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As newspapers dwindle, residents in Hutchinson and elsewhere notice what’s missing

As the financial challenges facing Kansas newspapers grow, a marked shift toward out-of-state ownership is rearranging the landscape. Some readers have noticed The Hutchinson News and its staff thinning since GateHouse Media took over the newspaper in 2016. But company officials contend they’re trimming to save journalism. In any event, such reduced coverage presents dire challenges for communities across the state, many of whom might not yet fully understand what they’re losing.

Part One: Hutchinson’s Changing News Climate
Part Two: A Changing Landscape for Newspaper Ownership
Part Three: Why Everyone Loses When Newspapers Struggle

Part One: Hutchinson’s Changing News Climate

In Hutchinson, there’s not so much news in the newspaper these days.

Talk to folks around town, and they agree: There are fewer stories to read in The Hutchinson News. And the stories that remain often have less depth to them.

Nancy Soldner, a member of the Hutchinson City Council, says she notices the difference in stories about council meetings.

“It’s pretty straightforward,” she says. “More often than not, it’s just a listing of the things the council acted upon.”

Dan Deming, a former member of the Reno County Commission – and a former general manager of local radio station KWBW – agrees. The paper, he says, covers meetings “pretty well.” But, he adds, “there is not much perspective on what’s being done or asking the second or third question to get to the bottom of what’s really going on.”

The changes, Deming says, are understandable: In recent years, the News has slashed its reporting staff; the journalists who are left, he says, “don’t have the time to do as much in-depth work as they did previously.”

At a time when newspapers have been struggling nationwide for years, such changes might hardly seem like, well, news. But many of the most drastic changes to the depth and breadth of the newspaper’s coverage are a recent phenomenon.

The pace of change at the paper, residents say, sped up after the ownership of the newspaper changed hands in December 2016 from a family-owned, Kansas-based chain to GateHouse Media, an upstate New York firm that is one of the largest publishers of local media in the U.S. It’s also a holding company for New Media Investment Group, an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group, one of three hedge funds making headlines for overseeing what critics call the gutting of newspapers.

Betty and James Taylor are active participants in the Hutchinson community and political scene; they’re both members of the local horticulture club, and she sits on the board of the Reno County Museum. The couple say The Hutch News is still a vital part of their community.

But the paper isn’t as robust.

The paper’s reduced circumstances have had consequences. James says he can tell that fewer people know or understand what’s going on in city government. And when it comes time to promote the horticulture club’s activities, he says, an ad in the paper just isn’t as effective as it once was.

“It used to be everybody would get the newspaper, and the newspaper would be the way to get the word out to everybody,” James says. “We’ve talked to so many people who have dropped their subscription, so the newspaper is less reliable as a way of getting the word out.”

Betty agrees. “It creates a challenge to get the schedule out,” she says. “But we also now have a Facebook page.”

Here’s the thing: What’s happening in Hutchinson is occurring elsewhere in Kansas, particularly in the largest counties. Newspapers are cutting staffers, outsourcing once-local functions such as printing and design while trying to maintain local coverage.

Hometown families that spent generations in the business are selling their publications to big national chains. And all of this has had measurable effects on the ability of those newspapers to act as watchdogs on local and state governments and cover the happenings in a community.

It’s a significant period of change that all too many communities might be ill-prepared to adapt to.

Readers in Hutchinson have noticed differences in coverage after GateHouse Media aquired their local newspaper.

AN ENDANGERED SPECIES?

Time for some full disclosure: I’ve been a working journalist for 25 years, mostly in Kansas. My love of newspapers began when I was a kid, when the afternoon Emporia Gazette would appear on our porch. I’d start with the comics, then move on to the other offerings. When my family moved to central Kansas, I became a fan of the Wichita Eagle columnist Bob Getz, then started studying the op-ed columns of Dave Awbrey and sports columns of Fred Mann and Rick Plumlee before learning the craft under small-town editors like Hillsboro’s Don Ratzlaff and Marion’s Bill Meyer.

