AJR  Features
From AJR,   May 1999

The State of The American Newspaper
The Selling of Small-town America   

Hometown dailies are trading like used cars at an auction. Where’s the cash coming from? Would you believe a leveraged- buyout king, Alabama’s state pension fund and Warburg, Pincus?

By Mary Walton
Mary Walton (marywalton2000@yahoo.com) is a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her most recent book, 'A Woman's Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot,? was published by Palgrave Macmillan in August.     

In the 16 years that Arlena McLaughlin worked her way up from advertising sales representative to publisher, the Huntsville Item, a 6,100-circulation east Texas daily, had four different owners. When she arrived in 1980 it was held by Harte-Hanks. In 1986 MediaNews Group bought the Item, then turned around two years later and sold it to Thomson Newspapers. In 1995 it was sold again, to Hollinger International.

As publisher, McLaughlin became accustomed to showing the paper to prospective buyers. "I'd give them the market tour," she says, "and talk about our marketing plans. And business plans. And talk about the community, the stability of the employees and that sort of thing. Some days you would almost feel more like a real estate broker than you would a newspaper publisher."

Had she hung around, McLaughlin might still be entertaining buyers. Last year the Item was peddled a fifth time, to the fastest-growing chain in the country, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., of Birmingham, Alabama. But in 1996 McLaughlin, 42, took a new job as publisher of the Courier (circulation 12,000) in Conroe, Texas, and several weeklies on the northern outskirts of Houston.

Two years later, that paper got new owners.

America's hometown papers are a precious national resource. They render up on a daily basis the events that matter most to their readers: births, retirements and deaths, school plays and football plays, sewer excavations and pothole repairs, drunk driving arrests and, these days, even the addresses of the sex offenders among us. If the papers sometimes sidestep controversy--best look for that in the popular letters to the editor columns--they cover the staples: school boards, zoning boards, town councils.

These newspapers are indispensable in another way, as local citizens, heading up annual United Way drives, championing local business, and generally lending their communities a sense of stability in an unstable world. With fully half of the nation's 1,489 daily papers under 13,000 circulation, they help form the backbone of an America seldom featured in glossy magazines or on the evening news.

But deeply rooted as they may be, the nation's hometown papers are vulnerable to outside forces. And these days, they are changing hands like used cars at an auction--more than 380 in the past five years alone.

In one of the biggest shifts in newspaper ownership since chains began devouring independent papers more than a generation ago, big-city businessmen with deep pockets are flocking to the industry, lured by small papers with generous margins. These new owners are highly leveraged and itching to make money. Indeed, often built into their financial arrangements are "exit strategies" that force the companies either to sell or go public, generally within five to seven years.

Often the new owners retain publishers. Some, like Community Newspaper Holdings, also keep their names off the masthead. As a result, small-town readers may be only dimly aware that the rampant "chain-store" phenomenom has claimed yet another local enterprise--their newspaper.

As these first-time owners trade places with profit-taking sellers wise to the vagaries of newspaper publishing, the road ahead is unmarked and filled with potential hazards. Consider some of the realities of today's newspaper world order:

• Since 1994, nearly 40 percent of all the nation's small newspapers have been sold--scores of them more than once. Of all daily newspaper sales, regardless of size, small papers constitute 70 percent of the total.

• Two of the top three newspaper companies in the country, ranked by the number of dailies they own, didn't even exist three years ago. Community Newspaper Holdings, which debuted in 1997, tops the list with 95 papers. Third is Liberty Group Publishing, which popped up in early 1998 by purchasing 55 dailies from Hollinger and now has 63. And 11th is Paxton Media, which in four years has grown from one small Kentucky daily, the Paducah Sun, to 26 papers.

• With prices for many small papers at record highs, media empires like Hollinger, Thomson and Donrey, which once appeared likely to gobble up every newspaper in the country, are instead eagerly shedding properties.

• The frenzy of buying and selling has produced a new breed of "financial owner" for whom small newspapers are just another business. Community Newspaper Holdings, or CNHI, is bankrolled by a pension fund. Liberty is owned by a Los Angeles leveraged buyout company. Journal Register Co., with 24 dailies and 185 nondailies, is publicly held--but a Wall Street investment firm owns three-quarters of the stock.

