Founded in 1871, the Helena World is one of Arkansas’ oldest newspapers, yet it nearly met its demise on Sept. 6, 2019 when its owner, GateHouse Media, decided to close it. Amazingly, on the same day Chuck Davis and Andrew Bagley announced they had acquired the World. The men became the newspaper’s first local owners since 1981.
Davis is a retired businessman and Bagley, a freelancer for the old World, teaches American history and government at Phillips Community College at the University of Arkansas. Both are co-publishers of the World. Bagley is also a reporter for the paper.
While the men had no publishing experience, Bagley said they did not want to see their town without a local newspaper.
“The thought of my hometown without a reputable source of news and information scares me to even contemplate. We provide so much that would be missed if Chuck and I had not been able to save this newspaper,” he said. “In addition to the coverage of local government, who would run the wedding and engagement announcements, baby shower photos, honor rolls, ballgame write-ups, etc. Soft news is also important to a local community as well. What we do can’t be replicated by Facebook and Twitter.”
The men essentially purchased the newspaper’s name since GateHouse was not interested in selling the office building, and the printing press had been demolished years ago, said Bagley. Under the terms of sale, Bagley was not able to disclose how much the men paid for the World.
The first edition they produced was published Sept. 18, 2019, days after the acquisition. The World recently named Richard Kennedy as editor, which was a homecoming for him as he previously served as the previous editor under GateHouse ownership. Aside from Kennedy, Bagley and Davis, the staff currently includes two stringers and a bookkeeper. In the future, Bagley and Davis hope to hire more reporters.
Under their watch, the paper launched a new website with a paywall (helenaworld.org) and became a weekly, publishing on Wednesdays (it had previously been published twice a week). An annual subscription is priced at $100 and single rack copies are $1.
Despite the excitement of a second chance for the World, Bagley and Davis faced challenges early on. The community had lost confidence in the World, Bagley said. The newspaper did not publish a lot of local content, and as a result, the co-owners made the decision to publish national and state news on the website while mostly printing local content in the paper.
It seems the decision is paying off. Prior to its closing, the World had a paid circulation of 625, according to the Arkansas Press Association. The newspaper started 2020 with a circulation that was a little more than 700, Bagley shared. This October, the World had a combined subscription and rack sale circulation of more than 900.
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic came at an inopportune time as the World was still getting its bearings. The newspaper lost a lot of advertising, but despite all this, Bagley said he is proud of the way the team has handled it and he believes the World has “weathered the storm, if the storm doesn’t get any worse.”
Earlier this year, GateHouse also reversed its decision on selling the building, so Bagley and Davis decided to put it under renovations. Equipped with a new roof, staff and ownership, the World is now a publication the community can count on.
“One of the most important things about having local ownership of your community newspaper is we’re in it with you,” Bagley said. “This is our home. We understand you. We’re right here and we experience the story with you.”