North Pulaski County publisher Garrick Feldman, who has wanted to cover news in North Little Rock for 30 years, is getting his chance in the wake of the shutdown of The Times of North Little Rock this week.
Feldman, publisher of The Leader, based in Jacksonville, is hiring reporters and sales representatives for a push to cover all of Pulaski County north of the river and south of Sherwood. His goal is to serve some 85,000 new potential readers in the wake of GateHouse Media Inc.’s decision to shut down The Times, and he sees additional opportunities to the east as GateHouse closes the Lonoke County Democrat. He’s even interested in buying The Times’ coin newspaper racks.
Feldman’s twice-a-week Leader is the biggest general-interest paper, outside the statewide Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, left standing in the area. “I want to fill that void,” said Feldman, who built a niche in northern Pulaski County and parts of Lonoke and White counties since opening his business 31 years ago. “We hope to cover much of the area north of the river, including North Little Rock and Maumelle. It’s pretty big territory, with about 85,000 people, and those folks are without a newspaper.”
He said he would be putting out racks stacked with the latest issue of The Leader in North Little Rock over the holiday weekend, and he has already designated veteran Arkansas journalist John Hofheimer as his North Little Rock reporter.
“Folks deserve a good newspaper, and I think there’s a market for it,” Feldman told Arkansas Business, saying he hopes to “double our distribution, but do it modestly.” He said his company, which derives about half of its revenue from print jobs for other publications done on his modern color presses, has always been run on a shoestring, but he’s willing to invest in ad salespeople and freelance journalists looking to work in the area. Last week, his team was already covering North Little Rock High School sports, for example.
“There are a lot of talented journalists who want to write and contribute, and I hope that I can use them, within reason financially,” Feldman said. “We don’t have deep pockets like Stephens [Stephens Media owned the closed papers before selling them to GateHouse three years ago], but they threw in the towel, and we’re still here.”
GateHouse, the national chain that owns more U.S. newspapers than any other, consolidated several central Arkansas papers into The Times of North Little Rock and Lonoke County Democrat only last year. That means the loss of those papers effectively eliminates what had been six newspapers just two years ago, including the Maumelle Monitor, the Sherwood Voice, the Jacksonville Patriot and the Carlisle Independent.
Teresa “Tee” Hicks, publisher of the Pine Bluff Commercial and in her capacity as GateHouse senior group publisher for the Western Publishing Division, said that “bottom line” considerations were the only factors in the shutdowns, which eliminated both print and online coverage. Hicks is the only GateHouse official to have spoken publicly about the decision, which Arkansas Press Association Executive Director Ashley Wimberley described as “a sad day” for community newspapering.
Feldman has asked the press association to help spread the word about his North Little Rock expansion. "Starting next week, The Leader will expand with a North Little Rock edition," he wrote. "We want to give NLR Times subscribers a free Leader if we could get their names. I left a message with the PB Commercial publisher but haven't heard back. My goal is to reach 10,000 circulation in NLR as when the Chisms published The Times." That was a reference to former Times owners Dave and Kitty Chism, who sold the paper to Stephens Media in 2005.
“We have some circulation in Carlisle and hope to expand there,” Feldman said. “We had always wanted to compete in these areas, but we didn’t think we could. Now, with these closings, we want to offer an award-winning product” with a current paid circulation of about 11,000. With luck, he says The Leader could double that number.
Feldman praised Hofheimer’s work covering the Pulaski County School District and Metroplan for years, and he hopes to reach out to writers who were covering community sports for GateHouse. “We don’t have a big budget, but we would make it worth their while,” he said. “I’m a little hyper because this has been my goal for 30 years, to cover the whole area north of the river.”