• These new companies start out deeply in debt, with rigorous payment schedules based on expectations of steady profits. In the event of an economic downturn, these debt-laden companies have few options beyond cutting costs--which in some cases they've already done with a vengeance.

• When a paper is destined for the block, as is so often the case these days, the owner is more likely to trim costs and less likely to add equipment or employees.

• The new owners are highly acquisitive. Because the bulk sales from old to new chains typically have involved a large number of leanly run "mature papers" in no- to slow-growth communities, the only way the new owners can increase revenue is to find fresh properties and cut costs.

• As buyers look for papers that can be clustered around a single printing plant, community weeklies have become as important to the equation as dailies. For instance, Boston-based Community Newpaper Co., owned by Fidelity Capital, has just two dailies, but 90 weeklies and 19 shoppers.

Perhaps, as some executives suggest, the economies of chain ownership have saved the occasional fragile paper from an almost certain demise. But it is not enough that little papers merely survive. The broader concern is that they continue as institutions that are crucial to a sense of community.

In St. Marys, Pennsylvania (pop. 14,000), in rural Elk County, former mayor Ann Grosser says the Daily Press has not covered a sensitive rift in the police department. But she reads it anyway. "It holds the community together," she tells me over coffee one frosty winter morning at the Bavarian Inn, whose name evokes the area's German heritage. "If we had a big newspaper that covered a large area, it wouldn't have the closeness."

The Daily Press, circulation 5,000, was sold to Liberty in 1997.

If this buying spree has surprised a lot of newspaper people, perhaps it shouldn't have. The desirability of these properties is no mystery. From 1994 to 1997, when Hollinger owned the papers that now belong to Liberty, their already high margins increased from 27.2 percent to 30.6 percent. "For every dollar of sales, your profit is 15 to 30 cents to the bottom line of real cash," says Kenneth J. Hanau, of Weiss, Peck & Greer's Private Equity Group, which has bankrolled Texas-based Lionheart Newspapers. "They can go as high as 40 percent for good strong dailies. Even on the low end of 15, those are very attractive margins compared to most industries you'll see. A lot of manufacturing sectors or distributions are battling it out for single digits."

Unlike large metros that must compete for news and advertising with suburban dailies, radio and television stations, direct mail and now the Internet, many smaller papers are genuine monopolies. "Our average newspaper is over 100 years old," say Peter J. Nolan of Leonard Green & Partners, which owns Liberty. "And there's a reason for that.... It's really unlikely somebody's going to operate a competing daily to a paper that's been around since the 1800s." When it comes to advertising dollars, he says, most of their papers are in communities that don't have TV stations. "We ask these guys who's your competition, and they say matchbook covers."

Because they have fewer pages than metros, small-town newspapers require far less newsprint per copy. Unions are rare, labor is cheap. It is not uncommon to find reporters earning as little as $7 an hour. (The federal minimum wage is $5.15.) And most new owners group properties into money-saving clusters.

Moreover, unlike big papers that are vulnerable to economic cycles, little papers have a more stable base. Their advertisers have nowhere else to turn, and "even in bad times, people can afford 50 cents for a newspaper," says Kevin Murphy of SunTrust Equitable Securities Corp., a Nashville investment bank. "And they're very hard to supplant. Someone just can't throw up a newspaper next door to you. People get in habits. The paper could be terrible but people still get it."

So why would the big chains part with such highly profitable properties? In a word, money. With so many companies competing to buy small papers, "prices are at an all-time high right now," says Liberty's CEO, Kenneth L. Serota. According to a study by the newspaper brokerage firm Dirks, Van Essen & Associates, the average price of a community daily in a stand-alone market rose to 3.6 times annual revenues, up from 3.41 in 1997 and well above a 2.03 nadir in 1992.

