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GateHouse Deal Leaves Wreckage in Its Wake

4 min read

John Worthen has combat fatigue.

After nearly four years fighting a battle of attrition as managing editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial, Worthen is done with what he called “the madness” of leading a skeleton crew delivering news to Jefferson County.

“I turned in my resignation on Monday,” he told Arkansas Business in a phone interview last week. “When you have too many things to juggle, you can’t do the job the way you know it should be done. There were just too many expectations, and the newsroom staff was just myself, two reporters and a news clerk. We’re not superhuman.”

His departure came the same week the Commercial’s owner, GateHouse Media Inc. of Perinton, New York, decided to shut down two of its sister papers, the Stuttgart Daily Leader and the Helena World, in the run-up to a $1.4 billion merger with Gannett that would create the nation’s largest newspaper chain by far.

But on the ground in Arkansas, GateHouse has shut down or sold more than a dozen publications in the past two years, including The Times of North Little Rock and the Hope Star, and it has given notice that it’ll be halting its printing operation in Pine Bluff next month, with plans to print the Commercial and other publications at a yet-undisclosed alternative site.

“In all, there are seven or eight jobs on that press,” said Worthen, a former bureau chief for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and a Pine Bluff native. “It’s a full-time operation. And now GateHouse has lowered the hammer on Stuttgart and Helena. It has been quietly shutting down papers all across the country.”

Jennifer Allen, GateHouse’s group publisher overseeing the Leader and the World, wouldn’t comment on Worthen’s departure or the press shutdown plans, but she did not deny the papers would close. “We will be releasing a statement tomorrow regarding Stuttgart and Helena papers,” she said in a Wednesday evening email. “I can’t confirm anything at this moment.”

The last print day was expected to be Sept. 6, and former GateHouse executives estimated that about a dozen jobs would be lost at the Helena and Stuttgart papers. The Pine Bluff press workers received a month’s notice from the company, reports said, and the shutdown will leave the city without a working press for the first time in at least 130 years, according to Worthen.

“It’s really painful to think, as a Pine Bluff boy, that the city that was once the jewel of the Arkansas Delta will no longer have a printing press. It’s such an essential thing in democratic government, in keeping citizens informed.”

It is also a bitter low for a storied publication that launched the careers of Pulitzer Prize-winning editorialist Paul Greenberg, Nieman Fellow and former Newsday editor Patrick J. Owens, Gene Foreman of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Paul Nielsen of The New York Times and author, journalist and columnist Bob Lancaster.

“This hits home for me,” Worthen said. “Pine Bluff has a long journalism tradition filled with awards and important stories.” He told Arkansas Business he’s in talks on a possible online news outlet for Pine Bluff. “I’m adamant about staying here. There will be more news out of Pine Bluff.”

GateHouse’s moves in Arkansas are not necessarily related to the Gannett merger, some observers said, though Worthen views them in that context.

GateHouse counts 11 Arkansas properties among its 150 dailies and 500 weeklies nationwide, but just two years ago it had about 30 Arkansas titles. Sales, shutdowns and combinations have cut the number of Arkansas operations even as GateHouse has added to its roster elsewhere. It announced the merger with Gannett, publisher of USA Today, on Aug. 5.

New Media Investment Group of New York, which owns GateHouse, has faced investor backlash and market pressures over the cash-and-stock deal, which both sides say will help convert properties from print to a new digital future. But the strategy relies on cost and staffing synergies, and requires paying off $1.8 billion in debt GateHouse took on to finance the merger at a high 11% interest rate. Critics also note that overall GateHouse revenue is falling when the impact of acquisitions is factored out.

The Helena World had paid circulation of 625 and the Stuttgart Daily Leader’s was 671, according to the latest figures from the press association. The APA’s 2019 Arkansas Media Directory listed Eplunus Colvin as managing editor in Stuttgart and Rick Kennedy as editor of the paper in Helena.

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