The sale of the San Marcos Daily Record by an Alabama-based company to a limited partnership in Texas was announced on the last business day of 2012, capping a year of wholesale changes in the state’s community newspaper landscape.
These barely noticed changes often involve historic news outlets—hyperlocal venues once owned by folks who lived in the community, and often the most diligently read publications in their areas. The developments have been coming fast and frequently, and they should have local readers questioning who is now running their neighborhood paper, whether constant change of ownership is good, and whether increasing consolidation—often with local, family-run papers being subsumed into chains—is improving or diluting the quality of local coverage.
In November, four different publishers scooped up 11 papers previously owned by Texas Community Media: Atlanta Citizens Journal, Bowie County Citizens Tribune, Cass County Sun, Pittsburg Gazette, Daingerfield Bee, Mineola Monitor, Wood County Democrat, Lindale News & Times, Gladewater Mirror, Big Sandy & Hawkins Journal, and Grand Saline Sun.
Texas Community Media—run by the family that has owned The Victoria Advocate, Texas’ second-oldest daily newspaper, for three generations—had held those 11 papers for only six months before flipping them to various investors for undisclosed sums.
Operating through several business entities, Brenham-based Jim Moser also went on a buying spree last year, picking up the San Marcos paper plus five others that Texas Community Media had put on the market. Moser Community Media already owned The Jackson County Herald-Tribune, The Cuero Record, Yorktown News-View, The Mexia News, The Clifton Record, Meridian Tribune and The Robertson County News.
Meanwhile, California-based Freedom Communications sold six Texas papers for between $60 and $80 million to a partnership headed by former Dallas Morning News executive Jeremy Halbreich, formerly CEO at the Chicago Sun-Times during a period of cost-cutting and staff-slashing.
Halbreich’s AIM Media Texas is headquartered, in part, in Dallas’ Highland Park Village, perhaps the most exclusive business district in Texas. Six of AIM’s seven newspapers are located in deep South Texas, in Weslaco, Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen, far from the Hermes, Christian Dior, Yves St. Laurent, Chanel and Harry Winston stores of Highland Park. (Before selling it for $80 million, Halbreich also ran American Consolidated Media, a Dallas-based outfit that owned 105 community newspapers).
Even Warren Buffett has noticed the media money to be made in smaller Texas cities, bolstering his growing investment in dozens of American newspapers by snapping up the Waco Tribune-Herald and the Bryan-College Station Eagle.
Community newspapers have loyal readers in places the urban technorati often overlook. A National Newspaper Association survey two years ago showed that in small towns served by publications with circulations of 8,000 or less, 78 percent of those papers’ readers said they read “most or all” of their local newspaper. This devoted readership is good news. The open questions are the effects of repetitive publisher turnover, constant changing of the guard, and acquisition of mom-and-pop papers by chains—the same sorts of changes that began afflicting large legacy newspapers in Texas in the late 1980s.
AIM and the other chains picking up Texas’ small papers are on record saying they’re committed to the communities their papers serve, and AIM even promises to beef up watchdog reporting.
But can that be sustained with so much churn?
The same weekend that Moser scooped up the San Marcos Daily Record, Buffett shut the doors on Virginia’s 143-year-old Manassas News & Messenger, letting all 33 employees go. Nothing so drastic has happened—yet—at the small Texas papers that have been changing hands in recent months. But the revolving doors can dampen consistency of coverage and erode institutional memory, allowing formulaic journalistic homogenization to creep in.
Studies show that smaller-city readers need and want their hyperlocal news—but will small-town Texas readers remain loyal, or be best served, if their hyperlocal paper is constantly under new management by people who’ll never be their next-door neighbors?