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The Future of Journalism May Live on Through Family-Owned Newspapers
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The Future of Journalism May Live on Through Family-Owned Newspapers

Written by
Gretchen A. Peck
Published by
Editor & Publisher
on
March 9th, 2020

“Our owners feel like the local journalism piece is critically important to our community”

The stories are familiar now. A longtime newspaper family decides to sell off their publications to a larger public corporation (which then slashes costs and lays off employees), or worse, a longtime newspaper family decides to shut down their 100-year-old paper after losing money for so many years.

But that’s not the story for all families that own newspapers. E&P spoke to a few of these privately held companies that are still going strong to discuss their challenges and their successes, and most importantly, how they plan to sustain their family legacy.

Investing in Future Generations

At the Sierra Vista, Arizona-based Wick Communications, local journalism is “the crux of the work we do,” said Francis Wick, president and CEO, and a third-generation family owner.

The business was founded in 1926 by two brothers from the Wick family in Niles, Ohio. Their first newspaper title was the Niles Daily Times. Today, they publish newspapers in 11 states. The company is keenly focused on growing its digital audience, so that it can comfortably support the newsroom.

“Our family has been identified, for many generations now, with the work we do in serving the community through local, professionally written journalism,” Wick said.

Across its titles, local journalism manifests in several ways, including general information news and community watchdog reporting, with regular coverage of local government, the school board, and other local organizations and businesses.

A particular strategic partnership enabled expanded coverage on an underreported topic. Wick shared that one of his Colorado daily newspapers partnered with a statewide non-profit journalism organization to work on a story about trailer parks.

“We looked at the challenges that trailer parks impose—both the perceptional and literal—on a community,” he said. “We really tried to bring some light to that issue, and we found a partner to work with us that could bring more state-wide and regional perspectives.”

Wick newspapers are also reaching out to subject-matter experts—not just as sources, but as partners in the telling of the stories. Take the sensitive and serious matter of reporting on mental illness, for example.

“It’s a topic that, whenever I engage with law enforcement from Anytown, USA, they immediately tell me that it’s one of the leading drivers and challenges they face,” Wick said. “They are not well resourced. In society, we discuss it, but we’re not seeing a lot from a policy or leadership standpoint around it, and it’s a fundamental challenge for our country and in the communities we serve.

“So, we reached out to different organizations to try to get some better understanding of what questions to ask and how to ask them,” he continued. “These are the types of opportunities that allow you to bring awareness to a topic thanks to the right partnership.”

Wick predicted that partnerships of this kind will become increasingly important to his and other news organizations.

One of the greatest operational challenges Wick faces is prioritizing and focusing resources. The end goal is to create content that’s distinctive, useful and reliable.

“Our readers must be willing to pay for it,” he said. “They must understand that it adds value to their lives and their community.”

Which brings up another challenge: Survival.

“Our biggest concern is that, if there’s not local professional journalism taking place, we don’t know what the alternative is to that,” Wick said.

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Wick also acknowledged that some of the cause for industry consolidation and collapse can be placed at the feet of news businesses purely focused on profits, but he also believes that much of rural America is having a difficult time financially supporting local news. News deserts create a frightening void that will likely be filled by something. The best-case scenario? A non-profit takes over the role of informing the community. The worst?

“Today, we hear a lot about municipalities starting to take over the arena of communal information gathering and distribution. Well, if you’re supposed to be your own watchdog, how well does that work? We know where this goes. We’ve seen it in other countries,” Wick said.

While other privately held media companies have been wooed by acquisition offers, the Wick family has never considered selling the company.

“Our family has invested a tremendous amount of time and effort to ensure that the company continues on for future generations,” Wick said. “It’s been nearly 95 years of effort, work, sweat and tears…Our family is invested in maintaining the company, to try to build upon it and grow around it. It may look different 10 years from now. Right now, we’re predominantly in media and newspapers, but we’ve looked at things that we feel are complementary to the business.”

