GateHouse Media Inc., the national chain that owns more U.S. newspapers than any other, is shutting down its weekly papers in Pulaski and Lonoke counties, the company’s senior group publisher based in Pine Bluff confirmed Tuesday morning.
The newspapers were the North Little Rock Times, which had absorbed the Maumelle Monitor, Sherwood Voice and Jacksonville Patriot into a single weekly print edition last year, and the Lonoke County Democrat, itself a 2017 combination of the Cabot Star-Herald, the Lonoke Democrat and the Carlisle Independent.
The last print editions are going out Wednesday and Thursday of this week, then publication both in print and online will cease, said Teresa “Tee” Hicks of Gatehouse’s Western Publishing Division. Hicks, who is also publisher of GateHouse's Pine Bluff Commercial, spoke with Arkansas Business after traveling to North Little Rock on Tuesday morning. She said financial performance was the only reason behind shuttering the papers.
"The bottom line is that the papers were not doing what we needed them to do as profit centers," Hicks said. "That's the only reason; the workers were doing their jobs well. We just have to use our resources where they best benefit the company."
The Arkansas Press Association first confirmed the closings on Monday evening to the Arkansas Times. "It's a sad day to lose community newspapers," Ashley Wimberley, executive director of the Press Association, told senior editor Max Brantley.
Neither the APA nor Hicks provided details on the number of jobs lost, but affected employees were notified on Monday. Hicks said that no online presence will survive the papers. "Nothing will remain. Part of the reason we didn’t consider selling was that selling can be a long-term process. If there were serious investors with credentials, we would consider them. But we weren't seeing that."
The closings were the latest in a trend of consolidation and cost-cutting strategies by GateHouse, based in suburban Rochester, New York.
The company publishes more than 145 daily and 340 weekly newspapers, as well as other publications. In Arkansas, it owns and operates Commercial, the Siftings-Herald in Arkadelphia, the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway and the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith. Its other “daily” newspapers in Arkansas are the Hope Star and the Stuttgart Daily Leader, but beyond last year’s consolidations, GateHouse also cut the printing schedules of several other publications, leaving the Times Record as its only GateHouse property in Arkansas printing seven days a week. The company has consolidated many of its editing and page-production functions at its Center for News & Design in Austin, Texas.
The closings leave The Leader of Jacksonville, a twice-a-week publication, as northern Pulaski County's only traditional newspaper. Lonoke County will still have the weekly England Democrat.
North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he’s sad but not surprised to see his town’s paper go. “It’s been around for as long as I can remember,” he said. “There’s no doubt that the day of the local newspaper is coming to an end. When the bottom line is not there, they have no choice but to cut their losses.”
Before the consolidations of the past year and a half, GateHouse had 26 properties in Arkansas. The company’s acquire-and-pare-down strategy has impressed Wall Street. New Media Investment Group, for which GateHouse Media Inc. is a holding company, is managed by Fortress Investment Group LLC, a global firm based in New York. New Media had total revenue of nearly $340 million in the second quarter of this year, up some 20 percent year over year. But for properties owned for more than a year, revenue had slipped 4.9 percent, according to company financial reports.
In all, GateHouse owns nearly 150 daily papers, about 10 percent of the U.S. total, but it has traditionally shied away from properties in America’s largest cities. This year it has racked up some larger acquisitions, including the Akron Beacon-Journal in a $16 million deal, and the Palm Beach Post, purchased from Cox Media for nearly $50 million. It also bought the Austin American-Statesman in March. Layoffs have swiftly followed many of GateHouse’s takeovers.
The company, led by CEO Mike Reed, has a market capitalization now of about $1 billion, within striking distance of longtime sector leader Gannett. Reed told Ken Doctor of NiemanLab in June that the company plans to keep buying newspaper properties.
“Since we took the company public on Valentine’s Day in 2014, we’ve done just under $1 billion in acquisitions,” Reed said. “So we’re averaging about $300 million a year in acquisitions. I would suspect a similar number for the next year.”
Meanwhile, former employees of the papers, like Eric Francis, who worked at the North Little Rock Times before becoming a freelancer, lamented their loss. “I am livid,” he wrote on Twitter, noting that the Times was owned by Stephens Media Group before GateHouse bought it. “Stephens purchased The Times and its sister paper, the Maumelle Monitor, from my journalism mentors, Dave and Kitty Chism,” Francis wrote. “Kitty had worked for Ben Bradlee [at the Washington Post] and ran The Times like it was The Post, just published once a week in a small Arkansas city.
“After Stephens bought us, we all hoped (I most of all) that it meant better resources,” Francis continued. “The Chisms had always done right by us by their means were limited. Stephens Media was owned by the wealthy Arkansas investment banking family.”
Instead, Francis wrote, Stephens Media pursued a “strictly bottom-line approach,” trying to “cut their way to greater profitability.”
He said as papers consolidated, friends and colleagues were laid off and papers began sharing more content, even though coverage of a North Little Rock board meeting naturally generated wan interest in Cabot, and vice versa. “I hoped that GateHouse … would at least produce relatively competent newspapers. But now I get to mourn the papers I loved the most.”
The closed papers had storied histories, as Brantley pointed out in Arkansas Times. The Cone Magie family ran the Cabot paper for decades; noted Arkansas journalists Robert McCord, George Fisher and John Thompson worked at the North Little Rock Times. “The papers had shrunk to a fraction of their former sizes and staffs, in keeping with a general downward trend in newspapers,” Brantley wrote, thanks to disruption of their business model by the internet.
Hicks said she has been pleased by progress made by the Commercial since she became publisher, succeeding Ed Graves, almost exactly a year ago. "The Commercial is headed in the right direction," she continued. "We're doing things that we need to be doing, providing a local focus for content. People are feeling a sense of pride, and saying we're covering the stories that make sense to cover. We're talking to our community and reconnecting as Pine Bluff works to revitalize. We've produced some award-winning work, including awards from the Arkansas Press Association, and it's a nice vibe to be in."