In the run-up to a $1.4 billion merger with Gannett that would create the nation's biggest newspaper chain, GateHouse Media Inc. is closing two Arkansas papers, the Stuttgart Daily Leader and the semi-weekly Helena World.
In an article posted on the websites of both papers, GateHouse officials said they were talking with local parties potentially interesting in owning the papers.
GateHouse, based in suburban Rochester, New York, counts 11 Arkansas properties among its 150 dailies and 500 weeklies nationwide, and its decision to close two Arkansas publications with more than a century's service to their communities held true to a long history of corporate cost-cutting.
Cost pressures grew after GateHouse, which closed a half-dozen Arkansas publications a year ago, announced the deal for Gannett, publisher of USA Today, on Aug. 5.
GateHouse's owner, New Media Investment Group Inc., faces investor backlash and market pressures over the cash-and-stock deal, which both sides say will help convert properties from a print focus to a new digital future. But the strategy relies on cost and staffing synergies, and paying off $1.8 billion in debt GateHouse took on to finance the merger. Critics of the deal also note that GateHouse revenue is falling when the impact of acquisitions is factored out.
The Arkansas Press Association offered no estimate on job losses in Helena-West Helena and Stuttgart, but several former GateHouse executives guessed that number at a dozen or more.
Publication will cease Sept. 6, according to the article posted, with slightly different language, on the Daily Leader's and World's websites Thursday afternoon. GateHouse Regional Vice President Matt Guthrie said negotiations were under way with third parties interested in ownership, and that "our hope is still that closure is avoided," and that the papers will continue to serve their communities "under new ownership."
Former Pine Bluff Commercial Managing Editor John Worthen also told Arkansas Business that GateHouse will be shutting down its Pine Bluff printing plant in late September. The press printed the Commercial, the Leader, and the World, among other publications and commercial print work, he said. GateHouse officials stressed that the Pine Bluff Commercial will continue delivering a newspaper five days a week, outsourcing the printing work.
"There are seven or eight people working on that press, and when it stops it will mark the first time in at least 130 years that Pine Bluff, once the capital of the Delta, won't have an operating press," he said.
The Helena World had paid circulation of 625 and the Stuttgart Leader's was 671, according to the latest figures from the APA. Jennifer Allen, a GateHouse group publisher who also oversees the Pine Bluff Commercial and Hot Springs Village Voice, was publisher of both the Leader and the World. Managing editors, according to the 2019 APA Arkansas Media Directory, were Eplunus Colvin in Stuttgart and Rick Kennedy in Helena.
In the post in The Leader, Allen noted the paper's tradition of local, reliable journalism dating back to 1885. The World's article sang the same praises, but noted the Phillips County publication's 148-year history. In an email to Arkansas Business, she also said she could not comment on this week's departure by Worthen, who posted a goodbye notice on the Commercial's website that was later taken down.
Worthen told Arkansas Business that pressure from GateHouse to constantly do more with less had worn him down.
"There were too many things to juggle, and it was stressing me out," he said in a telephone interview, noting that his whole newsroom staff was two reporters and a news clerk. "We haven't had a staff photographer in the nearly four years that I've been editor."
Subscribers to the Leader and the World will receive refunds no later than Oct. 6 for the balance of their subscriptions, GateHouse said, adding that "advertisers should continue to timely remit outstanding payments."
GateHouse, which in June sold its papers in Conway, Clinton, Heber Springs and Newport to Paxton Media Group of Paducah, Kentucky, still owns the daily Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith. Its other Arkansas properties are the Commercial, the White Hall Journal, the Press Argus-Courier of Van Buren, the Charleston Express, the Booneville Democrat, the Paris Express and the Hot Springs Village Voice, according to the GateHouse corporate website.
Last year's GateHouse closings in Arkansas included the North Little Rock Times, the Arkadelphia Siftings-Herald, the Lonoke County Democrat, the Hope Star, the Gurdon Times, and the Nevada County Picayune-Times in Prescott.