"There's a size below which it requires very intense management to build profitability, and when it gets profitable it doesn't add up to much," explained an executive at another major newspaper company. He spoke on background, lest his company's smaller papers jump to the conclusion they were for sale. "A paper of 10,000 circulation might produce $4 or $5 million in revenue. One third [profit] would be $1.5 million. For a company like Gannett, how many $1.5 million things have to add up to what a larger paper makes, especially when you have all the accounting and other kinds of overhead? Also, big companies tend to pay more benefits. It can add up to a significant amount of money."

When Gannett owned the 12,000-circulation Saratogian in Saratoga Springs, New York, says former publisher Monte Trammer, "we were...I hesitate to say 'ignored.' But the general attitude was, 'You're out there in Saratoga, try not to bother us.' When you're this size in Gannett, you understand there's a big company out there and it's not about you." The paper was sold last year to the smaller Journal Register Co., and Trammer says it was suddenly a different story. CEO Robert Jelenic called frequently, and Trammer says he could always get him on the phone if he needed him. "You learn very quickly that you matter."

It is not unusual these days for a good property to attract four or five bidders, says broker Owen Van Essen. When owner Wayne T. Patrick put the Palestine Herald-Press on the block, he quietly contacted 10 companies, says Publisher Larry Mayo. Although Palestine, Texas, is a boom-or-bust oil town currently in the bust phase, the paper there was nonetheless highly desirable. The nearest big paper is in Tyler, 50 miles away, and radio and TV offer negligible competition. It's said of papers like these that they "own their territory." Patrick received six bids.

It would be tempting but wrong to lament the passing of an era when local proprietors put out spirited, independent dailies and the dawn of another when financial owners publish homogenized products that squeeze costs. Some of the most miserable little papers in the country are published by independents. Moreover, most sales these days are from one chain to another, most of which are respected more for their margins than their journalism.

Besides, what newspaper company hasn't been swept up in the race to increase profits? In cutting 25 employees at the Times Herald in Norristown, Pennsylvania, or 33 at the Bristol Press in Connecticut, the Journal Register Co. was scarcely more ruthless than Dean Singleton when his MediaNews Group acquired the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, California, and lopped 120 employees off the payroll, or Tony Ridder, whose company's takeover farther north in Monterey cost 28 workers their jobs, or John Curley, on whose watch 55 editorial positions at the Asbury Park Press were eliminated after Gannett bought the New Jersey daily. Still, JRC's cuts have hardly been limited to layoffs of low-level employees. And numerous Journal Register managers who have quit or been fired say that CEO Jelenic's relentless push for profits has infected the company with a callousness that goes beyond the norm.

These new ownership trends raise troubling questions. Newspapers have long been looked to as hometown boosters. Is that role in jeopardy? Before the Journal Register bought the Norristown Times Herald in 1993, "the publisher was active in every facet of the community," says Payson W. Burt, executive vice president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. No more, he says. The paper still sponsors the area's spelling bee, "but it's not high on [its] priority list. It doesn't contribute to the bottom line."

Unschooled in First Amendment values, will the new owners pay more than lip service to the historic watchdog role of the press? State newspaper associations have seen participation dwindle as busy executives stick to their own problems. "The decision is a financial one," says Tim Williams, executive director of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. "They're not compensated on the basis of support." Meeting attendance is down, Williams says, and so is help with efforts to strengthen state access laws to government information. "Our laws haven't been changed since the late '50s. They don't include computer or digital information." But with fewer and fewer people to lobby, he says, "it hurts."

And what of the possibilities for conflict of interest, when papers are backed by widely diversified financial corporations? Stephens Group, which acquired the Donrey chain in 1993, is run by the powerful and politically connected Stephens family of Little Rock, Arkansas. It is the parent of Stephens Inc., a large investment firm. It is also the largest stockholder in Alltel Corp., the Little Rock telecommunications giant. Founder and Chairman Jackson T. Stephens, No. 138 on the 1998 Forbes magazine list of richest Americans, recently donated $5 million to a youth golfing program. Less wholesome is his longtime association with Indonesian mogul Mochtar Riady, whose Lippo Group made headlines in 1996 for its attempt to win influence with the Clinton administration. Lippo's man in Washington, John Huang, camped out in Stephens' Washington office during that period. Jackson Stephens' son Warren is the CEO of Stephens Inc. and turns up with wife Harriet on lists of Republican campaign contributors. Another son, Jackson T. Stephens Jr., founded a conservative think tank.

