<i>The State of The American Newspaper</i><br>Feeling the Heat  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1999

The State of The American Newspaper
Feeling the Heat   

Long overlooked, America’s weeklies are being snapped up by hungry chains. Along the way, more community voices are being lost.

By Buzz Bissinger
Buzz Bissinger won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Now a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, he is the author of two highly acclaimed books, “Friday Night Lights” and, most recently, “A Prayer for the City.”     

Oak Brook, Illinois
0 Miles

I am listening to a man named Larry Randa in a tidy office in a tidy office building in a tidy office park in a tidy suburb west of Chicago. My initial impression of Larry Randa is that I like Larry Randa. He has a pleasant face without the distraction of sharp features, and one of those oval-twanged Midwestern accents that makes everything he says seem wholesome. To be honest, he strikes me as a bit of a milquetoast, a man who tells unfunny jokes at Chamber of Commerce lunches because he knows there is always a group at Table 6 who will laugh because they're all hard of hearing.

I realize this initial reaction to Larry Randa is not only superficial but firmly rooted in the hierarchy of journalism. My newspaper upbringing was in the world of the daily, the big metro daily, with newsrooms the size of football fields and reportorial specialists who decided to write every leap year and Pulitzer citations that cost more to frame than any Van Gogh. As for Larry Randa, he spent much of his life putting out a string of 17 privately owned weeklies in the western suburbs of Chicago under the auspices of Life Newspapers.

They were sturdy enough products. The very local-ness of them was inescapably noble, in the way that a dog with a cast on one leg and hobbling around on the remaining three is inescapably noble. You couldn't help but admire the Life newspapers for their very perseverance in this age of slick packaging and celebrity. Dog bites man. Man bites dog. Or cat. Or perhaps fish. You probably would find it in one of the papers that were owned by the Randa and Kubik families. But the more I listen to Larry Randa, the more I detect something else about him--confidence, assurance, even a shade of conquering smugness.

When he looks at me with that sweet round face--for some reason, in this flat light it reminds me of a peach without juice--and says of the efforts of the Chicago Tribune to compete with products such as his, "The Tribune has tried a lot of things against the suburbans, and all of them have failed," I chalk it up to requisite bravado from a man who, let's face it, has spent much of his life putting out the journalistic equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield.

Just like I chalked it up to bravado when Fran Zankowski, publisher of Connecticut's Hartford Advocate alternative weekly, said, "The only way these large dominant dailies can continue is through acquisition." Just like I chalked it up to bravado when Larry Fleischman, executive director of the Suburban Newspapers of America Association, said, "A lot of dailies are saying, shit, if you can't beat 'em, let's buy 'em."

But it all seems like a lot of self-protective bull and bluster. Until Larry Randa tells me the saga of Life Newspapers.

The Randas and the Kubiks had owned the Life papers since the 1930s. Business was good. Life was good. It only seemed a matter of time before Larry himself, who had started on the editorial side of the papers in the 1970s and belonged to the third generation of family ownership, would get a shot as publisher. "We were making a good living," he says. "We were all having fun."

Until the mania of acquisition in the weekly business, at record levels over the past three years, blew into the door of Life Newspapers. When their own company lawyer first approached the two families with a message of interest from a prospective buyer, their inclination was not to get too excited. They followed the industry, of course. They knew independently owned operations such as theirs were getting gobbled up by chains--some established, some that had risen out of the night with pension fund money and venture capital money. They knew how giddy a cold-eyed business entrepreneur could get at the idea of clustering a group of newspapers, particularly when the right consolidations and economies of scale could spike up an already remarkable profit margin of 20 percent even higher. Whatever you thought of the weeklies, there were plenty of them that had the potential to be mean profit hummers. But in nearly 70 years of operation the Randas and the Kubiks had been through such dances before, and their resolve had always been to set a price so high that no one would ever come close to matching it.

And according to Larry Randa, that was precisely the way they felt when they met with Ken Serota, president and chief executive officer of Liberty Group Publishing, in the fall of 1998. Liberty, a new player in the weekly game backed by leveraged buyout specialist Leonard Green, was looking for properties in the Chicago suburban market, particularly in areas that the other big player here, Pioneer Press, had not already conquered. That meant areas west of the city limits, and that meant Life.

