New owners seek to revive Missouri newspapers sold by Gannett: 'You have got to have local news'
The media giant has sold 12 papers in smaller communities as it streamlines national operation
When media giant Gannett wanted to sell the Lake Sun-Leader, a community newspaper with a 120-year history, Trevor Vernon decided it would fit in well with his family’s other publications.
Vernon Communications owns the Eldon Advertiser, the Hermitage Index and the Tipton Times.
“It makes sense,” Vernon said. “I own a newspaper on both sides of it. I was driving to Hickory County once a week already. It made sense for that to happen.”
The sale was announced in early August and is just one of a dozen titles shed by Gannett or its predecessor, GateHouse Media, from its Missouri newspapers. GateHouse merged with Gannett in 2019, taking the latter company’s name and forming a nationwide chain with more than 100 daily newspapers, including the flagship USA Today, 1,000 weekly papers, and numerous specialty publications.
At the time of the merger, GateHouse owned a dozen Missouri newspapers and Gannett owned one, the Springfield News-Leader. The biggest Missouri acquisition for GateHouse prior to the merger was the Columbia Daily Tribune, purchased in 2016 from the family that owned it for 115 years.
The Tribune was the last family-owned newspaper serving a city of 100,000 or more in Missouri.
Now the Tribune and the News-Leader are the only Missouri newspapers owned by Gannett.
In recent weeks, the others have been snapped up by local owners of nearby newspapers eager to show they can offer quality community journalism — and make a profit doing so.
Gannett has not made its plans for selling smaller community newspapers clear, but announcements came regularly during the summer, the trade magazine Editor and Publisher reports.
A successful newspaper must offer advertisers a reason to buy space in its print and online platforms, said Randall Smith, professor of business journalism at the University of Missouri.
“You live and die by content and if you don’t have good quality journalism, you are not going to be around for long and you are not going to be essential,” Smith said.
GateHouse expanded rapidly in the years before the merger and cut costs dramatically. The company laid off news staff, centralized business operations and cut the number of publication days. In 2018, it closed the Waynesville Daily Guide and the 134-year-old Carthage Press.
At the Tribune, early in 2018, the newspaper was operating with only one reporter on staff.
The Lake Sun-Leader, which also publishes magazines and specialty publications about recreation and real estate at the Lake of the Ozarks, will operate with three reporters and an editor, Vernon said.
That means he’s hiring.
While Vernon is not looking to add to his chain, he said he would like to see more community newspapers returned to local ownership.
“I hope it is a national trend,” he said. “I believe that Gannett has done the same thing in Kansas. I really believe there is a need for local journalists to do local journalism.”
The changes will be good for both Gannett and the community newspapers under new ownership, said Mark Maassen, executive director of the Missouri Press Association.
“It was no secret these newspapers were struggling,” Maassen said. “Now with local ownership, they will get the attention they deserve.”
Many of the new owners at the former Gannett papers already own newspapers in adjoining counties or states. But there’s one owner who got started in newspapers just last year.
Cherry Road Media, owned by Cherry Road Technologies of Parsippany, N.J., bought the Independence Examiner, the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, the Boonville Daily News and the Linn County Leader in a deal announced Sept. 24 that includes 16 other newspapers in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa.
The company now owns 27 newspapers in seven states.
“I think if you look at them, in particular the Missouri properties, particularly the three smaller papers, they have been cut back so far that the product is a shell of its former self,” said Jeremy Gulban, CEO of Cherry Road.
That means his newspapers, like Vernon’s, will be hiring.
“We want to build a better product that is more locally focused,” Gulban said. “We are going to need some more hands, to bring back subscribers and bring back the advertising base.”
Cherry Road serves the technology needs of government and educational institutions. The model Gulban wants to produce, he said, will use that knowledge to help communities improve their technology and make the newspaper an important element of that improvement.
“We have that skill set,” he said. “We are an internet service provider, but some businesses don’t have websites. We intend to build out a community portal to sell things online and make it much more affordable, to keep the dollars in the community.”
The first paper sold from GateHouse’s Missouri holdings was the Hannibal Courier Post, purchased in 2019 by Quincy Media, publisher of the Quincy, Ill., Herald-Whig. That company was purchased in early 2021 by Phillips Media Group, an Arkansas newspaper company that owns eight other Missouri publications.
Phillips in August purchased the Kirksville Daily Express. It also purchased the Rolla Daily News but turned around and sold it to Salem Publishing, which also publishes the Phelps County Focus.
The Rolla Daily News is being merged with the Focus, which will be the name of the surviving publication.
“They just kept cutting, cutting, cutting at Rolla Daily News until they just cut themselves out of existence,” said Donald Dodd, owner of Salem Publishing Company.
The Focus was established four years ago to compete with the Rolla Daily News and it is one of three newspapers that recently gained press association membership after surviving their first three years in operation.
The others are the Maries County Advocate and the South Cass Tribune in Harrisonville.
“You have got to have local news and you have to support the local community or your days are numbered,” Dodd said.
The other newspapers sold by Gannett are the Aurora Advertiser and the Neosho Daily News, purchased by Sexton Media Group, which also publishes the Newton News Dispatch and the River Hills Traveler. The News-Dispatch will be merged with the Daily News.
The economics of newspapers overall do not indicate a healthy industry.
In 2020, for the first time, subscription revenues exceeded advertising revenues, which fell 26 percent for the year, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, even before the pandemic, revenues were declining and from 2008 to 2019, newspapers responded by cutting newsroom employment by 28 percent.
The economics of a community newspaper are based on a different calculation than metropolitan dailies.
A publisher can count on revenue from legal advertisements for foreclosures, court actions and election notices. Local business owners can advertise to a local audience drawn by news they cannot find elsewhere.
A recent entrant into newspaper ownership, Tim Schmidt said his dreams of being a publisher began when he would go over box scores in the newspaper when he got home from school. Then he became a sports reporter.
“I was able to cover games and get paid for it and thought,” Schmidt said. “It doesn’t get much better than this.”
After working for many years at the Washington Missourian, in 2018 Schmidt purchased the Montgomery Standard. Soon he added the Warren County Record, and last year he purchased the Mexico Ledger from Gannett.
This summer, the Moberly Monitor-Index was purchased by his Westplex Media Group.
“Our whole thing is we want to partner with everyone,” Schmidt said. “We want people to think of the newspaper when they think about our community.”
The new local owners aren’t the only publishers who are trying investments in more reporters and bulkier newspapers to recover readers.
The Kansas City Star, owned by California-based McClatchy, added 16 pages a week in August and is adding a dozen reporters to fill them.
The new local ownership, working from a sustainable business model, should be good for their communities, Smith said.
“It just couldn’t be a better fit than to have someone come and hopefully breathe life into these publications,” he said.
After difficult years, new investment is welcome, Maassen said.
“I am bullish on Missouri newspapers,” he said, “especially the community newspapers.”
Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.
Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.