ArkansasBusiness.com: Democrat-Gazette, Stephens Employees Face ‘Uncertain’ Future

Rob Keys of Arkansas Business’ sister publication, the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal, files a report today on ArkansasBusiness.com in the aftermath of yesterday’s joint venture announcement between the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Stephens Media in northwest Arkansas.

Not surprisingly, uncertainty appears to be a common theme among employees of both operations:

Said an employee of the Democrat-Gazette: “There’s a bunch of nervous people, a lot of uncertainty, and we supposedly won the [newspaper war].”

“I tried to wrap my head around it [Thursday], and I basically decided, ‘What can you do, but go back to work?’” a Stephens employee said. “I guess it’s good they’re at least trying this new business model.”

Keys also talks to Mark Fitzgerald, editor-at-large at trade journal Editor & Publisher, who thinks the Justice Department is likely to approve the proposal in October or November. And he thinks the arrangement will work, considering the tenacity and determination of the trade mag’s one-time Publisher of the Year, Walter Hussman.

The complete story is available here.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald files his own piece at E&P, where Hussman explains (again) how this venture won’t be a joint operating agreement and that he expects it to be a “permanent” deal:

The merger of the northwestern Arkansas newspapers published by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Stephens Media might look a little like a joint operating agreement (JOA), but there’s one big difference, says Walter Hussman: The merger is intended to be a “permanent solution” to the papers’ financial difficulties.

“In a JOA you have two corporations, and an agreement with a limited term that might be 100 years or 50 years,” Hussman, the owner of Democrat-Gazette parent Wehco Media, said in an interview Friday. “This is a corporation, and we each own 50% of it. A JOA is limited, this is a permanent solution.”

Fitzgerald’s full story is available here.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Stephens Media End Northwest Arkansas Newspaper War

Mat Costa, the DG's IT director in northwest Arkansas

Mat Costa, the DG's IT director in northwest Arkansas

The war is over.

After suffering “significant financial losses during the current economic recession,” the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Stephens Media plan a joint venture in northwest Arkansas, the news organizations announced Thursday.

The joint venture would move forward if Stephens can’t find a buyer for its flagship newspaper, The Morning News. But Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman says he doesn’t believe a buyer will be found.

“If someone comes along and buys it, then we’ll continue to compete with The Morning News and this merger won’t be consummated,” Hussman, CEO of Wehco Media Inc., which owns the Democrat-Gazette, said in his newspaper’s coverage of the deal. “We suspect that won’t happen.”

Arkansas Business’ full story on the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephens Media joint venture is available here, and we plan updates later this afternoon.

More

ArkansasNews.com carries the news release here.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Bill Bowden updates here.

Michael Tilley’s CityWire has a report here.

Editor & Publisher picks up the Associated Press here, and Romenesko links to the Democrat-Gazette’s coverage.

Max Brantley: A one-newspaper town

More Media Woes: Cuts At Clear Channel, Wehco’s Tennessee Newspaper

More media bleeding at two companies with Arkansas connections:

Wehco Media’s Chattanooga Times Free Press cuts nine newsroom positions due to the economic slump. Wehco also owns the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which is no stranger to cutbacks.

Clear Channel Communications cuts nine radio jobs in Little Rock, part of 590 cuts nationwide. In all, the San Antonio-based company, which grew exponentially in the ’90s under media deregulation, has cut 2,500 positions this year.

Democrat-Gazette Newsroom Takes Furloughs; Wehco Cuts Costs at All Newspapers

The Arkansas Times popped their note here about more cost-cutting measures at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and Arkansas Business media writer Mark Hengel follows up with more here, including word that all of publisher Walter Hussman’s Wehco newspapers are trying to contain costs in some way or another as ad revenue dries up.

General Manager Paul Smith tells Hengel that each of the company’s newspaper departments were asked to find ways to cut costs. At the Democrat-Gazette, the newsroom chose furloughs, taking off one day every four weeks, thereby cutting wages by 5 percent:

“This keeps as many people on the job as possible,” [Deputy Editor Frank] Fellone said.

He said he does not expect the newspaper’s news coverage to shrink.

“I’m confident we can cover all the news we need to cover even if we need to throw a rookie like me out there,” he said.

This is the latest attempt by the newspaper to stop the slide. Last week, layoffs. Before that, a request for workers to voluntarily cut hours. Before that, a salary and wage freeze.

The D-G isn’t the only Arkansas newspaper facing tough times, of course. Stephens Media, owner of the daily Southwest Times Record at Fort Smith, the Pine Bluff Commercial and The Morning News at Springdale, as well as the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, suspended its 401(k) match program last month. And it previously laid off workers at its Washington D.C. bureau.

And furloughs are nothing new to Gannett Co. employees, including those at KTHV-TV, Channel 11, and the Baxter Bulletin.

