From AJR, September 1999 issue
Two Papers, One Tiny Town
By Tricia Eller
Tricia Eller is a former AJR editorial assistant.
PULL OUT YOUR guns and run for cover--there's a good old-fashioned, this-town-ain't-big-enough-for-the-both-of-us showdown going on in the Wild West--western Nebraska, that is. Sidney, a ranching and farming community of 6,000, is home to the "smallest newspaper war in America," according to Vincent Bodiford, publisher of the community's newest paper. Others might just say it's the nicest.
Sidney claims the boasting rights to being the only two-paper town in Nebraska, and that means colossal competition for the slight city--not to mention crowding. The Sidney Telegraph, the town's 126-year-old premier paper, is beginning to feel the pressure from the newcomer Sidney Daily Sun, barely out of infancy at two years old.
The Sun grew in the rarely idle mind of Robert D. Van Vleet Sr., a local businessman, after MediaNews Group sold the Telegraph to Western Publishing in 1996. The sale relegated the paper's printing to the presses of a sister publication: the Star-Herald in Scottsbluff, 76 miles away. That was unacceptable to Van Vleet, who believes "towns without presses don't have a voice."
The rivals have much in common. Both have circulations of about 2,500 and both print issues that average 12 pages. The Sun publishes five days a week; the Telegraph prints on just three. Both papers claim a concentration on community news, but they differ in use of Associated Press material. The Daily Sun gets most of its copy from various wire sources, including AP--a sore spot for Telegraph Publisher Ralph Olsen, whose paper uses the wires less.
Olsen says his newspaper is "focused directly on local news instead of ripping off the AP wire." The Daily Sun, with a staff of three more than the Telegraph's 13, sees this use of wire copy as a nonissue and maintains the Telegraph follows its lead, adjusting its use of color to compete with the vibrant Sun and including more regional and national news to keep up.
This is about as hard-hitting as the war rhetoric gets. A tentative dig here, a raised voice there. In Sidney, you're likely to run into your competition at the corner grocery, so most of the fire is friendly. But it's not all sugar and spice.
The Sun recently launched an ad campaign that compares its ad rates with the Telegraph's in what Bodiford calls an attempt "to tell a value story." Olsen sees the move as a step up on the rivalry ladder--a rivalry that centers chiefly on the advertising dollar.
"I know exactly what it takes me to roll the presses and print the paper, and I know what I have to charge to do that," says Olsen. "I don't see how [the Sun] could be making a profit."
Van Vleet says his ad people at the Sun had "better not be discounting below normal." As a businessman he believes "there's nothing worse than a bunch of price cutters" and adds he could say the same about the Telegraph: "We hear rumors about them cutting prices in half." Both papers claim a small profit.
Whatever the finances at the Sun, Excellence in Publishing Inc., Van Vleet's umbrella company that launched the new paper, is expanding--and fueling the small-town silencing trend Van Vleet decries.
In April, EIP bought the Gering Courier, another small community paper, which happens to be in the twin city to Scottsbluff (home of the Telegraph's printers). The acquisition will be printed at Van Vleet's Sun presses in Sidney--76 miles away from Gering. The scenario sounds familiar but, according to Van Vleet, does not equal hypocrisy because "the Gering paper hadn't been printed in Gering for years," whereas "Sidney has been used to having a press." Where was the Courier's printing being done? Two miles away at the Western Publishing-owned Star-Herald.
James Seacrest, president of Western Publishing, is eating up the turn-around, pointing out that "now the shoe is on the other foot," though it may be irrelevant as both papers limp along side-by-side with half the revenue of a one-paper town.
"I'm a competitive animal," Bodiford, 37, asserts. He adds, "By no means am I intimidated by Western Publishing, the Star-HeraldÉor anybody else."
Bodiford is the only out-of-towner in the cast of characters, brought in from Colorado in 1998. His outlook is a little different from, say, Van Vleet's, who calls his small town "sleepy" in a way that the townies like. Bodiford is not sleepy; he's energized. "I'm having more fun right now in newspapering than I've had in many years in the business," he says. "The thermostat is turned up a few degrees higher."
But sooner or later, it's likely that there will be a casualty in the Battle of Sidney, because, as Seacrest points out, "Sidney is not big enough for two papers."