brokers. We visited weekly newspapers in Wisconsin and Illinois before she learned of a weekly for sale only an hour from her hometown in Missouri.

Humansville, Missouri, had a population of only 907, but it had a solid business district – as in potential advertisers -- that included two lumber yards, two hardware stores, a furniture store, two clothing stores, a pharmacy, four cafes, three insurance agencies, a physician, two dentists, a funeral home and, most importantly, a modern supermarket that bought a full-page ad every week and a bank that bought a quarter page. Several of the business owners were young like us.

The Humansville Star-Leader circulated to 1,500 homes in the corners of three rural counties. Newspaper revenue was supplemented by a print shop that, among other jobs, printed election ballots for its home county.

We bought the Star-Leader on Aug. 1, 1980, using our savings from seven years of employment as a down payment. We bought our first newspaper before we bought our first house.

Not surprisingly, Helen fell in love with owning a small-town newspaper. Surprisingly, so did this city kid. So much so that over a 27-year period, we bought and sold three weeklies, each in a town a little bigger than the one before.

We never were bored. We covered city councils whose members at times were on the verge of slugging each other or members of the audience. We forced school boards to hold open meetings. We covered train wrecks and murders. (One murder victim was a small-town mayor who supported an ordinance banning pigs from the city limits.) We reported on presidential visits and a sheriff who liked to pose with a machine gun. We wrote features, and we wrote investigative pieces. We covered a state-championship basketball team and a winless basketball team, the former more fun than the latter.

We helped one of our readers appear on David Letterman’s show. We campaigned to build a new library and to improve safety at railroad and highway crossings. We attended school plays and concerts and helped organize local festivals. We ate at fund-raising pancake breakfasts, pork-steak lunches and fish-fry suppers.

Through our editorials, we were the town disciplinarians and the town cheerleaders. We weren’t always popular, but we still made lifetime friends in each of our newspaper towns.

We also learned to sell advertising. Pretty well, in fact. Every one of our newspapers made enough money for us to live comfortably in small towns where the cost of living was low.

We worked harder than we ever had worked – sometimes seven days and six nights a week -- but the rewards were enormous.

If we were 10 years younger, we would buy another newspaper and do it all again.

In fact, it’s a buyer’s market right now for weekly newspapers. (You can buy one in our state right now, in a town of more than 2,000 residents, for only $40,000. That’s less than what we paid in 1980.) Unfortunately, some newspaper groups are shuttering small-town and suburban weeklies that don’t meet their revenue goals. Even sadder, many owners of our generation waited too long to sell and – unable to find buyers – are shutting down their papers. In both instances, the community becomes a so-called “news desert.”

According to 2018 study by North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism, 171 counties in the United States have no newspaper at all. One of them is the county adjacent to ours.

It’s a conundrum that independently owned weekly newspapers are closing for lack buyers at the same time that journalists who would make good weekly-newspaper owners are being laid off in record numbers by metro newspapers and national newspaper groups.

The challenge for our industry is to convince these unemployed journalists to explore the joys and rewards of owning a small-town newspaper.

Not every market that supported a newspaper in the past can support one now. But unlike many of their big-city brethren, weekly newspapers in healthy markets still can be good investments. If the population is stable, if most storefronts on Main Street are filled, if the town has its own school and the all-important sense of community, the prospects for a weekly newspaper succeeding long-term are good.

It’s encouraging to hear of a partnership between West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media and the West Virginia Press Association “to recruit, develop and train the next generation of independent newspaper owners.” Hopefully, we’ll see other journalism schools and state press associations partner in similar programs.

But you don’t have to wait if you’re unemployed now and uncertain how to stay in the newspaper business. Check out the press association website in your state and see if any newspapers are for sale. Call the press association manager and ask the same question. Do a Google search for newspaper brokers, and find one who handles papers within your budget.

Because owning your own newspaper can be the most satisfying job you’ve ever had.

Gary and Helen Sosniecki at the office of the first newspaper they owned, in 1980

Help journalism. Help yourself. Buy a weekly newspaper.

By Helen Sosniecki

You work for GateHouse or Gannett or one of the many groups that have been merging or closing papers right and left across the country.

