The Jonesboro Sun sold its landmark building downtown in the Craighead County seat to St. Bernards healthcare on Friday, two days after Gannett Co. auctioned off the Hope Star’s old headquarters on West Third Street in the Hempstead County seat.
The Sun’s move, from the old Jonesboro armory at 518 Carson St. it has occupied for 53 years, reflects a trend of newspapers giving up prominent buildings in the towns they serve. Companies have sought savings in a deeply besieged industry where readers, advertisers and revenue have been fleeing to the web for years. News operations big and small are not only seeking savings but also adapting to a new workaday world wrought by technology and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Sun will be moving into an office park south of Arkansas State University. The Southwest Times Record of Fort Smith has office space in a shopping mall, and The Daily Citizen in Searcy moved from its 90-year home on Arch Street downtown to East Race Street in the 1970s and is now in the Rock Plaza business center on West Beebe-Capps Expressway.
These offices are modern, efficient and comfortable, but their settings are a far cry from the prestige addresses and inky pressrooms that once projected the grit and clout of hometown papers. Gone are most of the stately buildings announcing themselves in gothic fonts, and many of the publications themselves are lost.
“The United States has lost almost 1,800 newspapers since 2004, including more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies,” said a recent report from the Hussman School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina. The school is named for Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman Jr., a graduate whose family pledged a $25 million donation to the school. More than two dozen of the vanished papers were in Arkansas.
“Print readers are disappearing even faster than print newspapers,” the study continued, “and the pace appears to be accelerating. Over the past 15 years, total weekday circulation nationwide -- which includes both dailies and weeklies, declined from 122 million to 73 million.”
Auctions in Pine Bluff, Hope
The Pine Bluff Commercial’s 39,000-SF building at 300 S. Beech St. is being sold at auction next month with a minimum bid requirement of $25,000. Gannett Co. of McLean, Va., sold the Commercial’s business assets to the Democrat-Gazette 13 months ago, and is selling the 1985-vintage building through commercial real estate firm Bell Cornerstone of Syracuse, New York.
Gannett was acquired in 2019 by GateHouse Media of Pittsford, New York, just an hour and a half down Interstate 90 from Syracuse. Gannett is also selling the nearly 12,000-SF Hope Star building at 522 West Third St., vacant since GateHouse ceased publication there three years ago. Bell Cornerstone also handled that auction, which closed Sept. 15. Sale details will not be available until escrow closes on the deal, and Bell Cornerstone agent Michael Lehmann did not respond to a voicemail message seeking comment.
The trend away from traditional newspaper buildings doesn’t stem completely from the industry downturn; it also reflects a wider re-examination of commercial real estate needs in a new work-from-wherever era.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette still occupies the old three-story Arkansas Democrat building at Capitol Avenue and Scott Street in Little Rock. But the landmark Arkansas Gazette Building at Third and Louisiana, with the newspaper’s name etched above the door, is now a charter school.
After 85 years in Texas at 315 Pine St, the Texarkana Gazette moved to another downtown building a few feet into Arkansas in 2016; it shifted printing to the Democrat-Gazette, its sister paper in the Wehco Media Inc. chain, at the end of 2017.
Metropolitan dailies have joined the rush, including the Denver Post and the Charlotte Observer, which gave up its gleaming glass tower uptown for a research park outpost 10 miles away. The Kansas City Star announced late last year that it’s leaving its iconic glass building downtown; New York Daily News shut down its Manhattan newsroom altogether, asking reporters and most editors to work from home.
There Goes the Sun
The Sun’s departure from downtown Jonesboro will benefit buyer and seller, officials said. St. Bernards will get room it needs downtown, and the Sun will shed square footage it has not used since Paxton shifted press chores for its northeast Arkansas newspapers to its hub in Paducah, a 3-hour-plus drive away.
