A decades-old newspaper battle rambles on in small-town Pennsylvania

A postcard image of the Market Street bridge in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Via Wikimedia Commons.

There aren’t many two-newspaper towns left in the US, which is part of what makes Wilkes-Barre, a former coal town in Northeastern Pennsylvania, unique. With a steadily declining population that currently sits just south of 41,000, Wilkes-Barre is “the smallest market in America with competing daily newspapers,” says Larry Holeva, executive editor of The Citizens’ Voice, which is one of those two papers. The Times Leader is the other.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the rivalry between The Citizens’ Voice and The Times Leader—a contest that is 40 years old—hasn’t exactly been a friendly one. Known locally as “the union paper,” The Citizens’ Voice was launched by union members in 1978 when an out-of-town media conglomerate, Capital Cities Communications, purchased The Times Leader from its former, local owners. Negotiations with staff soon stalled, and a wide swath of the Times Leader‘s union members went on strike and then eventually left. Almost immediately following their departure, those very same labor strikers launched The Citizens’ Voice. Proud coal-mining teamsters embraced the paper, as did their families and neighboring unions in subsequent years.

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Naturally, The Times Leader has its own contingent of staunchly loyal followers. As a result, each respective paper has for years now claimed to be significantly more popular and more successful than the other—by appealing to higher circulation numbers, say, or a bigger readership.

The most recent round of what might be called the Wilkes-Barre Newspaper Battle kicked off this summer. On June 27, The Citizens’ Voice ran a story touting its circulation dominance over The Times Leader:

The Citizens’ Voice increased its daily and Sunday lead over The Times Leader, the most recent circulation numbers released by the national Alliance for Audited Media show. The audited report…shows The Citizens’ Voice holds a 2,615 lead in Sunday circulation in one of the nation’s last remaining competitive print newspaper markets…The Citizens’ Voice, founded in 1978 after a protracted labor dispute, holds a 4,327 newspaper edge in daily circulation as well.

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The story notes in conclusion that Times Leader publisher Mike Murray did not respond to requests for comment.

Three weeks later, however, The Times Leader fired a shot in response by way of a July 21 A1 story titled, “TL clear leader in market readership.” Instead of quoting the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) and mentioning circulation numbers, however, The Times Leader simply claimed that its paper had more readers than The Voice. “According to the latest figures from Scarborough Research, a Nielsen Company service,” the story read, “each print edition of the Times Leader from Monday through Saturday is read by an average of 74,631 people, for a lead of nearly 23,000 readers per edition over its main competition, The Citizens’ Voice.”

The circulation and readership rivalry in Wilkes-Barre seems likely to continue as long as both papers remain in print. ‘Neither side shows any sign of relenting,’ wrote a New York Times journalist in 1983.

The Times Leader’s average Monday-Saturday print circulation in the first quarter of 2018 was 15,750, according to reports CJR obtained from the AAM. That would mean 4.7 different people are reading each print copy of the paper.

“Come on!” says Joe Nealon, the circulation director of The Citizens’ Voice, when discussing the statistics. “There’s not a paper in America that has four or five readers per copy. The average for the industry for the 30 years I’ve worked in newspapers? Two-point-three, two-point-four. It might have topped out at two-point-five at one point.”

Surveys such as those conducted by Scarborough Research aren’t generally considered as accurate as, for instance, the audited circulation reports released by the AAM. That likely has a lot to do with the way the survey results are gathered: Because not every reader of a particular newspaper can possibly be surveyed, Scarborough only phones and surveys a smaller, more reasonable number. The result? It can probably best be described as a guesstimate.

“We would prefer to use the numbers that are audited numbers—not survey numbers,” says Citizens’ Voice executive editor Larry Holeva.

As it happens, the 2018 first-quarter circulation reports from the AAM do show the Citizens’ Voice holding a 4,721 lead in daily circulation and a 2,436 lead in Sunday circulation over the Times Leader. But The Leader, for its part, is nevertheless holding strong to its claim of having significantly more readers than The Voice. Times Leader publisher Mike Murray declined to speak with CJR, but attached the “TL clear leader in market readership” article to an email in which he wrote, “There is no need for further comment.”

The circulation and readership rivalry in Wilkes-Barre seems likely to continue as long as both papers remain in print. “Neither side shows any sign of relenting,” wrote William Robbins in a 1983 New York Times story about “war” between the two papers. Robbins’ assessment rings true 35 years later.

Of course, that competition can only benefit readers, so long as it lasts.

“Both papers have very dedicated readership bases,” says Holeva, “and that’s good for getting out information. Between the two papers there’s probably 22 reporters dedicated full-time to this county. I’ll talk to friends who work for the wire service, and they’ll say, ‘I don’t have 22 people in 11 states!'”

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A previous version of this story referred to the Citizens’ Voice as the Citizens’ Leader. CJR regrets the error.

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Dan Eldridge is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia and the co-owner of Kaya Aerial Yoga. Follow him on Twitter @YoungPioneers.