A Gazette That Still Delivers, On Paper

A Gazette That Still Delivers, On Paper
James Bright, who became general manager of the Texarkana Gazette this year, has concrete plans and bright hopes for the paper despite a long downturn in the daily newspaper business. (Anita Peek)

James Bright took over as general manager of the Texarkana Gazette just five months ago, but don’t call the paper his new baby.

He’s devoted to the place, but he has a real infant, Jackson, born July 10.

“It’s been hectic,” James Bright told Arkansas Business last week, describing not only new fatherhood but also his initiation at one of Wehco Media Inc.’s top-performing print news operations. (In this case, top-performing means not losing money, no mean feat in today’s daily newspaper industry.)

“For the first weeks you’re rushing around just to find out what you can, but now I think I’ve got a pretty good feeling about what our strengths and weaknesses are,” Bright said.

At 144, the Gazette is far from an infant, but it is finding its way in a bewildering new world of media, blending print and pixels. And so far, it’s still cash-flow-positive.

“We [at the Gazette] are holding our own year to date, and we are about where we were last year cash-flow-wise,” said Mark Lane, president of the newspaper division at Wehco, based in Little Rock, which has been cutting back print operations elsewhere.

Wehco sees the Texarkana paper not only as a legacy property, but as a print stalwart as its flagship sister, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, goes to Sunday-only print publication. “Our plan has us remaining cash-flow-positive,” Lane added. “We continue to invest in our newsroom and we are still publishing a healthy print and digital newspaper.”

‘Two Sides of a Coin’

Bright said that while print will remain a daily strength, he’ll push the Gazette deeper into the digital age. “We’re behind a little bit where we need to be digitally, but like anything, it’s a slow process with a new industry and trying to learn how all that works,” the 33-year-old said. “My goal is to try to pull people into adding value-added products to the digital side.”

Those products might include community forums examining local issues and digital ads on iPad that offer not just clickability, but interactive features, letting advertisers send readers to videos, merchandise photos or business phone numbers.

“I consider print and digital advertising to be basically two sides of a coin,” Bright explained from the Gazette’s five-story headquarters at 101 E. Broad St., just a few feet inside Arkansas. “With print, you’re casting a broad net; you’re getting to people who really may not know that they want your product or service. With digital advertising you’re specifically using specific targeting marketing and social media marketing to really drill down to likely customers.”

Wehco Chairman Walter Hussman told Arkansas Business in May that he planned to keep printing the Gazette and the Sentinel-Record of Hot Springs even as the Democrat-Gazette — and many of the chain’s 17 other papers — idle their presses on weekdays in favor of “digital replica” editions delivered on the internet, cutting production and distribution costs.

The Hot Springs paper is profitable, Hussman said, and the Texarkana Gazette has more revenue than operating expenses. It’s not quite profitable only because profitability must account for noncash factors like depreciation and amortization. As a private company, Wehco doesn’t reveal revenue figures.

Veteran Newsroom

A Texan who ran newspapers in Oklahoma before joining the Gazette, Bright says the 45-employee operation was adapting to industry pressures and a lagging local economy well before he arrived. The staff knows the territory, and the newsroom has been led for 32 years by Editor Les Minor.

“I think every newspaper could be a little more local, but we have a fabulous team with a lot of talent that really knows the area,” Bright said. “Our editor has been around since 1987, a real fixture, and he’s embracing the digital way.”

New ideas include email newsletters to broaden the paper’s reach, a weekly video segment and experiments with podcasts. “We’re bringing a whole different type of media to the Texarkana Gazette.”

But whatever the medium, the message will be well-sourced, Bright said. “We’re professional journalists. We want to break news and endeavor to be first, but we have to vet everything and verify the facts.”

Minor, the editor, is an alumnus of the University of Kansas, one of the nation’s most decorated journalism programs.

Bright looks forward to raising young Jackson in Texarkana, where Chelsea Bright, the boy’s mother and a former director of revenue and events manager for Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City, will be looking for work in the fall.

A Place in Wehco History

The city — or technically two, since the Texas and Arkansas sides are separate municipalities — is where Hussman’s grandfather, Clyde Eber Palmer and his wife, Bettie, got off a train for a night’s rest in 1909. Hussman related the story years later to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association:

“In 1909, my grandfather ... was taking a train from Fort Worth to Florida with his new bride. They got off the train in Texarkana, Ark., to spend the night and while they were there, they decided they liked the town and decided to stay. My grandfather paid $900 for one of several newspapers in Texarkana at the time, the Texarkana Courier, which he renamed the Four States Press. He eventually prevailed against other competitors in the Texarkana market, and he ended up as publisher of the Texarkana Gazette.”

That paper became the cornerstone of the Palmer news chain, the precursor to Wehco, which besides newspapers owns nine small-town cable TV providers and other enterprises.

“Walter sees the readers as the first priority, and I’ve always believed that,” Bright said. “I’ve also always believed that as a journalist, you’re a public servant. And I also believe that everyone who works at the newspaper is a journalist, not just newsroom employees.”

One goal is to embed the Gazette in the community, to listen to residents and serve their needs, Bright said. He’s met regularly with business and political leaders, school officials and everyday readers, developing ways to connect the paper’s staff to worthy projects, community work and public events.

“Texarkana is a little different. I grew up about two hours west of here, in Rockwall, Texas, near Dallas,” Bright said. “Here you have different governments to deal with, different municipal agencies. My understanding is that there used to be a competitive nature between the two cities, but I think more recently there have been efforts to market the whole in its totality as opposed to Texarkana, Texas, and Texarkana, Arkansas. That’s been great, but it also allows a lot of revenue opportunities, especially on the legal [notices] side. So I haven’t seen a lot of negatives. In my time, I’ve only seen benefits.”

Nevertheless, the region has resisted the economic recovery, with an unemployment rate of 4.4% stuck well above the U.S. and state average. And while Bright sees signs of revival, he’ll need all the lift he can get against industry headwinds.

As Hussman stressed in revealing his plan to end weekday print at the Democrat-Gazette, the statewide paper lost money last year, and will lose more in 2019. Total ad revenue at all U.S. papers, which totaled $46.6 billion in 2000, was down to $11.8 billion by 2017, a 75% plunge, and a Pew Research Center report released last week found newspaper readership at its lowest point since 1940.

“Back in 2000, newspapers still got 22% of all the ad revenue spent in the United States. But by 2017, it was down to under 5%,” Hussman said. He cited the impact of Google and Facebook, companies that struck gold as readers migrated to online news, locking up the lion’s share of digital advertising.

When the Democrat-Gazette stops weekday printing, the Texarkana Gazette will be one of seven 7-day-a-week papers left in Arkansas, including the Sentinel-Record and two other Wehco properties, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the El Dorado News-Times. The others are the Times Record of Fort Smith, a GateHouse Media paper; the Jonesboro Sun, owned by Paxton Media; and the Saline Courier, owned by Horizon Publications.

Bright envisions a day when all papers will publish digitally. “I don’t think that an exclusively digital edition is in the immediate future for us, though. When we talk to readers who have tried it and really given it a chance, they say they like it better, and they’re not losing anything. We have to retrain people to consume the news a different way, and that will take time.”

The digital replicas reproduce the exact look and content of the print product while offering digital features. “We want people to see all they can do with this. The replica edition is engaging people as well as the print product, but customers and advertisers get more.”