The newspapers in the state where I began my career have long punched above their weight and have often been stewarded across generations by a single family. William Allen White won two Pulitzer Prizes, and his descendants still own The Emporia Gazette. The Seaton family has owned The Manhattan Mercury since 1915. Editors such as Iola’s Emerson Lynn exercised wide influence in their communities and around the state – even when, as was the case with Lynn, their papers enjoyed relatively tiny circulations.

These journalists took the job of covering their communities seriously but also advocated for their towns. Doug Anstaett, who recently retired as executive director of the Kansas Press Association, was editor of The Newton Kansan from 1987 to 2003. During the 1990s, he says, the newspaper helped lead the way on its editorial pages as the city wrestled with whether to abandon two existing and obsolete hospitals to build a new, modern facility on the south edge of town.

“Had that not happened … Newton might not have a hospital today,” Anstaett says. “We supported it and took heat. We weren’t the only ones who took heat, but we took a lot. But that’s what building community is all about.“

The Hutchinson News has served its community in much that same way for nearly 150 years, covering not only Hutch but the better part of southwest Kansas. It earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1965 for its editorial crusading. For many years it was the flagship publication of Harris Enterprises, a chain of mostly Kansas newspapers that included the Salina Journal, Hays Daily News and Garden City Telegram.

The Hutch News also had big ambitions. Ray Hemman, a reporter during the 1980s and ’90s, says his editors sent him on reporting trips to Mexico, Australia and Europe to write agriculture stories for the paper’s rural readership. “It was a unique paper,” he says.

But as time went on, The News faced the same challenges as its peers. “We had a lot of meetings about circulation declines and profitability declines,” says Jason Probst, a former editor who left the paper in 2017, “and at every turn it seemed like the favorite solution was to cut staff.”

Although print readership is declining, online readership has been growing for newspapers like The Hutch News. But translating that audience into revenue is challenging. The newspaper started charging for full web access in 2011. Meanwhile, print circulation continued to hemorrhage between 2013 and 2015 as the shift of readers to digital news grew.

Readership on Sundays, when the paper draws its biggest audience, fell from 33,472 readers to 23,502, according to industry data compiled in The Kansas Statistical Abstract published by the University of Kansas Institute for Policy & Social Research.

Then came a second development: In 2016, the owners of Harris Enterprises sold the News and its sister papers to GateHouse, further consolidating media ownership in Kansas. According to the company’s website, GateHouse now publishes 10 daily newspapers, 11 weekly newspapers and one shopper in Kansas.

From there, observers say, the cycle of layoffs only accelerated.

At one point in the early 2000s, newsroom staff at The Hutch News numbered in the 30s. Based on archived versions of its website, it was at 24 in November 2016, when the sale of the paper to GateHouse was announced. Eleven of those staffers were holdovers from the newsroom as it stood in June 2004, a turnover rate of about 68 percent over the course of 12 years.

By February of this year, the website listed a newsroom staff of 11. And only four of those had been employed at The Hutch News prior to the sale, a turnover rate of about 83 percent in a little more than two years.

“GateHouse has a reputation for doing that,” says Scott Reinardy, the Malcolm Applegate Professor in News Management and Editing at the University of Kansas, of the leaner levels of staffing. “That creates problems for journalists who are left to cover those communities.”

There’s logic to an investment strategy like this. Struggling companies can be bought more cheaply, and investors make money if costs get cut to be more in line with the revenues actually being generated. But that balance sheet outlook doesn’t factor in the social value of newspapers.

In face of these changes, a new generation of reporters, editors and publishers is trying to help Kansas journalism thrive in the 21st century. “Your market has been disrupted,” says Joey Young, the 30-something owner of Kansas Publishing Ventures, which publishes weekly papers in central Kansas. “But that doesn’t mean that people still don’t want to read about what’s going on in the community and that you can’t package advertising around that.”

But for many of the state’s newspapers and the communities that rely on them, these are tough times. It’s not just a business problem, because local news binds communities together.

“It’s discouraging,” Reinardy says, “because no one’s going to fill that news and information void if local journalists don’t – particularly at newspapers.”

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Part Two: A Changing Landscape for Newspaper Ownership

THE ERA OF EASY MONEY ENDS

There are, of course, alternative explanations for the declining fortunes of newspapers. Some critics like to say that newspapers became too liberal and alienated their conservative readers. Others point out that most Americans get their news not from newspapers, but local television stations.