Although Stephens has sold more than half its newspaper properties over the last year, it elected to keep four Arkansas papers, including one in Fort Smith, where the company markets the city's municipal bonds. Stephens Production Co., which engages in oil and gas exploration and drilling, also is headquartered there, and has wells within the city limits.

Are these the people you want to be your community watchdog?

The fact is that many hometown papers belong now to companies whose executives can't remember all their names. And as for the weeklies they own, forget about it.

So how will these new, nontraditional owners acquit themselves? Will they behave like real estate speculators, buying properties, milking them for profits and then auctioning them off? Or will they demonstrate a lasting stability and commitment? Frankly, it's too soon to know.

But as to how they practice journalism on a daily basis, it is not too early to look at the three biggest companies, the deals they have struck and the papers they publish. The Journal Register, with nearly a decade of newspaper ownership and whose major stockholder is New York investment firm Warburg, Pincus & Co., claims to have a formula that gives it the highest bottom line among publicly owned companies. Liberty has the tiniest papers in the country and boasts some of the highest margins. And CNHI claims to be a different breed, more focused on building revenues than cutting costs, owing in part to its financial backing from Retirement Systems of Alabama.

But before I scheduled the first interview, I needed to know how Will Jarrett got rich.

Early into my research on today's breed of owners, I came across a Business Week article that described the 1997 sale of a small Texas newspaper company called Westward Communications. One of the founders, Will D. Jarrett, was said to have walked away from the deal "with millions."

As it happened, Jarrett had been one of my editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer more than two decades ago. He was one of Knight Ridder's bright young executives, but scarcely what you'd call the entrepreneurial type. I also remembered him as friendly and cheerful. These days he is just as friendly, certainly cheerful--and wearing a golf course tan.

Jarrett, it turns out, was a pioneer of sorts in a new mode of buying and selling rural dailies and weeklies. Over lunch at the Regency Hyatt in the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, he tells me how he did it.

In 1985 the native Texan was at the top of his profession as executive editor of the Dallas Times Herald. But at heart Jarrett wanted something more--newspaper equity of his own. So that year, on his 50th birthday, he resigned. Teaming up with another former Times Herald editor, Ken Johnson, Jarrett formed Westward Communications. Johnson, who also had been an assistant general manager at the Washington Post, knew something about finance. Together the pair developed what they called their "Wal-Mart strategy." Sam Walton "saw a lot of money in small towns," Jarrett explains. "And luckily for us, we saw the same thing."

Jarrett and Johnson looked for markets where an owner whose newspaper had a printing press might be willing to sell out and retire. Then they would buy surrounding weeklies that had no presses and print them all at the central plant--a "hub-and-spoke" approach. Printing and accounting costs could be centralized. Margins could always be improved in other ways at papers that had been privately held. Sometimes there were surplus family members on the payroll. Hometown proprietors were often reluctant to raise rates to their friends in the business community or risk flak from readers over higher prices. Later, Jarrett said, when they executed the plan, "We were pretty insistent on raising circulation and advertising rates."

It was the mid-'80s, and there was then, as there is now, "a lot of money in America looking for managers, and a lot of managers like myself looking for money." Jarrett and Johnson approached five venture capital companies, and "four said they would do the deal." Playing them against one another, Jarrett says, they were able to negotiate favorable terms with MVenture, a division of MBank of Dallas, which with a smaller venture group put up an initial $2 million for 49 percent of the new newspaper company. The two former editors retained a controlling interest of 51 percent--which I would later learn was an unusually generous arrangement, in light of more recent deals. "My feeling is if you're a journalist or an editor," Jarrett says, "you want to have control over your company, not the financial people."

The two newspapermen each put in $50,000. With the MVenture cash for equity, they borrowed an additional $5 million from a Rhode Island bank to make acquisitions. It is typical, Jarrett says, to have "two layers of debt--a layer put in by equity folks. You take that layer of debt and then you leverage it. You go to the bank and say, 'I've been given a down payment by these equity players, and they're willing to put this all at risk if you lend the company money.' " In this fashion, Westward eventually took out an additional $20 million in bank loans.