You’ve been bought out at one location, gone through a layoff at another and you just aren’t sure you want to continue on that treadmill any longer as you anticipate the possibility of another.

If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, maybe now is the time to consider buying a weekly newspaper or starting one in a “news desert,” a community that no longer has a newspaper.

It won’t be all fun and games. The hours are long. The financial payback may be less than your corporate salary. But the rewards in your accomplishments as a community newspaper owner can overshadow those drawbacks.

Groups buy, sell and trade publications with nothing more than a check of the financials. No one from corporate ever sets foot in most of the communities involved.

You need to approach a potential purchase in much broader terms, because you aren’t just buying a weekly newspaper; you are buying into a community and a lifestyle.

You won’t be off the clock just because you are out for dinner. At the next table might be the guy who you photographed earlier in the day being taken away in handcuffs in a drug raid. Or an old farmer may ask if you could put a classified ad in the paper to sell his gun, which later turns out to be the murder weapon in the death of his neighbor. Or you might leave the office late at night and have your car stopped and surrounded by deputies on a dark country road by a cemetery after you’ve written a story about the sheriff’s alleged misdeeds. (All true stories.)

But the rewards can be great. So, how do you start if you’re an individual or couple ready to make the plunge – or at least explore the option of newspaper ownership?

First, find a newspaper broker who has experience selling weeklies and, better yet, one who has worked at or owned a newspaper. And, contact the state press association(s) in areas where you want to consider buying. Some of the smallest papers may not be listed with a broker but may provide opportunities for seller financing or training with a sweat-equity option.

If you aren’t comfortable with financial reports, find someone you trust who can walk you through the process and analyze the P&Ls with you. Look for oddities that could benefit a new buyer. For instance, is the owner paying non-business expenses from the company account? Is the circulation income too low based on the circulation numbers you were provided?

My business partner and husband, Gary, and I always looked at the financials from the standpoint of growth potential. We did not want to buy a paper that was at its peak potential. Financials were only a small part of the decision for us.

Take an objective look at the content of the newspaper. Strong? Weak? Coming from the news side, we always knew we could improve the news product. And, we always operated on the belief that content drives weekly-newspaper revenue. We were local, local, local.

We wanted content that had readers buying at the newsstand rather than by subscription, because they didn’t want to wait to get their paper in the mail. We wanted them waiting outside the office on “newspaper day” for the papers to get back from the printer. And, they did. At one location, we even put a bench outside for them.

Does the newspaper have a web presence? If so, is the current owner generating revenue from it?

You’ve seen the financials. You’ve checked out sample copies. Now what? For us, with the three times we bought, the next step involved scouting the community both as a potential business location and as our new home. Living there is why individual owners have a chance of succeeding in a community where corporate may claim ownership isn’t worth their effort. You’ll have more at stake than just the dollars.

So what did Gary and I look for when we scouted out a community?

One of our first stops was the post-office lobby, where we would check the wastebasket. It helped identify the newspaper’s direct-mail competition – shopping guides and store flyers – and whether they were popular enough that recipients took them home.

Take a hard look at the storefronts. Are most of them filled? Are they businesses that are – or should be – advertising with the newspaper? Are they well-kept or run down? Are the streets in good shape or crumbling? In other words, is there pride in the business district?

And, a big one: Is there a Walmart in town? A Walmart means the town is a trade center. But if the town doesn’t have a Walmart, it’s best if one isn’t closer than a 30-minute drive.

Do some research on the business owners. Are the majority nearing retirement? (That could mean future sales or closures.) A mix of young, older and middle-age owners is good, because you have both experience and new enthusiasm in the district.

Does the community have an annual festival that brings its citizens -- young and old -- together to volunteer and celebrate something that connects them?

Are K-12 schools within the city limits? A consolidated district with the school out in the middle of a field miles from town diminishes the community spirit. Look for evidence of school pride around town. If you’re in town on a ballgame night, check the parking lot. If it isn’t almost full, either the team is having a horrible season or the town doesn’t feel connected to the school.

Do the school administrators live in the community? Do the majority of teachers live in the school district?