Yet in an era where partisan cable news prospers on both the left and right, even papers with conservative editorial positions have generally failed to defy gravity. While local TV news shines during crises, it often leans on newspapers for nuts-and-bolts coverage of government. Furthermore, outside Wichita, Topeka, Pittsburg and Kansas City, local TV news is a luxury most communities have little access to.

But if the challenges facing newspapers are primarily a business problem, it’s certainly not a new one. Despite their crucial role in their communities, newspapers have always faced tensions between making a profit and fulfilling the requirements of public service.

They weren’t always quiet about the quandary. The Emporia Gazette, for example, noted in 1926 that it had printed three editions and sold more than 1,000 extra newspapers to cover news of massive local flooding.

“We lost money on every edition we sold, when the cost of telegrams, telephone calls, extra reporters and extra service is considered,” the paper reported in its Sept. 24 edition that year. (The paper is framed and on the wall of the Olpe Chicken House restaurant today.) “Yet we gave the people of this town and community the news of the greatest economic calamity that has befallen the region in 40 years. And what we lost in money we made up in satisfaction in service.”

For a while, though, newspapers were easy money: In most communities, the newspaper faced little competition and could charge high rates to advertisers. The result, as Lehigh University professor Jeremy Littau noted in a widely shared Twitter thread in January, is that in the 1990s, companies like Knight Ridder – which owned the Wichita Eagle and Kansas City Star before selling to current owner McClatchy – had profit margins of 30 percent or more.

“That’s an insane margin,” Littau wrote. “For comparison, your local supermarket (which arguably is more necessary for you to live) is lucky to clear in the low single digits.”

Then everything started to fall apart.

  • Until the fall of 2017, Jason Probst, left, was mainly known around Hutchinson as an editor at The News. Today, he’s a member of the Kansas House of Representatives. His connections endure – here he talks to Harriet Bearce (once the subject of one of his articles) – but he’s distressed at the paper’s decline.

Younger readers turned to screens instead of print. Newspapers that had made hefty profits for years by selling classified advertising faced the rise of services such as Craigslist that suddenly let sellers reach an audience without paying those fees. Declines in newspaper circulation made newspapers less attractive to their remaining advertisers. While some of those ad dollars went to advertise online, newspapers quickly found internet advertising didn’t generate the same level of cash. In the 21st century, the newspaper industry watched its revenues decline by two-thirds as Facebook and Google came to dominate the increasingly lucrative online advertising market.

“The ads do not walk in the door like they used to,” says Sarah Kessinger, editor and publisher of the Marysville Advocate. “You have to go out and beat the bushes.”

A study from the University of North Carolina, “The Expanding News Desert,” breaks down the brutal metrics of the changing newspaper business climate. Between 2004 and 2018, the university reports, Kansas lost seven daily newspapers to closures or mergers, all with circulations under 10,000. In 2004, the state’s daily and weekly newspapers had a combined print circulation of 920,000; that number has dropped to 590,000.

THE OWNERS YOU CAN’T SEE AT THE GROCERY STORE

One other effect of the decline: Longtime stewards of Kansas newspapers got out of the business, often selling to out-of-state corporations. In 2016, the Lawrence Journal-World – owned by the Simons family for more than a century – was sold to Ogden Newspapers in West Virginia. The same year, Harris sold its business to GateHouse.

Big, out-of-state corporations have long been players in Kansas journalism. The Wichita Eagle and Kansas City Star haven’t been locally owned for decades. Same goes for the Topeka Capital-Journal – until GateHouse bought it in 2017, the paper was owned and operated for many years by Morris Communications, based in Georgia.

The sell-off of 2016, though, profoundly altered the balance. Excluding the Star — which also serves Missouri – seven of the top 10 circulation papers in Kansas were owned by families or companies based within the state at the beginning of that year. At the end of the year, just two remained: the Manhattan Mercury and The Emporia Gazette.

Does local ownership matter? After all, the challenges facing newspaper journalism exist regardless of whether the local paper is owned by a local family or a corporation.