Money in hand, the pair bought two Texas dailies, in Pasadena and Conroe, plus five semiweeklies and 43 weeklies. The venture capitalists had two people on the five-member board to watch over their investment. Each year, Jarrett told me, there are "formulas with cash flows and multiples, and you have to keep hitting the marks."

As Westward realized cash gains, it paid down the bank loans. Jarrett and Johnson collected salaries and bonuses. But neither they nor their equity partners profited personally until the business was sold in 1997. That Westward would change hands in just a few years came as no surprise to anyone, except perhaps some employees. The money that equity partners invest comes from individuals and institutions who have placed it in a fund with a targeted life span. At the end of that period they expect returns. How a partnership is terminated is known as the "exit strategy," and it generally takes place within five to seven years. Often in these equity deals, the partners plan to resell the properties. But they may also take the company public or refinance the deal. So these venture capitalists gamble that the value of their company will increase more each year.

In the case of Westward they were right. The company was sold to Banc One Capital Partners of Columbus, Ohio, for more than $80 million, according to estimates at the time. (Jarrett wouldn't divulge the price.) Most of the debts had been paid off by then, Jarrett says, and the two former editors had increased their share to 64 percent.

"It's pretty much like a house," Jarrett says. "No matter what you pay, if you're making payments on it every month for 10 years, you can turn around and sell it for more than you paid. The difference is that for the same 10 years, a paper is making money and paying down debt."

Later I do the calculations. It looks to me like Jarrett and Johnson--and the equity partners--walked away with somewhere between $20 million and $25 million apiece. Money beyond an editor's wildest dreams. I call Jarrett. Can this be true? He doesn't confirm it and he doesn't deny it; he just chuckles. "You didn't hear it from me," he says.

In a 22-story white tower on the west side of Los Angeles, the view is of a pastel cityscape spread over hills and, beyond it, a plain of water, the Pacific Ocean. Off to the north are the boxy white hilltop buildings that comprise the new and much-acclaimed J. Paul Getty Museum. The offices in this suite are carpeted with Orientals and the walls hung with artwork from the collection of Leonard Green, the man Business Week has dubbed "The Bottom-Fisher King of Retail." Coming from Business Week, this is a compliment. Said the magazine in 1997, "On the heels of a pair of shrewdly crafted leveraged buyouts of chains for home improvement and sporting goods, the courtly 64-year-old Green has emerged as the nation's leading retail buyout specialist."

Green, the article said, has made a fortune buying troubled enterprises such as the Thrifty drugstore chain and Kmart's Payless, turning them around, then selling them or taking them public at a tremendous profit. Reporter Margaret Webb Pressler in the Washington Post described Green as a "friendly takeover artist who eschewed the buy-it-and-break-it-up strategy that was so popular" in the 1980s. In addition to being an avid art collector, he is an animal-rights advocate and has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to an organization that supports minority college students.

A Rhode Island newspaper offered a less benign view of Green in 1994 on the eve of the collapse of the homegrown Almac supermarket chain. Quoted in the Providence Journal-Bulletin, officials of unions representing hundreds of out-of-work supermarket employees blamed two successive LBOs--Green's in 1991 was the second--for depleting Almac's coffers. Sniffing blood, rival chains moved in with superstores. Green's representatives said they had underestimated the threat of competition.

Perhaps it was foreordained that Green, the son of a dress salesman, would end up in retail. But now he has a new company and a new role: Leonard Green, newspaper publisher.

On January 27, 1998, Leonard Green & Partners consummated a $310 million deal with Hollinger that created an instant newspaper company, Liberty Group Publishing. Based in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, Liberty now owns 63 dailies with a total circulation of 275,000, and another 237 paid and free nondaily publications.

The deal that catapulted Leonard Green into the newspaper business was a quietly executed transaction that began with a few well-placed words. "There was not a for-sale sign in front of these properties," Jerry Strader, head of Hollinger's community newspaper group, told Editor & Publisher at the time. As it happened, Peter Nolan, one of five Green partners who troll for investments, learned from an associate at the investment banking firm where he used to work, Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, that one of its clients, Hollinger, was interested in selling a large number of its small papers. Would Green be interested in buying?

