Democrat-Gazette Acquires Pine Bluff Commercial, Plans Digital Replica

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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman extended his new business model for newspapering to Pine Bluff on Monday, announcing that his Wehco Media Inc. of Little Rock is acquiring the once-storied Pine Bluff Commercial from Gannett.

Repeating his declaration that printing a daily newspaper is no longer a profitable way to deliver the news, he said the Commercial’s 2,100 subscribers — a number that has slumped by half in just the last five years — will get four digital replica pages of the Commercial as part of the digital Democrat-Gazette every day except Sunday, and a Sunday copy of the print Democrat-Gazette including four pages branded as the Commercial.

Early this year, the Democrat-Gazette completed its own transition to digital-replica delivery, often on iPads provided by the newspaper, and about 35,000 Arkansas subscribers keep the iPads as long as they keep up their $34-a-month subscriptions. Wehco has extended the model to the El Dorado News-Times and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and now will offer Commercial readers the same format.

By late Monday morning, the Pine Bluff Commercial’s website URL, pbcommercial.com, was redirecting to the Democrat-Gazette website, arkansasonline.com.

“In an attempt to save the Democrat-Gazette, we discovered a whole new way to deliver a newspaper, and more importantly than that, we learned a whole new way to deliver community journalism,” Hussman said at a Thursday morning news conference in Pine Bluff, where he introduced the Commercial’s new and old editor, Byron Tate. Tate, now in his fourth stint editing the paper, last served the Commercial as editor and publisher through June 2016. Ever since, he has been running his own weekly, the Sheridan Headlight. He is also a former editor of the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith, and an officer in the Arkansas Press Association.

“Unfortunately, seven-day print publication is just not a business model that works for newspapers in America anymore,” Hussman continued, after recapping an astounding 75% migration of newspaper advertising revenue to online outlets like Facebook, YouTube and Google over the past decade. “I think that’s true not just for the Pine Bluff Commercial but for every newspaper in the country. The print model just has too much cost and not enough advertising to support it.”

The newspaper had been printed and mailed five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday. Gannett, the former GateHouse Media, had owned the paper for about five years.

Wehco’s experiment with the Democrat-Gazette, which prints only a small press run of daily papers for sale at local stores, showed that digital delivery of “of the exact same format” of the printed paper is sustainable, Hussman said.

“Going forward, there will be four pages of the Pine Bluff Commercial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette every day,” Hussman told subscribers in a letter promising local news, obituaries, sports and an opinion page. The Commercial, founded in 1881, won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing by Paul Greenberg in 1969, Hussman noted, emphasizing the importance of having a local editorial voice. He said the newsroom will have a staff of four to cover City Council meetings, Quorum Court proceedings, school boards and other civic happenings.

Greenberg, who left the Commercial to write editorials for the Democrat-Gazette and is now retired, said through his wife, Sarah Brooke Greenberg that the announcement was “great news, especially for Pine Bluff.”

The digital replica will come as part of the Democrat-Gazette’s replica, in the Arkansas Section, to be viewed either on iPad or other device, and Hussman said the Commercial will continue to be printed on its usual days for several weeks, to give the paper a chance to reach out to every subscriber and pitch the new digital subscriptions.

Democrat-Gazette Managing Editor Eliza Gaines, who is Hussman’s daughter, praised Tate for his decades of journalism experience and his “deep knowledge of the city.” Tate praised local newspaper work as an antidote for fake news and Facebook groupthink.

Tate, who’ll lead a team of four reporters focusing on local coverage, is a “great journalist still in this community,” Hussman said. “We’re really pleased he’s on board.”

No money is changing hands initially. A new company, Pine Bluff Commercial Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Wehco Newspapers, will take over advertising accounts receivable and collections, and will honor and service all pre-paid subscriptions until they expire. Subscribers will get the Commercial digital replica pages and a Sunday print edition of the Democrat-Gazette, including the printed Pine Bluff pages, for about six weeks.

Gannett’s Jay Fogarty, senior vice president of corporate development, issued a statement on the transaction: “We are pleased that the Pine Bluff Commercial, a newspaper with a great legacy and tradition, has found a new home with Wehco and potentially a sustainable business model for many years to come. We were honored to serve the readers and advertisers in the Pine Bluff market.”

“I’m ba-ack,” Tate said humorously after an introduction by Hussman at the news conference, streamed live on Facebook. “I see a lot of familiar faces. I’m excited to be part of this plan, excited for the city of Pine Bluff, and for journalism and newspapering.”

The combined newspapers will be delivered to subscribers through Oct. 13, the Democrat-Gazette reported, noting that the paper is one of just two in Arkansas history to claim a Pulitzer. The Arkansas Gazette won for coverage and editorials about the Little Rock Central integration crisis in 1957. Hussman bought the Gazette’s assets from an earlier version of Gannett in 1991, ending the great Little Rock newspaper war, and the Democrat-Gazette was born the next day.

Ashley Wimberley, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, said the Commercial “has been the definitive source for news in southeast Arkansas for more than 130 years, and this acquisition by Wehco will ensure its viability as an institution in the community for years to come,” adding that “Wehco has demonstrated its ability to weather the challenges faced by the newspaper industry in recent years, and we know it will position the Commercial for success.” 

Hussman’s letter said subscription rates for the Commercial will eventually be $34 a month, but some readers’ rates will increase by $1 per month until they reach $34, an approach Wehco is also taking with its Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

One-on-one, in-person iPad training will also be provided to subscribers, the Democrat-Gazette said. “It’s going to take to six to eight weeks to actually sit down and meet with every subscriber,” Hussman said. “When all of the subscribers have been converted, of course, the print paper will go away, except, of course, on Sunday.”

The plan is “great for Pine Bluff,” Hussman said. “And if this works in Pine Bluff, this is going to be great for community journalism in America. Because it’s going to show a model and a path forward for other newspapers to be sustainable and survivable.”