Newspaper ownership, local and corporate

I’m knee-deep in trouble now.

I just bought a newspaper, The Guadalupe County Communicator, and it’s up to me to get it out every week. Well, me and the dedicated staff I inherited.

I’m following in the chanclas-clad footsteps of Michael E. Sprengelmeyer, a unique individual if there ever was one. After they made M.E., they broke the mold.

Of course, I’m not out to emulate M.E. now that I have the newspaper he commanded for the past eight-plus years. True enough, I admire his commitment to journalism, and respect his dedicated lifestyle, but there are differences between he and me. I’ve carved out my own path, fought my own demons, owned my own victories and defeats. And now, I own an already excellent paper, and it’s up to me to keep it strong.

In my last column, I wrote about New Mexico’s independent newspaper owners, pointing to a few of them to illustrate the power to their presence in the communities they serve around the state. I wrote about John Graham and his do-it-all approach to newspaper work, Terry Martin’s dedication to his family newspaper, Nick Siebel and how he saved his hometown paper, Robin Martin and her inherited legacy of stubborn independence, Bob Trapp and his fire-breathing Sun, and Sprengelmeyer and his phenomenal journalistic success.

I could have added to the mix Brenda Hood in Lordsburg, who only needs a roof over her head (it sort of blew away earlier this year) to almost-singlehandedly produce The Hidalgo County Herald, and Leota Harriman, owner of The Independent in Edgewood. They may live in very different communities, more than 300 miles away from each other, but they each followed their passions and carved out their own careers in hometown newspapering.

Then there’s Scot and Lisa Stinnett, who publish two papers, De Baca County News and Clovis Livestock Market News, out of their Fort Sumner newspaper office. And Peter Aguilar who, along with an immediate and extended family, have been keeping The Lincoln County News afloat following the 2014 passing of his business partner and newspaper editor, Ruth Hammond. And, yes, there’s also Barbara Beck, who moved back to New Mexico to follow her father and late brother into the publisher’s chair at the Roswell Daily Record.

Yep, I could go on, because in New Mexico, local newspaper ownership still outnumbers what I’ll call “corporate” ownership. Accessing the New Mexico Press Association’s membership directory, I counted 14 corporate-owned newspapers in New Mexico, while 17 others are locally owned, by individuals, families and partnerships. Plus, an additional seven newspapers, while not owned by their local general managers or publishers, are still owned by New Mexicans leaving elsewhere but nearby.

Interestingly, it takes a little digging to figure out who exactly owns what. Newspapers tend to refer readers to their locally designated publisher, not to some faraway corporate headquarters, so actual ownership information is sometimes hidden in the details.

Nevertheless, it’s fairly obvious who the biggest three newspaper owners are in New Mexico. There’s the Virginia-based Goliath named Gannett Company, owner of six newspapers in the state, mostly in southern New Mexico; the Lang family, owners of The Albuquerque Journal and five other central New Mexico papers including the Mountain View Telegraph; and Robin Martin, who owns both The New Mexican and a very busy state-of-the-art press plant in Santa Fe, along with The Taos News.

Clearly I’m a believer in independent, privately owned newspapers, but that doesn’t mean I’m all-out against corporate ownership. The Kentucky-based Landmark Community Newspapers, owner of more than 50 newspapers in 13 states, sent me to New Mexico in 2004 to run the Las Vegas Optic, then gave me the editorial support and freedom to make a difference (and backed us up when the politics got intense). Sometimes corporate owners are less intimidated by local pressures and, as a result, they often protect rather than undercut real journalistic independence.

Other times, however, corporate ownership can be too focused on profits—revenue that doesn’t even stay in town, since corporations have to feed their shareholders who live elsewhere. As any local newspaper owner can tell you, there’s a lot more to consider when running a newspaper than monthly or quarterly profit-and-loss margins.

Newspapers must be run as a business or they won’t survive, but they also need to be vested in their local markets, in a personal way. And that’s something that local owners and operators understand best.

So wish me luck. I’m knee-deep into it now.

Tom McDonald is editor of the NM Community News Exchange and now owns The Guadalupe County Communicator. He writes this column for newspapers around the state and can be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com.