When media giant Gannett wanted to sell the Lake Sun-Leader, a community newspaper with 120 years of history, Trevor Vernon decided it would fit in well with his family’s other publications.
Vernon Communications is the owner of Eldon Advertiser, The Hermitage Index and The Tipton Times.
âIt makes sense,â Vernon said. âI have a newspaper on both sides. I was already driving Hickory County once a week. It made sense for that to happen.
The sale was announced in early August and is just one of twelve titles published by Gannett or his predecessor, GateHouse Media, in his Missouri newspapers. Guard house merged with Gannett in 2019, taking the latter’s name and forming a national chain with more than 100 dailies, including the flagship USA Today, 1,000 weeklies and numerous trade publications.
At the time of the merger, GateHouse owned a dozen Missouri newspapers and Gannett owned one, the Springfield News-Leader. The largest Missouri acquisition for GateHouse before the merger was the Columbia Daily Tribune, purchased in 2016 from the family who had owned it for 115 years.
The Tribune was the last family newspaper to serve a town of 100,000 or more in Missouri.
Today, the Tribune and the News-Leader are Gannett’s only newspapers in Missouri.
Over the past few weeks, the rest have been picked up by local newspaper owners nearby eager to show they can deliver quality community journalism – and make a profit doing so.
Gannett has not made clear his plans to sell smaller community newspapers, but announcements have been made regularly over the summer, according to the trade magazine. Publisher and publisher reports.
A successful newspaper must offer advertisers a reason to buy space on its print and online platforms, said Randall Smith, professor of business journalism at the University of Missouri.
âYou live and die by content and if you don’t have good quality journalism, you won’t be around for long and you won’t be essential,â Smith said.
GateHouse grew rapidly in the years leading up to the merger and drastically reduced costs. The company laid off press staff, centralized business operations and reduced the number of publication days. In 2018, he closed the Waynesville Daily Guide and the Carthage press, 134 years old.
At the Tribune, in early 2018, the newspaper operated with only one journalist among its staff.
The Lake Sun-Leader, which also publishes magazines and trade publications on recreation and real estate at Lake of the Ozarks, will work with three reporters and an editor, Vernon said.
This means he is hiring.
Although Vernon is not looking to add to his channel, he has said he would like to see more community newspapers come back to local ownership.
âI hope this is a national trend,â he said. âI believe Gannett did the same 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 community newspapers under the new owner, said Mark Maassen, executive director of the Missouri Press Association.
âIt was no secret that these newspapers were in trouble,â Maassen said. âNow, thanks to local ownership, they will get the attention they deserve. “
New in the news
Many of the new owners of the old Gannett newspapers already own newspapers in neighboring counties or states. But there is one owner who started in the papers last year.
Cherry Road Media, owned by Cherry Road Technologies of Parsippany, NJ, purchased the Independence Examiner, the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, the Boonville Daily News and the Linn County Leader in an agreement announced on September 24 which includes 16 other newspapers from Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa.
The company now has 27 newspapers in seven states.
âI think if you look at them, especially the Missouri properties, especially the three smaller papers, they’ve been reduced so much that the product is a shell of itself,â said Jeremy Gulban, CEO of Cherry Road .
This means that his newspapers, like Vernon’s, are going to hire.
âWe want to build a better product that is more locally focused,â Gulban said. âWe’re going to need more hands, to bring back subscribers and bring back the advertising base. “
Cherry Road meets the technological needs of government and educational institutions. The model Gulban wants to produce, he said, will use this knowledge to help communities improve their technology and make the newspaper an important part of that improvement.
âWe have this skill set,â he said. âWe’re an Internet service provider, but some companies don’t have websites. We intend to create a community portal to sell things online and make it much more affordable, to keep the money in the community.
The first newspaper sold from the holdings of GateHouse in Missouri was the Hannibal Courier Post, purchased in 2019 by Quincy Media, publisher of the Quincy, Illinois, Herald-Whig. This company was purchased in early 2021 by Phillips Media Group, an Arkansas news agency that owns eight other Missouri publications.
Phillips in August bought the Kirksville Daily Express. He also bought the Rolla Daily News, but turned around and sold it to Salem Publishing, which also publishes the Phelps County Focus.
Rolla’s daily news is merged with the Focus, which will be the name of the surviving publication.
âThey just kept cutting, cutting, cutting Rolla Daily News until they cut themselves off from existence,â said Donald Dodd, owner of Salem Publishing Company.
The Focus was created four years ago to compete with the Rolla Daily News and is one of three newspapers that have recently been members of a press association after surviving their first three years of operation.
The others are the Maries County Advocate and the South Cass Tribune in Harrisonville.
âYou have to have local news and you have to support the local community or your days are numbered,â Dodd said.
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 newspaper economy in general do not indicate a healthy industry.
In 2020, for the first time, subscription revenue exceeded advertising revenue, which fell 26% for the year, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, even before the pandemic, revenues were down and from 2008 to 2019 newspapers responded by reduce the number of jobs in newsrooms by 28%.
The economy of a community newspaper is based on a different calculation from that of metropolitan dailies.
A publisher can rely on revenue from legal advertisements for foreclosures, lawsuits, and election notices. Local business owners can advertise to a local audience drawn to news they cannot find elsewhere.
Recently entered into newspaper ownership, Tim Schmidt said his dream of being a publisher began when he was reviewing sheet music in the newspaper after returning from school. Then he became a sports journalist.
âI was able to cover games and get paid for it and I thought about it,â Schmidt said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
After working for many years at the Washington Missourian, Schmidt purchased the Montgomery Standard in 2018. Soon he added the Warren County Record, and last year he bought Gannett’s Mexico Ledger.
This summer, the Moberly Monitor-Index was purchased by its Westplex Media Group.
âOur goal is to partner with everyone,â Schmidt said. âWe want people to think of the newspaper when they think of our community. “
The new local owners aren’t the only publishers trying to invest in more journalists and larger newspapers to get readers back.
The Kansas City Star, owned by McClatchy, based in California, added 16 pages per week in August and adds a dozen journalists to fill them.
The new local ownership, operating from a sustainable business model, should be good for their communities, Smith said.
âIt just couldn’t be a better fit than having someone who will hopefully breathe life into these posts,â he said.
After difficult years, new investments are welcome, Maassen said.
“I am optimistic about the Missouri newspapers,” he said, “especially the community newspapers.”