“In April, we made the decision to move the printing of … The Sun, Paragould Daily Press, Newport Independent and the Times Dispatch” of Walnut Ridge to Paducah, Sun Publisher Reece B. Terry said in a statement announcing the building’s sale. The change upgraded print quality and color capabilities; the real estate opportunity became clear.
“This move meant we were utilizing less than half the space in The Sun’s present location, so we decided to approach St. Bernards about the possibility of acquiring the property,” Terry said. “Due to the proximity to St. Bernards, we felt this would be a natural fit … We are delighted to place the Carson Street location in the hands of a great community partner.”
St. Bernards isn’t fully revealing its plans for the Carson Street site, known for its long brick facade and “The Sun” affixed in gothic typeface near the building’s glass pyramid atrium. But spokesman Mitchell Nail, citing the “cultural significance” of the building, where the Sun first installed a press in 1968, said the overriding goal involves restoration to make the site “a thriving part of downtown Jonesboro.”
The building is “sandwiched right between” St. Bernards hospital and its auditorium, officials said.
The Sun will be moving into space at 1300 Stone Street, in Foxwood Square office park south of Arkansas State University, with its news, advertising and circulation teams expected to complete their move within 90 days, Terry said.
Saving the World
One notable exception is in Helena, where two local investors literally saved The World. College teacher Andrew Bagley and local businessman Chuck Davis rescued not only the paper, but also its storied but dilapidated building at 417 York St.
“The building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and we are in the middle of the process of applying for tax credits for the rehab,” Bagley told Arkansas Business. “People who come by the office say it hasn’t looked that good since the Young family owned it.”
That would be the family of C.M. Young and his son, Porter, who died in 2006. When Gannett moved to shutter the paper, Bagley and Davis formed Helena World Chronicles LLC and paid $15,000 for the 6,000-SF property in September 2019. “Larry Delk & Associates did the fascia, Helena Construction did the roof, Henson Heating & Air did the HVAC, and Whaley Electric did the electrical work,” Bagley said. “Every one of them is local.”
Two years later, “the paper is stronger,” Bagley said, noting that circulation of their first issue was a little over 400 copies. “In 2021, we are averaging over 900. … That first edition was eight pages; we regularly have 16 pages now, and when we have a special section we often hit 30 pages.”
He says advertising is up, though he’d like to diversify digital revenue streams. Nicole Lappin has joined the staff as bookkeeper/administrative assistant, and Rick Kennedy has been editor for 10 months after a stint designing the paper as a contractor. “He was the last GateHouse editor and went to the Pine Bluff Commercial after we bought the paper,” Bagley said, adding that it’s good to have Kennedy back. “Clay Davis is our part-time manager of retail circulation handling our retail locations. We were sold at four locations when we published our first edition; we are now sold at 26 locations.”
Terri Hall is reporting on the Marvell area as an independent contractor, and Candace Williams just started in a similar role covering the Elaine area, Bagley said.
“As part of developing alternative sources of revenue, we rent two offices in our building ... and have made vacant desks available as ‘hot desks’ for those that need a place to work virtually on a short-term basis,” Bagley said.
Mountain Home Holdout
Another downtown holdout is the Baxter Bulletin in Mountain Home, whose 14,000-SF home at 16 W. Sixth St. was part of the sale when Gannett sold the newspaper to Phillips Media Group of Harrison in August. Before selling the newspaper, Gannett had put the two-story building up for sale in July, asking for $657,000.
Phillips Media, founded by Rupert E. Phillips and the owner of the Harrison Daily Times and the Newton County Times, bought the Bulletin and four Missouri newspapers. Gannett had owned the Bulletin since 1995, and the Bulletin has occupied the two-story building since 1984.
Jim Perry, publisher of the Harrison paper and Phillips’ West Plains Daily Quill in Missouri, has also taken over as the Bulletin’s publisher, keeping news reporter Christ Fulton and sports writer Neal Denton on the staff. “We will be reopening our offices on 6th Street just as quickly as possible,” Perry said two weeks ago.