"We laughed before the meeting," says Randa. "This is going to be a waste of our time. As in the past, no one's ever going to meet the price that we would take." More fundamentally, the owners shared a deep commitment to their papers as a local, homegrown product, as indigenous to the soil as a Jersey tomato. Try growing that product somewhere else and the results would be inevitable--the thick flesh of it would grow dry and mealy.

It wasn't something they were willing to casually give up. But after the meeting with the 37-year-old Serota, who prior to the invention of Liberty had been vice president of law and finance for the company that owned the Chicago Sun-Times, there wasn't laughter. Instead there was the realization that Serota had just named a price that was causing the Randa family and the Kubik family to wonder if their days as independent newspaper publishers might be over. At the very least, they had something to think about.

A short time later, they had even more to think about. Pioneer, always on the lookout for untapped suburban markets, just like every major newspaper chain in the country is on the lookout for untapped suburban markets, whether it's Minneapolis or Denver or Houston or Cleveland or Milwaukee, jumped into the fray with an offer that was even better than Liberty's.

Suddenly the families had a bidding war on their hands. A big bidding war. So they held their breath. According to Randa, they went back to Liberty with a price beyond anything they could have possibly imagined. They were in the heat of weekly fever, deliciously caught between two deep-pocket boys desperate to gain a strategic foothold in western Cook County and southeastern Du Page County. And then something miraculous happened to the Randa family and the Kubik family.

Liberty met their price.

Randa won't disclose how much was paid for Life Newspapers, which before the sale generated somewhere around $14 million in annual revenues and maintained a profit margin of roughly 15 percent. But when he talks about the purchase, he gets a certain look on his face, somewhat like a kid going to the circus for the first time and seeing all those elephants lined up on each other's backs. Based on filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Liberty paid roughly $28 million for the assets of Life, including its newspapers, equipment and real estate.

"Was I shocked? Are you kidding?" he says. "It was probably 25 percent more than I thought anybody would ever offer."

As a result of the sale, Larry Randa, at 51, is now the head of Liberty's Chicago suburban newspaper division. In that capacity he oversees 52 weekly and multiweekly newspapers covering 75 different communities, all of which were in the hands of four independent operations until Liberty bought them. In October 1998, Liberty purchased Press Publications. Last January it bought the Life papers. In July it bought the Press-Republican newspapers. And in August it purchased Glen News Printing.

Randa talks with gusto about the war for readers in suburban Du Page County, with Liberty, Pioneer and Copley Newspapers all fighting it out. He talks with delight about what a wonderful company Liberty is to work with--just as he talks, with slightly less gusto, about closing duplicative "weak sister" papers in Warrenville, Winfield and Batavia, not to mention cutting seven part-time positions and eliminating 10 more editorial jobs through attrition over the past several months. As for revenues, he acknowledges that Liberty is "tweaking" him a bit to push the numbers higher, but he says he is confident he can do it without compromising editorial quality.

Randa likes the clout that the Liberty suburban operation has. He likes to be able to brag to local and national advertisers of his 220,000 weekly circulation in the affluent suburbs of Chicago. He likes the fact that Liberty has a national sales office in New York, since, at last count, the company owned 134 weekly newspapers. He likes pulling out the color-coordinated map showing the power of Liberty's penetration in the Chicago suburban market, with its five zones in different colors and its multiple zone discounts (buy all five and get 30 percent off!). He has an eye on some Spanish-language publications, and like his competitors he is always looking to acquire other papers that fit into Liberty's suburban clustering pattern in Chicago (even though there are virtually none left that are independently owned). Like his brethren elsewhere, he sees the economic merit of taking all the papers that have been purchased and consolidating certain departments under one roof--circulation, classified, printing and maybe even some editorial functions, such as sports and photography and lifestyle.

There is no reason to begrudge Larry Randa any of this. He is a newspaper businessman doing what he should be doing, working for a company that got into business because of profit potential, not all the news that's fit to print. I understand why he and his dad and Jack Kubik sold Life Newspapers to Liberty--because they were literally handed an offer too good to pass up. I also understand his bullishness about the weekly newspaper market in America, since it is a view shared by virtually everyone you talk to--fellow owners of weekly chains, brokers who say prices for weeklies are at a record high, the owners of the big daily chains who are now leaping over themselves to get weeklies into their portfolios, be they suburbans, shoppers or alternatives, particularly when they don't have to worry about the threat of antitrust action from the Justice Department.

