Byron Tate has a simple reason to be back as editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial, where he has worked three times before.
He’s Walter Hussman Jr.’s handpicked man to lead the Wehco Media chairman’s latest local news rescue project. “I was fairly certain that Pine Bluff was about to be without a newspaper,” Tate said after Hussman acquired the storied 139-year-old paper from Gannett in a no-cash deal announced last week.
Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is essentially turning the Commercial into a branded segment within the the Little Rock paper.
Gannett, which merged with GateHouse Media last year to create the nation’s largest newspaper chain, has been closing papers to cut its losses in a besieged industry.
“Unfortunately, seven-day print publication is just not a business model that works for newspapers in America anymore,” Hussman said after recapping an astounding 75% migration of newspaper advertising revenue to online outlets like Facebook, YouTube and Google over the past 15 years. “I think that’s true not just for the Pine Bluff Commercial but for every newspaper in the country.”
Hussman’s answer is a digital replica of the printed paper, designed to be read on an iPad provided free of charge by Wehco as long as subscribers keep paying for a $34-a-month subscription.
The digital Democrat-Gazette gradually replaced home delivery on all days except Sunday, the lone day it still prints papers to hit the doorstep. So far, the approach has kept the paper profitable enough to keep reporting statewide with a newsroom staff of more than 100, a huge team in today’s newspaper world.
“In an attempt to save the Democrat-Gazette, we discovered a whole new way to deliver a newspaper, and more importantly than that, we learned a whole new way to deliver community journalism,” Hussman said at a press conference.
The plan is to run the Pine Bluff paper along the same lines, with four labeled Commercial pages appearing daily in the Democrat-Gazette’s digital replica as well as in print on Sundays.
Tate told Arkansas Business he’s eager. “It’s exciting opening a door to a new chapter, and it’s fun to be involved in this digital experiment, I’d guess you’d say.”
Tate, who’ll report and write editorials, will lead a bigger newsroom than the Commercial has had in recent years.
Dale Ellis, the Democrat-Gazette’s Pine Bluff reporter, will join Eplunus Colvin, the Commercial’s only reporter before last week. Sandra Hope, the Commercial’s news clerk and sometime reporter, will stay in that key role.
“I’m happy for the people of Pine Bluff, who will continue to have a newspaper and, you know, hardier reporting with the new assets that we’ll have.”
The staff plans to keep up the daily flow of news on civic developments, schools and local sports at a time when American cities, counties and even states have lost all home-grown reporting.
The Commercial will continue print publication and mail delivery for six weeks or so to allow time to sell subscribers on the digital plan. The Democrat-Gazette now delivers its replica edition electronically to about 35,000 Arkansas subscribers.
Hussman, a third-generation Arkansas publisher, embraced the digital replica idea after determining that readers simply will not pay a premium price for a common newspaper website.
Since the Democrat-Gazette’s conversion last year, Wehco has put its El Dorado News-Times and Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on the digital model.
Saving some semblance of the Commercial was important, Arkansas Press Association Executive Director Ashley Wemberley said, calling it “the definitive source for news in southeast Arkansas for more than 130 years.” She expects the acquisition to “ensure its viability as an institution in the community for years to come.”
The Commercial helped launch the careers of former Philadelphia Inquirer Editor Gene Foreman, former Newsday editorial chief Pat Owens and Bob Lancaster, the onetime Arkansas Gazette, Philadelphia Inquirer and Arkansas Times columnist. Paul Greenberg, later editorial page director of the Democrat-Gazette and a syndicated columnist, won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Commercial in 1969.
Tate, who started as a reporter at the Commercial in 1986 and twice ran its newsroom over the years, has been publishing his own weekly, the Sheridan Headlight, since GateHouse replaced him in Pine Bluff in 2016.
He’ll continue overseeing that weekly, he said, noting that the Commercial doesn’t compete in Grant County and that he has Hussman’s approval.