GateHouse Buys Log Cabin, Other Morris Publications for $120M

GateHouse Buys Log Cabin, Other Morris Publications for $120M

Months of speculation about a possible sale of the Log Cabin Democrat, Conway's daily newspaper, came to fruition early Wednesday when Morris Communications announced a sale to GateHouse Media, long reported to be a suitor.

The sale came as Morris, based in Augusta, Georgia, announced its exit from the beleaguered daily newspaper business. It sold 10 dailies besides the Log Cabin, as well as several non-daily publications and digital assets, to GateHouse, an acquisition-hungry company based in suburban Rochester, New York, that is known for frugality and staff-cutting.

New Media Investment Group Inc., parent company of GateHouse, put the total sale price at $120 million.

The long-term implications for the Log Cabin Democrat's staff were unclear, although a news story published on the paper's website at 6:38 a.m. Wednesday noted that Cynthia Crabb, the de facto chief since the paper dispensed with having a publisher a year ago, would remain in the top post, group controller. In March, the paper announced that Crabb, sales executive Betsey Barham and Kelly Sublett, the vice president of audience and the daily's chief editorial voice, would direct the publication as a triumvirate.

"Kelly and Betsey, along with all the other employees, will remain in their current positions," Crabb told Arkansas Business on Wednesday morning. With the sale scheduled to close on Oct. 2, "there is not much to know at this time." Crabb held a meeting with her staff on Wednesday and said all Morris Publishing Group employees were informed about the sale simultaneously.

Sublett, reached via email, would say only that the paper "is excited about moving forward with GateHouse Media."

The sale included all the assets of Morris Publishing Group, a subsidiary of Morris Communications. GateHouse, which already owns dozens of Arkansas papers including the Pine Bluff Commercial and the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith, is the largest newspaper chain in the country by number of publications.

Morris described the sale as a strategic restructuring "to focus on lifestyle publications, property development and new business."

"I am excited to be a part of GateHouse, as they own many other newspapers that are in closer proximity to us," Crabb said. "I believe we will see synergy between the properties as we continue to be a multimedia platform for our readers and advertisers."

Crabb said the paper would retain its mission to be "Faulkner County's news, advertising and information source since 1879."

William S. "Billy" Morris, chairman of Morris Communications, described GateHouse as a "wonderful buyer" that is "strongly committed to providing good community coverage for readers and effective solutions" for advertisers. 

"Since my father took a job as a bookkeeper of the [Augusta] Chronicle in 1929, our family has been dedicated to journalism…," Morris said.

Morris will stay on as publisher of the Chronicle and will oversee editorial-page policy for Morris' three newspapers in Georgia.

GateHouse Media is a division of New Media Investment Group, a publicly traded company that has allotted hundreds of millions of dollars annually for acquisitions over the past few years. According to its website, New Media has 125 daily newspapers, 314 weeklies and 555 local websites. Michael E. Reed, New Media's CEO, became CEO of GateHouse early last year.

"GateHouse is very excited to welcome the Morris publications and their employees into our company," Reed said in a statement. "For more than 80 years, the Morris family has built and operated an incredible collection of local media assets."

Will Morris, the president and CEO of Morris Communications, the parent company of Morris Publishing Group, called the sale a difficult decision for his family, but said he was enthusiastic "about our plans to diversify our business holdings" in print and digital communications, as well as real estate development. 

"Every newspaper company in America is battling trends and redirected advertising dollars, so it is necessary for newspapers to be part of a large newspaper group to build and maintain the necessary resources to compete," Billy Morris said.

Daily papers included in the sale, in addition to the Log Cabin and Chronicle, are the Savannah Morning News; the Athens Banner-Herald in Georgia; the Florida Times-Union and St. Augustine Record in Florida; the Amarillo Globe-News and the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in Texas; the Topeka Capital-Journal in Kansas; and the Juneau Empire and Kenai Peninsula Clarion in Alaska.

The Morris family said it would keep publications including Buzz on Biz and Augusta magazine; Georgia Trend, a business journal; and several city and specialty magazines.

The Conway staff was described by one employee as in "stunned mode," but the deal came as no huge surprise. Back in February, Log Cabin workers were calling colleagues around the state asking what it would be like to work for GateHouse. Staffers were told that no major changes are expected and that jobs are safe, at least "for a while."

After generations of leadership by the Frank E. Robins family of Conway, Morris assumed full ownership of the Log Cabin in the mid-1990s. Under Frank E. Robins III, who retired as publisher in 1994 and died in 2009, the paper was known as one of the premier medium-size dailies in Arkansas and a launching pad for journalists like John Brummett of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and John Arwood, business editor of the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina.

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