For years the weeklies were the ugly little sisters of journalism, ridiculed by the arrogant and haughty metro dailies that thought they could conquer the suburbs with an endless androgynous wave of zoned editions. As it turned out, weekly publishers not only understood their markets far better than the metros ever did, but proved themselves to be damn good guerrillas in the journalistic war.

But as Larry Randa continues, I detect yet another attitude--not quite guilt at having sold out to a big and amorphous chain with a suite of offices that has all the charm of a mail-order house--but a tinge of regret that another independent operation fell like a leaf in the autumn wind.

"Nobody can have the commitment that a longtime family owner can have to the communities they serve," Randa says. And he is sincere enough, and honorable enough, to know that however you look at it, something has been surrendered by Liberty's acquisitions.

"By this consolidation," he says, "the newspaper industry has sadly lost a deep personal involvement on the part of the publishers of community newspapers. I can't do that, because I can't be in 75 communities at once."

I can't be in 75 communities at once.

As I leave the tidy office of Larry Randa and walk through the tidy hallway and out the tidy office building into the crisp air of the tidy office park, I find myself haunted by that comment. By the side of the building are eight newspaper boxes lined up in a row like well-behaved schoolchildren. They carry products that were once the sole domain of Life Newspapers and now operate under the massive cloak of Liberty--Elmhurst Suburban Life, Villa Park Suburban Life. I like the names of these papers, the simple sound of them like good vegetable soup that doesn't screw around with exotic ingredients. I like looking at their front pages, because they're so unadorned and down to earth. They aren't like dailies, because they were never supposed to be like dailies. They tell you what you want to know, sometimes artfully but most of the time not. I like the fact that they're as much a part of the fabric of the community they serve as the hardware store and the bakery and the mom-and-pop tailor (if of course any of them are still around). I like the innocence of them, and the gentleness of them, and yes, I don't mind saying it, the goofy sweetness of them, in a way that reminds us that not everything in life is a matter of modem speed and the Internet. They exude a familiarity and affection and connection that is becoming increasingly absent in American life.

But after talking to Larry Randa, I can't help but look at the papers in those newspaper boxes differently. It is psychological at this point, since Liberty's stewardship is still in relative gestation. But the idea of these papers in the ultimate authority of someone who doesn't live in the community in which they are published, and who has hundreds of other products to cultivate and look after and prod for more profits, stabs at me. Because even if these papers look the same as they were before the sale, they are no longer the same, and they never will be.

I have no doubt that Liberty, or any of the big-boy chains leaping over themselves to grab a piece of the weekly market, will put out a passable-enough product. On a certain level, perhaps they may well improve what is there with better printing and graphics, a slicker look, a sharper tone.

But as these chains take over and the independent voice further recedes, I can't help but wonder where the heart will come from that year after year has stitched the weekly into the soul and soil of America, a rhythmic reminder as old as the village square and the dappled oak of the place where we live and why that place, booming or bust, growing or dying, shiny or faded, is unlike any other.

It is a wrenching feeling, deeply embedded in the changes that have taken place in the American weekly over the past several years. And as I turn my back from those newspaper boxes and move toward my rental car in the tidy parking lot outside the tidy office building in the tidy office park in the tidy suburb, I realize there is only way to come to grips with it.

Hit the road.

Dixon, Illinois
100 miles

It is somewhere around here, heading west across the flatland warp of Interstate 88 where topographical change is a stalk of corn that may actually be taller than the one next to it, that I come to a firm conclusion about these weekly boys so bullish about themselves.

They're right.

Interviews I did previous to getting into my car underscore all of this. And so do those gnarly and nasty things called the numbers. Taken together, they provide some basic fundamentals worth reminding myself of, particularly in the middle of the night in the pitch-black ribbon of Highway 12 in South Dakota when I think I'm going to get attacked by a herd of buffalo, or get stopped again for speeding by some peach-fuzzed local cop who obviously has heart palpitations anytime he sees an actual car.

• Fundamental One: Weeklies are smoking.

Whereas circulation for the country's biggest dailies continues to founder, readership of the nation's weeklies shows growth and muscle. According to figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations for the six-month period ending last March, 13 of the country's 25 biggest dailies either lost circulation or showed no percentage gain. (Sunday editions fared even worse; 17 of the top 25 either lost circulation or showed no percentage gain.) In 30 years, the number of adults reading a daily paper has fallen nearly 20 percent. Now consider the weeklies. In 1965, according to the National Newspaper Association, there were 8,061 weekly newspapers in the United States, with a total circulation of 25 million. In 1998, there were 8,193 weeklies, with a total distribution (paid and free) of 74 million. In other words, the audience for weeklies has tripled over the past three decades.