Wick Communications was one of 34 recipients of the North America Google News Initiative (GNI) Challenge grant. It gives cash infusions to a selective group of applicants “to create a journalist-curated, hyperlocal social media platform to develop critical community connections,” according to the developer. Here, the grant is being invested into Wick’s Neighborhood Assisted Bureau Reporting platform, a dialogue-driven news gathering and reporting channel for each of the title communities.

“There are a lot of high notes here,” Wick said. “We’ve been focusing our efforts on deploying our digital strategy with a focus on the reader. We’ve launched an app in all of our markets. We’ve also launched locally curated digital e-newsletters. We’re working on enhancing our paywall system, and this year, we’ll be coalescing all of those points of contact. They’ve all been separate pieces of the puzzle, and now it’s time to connect those, so that when the customer interacts with us, we’re communicating with them in every way possible that we can.”

Wick knows that his company is becoming an anomaly—a tightly held family asset unseduced by the prospect of acquisition.

“There are fewer family-owned businesses than there have ever been,” he said. “I’m very proud of being part of one because when you have a local community newspaper, owned by a family with a direct relation to the community, they’re going to donate more. The way they practice philanthropy and giving back is more meaningful.”

Continuing the Mission

One of the strategies that has served New York City-based Schneps Media well is its progressive adoption of technology and platform.

“Media is going through an evolution. There’s no question about that,” Joshua Schneps said. He’s the publisher and CEO of Schneps Media, the privately held company founded by his mother, which produces daily and community newspapers, magazines, websites, podcasts, and live events.

“The question, as a business owner, is: How do you address it? How do you put yourself in the best position possible to survive and grow?” Schneps said. “I don’t think there’s any fighting what’s happening in media, so how do you embrace it? How do you differentiate yourself? How do you reach more readers, and how do you get return for your advertisers? It’s all part of running the business, but you can’t do it the same way you did in the past, because that just won’t work.”

Schneps mother, Victoria Schneps-Yunis, founded the company in the 1980s, producing her very first newspaper from her living room. Her focus then and now is wholly on serving the community, her son said.

“My mom started with one paper, and as a community activist, her belief was always in fighting for and serving the community,” Schneps said.

Today, the company takes a digital-first approach to publishing local news. To illustrate their platform-progressive culture, Schneps offered the website as an example.

“We had digital editors before there was any way to monetize our website,” he said. “But we felt strongly that we needed to be there, and we need to embrace different platforms in order to engage with our readers. At the end of the day, content is critical, but so is reaching readers. It becomes a very difficult cultural obstacle when you wait a long time to recognize that.”

Schneps also noted that his company has invested in live events for almost 20 years—long before other publishers caught on to that value proposition.

Moving forward, he’d like to produce more high-quality video for their digital titles.

“Using all of these platforms is how you grow an audience,” Schneps said. “It’s the website; it’s collecting emails and growing a database; it’s using social media and growing your followers; it’s the live events, where you’re connecting face-to-face with people; it’s the podcast; and the app and those downloads.”

The company estimates its audience to be more than 2 million, across New York City’s boroughs, Westchester and Long Island, New York, and Philadelphia.

Years ago, the Schneps family was approached by the publisher of the New York Post with acquisition interest.

“They bought our competitor in Queens, and then they bought a group of community newspapers in the Bronx, and then in Brooklyn,” Schneps said. “But as fate would have it, we ended up owning all of those newspapers.”

While technology and platform has been ever-evolving at the company, the mission of Victoria Schneps-Yunis endures.

“It’s just informing our readers about what’s happening in their neighborhoods. That’s our mission—hyper-hyperlocal,” Schneps said.

The Strength of Commitment

The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. was founded in 1803 and is lauded as “the South’s oldest daily newspaper.” Since 1894, the Pulitzer-winning newspaper, and now its 12 sister titles, have been owned by four generations of the Manigault family. Pierre Manigault—a photojournalist, editor, and film editor himself—presides as the chairman of the board of the privately held company, Evening Post Industries.

“Our owners feel like the local journalism piece is critically important to our community,” president and CEO John Barnwell said.

At the Post and Courier alone, the newsroom is filled with a staff of 80, including 40 reporters, Barnwell said, along with a strong investigative reporting team.

