By: ROXANA HEGEMAN
When Earl Watt quit his job as publisher of the town’s 121-year-old newspaper, he went from being its valued employee to its biggest nemesis, turning this southwest Kansas community into one of the nation’s most unlikely battlegrounds over newspaper cutbacks.
Watt and 15 employees of the Southwest Times walked off their jobs after its out-of-town owners scaled back the then-daily paper to a three-day-a-week publication a year ago. Gadsden, Ala.-based Lancaster Management Inc., which owns 18 newspapers in nine states, also raised fees, cut staff and slashed the paper’s newswire service, comics, television listings and other features.
Suddenly, Liberal — population 20,000 and nestled in the Kansas prairie — became a two-paper town. A third publication, a weekly, seeks the same readers and advertisers, too.
“You are going to see communities rise up,” Watt said. “Just as communities don’t want to lose their schools and grocery store … they don’t want to see their newspaper gone either.”
What happened next has caught the flailing newspaper industry’s attention: Watt and his renegade band of workers bought a $150,000 printing press and in May began publishing a daily newspaper, the High Plains Daily Leader.
Watt, who worked at the Times for 17 years before he quit, likened his venture to pioneering newspapermen who came to the American frontier with their lead type and printing presses.
“We may be in front of a trend: communities taking their newspaper back.”
Liberal Publishing Co., which puts out the Southwest Times, sued Watt and his wife, along with four other former employees, last month alleging computer fraud, fraudulent misrepresentation and breach of fiduciary duty. It also accused them of deceit, interfering with business relations, defamation and civil conspiracy.
The former employees have denied any wrongdoing.
In court documents filed Jan. 19, defense attorneys argued that none of the employees had a noncompete agreement and that their work for a new newspaper is protected under the First Amendment.
“Competition is the American way, and even being in business for 121 years still does not entitle Plaintiff to have a monopoly over the newspaper trade in Liberal, Kansas,” the attorneys wrote.
As the primary owner of the limited liability corporation that publishes the High Plain Daily Leader, Watt said he plans to share 20 percent of the paper’s profits evenly among employees at the end of its first year. The paper now has 20 workers.
While the advent of the Internet has spurred a flurry of online news ventures, the birth of a traditional daily newspaper remains a rare event, particularly when dailies are cutting back print editions and bolstering their Web presence.
The last big daily newspaper to begin print publication was USA Today in 1982 , although a couple of smaller dailies have started up in the past two years, said Brian Steffens, executive director of the National Newspaper Association.
But with used printing presses plummeting in price and becoming more available, owning a daily newspaper has become increasingly more affordable, Watt said. Also, he said, his newspaper could get by with less of a profit than others, which may have bigger debts to pay.
“Don’t get greedy and quit paying too much for newspapers so you stranglehold them with debt to the bank. Let them function,” Watt said. “The death sentence for newspapers is mostly self-inflicted.”
The Daily Leader prints an edition every day but Saturday. It offers readers The Associated Press news wire service, comics, television listings and other features, along with a heavy local news emphasis. It prints 2,200 papers daily and 2,700 on Sunday.
At the Southwest Times, employees ramble around the cavernous building that still houses the town’s old newspaper. For the past year, the Times has published print editions only on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
The paper traces its beginnings to 1886, when its predecessor was established by a couple of homesteading brothers from Missouri. Its Web site boasts that by 1900, the paper was the lone survivor of more than 20 failed newspaper ventures in the county.
The employee walkout in May left only the staff in the paper’s print shop and mailroom, said Times Managing Editor James Gutzmer. About three-fourths of its current employees, including Gutzmer, were hired in the past six months, he said. The paper now employs about 40 people.
“We basically were handed a blank slate,” Gutzmer said.
The Times has since brought back its old masthead, as well as comics and TV listings. It continues to focus on local news but has added lifestyle and religion sections. It supplements its three-day print publication with online updates.
Its corporate owners also bought new equipment, including computers.
Gutzmer said the competition has made the Times a better paper.
“That is the thing we learned more than anything: This community needs a community newspaper,” Gutzmer said.
He and the new publisher, Larry Reynolds, also say they haven’t received any corporate pressure about how to run the paper. The Times prints about 3,000 copies on Wednesday and Friday and 5,500 copies for the Sunday edition.
Back at the Daily Leader, Robert Caraway recently stopped by to deliver an advertisement for his wife’s income tax preparation business, saying she advertises in both papers. He said he likes having two papers in town and often reads them both.
“When you got one, they get complacent,” he said. “They do what they want to do. But when you got two, you get competition.”