Loss Of Independent Papers Debated At Conference

By: Christopher Wills, Associated Press Writer

(AP) As big chains buy up more of the nation’s newspapers, high-quality community journalism is often sacrificed for the sake of profits, participants said Monday at a conference on the future of independent newspapers.

Others, though, said outside ownership is just as likely to bring improvements to independent and family-owned papers, where publishers sometimes shy away from aggressive reporting for fear of angering their neighbors.

Publisher Brandt Ayers was among those critical of corporate ownership. He and others said chains scrimp on reporters, cut back on coverage, and leave important decisions to managers who come and go without getting to know the community.

“It’s not about counting beans. It’s about information. It’s about journalism. It’s about ideas,” said Ayers, who runs the Anniston Star in Alabama.

Al Neuharth, retired chairman of the Gannett Co., stood up for the chains. “I think most of the concern has been based on a fear of what might happen, rather than the facts of what has happened,” he said.

During his tenure at Gannett, Neuharth said the company acquired 69 newspapers — and the families usually came to Gannett looking to sell.

The conference — “The Independent Family Newspaper in America: Its Future and Relevance” — was sponsored by the University of Illinois journalism department and The News-Gazette of Champaign-Urbana, a 150-year-old family-owned newspaper.

Participants offered little hope that the trend away from independently owned newspapers — which make up about 250 of the nation’s 1,500 daily newspapers — could be halted.

Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen warned big corporations could dominate the news media even more if the Federal Communications Commission drops rules that bar most companies from owning newspapers and TV stations in the same market.

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