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Gannett sells Pine Bluff Commercial to Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

by Bill Bowden | August 31, 2020 at 5:11 p.m.
Walter Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette speaks in Pine Bluff on Monday.

PINE BLUFF — Gannett has agreed to sell The Pine Bluff Commercial to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and its parent company, WEHCO Newspapers Inc. of Little Rock.

The Commercial ceased publication today under Gannett’s ownership and will resume publication Tuesday as part of the Democrat Gazette, said Walter Hussman Jr., publisher of the statewide newspaper.

“The Pine Bluff Commercial is going to have four pages,” Hussman said at an announcement event Monday in Pine Bluff. “It’s going to have a front page just like you see now. It’s going to have the same masthead. Those four pages are going to be in the Arkansas section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette every day, seven days a week. It’ll also be included in the print edition on Sunday.”

Hussman said The Pine Bluff Commercial pages will include local news, daily records, obituaries, an opinion page and sports.

The Commercial will be published in a digital replica format seven days a week as part of the Democrat-Gazette. The digital replica is identical to the print edition but delivered on an iPad or other computer device.

The combined newspapers will also be printed and delivered to subscribers in the Pine Bluff area through Oct. 12. After that time, subscribers will receive a print edition only on Sundays as part of the Sunday edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

[Live video not showing up above? Click here to view » https://www.facebook.com/arkansasonline/videos/620570561932936/]

“What we’re doing here today is really unique in American newspaper publishing,” Hussman said Monday. “What we have done so far with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and also the El Dorado News-Times, is we have switched to this seven-day-a-week digital replica of the paper and we deliver a paper on Sundays. But we have never bought a newspaper intending to do this. And the reason we’re doing this is we think this will be great for Pine Bluff. Actually, we think it will be good for our company.

“But if this works in Pine Bluff, this is going to be great for community journalism in America because it’s going to show a model and a path forward for other newspapers to be sustainable and survivable.”

Hussman said the Commercial has lost a lot of subscribers.

“In fact, over the last five years, they’ve lost more subscribers than they have today,” he said.

During a telephone interview on Sunday, Hussman said the Commercial has 2,100 subscribers. Hussman said a broker approached him about buying the Commercial.

In the deal, WEHCO also gets the Commercial’s name. He said it’s important to continue publication of such a well respected newspaper.

Founded in 1881, the Commercial is one of only two newspapers in Arkansas history that have won the Pulitzer Prize, which is journalism’s highest honor. The other was the Arkansas Gazette. Hussman purchased the Gazette’s assets in 1991 and published the first edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette the next day.

“We are pleased that The Pine Bluff Commercial, a newspaper with a great legacy and tradition, has found a new home with WEHCO and potentially a sustainable business model for many years to come,” said Jay Fogarty, senior vice president of corporate development for Gannett.

In his letter to subscribers, Hussman said he’s convinced the only way for the Commercial to continue daily publication is with a significant investment in local reporters and journalism, and to provide each subscriber with the full Democrat-Gazette.

The Commercial will have a news staff of four people led by Byron Tate, who has worked at the newspaper three times over his career. His last position was as both editor and publisher until June 2016.

“When social media is used to stay in touch, that’s one thing, but when it’s your source of news, well obviously there can be problems …” Tate said at the event in Pine Bluff on Monday.

“Our goal is to give you something real and truthful, something that holds up to scrutiny,” said Tate. “The Pine Bluff Commercial has historically been a newspaper that prides itself on having high journalistic standards and providing readers with a first-class local news product, emphasis local. With this announcement we are planting our flag once again to be that newspaper.”

“Byron has the journalism experience and knowledge of Pine Bluff to make this a really successful product,” Eliza Hussman Gaines, managing editor of the Democrat-Gazette, said at the Pine Bluff event. “He has a deep knowledge of the city and he will want to dig beyond the surface of issues in Pine Bluff and celebrate its strength as well.”

Gaines said local newspapers strengthen communities.

“They give readers the facts they need to make the best decisions about their lives, their families, their communities and the government,” she said. “We are committed to making The Pine Bluff Commercial a vital part of this community. We’ve made the investment and are excited to give readers a high-quality news product in a digital age. But this newspaper will only be successful if the people of Pine Bluff truly see a value in it. So over the next couple of weeks, we urge you to take the time to explore and enjoy the newspaper. We think our commitment to Pine Bluff and the power of local journalism will show.”

Before being purchased by WEHCO, the Commercial was published and printed five days a week.

“While many newspapers are eliminating some days of publication, we are adding back two days in Pine Bluff so we can cover the news every day,” said Hussman. “Due to the collapse of advertising, not just during the covid-19 pandemic, but over the past 14 years, print publication is no longer economically sustainable.”

Subscription rates for the Commercial will be $34 a month, wrote Hussman. Some subscribers will see their rates increase by $1 per month until it reaches $34 per month.

Subscribers who want one will be furnished with an iPad free of charge.

In a news release, Hussman said readers have indicated the digital replica edition of the paper is preferable to reading a newspaper’s website. One-on-one, in-person iPad training will also be provided to subscribers.

“They not only get the exact same information in the same place they found it in print, but even more information in a more readable format by being able to enlarge type, as well as additional features like expanded photos, videos and the ability to receive the paper earlier and anywhere,” Hussman said in the release.

Under terms of the agreement, a new company, Pine Bluff Commercial Inc., is being established as a wholly-owned subsidiary of WEHCO Newspapers Inc.

Gannett is the largest publisher of local news in the U.S. after recently being acquired by New Media Investment Group Inc., which has owned The Pine Bluff Commercial for five years.

WEHCO Newspapers, Inc. and its predecessor newspaper companies were started by Clyde Palmer in 1909 where he was publisher of the Texarkana Gazette, and the company has remained in the same Arkansas family ownership for over 100 years, with his grandson, Walter Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and his great granddaughter, Eliza Hussman Gaines, managing editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The University of North Carolina recently renamed their journalism school the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and adopted a statement of core journalism values, which will be published on page two of The Pine Bluff Commercial every day.

The Commercial’s new address is at the Donald W. Reynolds Community Services Center at 211 West Third Ave., Suite 105.

Read Tuesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and The Pine Bluff Commercial for full details.

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