The statistics show a steady continuation last year of a decades-long trend ? independent newspapers being slowly gobbled up by chains.
Since 1978, the number of independent papers has plunged from 634 to 317, with a drop of 21 in 1995 alone, according to the brokerage firm Dirks, Van Essen and Associates.
But looking at the personality of American newspapers ? the people who embody the traditions of newspapers as local institutions ? the trend seems to have hit especially hard in the past year or so.
Some of the most prominent families have sold their papers ? after generations of family ownership, long histories of community service, and commitments to journalism and industry affairs.
They include the Daniels family in Raleigh, N.C., the Whichards of Greenville, N.C., the Millers in Pittsfield, Mass., the Ghigliones in Southbridge, Mass., the Smiths in Alexandria, La., and the Schumanns of Vero Beach, Fla.
With few exceptions, the buyers are large chains, whether closely held or publicly traded. The motives for selling range from financial problems ? typically weak local economies or heavy debt burdens ? to the desire to secure a newspaper's future by joining a large, corporate family.
Buyers range from high bidders to companies chosen for being better equipped to face future uncertainties and whose corporate culture is likely to preserve the selling newspaper's heritage.
"I don't know if there's a thread running through all transactions," said Owen Van Essen, a broker who handles many sales of closely held newspaper companies. "In general, it's safe to say many independent owners of dailies have concerns about how they are going to fit in with the developing new media . . . . Some folks have decided that the health of the company is better off aligned with a larger entity."
While the stereotype portrays a family selling out to a greedy corporation ? driven by profit, lacking community ties and partial to slash-and-burn newspaper management ? history says type of ownership has little to do with newspaper quality. In other words, independent papers can be as good ? or bad ? as chain-owned papers.
As Loren Ghiglione, a former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors who championed newsroom diversity, concluded in a 1984 book he edited, The Buying and
Selling of America's Newspapers, "It's virtually impossible to generalize" about the impact of group ownership.
After an eroding retail environment and the "Wal-Marting" of New England finally forced him to sell the Southbridge News last November to two men with local newspaper experience, Ghiglione still says, "It's too simplistic to say the groups are bad guys and independent owners are good guys."
In Ghiglione's case, the sale to independent owners was "the best option available," he said, because newspaper groups were more interested in larger papers.
"If everything were equal, I would choose on the side of an independent because I am an independent," he added. "But I could anticipate a group would do better than an independent."
The age-old debate about whether growing chain ownership is good or bad for newspapers is founded on a long tradition of entrepreneurship and independence in family newspaper dynasties. The record is mixed, however.
Family newspapers traditionally sell because of economic necessity, family unrest or generational change. Lately, however, some sellers cite the need for protection against an uncertain future.
Bigger companies have more technical know-how, more money and the critical mass necessary to compete in an evolving arena of new media. Rather than face costly investments at a time of generational change in the future, some family-owned papers are deciding to join a bigger family now ? while they have the luxury of selecting a successor.
It helps that prices are high, approaching the peaks of the late 1980s ? especially for the most desirable papers, those with little competition in growing, mid-sized markets. Also lifting prices are generally stronger advertising and a bullishness about newspapers in a more diverse media future, brokers say, an optimism that newspapers will survive the Internet as they did radio, television and cable.
A century and a year after Josephus Daniels bought the paper at auction for $10,000, his successors sold the Pulitzer Prize-winning Raleigh News & Observer to McClatchy Newspapers in a deal worth $373 million.
Frank Daniels Jr., who remains as publisher, and who is chairman of the Associated Press, the world's largest news organization, has no regrets. The loss of family ownership "doesn't have to be a loss," he said.
While some groups improve the newspapers they acquire, other papers become "denigrated and less valuable to their communities" under group ownership, Daniels observed.
"I do not believe we are going to suffer that fate in the McClatchy group," he said.
The News & Observer picked McClatchy ? and never solicited other offers ? after management decided to sell the company and Erwin Potts, McClatchy CEO and a director of the N&O made an offer, Daniels said.
N&O shareholders chose McClatchy after having sold the company several South Carolina dailies and seeing its "commitment to allow newspapers to operate at the local level," Daniels said, adding that after six years under McClatchy, the papers are "as good or better than when we owned them. They recognize that quality pays dividends."
Looking at group management nationally, Daniels agreed the issue is too mixed to draw conclusions. While there is "more sameness" than there used to be, newspapers still vary widely because most groups give local managers autonomy, he said, adding, "Some do good jobs. Some do some sorry jobs."
In 1969, 28-year-old Ghiglione fulfilled a dream by buying the Southbridge News on credit from an owner who "didn't want to sell to a group." Ghiglione and his wife, Nancy, went on to build the lone daily, with $340,000 a year in revenues, into the centerpiece of a group of 25 weeklies bringing in over $20 million a year.
"It's been an economic challenge for the last five or six years, and I think the time was right," said Ghiglione, the author of several journalism books who has taken a job with Freedom Forum's Newseum.
Seventy miles east of Raleigh, David Jordan Whichard III, the 38-year-old publisher of the Greenville, N.C., Daily Reflector ? circulation 19,000 daily, 21,000 Sunday ? is the fourth generation of his family to follow in the footsteps of David Jordan Whichard, who founded the paper in 1882 as a weekly.
The family decided to sell, however, because "we think the changes taking place in the industry made it unlikely we would effectively maintain independent ownership through the next decade," he said.
For one thing, the cost of developing new media products "made it highly unlikely we could compete effectively in the future as small, independent owners."
That's why shareholders ? headed by his dad, David Jordan Whichard II, and his uncle, John S. Whichard ? decided on a short list of possible acquirers and approached Cox Enterprises. The junior family member remains as publisher under Cox.
With the "luxury" of not being forced, the Whichards decided Cox ? with vastly more capital, a diverse media mix, aggressive steps in new media and a shared tradition of quality ? was the best bet for maintaining "excellence for readers, opportunity for employees, service for advertisers and be effective stewards for the community," the publisher said.
"We regard the paper almost as a member of the family. It, therefore, was like
a death in the family when
we decided to sell," he went on. "But in the long term, by making the decision, as difficult and emotional as it was, we are really helping to secure the health of the institution."
While tears were shed, ultimately, "this not a sad story for us," he said.
W. Dean Singleton, who, in a little more than a decade,
?(The Whichard family decided to sell its Greenville (S.C.) Daily Reflector to the Cox chain because it had vastly more capital, a diverse media mix, was taking aggressive steps in new media and offered a shared tradition of quality, publisher David Jordan Whichard III said.) [Photo& Caption]
?(The Raleigh (N.C.) News &
Observer was sold by the Daniels family to McClatchy because of the chain's
commitment to allow newspapers to operate at the local level, said Frank Daniels Jr. After six years under McClatchy, he said, the papers are "as good or better than when we owned them. They recognize that quality pays dividends.") [Photo & Caption]
?("It's been an economic challenge for the last five or six years, and I think the time was right," said Loren Ghiglione, who recently sold his Southbridge, Mass., News to two local people rather than to a chain. ) [Photo & Caption]
By: GEORGE GARNEAU LOOK AROUND THE Newspaper Association of America convention in New York this year and some familiar faces may be missing.