“I think we’re fooling ourselves if we think corporate ownership is the thing wrong with the newspaper industry,” says Julie Doll, a native Kansan who has worked at 10 papers in four different states, including 14 years working for Harris newspapers. “I’ve worked for groups, I’ve worked for locally owned family papers,” she says. “In my experience, the quality depends on who leads the newsroom rather than who owns the newspaper.”

Anstaett, however, thinks corporate owners weigh the business-service balance of a newspaper a little more heavily toward the business side.

“It’s no secret that the (corporate) stockholders are much more demanding than a family member,” he says. Local owners are more “willing to roll with the punches and accept less” profit.

And Reinardy, the KU professor, thinks local owners are simply more responsive to the concerns of readers. “When the Simons family owned the Journal-World, you could see them in the grocery store,” he says. “Now you have absentee owners.”

Tony Berg, who serves as publisher of both the Wichita Eagle and Kansas City Star, disagrees. Corporate ownership has allowed those papers to combine forces for efficiency’s sake – both papers are printed at the Star, saving printing costs, and the papers share beat writers to cover the state capitals and major college sports – but also for journalism’s sake: The Star was a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for a project that examined the culture of secrecy in Kansas government, a project that included contributions from eight reporters who interviewed more than 100 sources.

  • After the last photo has been shot, the last word typed, the last layout finished, the press operators at The Mercury, including Bret Hawes, take over, sending the news of the day out to subscribers in Manhattan.

“I think McClatchy has doubled down on journalism. I don’t think they’ve doubled down on a revenue play,” Berg says, but he acknowledges that financial challenges affect the company’s approach to covering communities. “We can’t cover every city council meeting anymore, but we are doubling our efforts at investigative journalism.”

Cuts in The Star’s newsroom have unfolded methodically for the better part of a decade. But newer out-of-state owners in Kansas gained reputations for making big cuts quickly. In Lawrence, just before the sale to Ogden was finalized, a number of journalists were laid off, including most of the photography staff, the paper’s editorial page editor and Gary Bedore, the paper’s longtime University of Kansas basketball beat writer. (He was soon hired by The Star.)

Scott Stanford joined the Journal-World as general manager in 2013 and remained with the paper as publisher through the ownership change. He received a promotion within Ogden Newspapers this year when he became president and CEO of Fort Wayne Newspapers in Indiana.

While in Lawrence, he personally felt the pinch of layoffs – he was forced to assemble the daily calendar of community events for the paper, the kind of job done previously by a staffer – but says the layoffs amounted to a “right sizing” necessary for the Journal-World’s continued financial viability: The cuts made it possible for the remaining reporting staff to live and fight another day.

“You know we’re smaller than we used to be, but we’re still the largest news gathering team in Lawrence and Douglas County by far,” he says of the post-Ogden newspaper, pointing to aggressive coverage of the university and other local institutions. He adds: “I’m proud of the work we’re continuing to do.”

It was in Hutchinson where newspaper layoffs drew the sharpest response. Probst, who left the paper in September 2017 to become a Democratic representative in the Kansas House, composed a blog post examining the business model of the new owner, GateHouse, and accusing it of extracting profits without concern for the future viability of its newspapers.

“Its primary function is not news. It is not the communities from which it profits,” Probst wrote. “A company like GateHouse/NewMedia is no different than a Walmart or other giant company that moves into a community. They are there to extract wealth. Period. Once that wealth dries up, they’ll sell out and move on.”

GateHouse, Probst says, “was concerned primarily with profitability above everything else – and not just profitability, not the kind of profitability that comes from creating a really robust product that people want, but profitability that comes from squeezing and trying to get more out of the same thing. And I felt like that’s what they were doing and I felt like they were coming to our community and eroding a product and a paper that had a long, storied history and turning it into a kind of embarrassment.”

Probst’s criticism has been echoed as GateHouse has acquired newspapers across the nation. In December 2017, Brandeis University professor Robert Kuttner co-authored an article in The American Prospect decrying the effects of companies like GateHouse on local papers. His co-author: an anonymous journalist who claimed to still be working at one of GateHouse’s small-city papers.

