I was a month shy of my 19th birthday when I went to work as an entry-level sportswriter at the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway in July 1981.
Sports Editor Bob Valentine (1938-2008) quickly gave me some timeless advice: “Always double-check the names, and try to get the score right.”
The paper was a century old then but thoroughly modern, with reliable presses, video display terminals, computerized typesetting and a roomy and remodeled facility in a former supermarket on Front Street in Conway. The overall staff numbered about 100, including some 20 newsroom employees. Circulation was just shy of 10,000 in a town of 21,000.
The paper took its orders from a gregarious but precise man, Publisher Frank E. Robins III, who co-owned and ran the place in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and even great-grandfather.
My thoughts turned to him last week, and to his daughter, Laura Robins Falls, an excellent photographer at the paper back then, as I reported on the sale of the Log Cabin, one of four GateHouse Media papers in Arkansas purchased last week by Paxton Media Group of Paducah, Kentucky. On Monday, Log Cabin Publisher Kelly Sublett said in a Facebook post that she and four others had lost their jobs. No other staff changes or plans were immediately revealed.
PMG, a privately held family-owned company, has about 50 papers in several states, including the Jonesboro Sun, Russellville Courier, Batesville Guard, Paragould Daily Press and the Daily Citizen in Searcy. The sale was confirmed by PMG and GateHouse on Tuesday. No sale price was disclosed, though GateHouse, a publicly traded company based in suburban Rochester, New York, will eventually reveal the numbers. The other papers in the deal are the Heber Springs Sun-Times, the Newport Independent and the Van Buren County Democrat in Clinton. As a GateHouse group publisher, Sublett also oversaw the Heber Springs and Clinton papers.
GateHouse still has about a dozen Arkansas properties including the Pine Bluff Commercial and the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith, the state’s second-largest city.
The sale is the second in less than two years for the Log Cabin, which has dwindled significantly in scope and staffing since my youth. GateHouse bought the Log Cabin and 10 other dailies from Morris Communications of Augusta, Georgia, in August 2017.
The largest newspaper chain in the country, GateHouse is also now in merger talks with the No. 2 chain, Gannett Co. Inc. of McLean, Virginia.
The Log Cabin’s circulation has dwindled to 3,925 on weekdays and about 5,300 on Sundays, about half what it was in the mid-1980s, even as the town has grown to 65,000 people. The decline shocks nobody following the daily newspaper industry, which is dying in the internet age. The Log Cabin web directory now lists just 16 newspaper employees, including six in the newsroom.
Courier Publisher David Meadows is taking over Sublett’s duties in Conway while keeping the reins in Russellville. The Courier team was already printing the Conway paper under contract.
In a statement, Meadows called the Log Cabin “a great newspaper with an intense commitment to an exciting community.” He said the Courier’s experience printing the Cabin offers “a unique perspective on how the combined strength of both papers might better serve readers and advertisers.”
Jamie Paxton, chief financial officer of PMG said the acquisitions create “a strong regional presence for us as it fits in well with our other properties in Central and Northeast Arkansas.” He added that PMG is committed to local journalism “and the important role newspapers serve in their communities.”
That commitment was one that Frank Robins lived daily, the former publisher’s daughter said. “My dad, and our family for generations before him, recognized the importance of providing a quality product,” Falls told Arkansas Business. “Dad was meticulous about detail and accuracy, and the crucial role those standards played in the newspaper’s credibility.”
She said his ownership stake let him emphasize local news and “better serve Conway and Faulkner County.”
Her father, who died in 2009, “would be deeply grieved at the current state” of the paper, as well as the rapid decline and closing of both family-owned and corporate newspapers, she said.
The Log Cabin launched my 38-year career and gave me mentors and memories to last a lifetime. I wish it well, as should every Arkansan who treasures local journalism and democracy.
And, Mr. Valentine, wherever you are, rest easy. I’m still double-checking the names.