"We said, 'Yes, we were,' " says Nolan, who is tall and blond, with blue eyes and a patrician profile. It is casual Friday here in L.A. and he is tieless in a blue V-neck sweater and khaki pants. On the wall facing him is a large gold-framed oil of the storm-roiled Pacific coast, a painting he chose from the boss' collection.

The Green partners invested $60 million; additional funds were raised from junk bonds and bank loans. Green ended up with 90 percent of the company. The remaining 10 percent is divided among senior management. But the ultimate owners could be said to be Green's clients--big banks like First Boston and Citibank, public pension funds in California, Michigan, Pennsylvania. If all goes according to plan, the company will go public within five years, and Leonard Green can sell its stock and recoup its investment--and then some. On Wall Street, that time span is a millennium. "We're long-term, patient investors," Nolan says. They do not involve themselves in the business, he adds. "We're not operators. We don't know how to run anything."

For that, Leonard Green looks to Ken Serota, the $375,000-a-year CEO of Liberty, who had been Hollinger's vice president for law and finance. It turns out Serota doesn't run the papers either. "I'm not an old and grizzled newspaper guy," the 37-year-old Serota says, almost apologetically. "I'm a CPA and a lawyer. I let my newspaper guys run my newspapers. They hold the thing together."

Publishers like the indefatigable Bill Anderson at the Punxsutawney Spirit in western Pennsylvania are what attracted Leonard Green to these papers. Anderson is a lanky, animated man of 48. Five years ago there was a rare opening in Punxsutawney's elite, 15-member "Inner Circle," which runs the famed Groundhog Day festivities, and Anderson, a hometown booster, was invited to join. Every member has a name; his is "Groundhog Scribe."

Like most small-town publishers, Anderson wears a second hat: He's also the Spirit's advertising manager. On the paper's 125th anniversary, he put out a 144-page special edition, filled with historic front pages and $35,000 in ads. He published a lively Groundhog Day history, researching and laying it out himself, that sold even more ads--$65,000 worth. Every month the company prints 45,000 ad-filled placemats. He is proud that the circulation numbers have scarcely budged since he went to work there, despite a 15 percent decline in the local population since 1980. In 1995, Hollinger named him Publisher of the Year.

But Punxsutawney sits amid played-out coal mines, its downtown bubble punctured by Wal-Mart and its industrial base so lean that the school district is the largest employer with 300 people. Meeting Liberty's monthly revenue targets can be a strain in a town this poor. Every day, Anderson says, he has to generate $4,480 simply to pay the bills. "Sometimes it's scary just to open the front door." He adds, "We can't go out and sell an ad for $25 an inch like they do in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. I sell it for $5 an inch and it's a struggle to get it." When he decided to raise the price of the paper in January from 35 cents, he didn't dare add more than a nickel.

Anderson recently changed page one to a lively, all-local format. What he calls "the front-page news"--world and national events--now goes inside. Not for Anderson the plaint I hear from another publisher, that "sometimes in small towns there isn't any local news." On the day I am in Punxsutawney, page one headlines announce a fatal car crash, a gas line explosion, the closure of a beloved family-run deli, a fund-raising campaign for homeless families, the first 1999 baby born at Punxsutawney Hospital and the exotic travels of a toy koala bear. Says Anderson, "Without local news there wouldn't be any difference between the Punxsutawney Spirit and USA Today."

That's a stretch. The Spirit is short on graphics and, except for its flag, as gray as granite. Color costs money. "We save color for special occasions," Anderson says. Reporters punch a clock along with everybody else in the building. They are forbidden to work overtime. They take their own pictures and drive their own cars, for which the reimbursement is a meager 18 cents a mile. A stream of memos from the boss exhorts the editorial staff of eight to show more initiative, work harder and make fewer mistakes. Anderson demands two stories a day--although "it's okay to do a story and a photo." He smiles and says with sincerity, "What a great little job." Because so much of the Spirit's daily grist is meeting coverage, most reporters work 3 p.m. to midnight. If something newsworthy happens during the day, Anderson himself will pitch in. "If there would be a major fire in town," he says, "[you're] looking at the guy who would take the picture right now."

