Ohio Newspaper Autopsy

by Michael Eshelman, January 5, 2012

Kings Mills, Ohio — I love newspapers very much. I was delighted to read about the AVA in Judy Muller's recent book ‘Emus Loose In Egnar.’ I thought you and your readers might be interested in my letter to her. Keep up the good work.

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Dear Professor Muller:

I enjoyed your book on small-town journalism immensely. I'm glad to hear that some towns still have editors and newspapers that care for them. I thought you might like to hear about the flipside from one of the few younger people — I'm 33 — who loves newspapers.

I've only read one of the papers you talked about, The Tundra Drums in Bethel, Alaska. I lived there for a winter working at a law office there. Bethel is a town of 5,000. It's the hub for the Y-K Delta — “Y-K” refers to the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. The hospital is there, so are the courts. Unfortunately, the Drums closed earlier this year. The paper was owned by Calista Corporation. That's one of the regional native corporations in Alaska owned exclusively by the natives. (In Bethel this is the Yupik people.) The Drums was one of the five weeklies around the state owned by Calista. This summer they decided to get out of the newspaper business. They managed to find buyers for the papers. But not before closing the Drums and forcing the new owner to start from scratch. There was a three-month interruption, I understand.

I have no idea what the new paper looks like. The Calista paper was professionally done, very nice looking. It had too much content recycled from the other papers and stuff from outside the region, however. I was disappointed that Calista, which serves the people of the Y-K Delta and is owned by them, killed their hometown paper. The Drums began in the 1970s as the magazine for the public radio station there — KYUK-AM. The new owner is a professor of journalism at the University of Alaska who apparently owned the paper previously.

There's another weekly in Bethel, The Delta Discovery, very thin and it doesn't look very good. KYUK radio does have a news operation but its staff, like most of the professional class in Bethel, is from outside. The new reporter, hired this fall, is from Kansas and had never set foot in Bethel before starting work.

My main purpose in writing is that I wanted to let you know how journalism here in my corner of Ohio simply sucks.

The weekly paper for where I live is The Western Star, in Lebanon. It was founded in 1807 by John McLean, a lawyer who served as postmaster general and as Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court for three decades. It is the oldest paper west of the Appalachians still published under its original name. And it was the first place I worked when I got out of high school. Lebanon is the seat of Warren County, which is the county between Dayton (Montgomery County) and Cincinnati (Hamilton County). It has grown massively in the last 20 years, more than doubling its population, now about 250,000.

When I worked there, the Western Star was owned by the Brown Publishing Company which owned a dozen or more small-town papers in Ohio — some weeklies, others dailies. Clarence Brown started the company in the 1920s. He served in Congress for 30 years and was the senior Republican on the Rules Committee in the 1950s. When he died his son Clarence 'Bud' Brown, Jr., was elected to replace him in 1962. He was in Congress until he ran for governor of Ohio in 1982 and lost to Richard Celeste. (By the way, one of the candidates Celeste beat for the Democratic nomination was Jerry Springer.)

The Western Star was a newsy paper. It tried to cover most of the county, including Mason, which is the largest town in the county. They ran the lists of who got picked for jury duty and the full list of actions in court. They really tried to cover the City Council, the county commissioners and the school board. The editors and staff lived here and were a part of the community. Brown also owned a weekly in Springboro (the Star Press) in northern Warren County, one in Morrow (Today's Express) in southeastern Warren County, and Monroe (the Times) which is on the County line with Butler County to the West. The Western Star also had a weekend edition, very light on content and existing primarily to distribute the sale papers. It was essentially a shopper. The Western Star steers clear of controversy — no editorials, no exposing of politicians — but was solid in news.

Then in 1998, Brown traded the Western Star and all the other Warren County papers to Thomson for some of its dailies — the Xenia Gazette, the Piqua Daily Call, and the Greenville Daily Advocate. (These are cities and counties adjoining Dayton.) Thompson already owned two weeklies in Warren County, the Pulse-Journal in Mason and the Franklin Chronicle.

Thompson is loathed by many lawyers for being half of the duopoly of legal books and information — it owns Westlaw and had bought out much of the competition in the 1990s. The other half is Lexis, which is based in the Dayton suburbs.

Thompson of course was known for being one of the worst newspaper owners. They did what they always did — cut the newshole, cut the staff, raised prices, and ruined everything. In 2000, Thompson decided to get out of the newspaper business. (Though it did take over Reuters recently, for some reason.) Originally, Thompson reached a deal with Gannett, which owns the Cincinnati Enquirer, to acquire all its Warren County papers. But it turned out Cox, which owned the Dayton Daily News, has some prior right of first refusal from an earlier deal. So it took over the papers instead.

