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NJ Buyer Dives Into Weeklies, Finds Arkansas Star

6 min read

Jeremy Gulban, CEO of a thriving 500-employee software company he inherited from his father, isn’t the sort to just throw around millions of dollars.

But when he invested in the distressed newspaper business, he plunged.

“This time a year ago we had one newspaper. Now we have 64,” said Gulban, chief of CherryRoad Technologies of Parsippany, New Jersey, and now CherryRoad Media, his newly assembled chain of community papers. “So there’s been some spectacular growth there.”

Nine of Gulban’s weekly small-town newspapers are in Arkansas, where last June he bought The Mountaineer Echo of Flippin, the Marshall Mountain Wave, the Clay County Courier in Corning and the Pocahontas Star Herald. In February, he added five former properties of Rust Communications of Missouri: Carroll County News in Berryville, the Lovely County Citizen in Eureka Springs, the Salem News, the Villager Journal of Cherokee Village and the Clay County Times-Democrat of Piggott/Rector.

The Pocahontas paper has indeed been a star, with an energetic new editor, John Allen French, giving Gulban a community news business model to follow. “He has really gotten people re-energized and focused on the paper.” The Star Herald’s subscription numbers are the best they’ve been in 20 years. “So we’ve increased readers, we’ve added revenue, and it has been a good model for success.” The paper’s press run is 3,000, a fairly representative number among CherryRoad’s papers, and it’s growing.

Gulban said French, a former florist new to journalism, is “constantly visiting with everyone, talking to advertisers, checking in with businesses daily, and promoting the paper every hour of every day “to make the paper relevant again.”

Want a Paper? Got $100K?

Gulban, 47, is bound to silence on the financials of his deals. But he said if a buyer wanted to buy a small weekly “they probably could do so for less than $100,000. I imagine that’s far different than it would have been a decade ago.”

U.S. newspaper circulation and advertising revenue combined plunged from about $50 billion a year in 2000 to just $8.8 billion in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. Hundreds of newspapers closed in that time, including dozens in Arkansas. Nevertheless, some papers are defying doom, and much of the optimism is in the grassroots.

“You read about the decline of newspapers constantly, and I noticed that ‘60 Minutes’ did a piece just a few weeks ago that looked at hard times in the business,” Gulban said. “Every single one of the papers we’ve taken over has been distressed. There was a lack of investment, a lack of attention, and it’s been a lot of work to turn them around. But opportunities exist, especially in rural communities that have a closer bond with their papers.”

Gulban hopes to use the technology he commands to reinvent the local weekly as a kind of newsy engine of community and business engagement, a hub fueled by reporting, social media interaction and a little local cheerleading.

Outside Arkansas, CherryRoad has newspapers in Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.

CEO at Work, in His Dining Room

On an April Wednesday, Gulban sat at his dining room table in Denville, a comfortable New Jersey suburb 35 miles west of Manhattan, sipping coffee from a CherryRoad mug, wearing a company pullover and perusing the Mountain Wave in print and on his ThinkPad. He was posing for pictures, surrounded by pastel aquamarine walls with wainscoting, hardwood floors and cut chrysanthemums. But he was also repeating a nearly daily routine.

“I work at my dining room table, for the most part,” said Gulban, who said he devotes four-fifths of his work time to the new media effort. “We have a strong management team on the CherryRoad Technologies side, and they’ve really taken up the slack since I’ve been working mainly on the media side.”

He’s been visiting his new outposts “a couple of times a month,” getting a feel for their communities. His new employees are also getting a sense of Gulban, a New Jersey native and graduate of private Drew University in Madison. After 10 years working in Chicago, Gulban joined the family business, taking the reins from his father, Michael Gulban, in 2008. A fan of politics who saw election night as Christmas growing up, Gulban devoured writings on government, becoming a newspaper aficionado.

CherryRoad’s roots were in complex software implementation and financial reporting systems, often for counties, towns and government agencies. Over time, it became an internet service provider offering cloud platforms and programs for hosting multiple websites. “We came up with solutions for virtual meetings and remote learning, and we saw ways to apply them to community-building in the news world, but there was just no market for it, and I was willing to do it for free,” Gulban said. “No one would take our calls; they had concluded everybody will go to Facebook or Google or YouTube. That got us thinking, can we bring our technology to work for the greater community and local papers?”

Newspapers have a great responsibility as a check on government abuse and waste, Gulban said, but community papers can also be an economic development engine. “We talk to businesses to let them know we can be their advertising partner, their online marketing partner, their technology partner with websites and all the other technologies that are coming out and are hard for small businesses to comprehend and use.”

Arkansas Is Early Focus

After CherryRoad bought its first paper in Grand Marais, a remote town in Minnesota, Gulban noticed that Jane and Dale Estes were looking to sell the Flippin and Marshall papers in Arkansas.

They had advertised them on bizbuysell.com in May 2018, seeking $285,000 for both. The owners were looking to retire, and Marion County was facing the end of its oldest active business, The Mountaineer Echo, founded in 1886.

Amid that deal, Gulban discovered that Corning Publishing, owned by Thelma Rockwell and son Steve Rockwell, was selling the Courier and Star Herald. “It made sense to bring the four together because of efficiencies.” Those purchases closed June 1.

“Our goal is to keep the papers printed,” Gulban said. “We believe in the weekly printed paper … there are a lot of people that either don’t have good internet access, don’t have technological skills or may not have a computer. A print edition is crucial to community news.”

“At the Arkansas properties,” Gulban said, “we’re working with each one to replicate the success of Pocahontas. All these towns probably have the same potential if we execute in the same way.”

For now Gulban has paused expansion to give his 165 new employees a chance to adjust. He has four corporate deputies at CherryRoad Media, but he says for growth to continue, he must add more levels of management. Meanwhile, he’s “taking a breather here for a few months, because this has really been a lot. We’ll look at other opportunities as they present themselves.”

And that childhood passion for politics? You won’t see it in any particular views in his papers, not even on opinion pages, he said.

“No, we want to stay away from taking sides. We want to report the news and, you know, let others support opinions.” 

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