Like Probst, Kuttner believes that GateHouse’s aim is not to build journalism, but to extract wealth from dying newspapers that might otherwise have a chance to survive. He calls the business model “predatory.”

“The thing to look at is: What’s the size of the newsroom before and after” the ownership change? Kuttner says. “What’s the quality of the coverage? What kind of money is being taken out of the community as opposed to what’s being put back in? It’s really a tragedy.”

How GateHouse operates its newspapers could impact a number of Kansas communities beyond Hutchinson. GateHouse’s aquisitions in 2016 and 2017 resulted in the company becoming among the largest sources of daily local news in the state. GateHouse owns only about 9 percent of the state’s newspapers, but its papers tend to be the largest in the state outside of Wichita and Kansas City. As a result, 4 out of every 10 Kansans outside the KC metro area who receive a daily newspaper today are getting it from a GateHouse publication.

Ron Sylvester, editor of the Hutchinson News and the overseer of eight GateHouse-owned newsrooms in south-central and southwest Kansas, declined comment. (A few days after this story published,  Sylvester announced on Twitter that he had been laid off in the latest round of GateHouse staff reductions.) But Mike Reed, the CEO of GateHouse, disputes Kuttner’s criticisms, saying his company is acquiring legacy newspapers across the country precisely to have a strong foundation to build journalism in those communities for the future.

“I fight hard for us when that kind of stuff is being said about us,” he says of the criticisms.

Reed says his company has invested in making local papers more robust, with initiatives to offer digital marketing services in smaller communities where such services may not exist, as well as creating revenue-driving events to replace lost ad revenue. GateHouse, he said, has also invested in improving subscriber retention – keeping paying customers happy – and in training newsrooms how to better respond to reader desires. The goal, he said, is for those papers to start increasing their revenues once again.

“We’re making those investments to try to have growth in the market instead of decline,” he says. “That doesn’t mean you don’t have near-term reductions in staffing. Of course you do, because you have revenue declines.”

Reed says he wanted Kansas newspaper readers to know “that our goals, with each of these newspapers, is to improve the prospect of the business of the paper, so the newspaper can do the job it’s done for the last 100 years for the next 100 years.”

He adds: “My hope is we’ll know we’ve turned the corner in the next two years.”

Back to the Top

Part Three: Why Everyone Loses When Newspapers Struggle

LOSSES WITH CONSEQUENCES

As the newspaper business has declined, so has newspaper staffing. Nationwide, newspaper newsroom employees dropped from 71,000 workers in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017 – a loss of about 45 percent.

This has meant that fewer stories get covered – and many observers fear that has prompted frustrated readers to give up their subscriptions, requiring further cuts to staff. “It tends to turn into a vicious circle,” says Doll. “As you get pressed for money, you cut back on the size of the paper. Readers complain – and it’s a legitimate complaint. And you can lose business.” Kansas-specific numbers aren’t easy to find. But according to occupational employment estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor, the number of reporters and correspondents working in Kansas dropped from 530 in 2007 to 350 in 2017, a 33 percent decrease.

Such losses in reporting power carry real-world consequences. A recent study shows that the loss of local papers has made it more difficult for public health experts to detect disease outbreaks. Another study suggests that when newspapers are no longer around to perform their watchdog function, costs for bonds – the amount that local governments pay to borrow money – rise significantly. That study included Kansas, where the authors found that 17 newspapers had closed between 1996 and 2015.

The loss of local newspapers also contributes to growing levels of political polarization, another study released earlier this year found. When voters have fewer opportunities to learn about local candidates, they are more likely to turn to cable news or simply vote their national party preference in local races, diminishing bipartisan voting.

These studies add to a growing body of evidence that suggests that residents don’t actually have to read a newspaper to benefit from it. The existence of the paper itself and the coverage it provides influences the health of the community for subscribers and non-subscribers alike.

Diminished coverage also means communities have less civic glue bonding residents. In Hutchinson, Deming says he sees fewer feature stories that tell heartwarming news about his neighbors. In Wichita, former City Council member Lavonta Williams says stories involving the city’s minority communities aren’t getting much attention.