On a single day in February, postandcourier.com had several examples of local journalism at work, including a community impact piece about the closure of six local grocery stores; an article about community contention over a road construction project; and a cautionary tale of how a state law endangers police and the public. Prominently placed on the homepage is a subscription prompt that reads: Support local news you can trust.

“We still believe that having feet on the street is important,” Barnwell said. “We’re keeping those feet on the street and insisting that we have a place at the table, with strong political reporting.”

One of the advantages of directing a privately held company, according to Barnwell, is in its shareholders. Here, 60 percent of the shareholders are family members, many of whom have spent their entire lives in the news business. It allows for longer-lens perspectives about strategy, Barnwell said.

Diversification has also been instrumental in sustaining their publications. Besides the newspaper segment, the company has had operated other businesses in broadcast media and in timber/forestry. The company sold off its broadcast business in 2018 for a reported $521 million, which allowed for a renewed focus on the newspapers, Barnwell said.

“The biggest advantage that a family owned organization has is commitment—commitment to journalism and financial commitment,” he explained. “We continue to be profitable, and I believe that we’re profitable because there’s still a strong desire for our product in the community.”

Moving forward, the company’s focus will be on continuing to grow its digital audience. Within the next five years, Barnwell said he would like to see most of their revenue derived from digital subscriptions.

Last year, E&P named Post and Courier’s P.J. Browning as its Publisher of the Year, and in February, Barnwell received word that the company was the recipient of News Media Alliance’s John P. Murray Award for Excellence in Audience Development.

“I think we’re recognized as a leader among newspapers of our size,” he said. “We’re jazzed about the fact that we have a vibrant newsroom that’s winning awards, and we’re excited about our continued prospects in growing digital subscriptions, which has been gathering a lot of momentum recently. We’re heading in the right direction, and we certainly have the support of our owners, who continue to invest in the company—especially human capital—so we are optimistic about our business.”

Serving the Community

Peter Imes is the publisher of the Commercial Dispatch in Columbus, Miss. His family has owned the newspaper for four generations, and for his newspaper, local continues to be a main focus in their reporting.

“When you go to a city council meeting or to a meeting of the school board, you’ll find that there are very few citizens who actually show up and are engaged enough to sit through a one- to three-hour meeting,” Imes said. “But there are decisions being made at that level and by local officials that are affecting everyone in the community. I think the media’s role is to not only report what happens in those meetings, but interpret what the behind-the-scenes intent is and what the consequences are.”

Imes offered one example.

“(We did a) series on our local school district, which was really in trouble,” he said. “Grades were plummeting; drop-out rates were high. We dedicated a couple of months and an entire Sunday issue of the paper just to looking at the problems the school district was facing, as well as possible solutions. Our news section looked at it in terms of what the board was doing and what was happening at the superintendent level. Our sports edition looked at those programs and how academics played a role, and our lifestyle section looked at families and home aspects of education.”

Imes recounted leaner times, roughly 12 years ago, when their organization struggled with austerity measures and layoffs. But he’s proud that staffing levels have remained constant for more than a decade now.

The other consistent theme for the news organization is its allegiance to print. Part of the reason for that is practical (there are communities in Mississippi that still lack reliable and affordable access to the internet) and another part of it is cultural.

“We don’t buy into the mindset that everything has to be pushed to social media, nor does it have to be first published on the web,” Imes said. “We still believe that our strength is our print media. That’s where we can give the most in-depth and accurate story.”

When further defining family-business mission, Imes noted that he’s proud of the newspaper’s legacy for ensuring transparency in government and for “holding government officials’ feet to the fire.”

“The ownership of this paper—as recently as 2018—have all committed to the idea that operating this newspaper as a community service is important,” Imes said. “Profits are secondary. The ownership and leadership are all within the family and closely held, and we are all of the same mindset that it’s important to continue this operation as long as possible to serve the community.”

Gretchen A. Peck is an independent journalist who has reported on publishing and journalism for more than two decades. She began her reporting career covering municipal government at a suburban Philadelphia daily and also served as an editor-in-chief/editorial director for a magazine publisher. She has contributed to Editor & Publisher since 2010 and can be reached at [email protected]

© Editor & Publisher

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