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In Print, Grim Numbers But Some Successes

3 min read

Numbers in the new Arkansas Media Directory from the Arkansas Press Association offer a wealth of detail on the state’s 82 weekly, nine semiweekly and 21 daily newspapers. But for fans of the inky publishing industry, they make for pretty grim reading.

First, circulation is down across the state by nearly half from just 10 years ago, and while some papers have better withstood the mass defection of readers and advertisers to the internet, many have been decimated.

The Pine Bluff Commercial had a paid weekday circulation of about 15,000 in 2008; now it’s 5,700. The Texarkana Gazette fell from 33,000 to 15,700. The Log Cabin Democrat in Conway went from more than 10,000 to 4,000.

The state’s dailies, which under the APA’s classification system publish at least four days a week, are down from 29 to 21 since the 2008 guide. Three papers — the 154-year-old Northwest Arkansas Times of Fayetteville, The Morning News of Springdale and the Benton County Daily Record — no longer exist. They were subsumed in 2015 by the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, sister paper of the state’s big daily.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the resilient flagship of Wehco Media Inc. of Little Rock, went from weekday circulation of 190,000 to about 127,000 over the decade, but much of the loss was offset by the 36,000 circulation of the northwest paper. The statewide daily has halted print distribution in parts of northeast Arkansas, where it is offering $800 iPads to digital subscribers.

Publisher Walter Hussman Jr. was in Jonesboro on Tuesday, telling Rotarians it’s “not profitable at all” to send trucks 130 miles from the capital to Jonesboro to deliver papers to 400 subscribers.

Hussman also cited some revealing numbers: From 2006 to 2016, nationwide newspaper ad revenue plunged from $35 billion to $12 billion. Meanwhile, digital ad revenue to American newspapers rose to only $3.5 billion from $2.6 billion.

The Democrat-Gazette remains profitable, getting by with a reduced staff, but other newsrooms have been cut to the bone. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American newspapers employed 412,000 people in 2001. By 2016, that number was 174,000 and falling.

Arkansas weeklies are generally faring better than dailies. Five papers that published daily in 2008 now print twice a week, though some still have “Daily” in their names. They are The Daily Siftings Herald of Arkadelphia, the Courier News of Blytheville, The Helena World, The Hope Star and the Stuttgart Daily Leader.

The Batesville Daily Guard, circulation about 7,000, is the state’s only remaining daily with single ownership, and the Joneses, its longtime proprietors, are reportedly weighing sale options in the wake of Publisher O.E. Jones’ death in January. More on that in a later Outtakes.

Ashley Wimberley, executive director of the APA, is happy to point to some success stories. “Strong papers that come to mind quickly are the Stone County Leader in Mountain View and The Leader in Jacksonville,” she told Arkansas Business.

“John Robert Schirmer is doing well in Nashville [Howard County]. In 2016 he purchased the Nashville News, Murfreesboro Diamond, Glenwood Herald and Montgomery County News from Graves Publishing Co.” He closed the Nashville News but renamed the Leader as the Nashville News-Leader “in recognition of the newspaper’s 138-year history.” Tom White is succeeding with several papers, including The Advance Monticellonian in Monticello, Wimberley added, “and of course the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is bucking the trend in comparison to other major dailies across the country.”

Rusty Fraser, publisher and owner of the weekly Stone County Leader, says business is picking up this year despite a shrinking local economy. “Our paid circulation is 4,200 in a town with a population of 2,700, and the entire county is only around 12,400,” he said. “We have an online version with a paywall, but access is free to our print subscribers.” The paper has focused exclusively on local news since 1985 and has three full-time newsroom workers.

The company also prints a magazine and a twice-a-year visitors guide with a circulation of 25,000, “which keeps us in the black,” Fraser said.

Publisher Garrick Feldman reports that Jacksonville’s Leader will claim 31 awards at the coming APA convention for its coverage of local news and sports in Jacksonville, Sherwood, Cabot, Ward, Austin, Beebe and Lonoke. “That’s a big territory, but we’ve been doing award-winning journalism for 31 years and hope to keep going for a while longer as a twice-weekly newspaper and a free shopper with a growing online edition,” he said.

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