Taking the Longview

By: Joe Strupp

Taking the Longview
Howard buys the Washington State’s Daily News

At The Daily News in Longview, Wash., change has come fast and furious, and not everyone is sure what it will mean.
Since the 76-year-old newspaper was sold last month by third-generation owners John and Ted Natt to Howard Publications of Seattle, upheavels ranging from the loss of several editors to a salary freeze to plans for a Sunday edition have thrown many veteran readers and reporters for a loop.
Although some say the takeover is a chance to pump more money and life into the small publication, others in the community fear that outside ownership will cause the paper to lose a community feeling.
“If it had not changed hands, I’d still be working there,” says Robert Gaston, 54, who served as managing editor from 1974 until his resignation last month. “It is disruptive and a little troublesome.”
Just days after Howard Publications took over and installed new publisher Peter York, a string of surprise changes was announced. The company froze salaries, knocking out a planned 3% raise, announced a switch from afternoon to morning delivery, and hired a new managing editor from out of state.
“People can be reluctant to change, but I think they will like it,” says York, 49, who came to the publisher’s job from an advertising directorship at the Howard-owned Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D. “We are making changes for long-term stability.”
Along with switches in management and delivery schedules, York also plans to add a Sunday paper, institute three zoned editions, and remodel the newspaper building with a new distribution center.
While some changes have been welcomed, others have drawn criticism among staffers and readers who say such a dramatic overhaul in staff, production, and delivery can hit both employees and residents hard.
Although the long-term effects of the Howard purchase are still unknown, and could eventually bring a better, more modern newspaper to residents, the sale’s shake-up has meant big adjustments that have been difficult to swallow.
“A chain can bring resources that a small paper cannot have,” says Tony Giffard, director of the school of communications at the nearby University of Washington. “But the downside is they don’t have ties to the local community, and publishers tend to be rotated in and out.”
In the months leading up to the sale, The Daily News lost nine of its 33 editorial employees, including the managing editor, city editor, assistant city editor, features editor, and graphics editor, according to Gaston. He says most of the workers had more than 10 years of experience at the paper.
Although some workers were heading toward retirement, others say that they did not believe a newspaper chain could give the local attention needed to the 23,000-circulation daily, which found national acclaim in the early 1980s when it won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Mount St. Helens’ volcanic eruption.
“During the time of the sale, there was a real uncertainty about what was happening,” says Andrew Wahl, 29, a former graphics editor who jumped ship to go to The Wenatchee (Wash.) World nearby. “I have a real problem with chain ownership.
But, as Giffard points out, bringing in an outside publisher and editor often allows a newspaper to be more critical of local officials and government policies.
“There is more of a willingness by an outsider to take an unpopular stand than someone who has been a member of the Rotary Club for 20 years,” says Giffard.
Industry observers also credit Howard Publications for being one of the more professional and news-driven newspaper groups in the country. They say the family-owned chain, which owns 16 other daily newspapers, has a reputation for giving local papers autonomy and urging local coverage.
“They are dedicated to quality and local reporting,” says George Harmon, chairman of news/editorial at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. “They don’t strike me as one of these newspaper groups that cuts quality for profit margins.”
Harmon, who says he has worked extensively with The Times, a Howard-owned daily in Munster, Ind., credits the chain for investing in new technology and modern reporting.
Bill Howard, vice president for newspapers and publisher of the Munster publication, says he understands why some in Longview would be hesitant to embrace the new owners, but assures them the company intends to expand and improve.
“We’re in the business of growing rather than shrinking markets,” Howard says.
That growth could be needed to stem a recent readership loss that cut daily circulation from 24,975 in 1998 to 23,997 this year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
One of the key changes for The Daily News since the sale is the loss of its trademark front-page editorial column by former publisher and co-owner Ted Natt. Although Natt had agreed to stay on and continue the column after the sale, he changed his mind after York asked that it be moved inside.
“It is their right to run the newspaper as they choose to,” says Natt. “But I didn’t want to write it that way.”
Natt, along with his brother John, owned more than 60% of the newspaper, and had given the remaining ownership to employees in the form of stock options prior to the sale. When Howard Publications took over, all three owners were bought out.
The former publisher says some of the changes disturb him but admits that a Sunday edition and a switch to morning delivery are positive moves.
“They are doing two things that ought to be done in this market” says Natt.
A glance at recent coverage indicates that the paper is still striving for local stories. A recent Page One offered coverage of a nearby lumber accident rescue, a visit by presidential contender George W. Bush to Spokane, and the second article in a series on stillbirths in
Cowlitz County.
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?(copyright: Editor & Publisher July 17, 1999) [Caption]

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