In total transactions and dollars, these sales are a relative pittance. In 2010, thirteen dailies were sold for a total of $148.9 million. Compare that to 2008, when total deals were worth $833.5 million—largely due to one big transaction, the Tribune Company’s Sam Zell moving Newsday to Cablevision for $650 million. But it’s the very absence of those large sales that has come to define the new newspaper world. Big is no longer beautiful. Major metro dailies are facing competition for advertising revenue and audiences. In small towns, papers have loyal audiences and less competition among advertisers. The demographics are right, which basically means the residents are old—less interested in getting news from Gawker and more interested in getting it off the front porch. That’s partly why last year more than three-fourths of the newspapers that found buyers had circulations of less than ten thousand. Those types of papers are making money—even now.
In the 1990s, Dirks, Van Essen & Murray was negotiating sales of papers at ten times (or more) annual earnings—twice what they’re going for today—because newspapers were making incredible profits, 25 to 35 percent or more. Corporations wanted in; plenty of family owners got out, making a bundle, thanks to easy credit for corporate borrowers.
Investment firms saw opportunity in small and medium towns, and they fueled companies such as GateHouse Media and American Consolidated Media, which consolidated much of the community newspaper market. The Seatons and, for that matter, the Walkers and the Sheldons and plenty more would have had to leverage their businesses to the brink to compete. So they stood pat. Brown Publishing Company, of Ohio, is one who got in the game. It was aggressive and wound up with a portfolio of dozens of weeklies, dailies, and business journals in Ohio and other states. Then it went bankrupt. American Consolidated Media, which owns about a hundred small newspapers, also crashed.
The people buying today are the little guys who were squeezed out in the go-go days of yesteryear and didn’t bury themselves in debt. Murray Cohen, who claims a constellation of small papers across the Midwest, is one of them. For years, he coveted the county-seat paper in Van Wert, Ohio, next door to his flagship paper, the Delphos Herald, but it belonged to the muscular Brown Publishing. Last year, Cohen finally got the Van Wert Times Bulletin—and two others—at Brown’s auction. Aside from a small paper in Michigan, the Times Bulletin was his first significant acquisition in twelve years. “We bid on a number of papers and we were the unsuccessful bidder,” Cohen says, “so when the recession hit, the prices became more realistic.”
Cohen is eighty-one years old. He’s ridden out more high times and more low times than just about anyone in newspapers. “There hasn’t been a recession yet that has bothered us,” Cohen says. “Including the last one.” That can be said of a lot of small papers. Their relationships with advertisers and readers are intimate. Craigslist is less of a threat. Frequently there are no local television stations to compete for ad revenue and news. Staffs are lean. Some of the papers are so small there’s only one full-time employee. With credit now tight, many are getting loans from local banks to fund new acquisitions—also the result of relationships. While the days of 35 percent profits seem to be gone, small newspapers (which are privately owned and don’t have to report earnings) say they are still posting healthy returns.