• Fundamental Two: Weeklies can set you free.

If I was Larry Randa, I'd be dancing in the street outside my tidy office building, gulping champagne. The weekly market is hot, hotter than it has ever been, and Randa cashed out at the perfect time. According to brokers, weeklies are selling at all-time highs. On average, they are going for multiples of six to eight times earnings. But multiples of eight to 10 are not unusual. (Dailies, by comparison, are fetching multiples of 10 to 14.)

The only sector of the market that hasn't fared well are the itty-bitty weeklies in isolated towns with annual revenues of $300,000 or less. But if you're the owner of a group of suburban weeklies, the owner of a community weekly with revenues in the $1 million range or even the owner of an alternative weekly in an urban market, you may well be sitting on a pile of cash you never thought possible.

From a business point of view, weeklies are perfect candidates for clustering, whereby an owner can achieve economies of scale by consolidating, under one roof, the various functions of several papers in the same geographic area.

• Fundamental Three: Everybody wants weeklies.

In 1997, according to an annual survey of nondaily newspaper sales by Editor & Publisher, there were 125 transactions involving more than 400 papers and shoppers. With barely a whisper, such papers as the Piggot Times in Arkansas, the Monument Tribune in Colorado, the Lewisboro Ledger in Connecticut, the Henry Herald in Georgia, the Zionsville Times-Sentinel in Indiana, the Fairbault County Register in Minnesota, the Yadkin Enterprise in North Carolina, the Antlers American in Oklahoma and the Deer Park Progress in Texas all became part of chains.

In 1998 the number of sales rose to 160, this time encompassing more than 500 individual nameplates, with such papers as the Gridley Herald and the Teutopolos Press and the Ascension Citizen and the Lone Peak Lookout and the Cleveland Post and the Minco Minstrel all going to chains.

There are no firm figures for 1999 yet, but brokers say the market for weeklies, far from slackening, may be even hotter.

The West Yellowstone News became part of Big Sky Publishing, a subsidiary of the Pioneer Newspaper Group in Seattle, which owns eight dailies, three weeklies, nine shopper publications, one real estate guide and several other niche publications. The Wyoming State Journal, a twice-a-week paper in Lander, Wyoming, was bought by the nearby daily, the Riverton Ranger, whereupon the Journal lost its name, its editor, its original look and a chunk of its staff. The Lebanon Reporter in Indiana, first published in 1891, became part of the Thomson empire. The Osseo Press and seven other weeklies in Minnesota that were owned by Don and Carole Larson went to the creeping giant of Lionheart Newspapers, a Fort Worth-based company that in little over two and a half years has amassed some 50 weeklies in Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota and Texas.

• Fundamental Four: If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em.

Big-city chains, after years of turning up their noses at weeklies in their markets, or thinking they could effectively crunch them into dust, have now en masse discovered a different strategy:

Buy the feisty little bastards.

Among other reasons, such acquisitions allow the dailies to offer attractive combination deals to their advertisers. "It's just sound," says John T. Cribb, president of Bolitho-Cribb & Associates in Bozeman, Montana, of the buying trend. "All dailies are losing circulation and penetration. If you want those rich suburbs out there, the weeklies, and the free weekly groups, get you that penetration."

Perhaps the most active player here has been Times Mirror. In 1997, the company, which owns the Baltimore Sun, bought the Patuxent chain of 13 weeklies in the Baltimore suburbs. Earlier this year Times Mirror, which also owns Newsday, bought Newport Media, a shopper group on Long Island with a total distribution of 1.9 million, for a price of well over $100 million. Shortly after that, Times Mirror set the journalism world on fire when it became the first major chain in the nation to buy an alternative weekly in one of its own markets. The company, which publishes the Hartford Courant, purchased the Hartford Advocate and four other free weekly sister publications.

