Helena Newspaper Buyers Manage to Save the World

Andrew Bagley and Chuck Davis can joke about being the men who saved the World. But their mission is serious.

That’s the Helena-West Helena World, a hometown voice worth preserving in a tough age for newspapers, the men say.

Bagley and Davis bought the World, a daily for most of its 148 years, for an unrevealed price last week, and they’re preparing their first weekly edition. Bagley, a Phillips County native and college teacher who admits to being a Democrat, called himself an odd ally of Davis, a Republican retired businessman and former Small Business Administration official who hands out “Make Helena Great Again” hats downtown.

GateHouse Media Inc. sold the World after announcing the paper would shut down. Based in suburban Rochester, New York, GateHouse is the nation’s largest newspaper chain, and it’s on the cusp of a $1.4 billion merger with Gannett, the chain that ran the old Arkansas Gazette into the ground in the late 1980s.

GateHouse saw the World and the Stuttgart Daily Leader, which stopped publishing Sept. 6, as millstones. Bagley and Davis see the World differently, as a crucial megaphone for Helena’s place in Delta commerce, history and culture.

“We want Helena to thrive, and that requires a local newspaper; we’re committed to producing a quality product,” Bagley told Arkansas Business. “We want citizens of Phillips County to count on us for information, stories about local government and entertaining features.” Readers can expect to see local achievements and business doings featured, he said. “Think student pictures, obituaries in print. We’ll be covering the history and culture of our community, and throwing sunshine on government activities.”

After the deal closed Monday, Bagley said he was seeking a general manager and a chief editor. Bagley, a dabbler in newspaper writing since his days at the Ouachita Baptist University Signal, plans to keep teaching at Phillips County Community College. But in just about all his free time at the outset, he expects to be reporting and writing columns.

“We will run Steve Brawner’s column, and we have an agreement for Arkansas Razorback coverage with Nate Allen,” Bagley said. Brawner writes a perceptive syndicated column, and Allen is the ex-Arkansas Gazette mainstay who now syndicates coverage out of Fayetteville.

Bagley had hoped to hire former Helena and Hope editor Rick Kennedy, but he was named Tuesday as managing editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial, another GateHouse paper. A three-decade news veteran with a wall full of awards, Kennedy, 55, replaced John Worthen, who resigned complaining that GateHouse expected superhuman work from an ever-dwindling staff. The newsroom, which had 15 or more employees 20 years ago, is down to a managing editor, two reporters and a clerk.

After the World sold, hopes rose for Stuttgart’s Leader, which also has prospective buyers, according to sources. GateHouse Regional Vice President Matt Guthrie had previously said his company was “enthusiastically working” with a party interested in the Stuttgart paper.

Bagley, who’ll be Davis’ junior partner, noted major investments for office space, software and payroll, including an editor, a business manager and two part-time employees. The deal included no real estate or equipment, just the World’s name, subscriber list and website. The subscriber list is 600 names, and plans call for printing 1,000 copies a week.

Last week, Bagley said he was negotiating with Tom White, publisher of the Advance Monticellonian, to have the World printed in Monticello.