Hello – again! I have done no research on the subject, but I’m guessing that it’s rare for someone to work at the same place four different times under five owners, but that’s my story.
I came to work as a reporter at the bustling Pine Bluff Commercial in 1986, fresh out of college, and started covering education. I recall that Jack Robey was the superintendent at Pine Bluff at the time – may he rest in peace – and he used to glare at me over those half glasses he would wear and grumble when he would occasionally butcher the spoken word and I would quote him in a story.
That used to give Ed Freeman, whose family owned the paper, a chuckle. The Freemans would end up selling the paper to Donrey Media Group.
From there, I went to a newspaper in the San Francisco Bay area where I was city editor, and after four years of that, I returned to The Commercial as editor. People questioned our sanity in returning to Pine Bluff, Arkansas from such a dramatically beautiful place, and I remember having more than a few reasons. It wasn’t home, for one.
After five years of that, we moved to Fort Smith where I was editor of the paper there for 11 years. That’s a long stint, but when the call came to come back to Pine Bluff as publisher and editor (we all wear so many hats nowadays!), back I came. I was eager to be in charge, and what fun that was. Well, those 2 a.m. calls when the press broke down not so much, but being the captain was definitely a growing experience, as they say.
After several years, the Stephens folks said they’d had enough of fooling around with newspapers, and they sold the lot to GateHouse Media.
It was no surprise when, after a year or so under them, they did away with my job. That stuff happens all the time, and as I said then to reporters, lots of people in the newspaper business, with much more talent than I possessed, had been swept away from their jobs by the strong currents of change that the industry faced. In short, it was fun while it lasted.
So, end of media career? Not quite. Before I left The Commercial that last time, I bought The Sheridan Headlight, a paper that gets along quite well without a lot of interference from me.
And I started teaching journalism at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, which by the way, is a wonderful place to work and teach. That was my life.
Then the phone rang, and here I am today, editor – again – at The Commercial. Obviously, I can’t stay away from a newsroom, and maybe I’ll get some therapy for that. But the question would be why do this now. I’ll wrap this up shortly, but the answer is a bit involved.
Without a doubt, newspapers have been hard pressed for awhile now. Many have disappeared. Shifting consumer trends and the growth of social media have hastened those problems. But corporate ownership of newspapers and the incumbent demands for high profits supercharged the problems, and in Arkansas that has especially been the case, with several of the papers I used to oversee now shuttered.
It is clear that the template upon which many newspapers attempt to operate doesn’t work anymore or doesn’t work very well.
And I fully believe that, from looking at the pages and the lack of advertising in The Commercial, we were about to be another town without a newspaper and in the very near future.
Enter Walter Hussman, owner of WEHCO Media, which includes the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and now the Pine Bluff Commercial. If you know anything about him, you know he has his own way of thinking about things.
Faced with sagging advertising revenues, he raised subscription rates. And to reduce expenses, he got out from under the huge costs associated with printing a paper and delivering it all over the state by handing people an iPad and putting a digital replica of the newspaper there every morning. Not everyone made the switch – but over 70 % of them have and this is working.
To me, what separates him from the media giants of the world is his dedication to content. Sure, he has to figure out a way to make a profit, but he does it by going back to the core of what a newspaper is – the premiere deliverer of news.
He adds value to a newspaper and doesn’t just cut cut cut his way to profitability, which is a short-lived place if there’s nothing in a paper to read.
And that’s where we are in Pine Bluff, and that’s why I’m back. It’s exciting to be part of a rollout that will continue to give the Pine Bluff area a daily (not five or six days a week but seven) newspaper.
And it’s exciting to be part of this experiment that, if successful, could be the template for smaller newspapers in a lot of other markets.
Yes, I started here as a reporter, and even now as editor over three other reporters, I’ll be doing a fair amount of reporting myself, so I’ve really come full circle. My, how times have changed.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is the clamor for news. People still want to know what’s going on in their hometown. That’s our job, and starting today, we are on it!
Yes, I started here as a reporter, and even now as editor over three other reporters, I’ll be doing a fair amount of reporting myself, so I’ve really come full circle. My, how times have changed. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the clamor for news. People still want to know what’s going on in their hometown. That’s our job, and starting today, we are on it!