In small towns with local investment, print journalism is thriving

Communities and publishers are finding real value in locally owned newspapers

MARYVILLE, Mo. — Newspapers aren’t dead yet.

Far from it in this town of 12,000 nestled among the rolling hills of northwestern Missouri, where the daily paper has returned to local ownership for the first time in decades and where a competing weekly continues to thrive.

In what’s been called a David and Goliath strategy, Phil Cobb, who previously worked as the general manager of The Maryville Daily Forum, bought the paper in December at what he called “a bargain basement price” from GateHouse Media as the company was going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

He said he owns the paper with his “wife and [his] bank.”

Cobb’s business decision is a good move for the town and one that reflects a particular area where newspapers can and — when given the opportunity — do succeed. But because small-town dailies and weeklies can still turn a profit, many of these once family-owned businesses get sold only to end up as links in a corporate chain where the bottom line rules.

Locally owned newspapers tend to be more responsive to readers and allow them to stay connected to the ownership, said Mike Jenner, the Houston Harte chair in journalism at the University of Missouri.

“You see the publisher or owner in the checkout line at the store,” Jenner said, “or walking on the street or at the Rotary Club meeting.”

Stan Schwartz, communication director for the National Newspaper Association, agreed, saying a local owner “means vested ownership.”

Under new management

Cobb shared a story as an example to explain how being part of a large chain hurt The Daily Forum. He said corporate management — after a 45-minute walk-through visit — decided to shut down the paper’s printing press several years ago.

That meant the Forum would share a press with a sister publication in Syracuse, Neb., “two hours away on a good day.”

Then the Missouri River flood of 2011 closed down a section of Interstate 29.

“It was a six-hour round trip to get our papers,” Cobb said.

That effort to save money cost the company an additional $40,000 the first year — plus lost revenue from other local printing jobs.

The paper’s former owner continues to move composition, design and copy editing duties to its offices in Austin, Texas, Cobb said. Centralizing such functions is becoming more common among newspaper chains as a cost-saving move, while detractors worry about the loss of local connections.

Left to right: Jim Fall, executive editor; Phil Cobb, publisher and owner; and Tony Brown, news editor of the Maryville Daily Forum.
Courtesy Maryville Daily Forum

Cobb tried to buy The Daily Forum in 2008 but was turned down. He left the paper in 2012 to start The Post, a weekly shopper that competed against the Forum’s Penny Press.

Meanwhile, the local newspaper staff had shrunk to four employees, with just one reporter left in the newsroom, by the time Cobb purchased the paper Dec. 12.

He hired Jim Fall — a former owner of The Albany Ledger who was Maryville’s mayor until mid-April — as executive editor and promoted reporter Tony Brown to news editor. They, along with Cobb, have a long history with locally owned newspapers.

The staff has grown to 11 full-time and three part-time positions, including five on the news side.

“All hands do whatever needs to be done,” Cobb said. The advertising representative, who holds an agricultural journalism degree from the University of Missouri, serves as online communication director and produces a weekly farm page.

Trend reversal

The future of newspapers can look grim when considering the falling ad revenues and declining circulations that have killed large publications from coast to coast.

But community journalism is a different story.

“There’s almost a moat around local news,” explained Jenner, with community papers often the only source of area news. No one else will cover the local school board or city council meetings or print wedding announcements and obituaries.

“There’s extreme loyalty to the local newspaper,” Schwartz said.

He cited the National Newspaper Association’s 2013 survey, which showed that about two-thirds of the adult residents of small towns read their community newspaper and that the local paper or its website was the primary source of news for 4 out of 10 people.

Some of those local newspapers make attractive investments. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway owns about 70 papers. But Buffett generally leaves the papers alone to continue their local coverage unless he provides additional cash and resources.

“I’m not aware of any research showing corporate ownership as detrimental,” Jenner said, pointing out that there are bad corporate owners but that there are also bad private owners.

Yet there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence among newspaper people that corporate ownership, with its focus on the bottom line, can gut a paper until it fails.

“I watched one small daily that had been outstanding at one time have staff cut to the bone by the corporate owner,” said Bill Miller Sr., editor and publisher of the family-owned and -operated Washington Missourian, Union Missourian and St. Clair Missourian.

Editors come and go without time to develop relationships with the town, he said. Reducing staff shrinks coverage of local events. Even the newspaper’s office and equipment may be allowed to deteriorate.

“It’s all about making money” for corporate owners, Miller said. “It’s the bottom line first.”

Even centralizing functions like copy editing and pagination means “the local editor loses control over design and editorial content,” he said. “It’s a cold way to operate a newspaper.”

‘Faces sell’

Kay Wilson, owner and publisher of the Nodaway News Leader.
Courtesy Kay Wilson.

The value in community newspapers is not lost on Kay Wilson, who in 1996 started The Nodaway News Leader — a weekly paper also in Maryville, the county seat of Nodaway — to compete with what she saw as an out-of-touch Daily Forum. Wilson had previously worked as publisher of the Forum for six years under three different corporate owners.

“Community journalism sells. Faces sell,” she added. “People want to see their friends and neighbors in the paper, their kids and their grandkids.”

Although The News Leader covers municipal news like city council and school board meetings, the paper ran a story on a prom earlier in April after a food-drive contest determined which of the area’s seven high schools would be featured.

“We believe that the future of print media lies in community journalism,” Cobb wrote in an editorial in the Forum, “the kind of journalism that makes you want to grab a pair of scissors, cut out what you like in the newspaper and stick it to your refrigerator.”

Under Cobb’s ownership, The Daily Forum has returned to an emphasis on local news, with such front-page stories as a profile on a fishing lure entrepreneur, the departure of a popular teacher from a local high school and coverage of election candidates.

Cobb called The News Leader “formidable competition.” Both owners believe their papers have unique slants — and both believe the city and county can support two newspapers.

Circulation for the Forum is climbing — “slowly,” Cobb said — from a low of 1,483 in December to 1,606. He said he’s making a profit, but that includes revenue from The Post.

The public’s positive reaction to the changes in the newspaper has been almost “embarrassing,” Cobb said, and he, Fall and Brown all said people go up to them to give favorable feedback.

They’re striving to turn around a paper that disappointed a lot of readers for a long time.

Cobb wants the paper to become “the most trusted source of information” in the community.

“When you hear sirens, you’ll check our website to find out what’s happening,” he said.

The paper has embraced social media with a website, Facebook and Twitter. An April Fool’s Day story about a mountain lion on a rampage against local golfers garnered nearly 60,000 hits on Facebook.

“We’re old-fashioned newspaper people,” said Brown. “And I certainly mean that as a compliment. We think we know what a newspaper ought to be.”

“We’re building a field of dreams,” Cobb said. “If we write well, we write accurately and we write with our customers in mind, people will read it.”

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