Some other transactions over the past two years:

Advance Publications, a subsidiary of the Newhouse empire that owns the Plain Dealer, bought the Sun newspaper chain in the Cleveland suburbs; Journal Communications, which owns the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, bought another branch of the Sun newspapers in the Milwaukee suburbs; and Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., the Knight Ridder subsidiary that owns the Inquirer and Daily News, bought ProMedia Management, which published weeklies and shoppers in suburban Bucks and Montgomery counties, and Consumer & Community News, which did the same just across the Delaware River in New Jersey.

Several months ago, Newhouse struck again when it purchased a group of 12 weeklies in the suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan, from Badoud Communications. The company already owned the dominant daily in the region, the Grand Rapids Press. The purchase was a milestone, marking the 25th transaction in the country in which a daily with 100,000 or more circulation had acquired a group of suburban weeklies with combined circulation of 100,000 or more in the metro's own market.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, all these transactions might well have been blocked on the grounds of antitrust violations. But today's media environment is very different, and legal action on the part of the Justice Department has become exceedingly rare. The Internet has fundamentally changed our old notions of competition, a Web page for every whim and impulse. And even in the realm of conventional publications, there are many more available today in any given metro area than there were a decade ago--the daily paper, several types of weeklies (both paid and free circulation), shoppers and a variety of insert packages delivered straight into the home.

For those in the industry, the litmus test of what kind of stance the Justice Department would ultimately take came when Advance purchased the Sun papers outside Cleveland. "The significance of the Sun papers is not to be understated," says Ted Biedron, executive vice president of the Pioneer Press chain in suburban Chicago. "The dailies own the weekly and no one said anything. We all held our breath and nothing happened."

• Fundamental Five: If you're lucky enough to own an alternative weekly, all those years of blowing dope when you should have been working has turned out to be a stroke of business genius.

The most virginal sector of the weekly market, the alternative, may also be the one most likely to explode off the charts in the next year, given the Times Mirror precedent with the Hartford Advocate. With September's announcement that Stern Publishing was putting its seven alternative weeklies up for sale, including the venerable Village Voice, there is rampant speculation about who will step in as the buyer--an Internet company, for example, or perhaps even the New York Times, looking to find young new readers.

The idea of the daily metro buying the alternative weekly in its market makes eminent sense to analysts and brokers, particularly since the alternative caters to a demographic market, the 18- to 45-year-old, that advertisers kill for. Some of their appeal to younger readers is inescapably due to the fact that many alternatives, for all their sophomoric smart-assedness and predictably contrarian slaps at the establishment, also practice journalism that is incisive, has an actual point of view, and is filled with the kind of edgy voices that young readers crave. It is also clear that dope-smoking has made these guys good businessmen, because, let's face it, most alternative weeklies in America aren't alternative at all any more, but excuses for ads in between 44 pages of club listings for Gen-X fashion plates who go to Gap the next day and buy that jacket because, after all, isn't everybody in leather?

• Fundamental Six: Even those weekly owners who believe in independence may be finding themselves vulnerable.

When you've worked all your life at a weekly, and you've made a good living in the last couple of years but still not a dazzling one, and someone comes along with a very nice cash offer that insures your retirement, it's hard to resist. Because the weekly business for an independent owner is still the weekly business--60- to 70-hour work weeks, critical shortages of labor on both the production and editorial sides, the utilization of all sorts of entrepreneurial ingenuity to keep the cash flowing, fear of the next recession.

There is also another phenomenon driving weekly sales by family owners: No one in the next generation wants to run the things because the work is considered unglamorous, arduous, boring, plodding, and totally out of touch with the wave of new technology. Ten years ago, seeing this trend unfold, one weekly publisher in Washington state, Frank Garred of the Port Townsend Jefferson County Leader, brought in an editor he knew and trusted with the specific purpose of handing the reins of the paper over to him in order for it to remain independent and locally owned. "Why does a community desire to have its own medium?" asks Garred. "I kind of like the idea of the First Amendment. It's not owned by the press. It's owned by the public. Small-town newspapers have a niche: The only way they're going to be buried is by those of us who can't afford to be independent."

But the far-sighted planning of a publisher such as Garred is rare. In many cases weekly owners, when they decide to sell, realize there is no one to sell to except a chain, particularly if they want cash up front.

As I head through the monotone night of Illinois into Iowa, I think about these fundamentals. I realize that I like the energy of the weekly newspaper business, the fact that there are still places out there where newspaper owners are fighting for readers tooth and nail. The weekly world can be vicious, nasty, petty, angry and obnoxious. In other words quite glorious.