James M. Cox bought the daily news in the 1890s. He was governor of Ohio and in 1920 was the Democratic nominee for president. His two daughters, billionaires, owned the company. (One has since passed on.) Cox owns a handful of dailies — the ones outside Ohio are the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — Atlanta being Cox corporate headquarters — and the Palm Beach Post.

I was hopeful at first about the new ownership. The Daily News in the early 1990s had been lousy, its editors having adopted a lot of the bad “McPaper” ideas from USA Today. But it had gotten a lot better and I started subscribing. They had good local news coverage of Warren County. I subscribed to it for several years — along with the Enquirer. Fox also took control of the Middletown Journal and the Hamilton Journal News, both dailies; and several weeklies in the area, including Mason's Pulse-Journal.

The Western Star formerly was a subscription newspaper. Thompson began throwing it out to everyone for free. (Yet constantly included envelopes in the paper for people to pay for the paper; I don't know if anyone did so.) When Cox took over, it quickly became apparent that most of the local news about Warren County appeared first in the Daily News and then was recycled into the Western Star. When my Daily News subscription was up, I let it expire because the main reason I was getting it was the local coverage which I now could get for free.

In 2006, the Daily News editors decided to remake the paper again. They turned it into a newspaper for people who don't like newspapers. They increased the size of the body text significantly, ran lots of big photos and had large headlines and subheads. All things that massively shrank the newshole. All the stories were very short. Maybe 200 words tops. No story was allowed to jump to another page. And so a story that appeared on the front page would have a follow-up on an interior page to cover the stuff that didn't fit — and that story would repeat most of what was on the front page. The local news coverage deteriorated to the same easy stories as the local television news does exclusively — crime, fires, traffic accidents and so forth.

The same thing happened with the Western Star, so now it's a hollowed out paper. Last week's issue was 28 pages. Ten of those where the classified, mainly legal ads, in which most are Sheriff's sales of foreclosed homes. (Ohio law requires a Sheriff's sale be advertised legally for six weeks, very helpful to the publishers.) There seems to be no shortage of display ads. Last week's paper had ads taking up three quarters of all but one interior page. There's so much advertising now I don't think it would be eligible to be mailed as a periodical.

In 2002, Cox announced they were going to close several of the papers it had acquired but a local family stepped in to buy some of them. That new owner filed bankruptcy a couple years back and I don't know if the paper survived — I couldn't find even a bare-bones website today.

Brown also went into bankruptcy a couple years ago — but the Brown family bought it out of bankruptcy. I think their problem was the same that hit the Tribune and many others — they borrowed a bunch of money to buy things at the top of the market — and couldn't service the debt. Last I knew, Bud Brown's son Clancy was chairman. He is an actor. His best-known role was as the evil head prison guard in the Shawshank Redemption.

Unfortunately, Cox has a heavily dominant position here. They owned the two primary weeklies in Warren County (the Star and the Pulse-Journal); the Daily News; most daily papers in Butler County (the one to the west of Warren); several weeklies in Butler County; WHIO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Dayton; a radio station in Dayton; and local cable systems. There was a competing weekly in Mason, published from outside of the community by a company that published several generic papers in suburban Cincinnati — they were all slightly better than the shopper — but that company is now owned by the Enquirer.

The Enquirer hasn't bothered to have a bureau in Warren County for decades. And now the Western Star doesn't even have an office here. I noticed a few weeks ago in the paper the address was in Butler County. I drove by the old office last week and it was closed up. I went up to the building and peered through the front door. You can see they just abandoned it. I could see the pictures and awards from when it was a good paper had been left hanging on the walls.

How can you cover a town from afar? Warren County is the largest county in the state without a daily paper. Even Meigs County, with a population of 15,000, has the Daily Sentinel in Pomeroy, population 2500. The Lebanon school board even shut down the Lebanon Light, the high school paper, which was 70 years at the end of last school year. Your correspondent was for three years the Opinions Editor of the paper which won the Silver Crown Award from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association during his senior year.

I wish I could be like some of the editors described in your book and be able to publish a real newspaper here. The Western Star and the Pulse-Journal simply print press releases and recycle stories from the Daily News and the Middletown Journal. Many of the stories are totally irrelevant, stuff from their Washington bureau about what US Senator Sharrod Brown is up to and generic features about people who aren't from here. One example of things they didn't cover: There was one article about the school board race in November — but it was all about the incumbent candidates who supported the school levy on the ballot; the challengers got one sentence apiece.

The papers have no reporters here. They drain a lot of cash from the community in the form of display and legal ads — by being in the county seat, it gets all the legals. This place needs a good paper, but the billionaire Cox family doesn't agree.

I know this is kind of a rant and I hope you will forgive me for it. I enjoyed your book immensely and I hope it sells well.

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