‘It’s just a tough environment’: Kansas sales highlight the challenges for family-owned papers

June 17 was a tumultuous day for family-owned newspapers in Kansas.

Members of the Simons family, which has owned the Lawrence Journal-World for 125 years, informed employees that morning that they had agreed to sell the paper and other properties to West Virginia-based Ogden Newspapers for an undisclosed sum.

Separately, around the same time, Hutchinson-based Harris Enterprises Inc. announced that it was putting its five Kansas papers and one Iowa paper up for sale; the Harris family, which has majority ownership of the business, has owned newspapers in Kansas since 1907 and the flagship Hutchinson News since 1933.

There’s nothing new about local media outlets being sold to larger, more distant ownership groups, of course. Still, the announcements were a striking illustration of a current trend in the industry: Even as deep-pocketed owners with local connections acquire a handful of individual major metros, mid-sized free-standing papers and small groups are increasingly being absorbed by larger chains, which can spread investment in new strategies–or stretch a shrinking workforce–across a broader base.

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“In today’s business environment it is becoming increasingly difficult for a stand-alone, family-owned daily newspaper to compete and provide the product owners desire,” Dolph Simons Jr., editor of the Journal-World and chairman of the paper’s parent World Company, said in announcing the sale to Ogden.

“Today’s business environment,” of course, is marked by the ongoing shift of both advertising and audiences from print to digital, the rise of the mobile Web and social platforms, and continued pressure on spending and revenues.

Among local papers, the Journal-World had developed a reputation as a digital innovator, once hailed as the “newspaper of the future” by The New York Times. But like other local publications, the Lawrence paper struggled to convert its online identity into a revenue stream, said Dan Simons, president of the World Company electronic division and son of Dolph Jr.

“With the shift to digital, which I’d say we were damn good at, you’re still just getting pennies on the dollar,” Dan Simons said in an interview with CJR. “It’s just going to be a very dicey time.” (Full disclosure: My wife and I in the past have both worked for the World Company, including for the Journal-World and other subsidiaries.)

At Harris Enterprises, where the ownership family is not as involved in day-to-day management, the decision to sell was prompted at least in part by a similar calculus. Company President Bruce Buchanan, while noting that he couldn’t speak for the entire board of directors, told CJR, “My own theory is that you’ve got to get bigger in this industry now to be successful. We didn’t want to get bigger. It’s just a tough environment.”

With Ogden’s purchase of the Journal-World, if the Harris group doesn’t get a local buyer, the number of locally owned Kansas dailies will dwindle to about 13—including a few that aren’t strictly local but are owned by nearby, in-state companies. The most prominent remaining Kansas newspaper families are the Seatons, who own the Manhattan Mercury and a few other properties, and the White family, descended from the legendary Emporia Gazette publisher William Allen White, which still owns the Gazette along with several other papers in the state.

The Kansas City Star (based in Missouri but with a big Kansas coverage area) and Wichita Eagle are both McClatchy papers and have been corporate-owned for decades; the Topeka Capital-Journal has been owned by Morris Communications, a privately held company based in Georgia, since 1994.

My own theory is that you’ve got to get bigger in this industry now to be successful. We didn’t want to get bigger.

Just what the result of the shift away from local family ownership will be, and how significant it ultimately is, is open to question. In Lawrence, for example, much of the university town’s liberal intelligentsia won’t miss Dolph Jr.’s conservative Saturday column.

But the history of the Simons family and the paper is inextricably linked with Lawrence itself, which was still a young city when the family first printed the Lawrence World in 1892. And while active local ownership can be a double-edged sword, they are generally regarded as good stewards.

“I think a key question is what is Ogden’s commitment to sustaining the high level of coverage we’ve seen from the Journal-World,” said Pam Fine, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas.

“The newspaper has been relatively well staffed and provided coverage that has been valuable to the community, and certainly no one wants to see it lose vitality,” Fine said. “Anytime you have a sale, you worry that the new owners will want to create efficiencies, which could mean a loss of staff or loss of services.”

Ogden was recently in the national news because of a controversy over advertiser influence at a small paper it owns in the Midwest. But the Simonses say they chose the company, which is privately held and has its own family legacy, as a buyer expressly because it shares their values.

“We were fortunate to have many people look at us—some of the big ones that people know about, that aren’t as focused on journalism,” Dan Simons said. But, he said, they were attracted to Ogden because it is “family-owned,” with a strong ethical code and “a drive to do serious journalism.” The company also has a preexisting Kansas satellite—Ogden Publications, which produces Utne Reader, Mother Earth News, and other niche products, is based in Topeka—as part of its holdings, which span 14 states and include 40 dailies.

Robert Nutting, the president of Ogden (and the great-grandson of the company’s founder), told the Journal-World that Ogden is “pleased and proud to have been selected to be the successor owners” of the paper and that the company will maintain the paper’s “tradition of service to Lawrence, the University [of Kansas], and the state.”

Down the road in Hutchinson, the Harris operation may not have the same ability to select an ideal purchaser. Buchanan, the company’s president, said there are some buyers “that our employees would prefer,” but that given the company’s ownership structure, “we don’t have the luxury of crossing a buyer off the list.”

Along with The Hutchinson News, Harris will be selling its four other Kansas papers—the Ottawa Herald, the Hays Daily News, the Garden City Telegram, and the Salina Journal—as well as the Burlington (Iowa) Hawk Eye. The papers may be sold as a group or to separate buyers.

Members of the Harris family have not been directly involved in managing the papers for a decade or more, Buchanan said. But still, the decision to sell was very difficult. “There were lots of tears, lots of emotion behind it. That applies to me, too,” he said, noting that he will have been with the company 35 years in August.

Dan Simons got his own “35-year-pen” at the Journal-World last month. The decision to sell was an emotional one for his family too, he said.

“It’s almost like a tree,” Simons said. “It’s grown with the community.” After the sale, he said, the family will remain in town. “We’ve been here for 125 years; we’ll stay.”

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Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.