I have been told about Grayslake, a small suburb of about 7,300 north of Chicago in which readers can choose among two paid weeklies, one free weekly delivered into the home, two different weekly shoppers and two home-delivered weekly inserts. I have been told about Jackson, Wyoming, where there are no less than two paid weeklies and two free dailies serving a county of roughly 15,000. And right below Jackson is Sublette County in Wyoming, a beautiful and bitter and basically empty moonscape where two weeklies are competing against each other like pissed-off cats.

But it's that last fundamental--the loss of independence--that I care about by far the most. Is there a way for a locally owned weekly to survive in this market? Can editorial product--good editorial product--make enough of a profit to resist the cash offers of the deep-pocket boys? Is distinctiveness--local homegrown distinctiveness, whether it's the bank or the funeral parlor or the weekly newspaper--of any value anymore? They go to the very tissue of what it means to be a community in American life, and it is why, in the silent ribbon of the night, I am headed for Mobridge.

Mobridge, South Dakota
972 Miles

It is deadline day at the Tribune, and if this were a perfect world, or at least one that didn't seem hell-bent for chaos, Larry Atkinson would like nothing better than to edit this week's lead story without interruption.

Watching how Atkinson interacts--the way he says hello with the lilt of a minister on a pearly blue Sunday morning, his easy laughter in the face of code-red operational disintegration, the whole soft and avuncular body language--makes it clear that he is the opposite of a selfish man. Every week, at the used press that is as temperamental as an over-the-hill movie star who still thinks she has good legs, Atkinson prints not only 3,650 copies of the Mobridge Tribune but also the tiny weeklies that pop up in this northern band of the Dakota prairie like buried bottle caps. These runs are small, so small in some cases that there is as much waste in newsprint, just to get the press up and running, as there is actual product.

Atkinson is the first to admit that of all the ways to get rich in life, printing the Faith Independent and the McLaughlin Messenger and the Selby Record and the Isabel Dakotan will never be one of them. Ostensibly these papers are also competitors, and every time he tries to sell an ad for the Tribune in one of their communities, you can hear the grousing all the way to North Dakota. "Larry gets walked on by his customers" is the way his right-hand man, Leo Grosch, sees it, particu-larly when Grosch has to sweet-talk the ornery six-unit Goss Community into printing up 700 copies of the Isabel Dakotan. But Atkinson doesn't see these weeklies as competitors. He sees them as voices, voices in communities that otherwise would not have one, and because of that he has little interest in gouging for profit. "If I didn't print them, no one else would," says Atkinson, "and that town would lose its paper."

The 48-year-old Atkinson runs his own paper on the same code of principles. He wants to make money like any businessman, and when times have been good he has made money, enough to put his two oldest children through college and buy a boat (which he later had to sell). But the work goes deeper than that. The lithographic image of Ben Franklin at the printing press in Philadelphia does not dance in Larry Atkinson's conscience as some merely sweet historical footnote. Nor is it any accident that when he thinks of what it means to be a democracy, he also thinks of the role of the printed word. "I'm here because I choose to be here," he says. "It is my community. Newspapers play a key role in molding communities into what we are. We are the voice of reason. We are the voice of questioning government." And if it means fewer dollars, if the profit margin isn't up there in the ozone, then that's what it means. "I make a lot of decisions based not on whether it's going to make me money, but on whether or not it serves the community."

It is a self-serving statement, but anyone in town who knows Larry Atkinson also knows that he means it. It may also explain at least part of his predicament and why his days as an independent publisher may be numbered, particularly when buyers are potentially looking for properties such as his, above that magic $1 million mark in annual revenues.

It is an area of conversation he would clearly like to avoid, but there are certain realities of the weekly newspaper business that Atkinson cannot avoid--the labor shortage, the constant push and pull of trying to find new sources of income from other products, the realization that a private buyer for the paper would be much less likely than a chain to have the up-front cash.

Keeping the Tribune locally owned has stretched him to the financial breaking point. He is leveraged in loans for about $1.3 million, and sometime last summer the primary holder of those loans, Norwest Bank, didn't mince words. "Larry, what are you going to do if a major piece of equipment goes out?" was the way the conversation went. As Atkinson fashioned a response, the banker for Norwest made it clear that another loan, from his bank at least, would not be an option. "You're going to have to come up with another solution, because I'm at the maximum I can give you."

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