“We find that we have lost service,” Williams says. “Our community misses out. There are many people who complain about the size of the paper – if there’s a good wind, it’ll blow away.” And she adds: “I know that many people feel it’s not worth it, the size of the paper.”

WHAT’S NEXT

The shifting fortunes of newspapers are resulting in some very literal changes to city landscapes.

In Wichita, The Eagle left its big office building – it was knocked down to make way for a new headquarters for Cargill – for a smaller location in the city’s Old Town district. In Kansas City, staffers last year left the Star’s century-old downtown headquarters for a nearby building where the paper is printed (which is also now for sale). The Journal-World’s News Center in downtown Lawrence was sold to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas in March.

Despite it all, many newspapers – and the reporters who remain – continue to be key contributors to their communities. “It’s still the newspaper of record,” says Hutch’s Ray Hemman, who now serves as spokesman for the city’s school district. “The reporters who are there are doing a yeoman’s job, for lack of a better term, but they do a very good job with the resources they have.”

The bottom line for community members, though, is that nobody else is riding in to save your newspaper. If you want news coverage of your community and the civic benefits it provides, Doll argues that residents within communities must take responsibility.

“It really requires that people care enough about what’s going on in their communities that they’re going to support a local product,” she says. “Some days I wonder whether the public is discerning enough to care whether they’re listening to a guy in his basement saying ‘Here’s what I heard on the scanner’ – half of what you hear on the scanner is wrong – and news delivered by a skilled professional.”

Berg, the Star publisher, is blunt about what that support looks like. “What we do is expensive,” he says, and later adds: “I think the best way to ensure local news is in a watchdog role is to invest in a subscription.”

If you believe that your community’s needs are not being adequately met, then residents need to find and support people who are willing to provide coverage. It might take the invention of new approaches and even organizations. In Johnson County, for instance, the husband-and-wife team of Jay Senter and Julia Westhoff publish the online-only Shawnee Mission Post, supported by paid subscriptions, which has filled a void in suburban news coverage.

Anstaett, for one, sees plenty of advantages to a resurgence in the local ownership of news organizations.

“I guess my ideal situation would be that a gob of newspapers would go back to local ownership,” he says. “I think that’s the only thing that can save them. When … people know who you are and know they can talk to you … that day has got to return. And in those communities where that’s not the case, people don’t feel as close to their newspapers.”

But who’s going to be willing to take the business risk? In central Kansas, Joey Young and Kansas Publishing Ventures have found success with a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach that mixes print and digital coverage of local communities, as well as the creation of big events – such as an annual blues concert – and the publication of local history books.

“We’ll do all sorts of stuff,” says Young. “I get very frustrated when we talk about the future of the industry in large round-table settings and it always just falls into … talking about how great it was back in the day. It’s never going to be like the ’70s. But it doesn’t have to be, to be an effective business.”

But if it’s true that newspapers need readers, and residents need, if not newspapers, at least vibrant news organizations for their communities to thrive, there’s clearly all too often a divide between the two. Newspapers could long subsidize the full costs of their news by selling advertisers access to their readers. As that well dried up, too many prospective readers didn’t value the product enough to shell out their hard-earned dollars for good, local information.

If there’s hope for strengthening the connection between news organizations and the communities they serve, then it might come first in those places where news gatherers have to form the closest of ties. There are still plenty of places in Kansas where locally owned papers are persevering.

In Marysville, a town of 3,200 people north of Manhattan, near the Nebraska state line, Kessinger took over the Advocate from her father and mother. The business is tougher than it used to be, and she worries about the future. “The young readers, we still haven’t cracked that nut – what it’ll take to get them to use our website, to pay for our website, because I don’t think they’re going to papers,” she says.

Still, she marvels at the work done by her “underpaid and overqualified” staff of 11. “They work so hard, and they’re so loyal,” she says. “I think it’s because they like the community a lot.”

And so she has decided on a strategy of hopefulness about the future of her newspaper.

“I think you have to be optimistic,” Kessinger said. “My father was – I almost said, ‘optimistic to the point of unrealistic.’ He was a publisher, and he always told me it’ll get better. It always does. I think I’m going to have to go with that.”

A version of this article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/1yrgiftsub.

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