By Gary Sosniecki
It wasn’t my idea to buy a weekly newspaper.
I was content having transitioned from political reporter to sports editor of a 30,000-circulation daily newspaper. The pay was good. I had become part of the management team. I had been allowed to hire some bright young reporters. We were making a name for ourselves journalistically in traditional sports coverage and in-depth pieces. And the sports-department ethics policy I had written was being recognized as one of the first in the country.
My wife was not so content. She was managing editor of a smaller, competing daily, a position she won after refusing to train the man her boss wanted to hire for it. The 1970s were not an easy time for young women breaking into the newspaper business. This was her second job out of college, and Helen had fought sexual discrimination in both of them. In this job, her boss even had told her she didn’t need a raise because her “husband made good money.”
It had been Helen’s lifelong dream to buy a weekly newspaper. So she quit her job and started contacting newspaper brokers. We visited weekly newspapers in Wisconsin and Illinois before she learned of a weekly for sale only an hour from her hometown in Missouri.
Humansville, Missouri, had a population of only 907, but it had a solid business district – as in potential advertisers — that included two lumber yards, two hardware stores, a furniture store, two clothing stores, a pharmacy, four cafes, three insurance agencies, a physician, two dentists, a funeral home and, most importantly, a modern supermarket that bought a full-page ad every week and a bank that bought a quarter page. Several of the business owners were young like us.
The Humansville Star-Leader circulated to 1,500 homes in the corners of three rural counties. Newspaper revenue was supplemented by a print shop that, among other jobs, printed election ballots for its home county.
We bought the Star-Leader on Aug. 1, 1980, using our savings from seven years of employment as a down payment. We bought our first newspaper before we bought our first house.
Not surprisingly, Helen fell in love with owning a small-town newspaper. Surprisingly, so did this city kid. So much so that over a 27-year period, we bought and sold three weeklies, each in a town a little bigger than the one before.
We never were bored. We covered city councils whose members at times were on the verge of slugging each other or members of the audience. We forced school boards to hold open meetings. We covered train wrecks and murders. (One murder victim was a small-town mayor who supported an ordinance banning pigs from the city limits.) We reported on presidential visits and a sheriff who liked to pose with a machine gun. We wrote features, and we wrote investigative pieces. We covered a state-championship basketball team and a winless basketball team, the former more fun than the latter.
We helped one of our readers appear on David Letterman’s show. We campaigned to build a new library and to improve safety at railroad and highway crossings. We attended school plays and concerts and helped organize local festivals. We ate at fund-raising pancake breakfasts, pork-steak lunches and fish-fry suppers.
Through our editorials, we were the town disciplinarians and the town cheerleaders. We weren’t always popular, but we still made lifetime friends in each of our newspaper towns.
We also learned to sell advertising. Pretty well, in fact. Every one of our newspapers made enough money for us to live comfortably in small towns where the cost of living was low.
We worked harder than we ever had worked – sometimes seven days and six nights a week — but the rewards were enormous.
If we were 10 years younger, we would buy another newspaper and do it all again.
In fact, it’s a buyer’s market right now for weekly newspapers. (You can buy one in our state right now, in a town of more than 2,000 residents, for only $40,000. That’s less than what we paid in 1980.) Unfortunately, some newspaper groups are shuttering small-town and suburban weeklies that don’t meet their revenue goals. Even sadder, many owners of our generation waited too long to sell and – unable to find buyers – are shutting down their papers. In both instances, the community becomes a so-called “news desert.”
According to 2018 study by North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism, 171 counties in the United States have no newspaper at all. One of them is the county adjacent to ours.
It’s a conundrum that independently owned weekly newspapers are closing for lack buyers at the same time that journalists who would make good weekly-newspaper owners are being laid off in record numbers by metro newspapers and national newspaper groups.
The challenge for our industry is to convince these unemployed journalists to explore the joys and rewards of owning a small-town newspaper.
Not every market that supported a newspaper in the past can support one now. But unlike many of their big-city brethren, weekly newspapers in healthy markets still can be good investments. If the population is stable, if most storefronts on Main Street are filled, if the town has its own school and the all-important sense of community, the prospects for a weekly newspaper succeeding long-term are good.
It’s encouraging to hear of a partnership between West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media and the West Virginia Press Association “to recruit, develop and train the next generation of independent newspaper owners.” Hopefully, we’ll see other journalism schools and state press associations partner in similar programs.
But you don’t have to wait if you’re unemployed now and uncertain how to stay in the newspaper business. Check out the press association website in your state and see if any newspapers are for sale. Call the press association manager and ask the same question. Do a Google search for newspaper brokers, and find one who handles papers within your budget.
Because owning your own newspaper can be the most satisfying job you’ve ever had.