During the post-Watergate era, when reporting was a hot profession, résumés used to land on his desk routinely. No more. Anderson advertised his most recent job opening in the Spirit and two nearby papers every day for three weeks. He got one response. The starting pay, Anderson says, is $300 a week, or $7.50 an hour. Two reporters I talk to later confide that they make less. Asked to explain, Anderson pleads "extenuating circumstances" having to do with the reporters' experience and job duties.

January was a difficult month for Anderson. His editor had resigned and so Anderson was wearing a third hat. Asked to edit each other's copy, the reporters were grumbling. And even though he was saving the editor's salary, Anderson told at least one staffer that he was $25,000 below Liberty's expectations for the month. He told others the stress was getting to him.

What happens, I ask, when you don't make budget? Anderson answers, "You work harder."

You have to love little papers like these for all the blood and sweat that goes into them, and for all their idiosyncracies. Perhaps only at a 5,000-circulation paper like the Daily Press in St. Marys, Pennsylvania, could Dick Dornisch, 69, a retired supermarket manager and liberal activist, find employment as a combination reporter, reviewer, historian and cartoonist. How many young J-school grads could evoke a hunting camp this way, as Dornisch did in the Daily Press: "A combination of sour, uncured hemlock, old coffee grounds, kerosene lamps, musty rooms and dusty bedding, woodsmoke...all camps have a smell and the smell is unmistakable."

But ambitious J-school grads are rare in Dornisch's neck of the woods. The Daily Press, clustered with two other Liberty dailies, dutifully covers the local meetings, but not much else appears to happen, at least outside hunting season. Page one is often laden with wire copy. Though roughly the same size as the Punxsutawney Spirit, the Daily Press has three fewer editorial employees--and it shows.

At the nearby Ridgway Record, with a circulation of just 3,100 and an editorial crew of four, everybody types obits, covers night meetings, lays out pages and takes photographs of accidents. "There are no prima donnas," says Editor Bekki Guilyard, 38, who is small with flowing brown hair that reaches to her hips. "This is like a little machine. Everyone has their part in keeping it running."

After putting the afternoon paper to bed at 10:30 one morning in January, Guilyard dispatches her newest reporter, 25-year-old Jon R. Serianni, to the town's handsome old brick courthouse. In the clerk's office, he peers nearsightedly at a wall calendar where upcoming trials are noted by hand. He's trying to decipher the code. "What's the difference between blue ink and black ink?" he asks one of the three women now eating lunch at their desks. She nods toward another woman. "It's whatever pen she picked up."

Back at the paper, Guilyard recognizes one of the cases. It will be the county's first trial in a Megan's Law case--one involving a sexually violent predator. She immediately phones a local psychologist who is an expert on sex offenders. "How many times do I have to call you before you call me back?" she asks, in a plaint heard in newsrooms the world over.

She tells her sports reporter, Todd Hughes, 29, who has been dragging his feet on a tip about a new golf course, "I don't want to open the Bradford Era and find a big story on a golf course that's going to go into Bridgeton Township. Capiche?"

Guilyard, who has a degree in environmental science, struggles daily to turn out a professional paper. "The community here deserves good, thorough news coverage as much as they do in Pittsburgh or Baltimore or anywhere," she says. If a wedding story contains a mistake, she'll correct it and run it again. "People cut those things out and save them."

Things were a little easier for the Record staff before the court reporter left a few months ago. The publisher, Joseph C. Piccirillo, has been putting off the hire because a major advertiser, the chain that owns some of the local supermarkets, is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. No advertising dollars, no courthouse reporter. Other than that, it's been business as usual since Liberty bought out Hollinger. Liberty's new CEO, Ken Serota, did tour the paper. "He talked to Todd about sports," Guilyard says. And of course, Piccirillo handed out those nifty T-shirts, the ones with the red, white and blue Liberty logo, just before Christmas.

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