Related

In the spirit of this dispiriting newspaper death watch, Real Clear Politics has listed 10 newspapers that are on the the bubble. Included on the list when it was released last week: the Rocky Mountain News, which indeed folded Friday. Others on the list, and their vitals:

UPDATED: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Lays Off ’50-60,’ 7 in Newsroom

(Updates at the end of this post.)

It’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we’re seeing at other newspapers throughout the country. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt any less.

ArkansasBusiness.com media writer Mark Hengel confirms that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has let go 7 newsroom workers — 5 in Little Rock and 2 in Northwest Arkansas:

“I deeply regret that we have cut seven newsroom positions,” Fellone said.

The paper, owned by Wehco Media Inc. of Little Rock, has attempted to avoid making staff cuts. A hiring and wage freeze was implemented at the paper in August 2008 and management requested that employees reduce hours to conserve money.

“I would have to say that it is clear that the economic conditions are tough for us as they are for all businesses,” Fellone said.

No one’s naming names, but sources told ArkansasBusiness.com that former Democrat-Gazette business reporter Jake Bleed, who’d moved to Paul Greenberg’s editorial page, was among those let go.

We wish all them the best.

UPDATED: From Tuesday”s Democrat-Gazette:  “The floundering economy has forced the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to reduce its work force in various departments by approximately 3 percent to 5 percent during the past two months …” That’s 50-60 positions statewide, including the 7 newsroom posts. The DG employs about 1,300 people.

In Laura Stevens’ story, General Manager Paul Smith said positions were eliminated in every area of the company’s operations as advertising revenue continued to drop. And here’s a staggering nugget: Smith says the sale of Alltel Corp. and the bankruptcy of Circuit City and Goody’s will cost the newspaper about $1.2 million in 2009.

Griffin Smith, executive editor of the Democrat-Gazette, said that it was tough to let some employees go on Monday.

“We waited as far as we could, hoping that the economy would turn around, and we still hope it will,” Smith said. “We have confidence in the future for the newspaper and for the economy, but eventually we had to say that some jobs have to be eliminated. We did our best to keep the number down.”

More

Via the Think Tank: DG Columnist Jay Grelen in Editor & Publisher, two weeks ago, says “healthy” Democrat-Gazette proves publisher Walter Hussman is right about charging for content

Previously

Democrat-Gazette Looks to Reduced Hours to Cut Costs

Chattanooga Newspaper Marks 10 Years Under Wehco Ownership

Walter Hussman talks Times Free Press

Walter Hussman talks Times Free Press

The Chatanooga Times Free Press this week marks a decade under the ownership of Walter Hussman’s Wehco Media, which of course also owns the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The Times Free Press plans a whole week of anniversary coverage, and the first story in the series is available here.

While you’re there, take note of that Web site. Pretty snazzy compared to the ol’ locked down Democrat-Gazette home page, eh? Turns out there’s a big difference between the sister newspapers’ Web strategies. Where Hussman’s Democrat-Gazette keeps most of its daily newspaper content locked down to paying subscribers, it’s a relative free-for-all in Chattanooga, and has been been for a few years now.

Heck, Hussman himself even sits down for some free, online video in a segment here.

According to today’s Times Free Press story on the newspaper’s Web site:

Much of that work on the Web is the responsibility of online director Ed Bourn. When Mr. Bourn came to the paper in 2004, the same year the Web site launched, the site was accessible only to paid subscribers. It also had only a few buttons for visitors to select once they got there.

Four years later and Mr. Bourn’s staff of 10 — twice what it was in 2004 — is preparing to debut a redesigned timesfreepress.com in mid-February.

“We are moving toward a way that will allow people to customize how get their content, where they really have ownership and loyalty to our site and create their own version of timesfreepress.com,” Mr. Bourn said.

Sounds exciting.

Also noted on the Times Free Press site: lots of multimedia content and blogs. In recent years, the Democrat-Gazette has added more multimedia to its Web site, including video. But those offerings don’t appear to be as integrated into the newspaper’s routine news coverage as they are in Chattanooga (see how audio, video and photos are integrated here, here and here).

Different media markets often mean different strategies. The Democrat-Gazette’s Web content is mostly locked down on its statewide Web site here, but free in Northwest Arkansas, where Hussman is fighting a newspaper war with Stephens Media. And while Hussman bought the Chattanooga newspaper’s competitor not long after first entering that market, his operations are close enough to other major media markets like Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., and Nashville, Tenn., to warrant a more aggressive Web plan.

The question is, how long before Hussman begins deploying more of the Chattanooga strategy in Arkansas? Some might argue that he already is. But we know by looking at Chattanooga that there’s so much more to be done.

Also

Frank Fellone tries to explain the panicked seniors why their TV Week has changed

Shafer in Slate: How newspapers failed to reinvent the Web

From the ArkansasBusiness.com Archives

Does Hussman’s Chattanooga purchase mean war? (April 1998)

Hussman expands $145 million empire (April 1998)

Hussman’s empire covers broadcast, print (April 1998)

Wehco buys another newspaper (November 1998)

Cold newspaper war breaking out (November 2006)