What’s the bank situation? A locally owned bank is the ideal both for a newspaper and the community, but fewer of those now exist.

Find the coffee shop where the locals hang out. Eavesdrop. If it’s the day the paper hit the streets, are they talking about “did you see ------ in the paper?” Better yet, are they calling it “our paper,” showing they feel close enough to it share a sense of ownership.

Are people talking from table to table, or is it like a room full of strangers who just happen to be having coffee at the same location? The latter isn’t a good sign.

And, when scouting the town, check for news racks – both inside and outside. Do the inside racks look like the papers are selling that week?

When you are to the point of visiting the newspaper itself, check the equipment. It may be “working,” but is it up-to-date? Or will new equipment be necessary fairly soon?

Check the circulation numbers through ownership statements for at least the last three to five years. (And, if they are rounded off on all the forms, odds are pretty good they are not accurate.)

When you buy that first weekly newspaper, go into it knowing that one week you’ll be loved for what’s in the paper and the next week you’ll be despised by the same or other readers. You’ll have immediate market feedback – both good and bad. You’ll have people curse you and threaten you in the morning. Then another reader will drop by with some tomatoes from their garden for you that afternoon.

You live there. You chronicle the town’s history. But you’re also one of them. It’s your town, too. It will fill you with pride when the school basketball team wins that first state championship. It will bring you to tears when you and your neighbors bury that young volunteer fireman with the pregnant wife who died along with another volunteer on the way to a brush fire.

It will be your job, your business and your life – and you’ll likely love it more than anything you’ve ever done.

Helen and Gary Sosniecki of Lebanon, Missouri, are retired from 43-year careers that included owning three weeklies, publishing a small-town daily and serving as vendors to the newspaper industry. They may be reached at sozsez@aol.com.

A metro newspaper refugee found success at a weekly

By Jim Iovino
West Virginia University

M.E. Sprengelmeyer called himself a "hired gun" at big-city newspapers for more than 20 years, including the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, where he was the Washington correspondent.

But he didn't like the direction newspapers of that size were going. Staffs were getting squeezed, and he said he wasn't sold on working for a publicly traded company that was making moves based on profits.

So he left.

M.E. Sprengelmeyer talked on the phone as he supervised work
on his weekly. (Photo by Rick Scibelli Jr., The New York Times)
He took his severance and some savings and started a search that would help him control his own journalistic destiny. He ended up in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, in 2009, where he purchased a weekly newspaper called the Guadalupe County Communicator.

"It was awesome," Sprengelmeyer said. "I say this to anyone who asks me. I covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was on the presidential campaign trail for a year. Coverage of sex trafficking in the Philippines. But the stuff I did in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico was the most important work I had ever done. It was the most satisfying. It was also the most frightening."

Sprengelmeyer gained national recognition for his career path, including being featured in the New York Times. He also turned his weekly paper into a journalistic powerhouse in New Mexico, winning numerous awards and shining light on local issues like never before.

Oh, it was also profitable. While stories of major metro newspapers are filled with financial doom and gloom, that's not so for many weekly newspapers across the country – his included.

That’s not to say hard work wasn’t involved. There were many things Sprengelmeyer had to learn in real time, including how to get over the fear of being the person in charge of not just a newsroom, but also payroll and taxes.

"In 21 years of being in corporate papers, I had never been an editor," he said. "I hadn’t supervised anyone. … The other stuff (payroll, ad sales, circulation, etc.) seems like a drag. The truth of the matter is that kind of takes care of itself. Just do it. You learn it on the job."

Due to family health issues, Sprengelmeyer eventually sold the paper and moved to North Carolina after running the Communicator for more than eight years. He hopes more journalists follow his path to ownership. It may not be something many realize they can do – or even want to do, for that matter. But he said there is great satisfaction personally and an even greater impact on a community.

You will never have more fun and never do more important journalism," he said, "than when you’re in a small town running the show."

Jim Iovino is director of NewStart, a program at West Virginia University’s College of Media to develop the next generation of community newspaper owners. Reach him at @jimiovino or jim.iovino@mail.wvu.edu.

No comments: