Veteran Arkansas journalist Scott Loftis is leading a group of local investors who have bought the Carroll County News and the Lovely County Citizen in Berryville and Eureka Springs, respectively.
The deal has been closed and will take effect Jan. 1, Loftis told Arkansas Business.
Loftis, a former managing editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial under Stephens Media, has been editing both the News and the Citizen since 2014. He said in a telephone interview that his partners are David Bell, a former staff photographer on the paper who has kept his hand in, and former Berryville Chamber of Commerce Director Steve Johnson, who together publish a motorcycling magazine.
The Citizen will go from a weekly print schedule to exclusive online publication next month. The News will continue to be printed; it cut back from twice a week during the pandemic to once weekly, on Tuesdays. Loftis, Bell and Johnson hope to build up its current press run of 1,300, and hold out hope to return to twice-a-week publication if advertising revenue improves, Loftis said.
“I’m a little bit nervous,” he said, having never owned a media outlet before. “But I’m really excited.” He described Bell, who has been shooting freelance work for the company recently, as one of his best friends.
Seller is CherryRoad
The newspapers’ seller is CherryRoad Media, led by Jeremy Gulban, a New Jersey software company CEO who has acquired a chain of about six dozen small-town newspapers nationwide over the past two years, following a mission of reviving community journalism with a double shot of technology and investment. Nine of those papers were in Arkansas, and he bought several others in Missouri.
Gulban told Arkansas Business he was happy to sell the papers to Loftis and his partners, restoring local ownership. “We also sold the Cassville Democrat and the Monett Times in southwestern Missouri to current employees.”
He said the outcomes allow fit in with his vision because they return the properties to community ownership. “We remain committed to our remaining markets in northern central and northeast Arkansas.”
Financial details of the deal were not made public. Loftis will be editor and publisher and run day-to-day operations in consultation with Bell and with Johnson, whom Loftis described as an advertising wizard.
CherryRoad bought The Mountaineer Echo of Flippin, the Marshall Mountain Wave, the Clay County Courier in Corning and the Pocahontas Star Herald before acquiring five Arkansas papers last February from Rust Communications of Missouri, including the Carroll County News and the Lovely County Citizen, named for the vast and now defunct Arkansas County that included the area 150 years ago. Three former Rust Communications papers will remain in CherryRoad’s chain, the Salem News, the Villager Journal of Cherokee Village and the Clay County Times-Democrat of Piggott/Rector.
“Overall we continue to make progress, but it is very much a two steps forward and one step back type of scenario,” Gulban said. “Our advertising revenue companywide has grown every month this year. Subscription revenue has been pretty close to flat.”
He said properties were doing pretty well in some markets and that others were “really struggling in terms of revenue.” He said efforts to get advertising revenue to a sustainable level are promising. That is, in most markets. The real challenge, Gulban said, has been reining in costs.
The same challenge was at the top of Loftis’ agenda, he said.
One idea was taking the Citizen online. “Revenue just wasn’t enough to justify continuing to print it, so we’re moving it online only for right now,” he said. “Our hope is that maybe some advertisers will step up. But unless and until that happens, we’ll just keep that strictly online. One thing that that will let us do is it will let us get the news out a little bit quicker. Under the old model, we were printing the paper and then posting everything online. Now if there’s a meeting on Wednesday night, we can get that story online on Thursday.”
Other bottom-line decisions included moving to less expensive office space and switching printing plants from Gannett’s operation in Columbia, Mo., to the Branson Tri-Lakes News in Hollister, Mo., much closer to Carroll County. “It’ll be a lot less wear and tear on our vehicles,” said Loftis, who has two full-time staff members and is looking to hire a full-time advertising professional.
“I’ve tried to look at expense cuts that didn’t involve people, and I think there’s quite a few things that we can do quickly to make an impact on the bottom line,” Loftis said. “Of course, we’ve got to at least break even to stay in business. The goal is to make sure Berryville always has a newspaper.”
One goal is to build up subscribers, and a recent move to a pay wall — a method of reserving news for those who pay for it, is paying dividends. “There’s no reason for us to have just 850 subscribers,” Loftis said. “This is a county of 24,000 people. We just learned that when we had a big story, we heard hardly anything about it until it was posted and went up on Facebook. People were just getting the news for free online.
“It’s like if McDonalds was selling hamburgers but also giving them away,” he said. “Who would buy one?”
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Carroll County News publishes on Thursdays.