The Seaton family had spent four generations weaving a daisy chain of newspapers across the small towns of the plains states. By the 1990s, they were ready for something bigger. The climate was good. Profits rained upon them. But in those heady days, the sun shone on the whole industry, and large media outfits and investment firms had developed a big appetite for small papers.
From its headquarters at The Manhattan Mercury in Manhattan, Kansas, the Seaton Publishing Co. lost bids for newspapers in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; Stevens Point, Wisconsin; and Ames, Iowa—all to bigger players. “We made bids on papers we thought were attractive and just got swamped,” says Ned Seaton, the managing editor of the Mercury, which his family has owned since 1915. “We weren’t anywhere close.”
In 2007, Ned received a query packet from the newspaper brokerage firm Dirks, Van Essen & Murray containing the financials for The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction, Colorado, which had just been put up for sale by the media giant Cox Communications. The Sentinel, with a circulation of 25,000, would have been the biggest addition to date for the Seatons. (Their flagship Mercury hovers at around 10,000). Ned ran the numbers and figured that a winning bid for the property would be beyond their means. He threw it in the trash.
By the end of 2008, however, the Grand Junction paper was theirs—at a price they could only have dreamed of a year earlier. “There was still a decent amount of risk,” Ned says, “but we felt like we got a great deal.” Ned, forty-three, a cautious reporter-cum-businessman with a Harvard degree, had returned to small Seaton Publishing with some reservations in 1996 after working for the likes of The Associated Press, The Orange County Register, and the St. Petersburg Times. Now he is thankful he made the move. His father, Ed, is the boss, but Ned more or less maps the company’s strategy. He is lean and unpretentious, and so is the Seaton operation. Their building is forty years old and largely windowless. The full-time editorial staff of fifteen toils on old computers bubbling with tube monitors. Some reporters—typically fresh out of college and working for little—use their own laptops. Faded pictures of Ned’s forebears rest atop a bookshelf, reminders of his heritage as a newspaperman. Nearby are reminders of the future: photos of his three children.
Unlike many of the folks he left behind at big outfits, Ned has reason to feel good about where the business is going. That’s because the great crash of 2008-2009 has had an unexpected upshot: a second act for the family-owned newspaper. These smaller newspapers’ price tags are shrinking as the large buyers abandon print. “The past year and a half we’ve seen a number of family owners step forward and buy papers at very attractive prices,” says Jamie Oldershaw, a senior vice president at Dirks, Van Essen & Murray, the country’s leading newspaper merger-and-acquisition firm.
Faced with loads of debt from newspaper buying sprees over the years, declining ad revenue, and a future fogged by the Internet, some corporate owners are unloading newspaper properties as fast as they snatched them up. Cox Communications held a fire sale in 2009: dropping thirteen papers in North Carolina, two in Texas, and Colorado’s Daily Sentinel. The buyers? Private owners, including the Seatons; insurance magnate Clifton Robinson, who is now the local publisher of his hometown Waco, Texas paper; and billionaire John Kent Cooke Jr. The New York Times Company, meanwhile, unloaded the Times Daily in Florence, Alabama, to the local Shelton family. In Minocqua, Wisconsin, the Walker family purchased a neighboring paper from BlueLine Media Holdings, which is backed by private equity money, to complement their Lakeland Times. And Sample News Group, led by George “Scoop” Sample, recently took three papers from community paper colossus GateHouse Media. And so on.