New Media Investment Group, Inc. — the publishing company that is developing a bad reputation for buying newspapers and gutting their operations — announced to the Statesman staff shortly after 3 p.m. today that it is purchasing the Austin American-Statesman from Cox Media Group for $47.5 million.
“New Media is very excited to add the Austin American-Statesman and its associated publications to our portfolio of new media assets,” said a statement from Michael E. Reed, company president and CEO. “In addition to being known for its strong and trusted journalism and having high digital engagement, the city of Austin is a very attractive market for our growing business offerings such as UpCurve and GateHouse Live.”
New Media promotes itself as a value to the communities where it buys newspapers, even though its reputation is less than stellar. “New Media Investment Group Inc. … is focused primarily on investing in a high quality, diversified portfolio of local media assets, and on growing our digital initiatives such as ThriveHive, a digital marketing services business. Our print and online products focus on the local community, primarily covering topics such as local news, politics, community and regional events, youth sports, and local schools.”
New Media Investment Group, the parent company of GateHouse, last year purchased the Amarillo Globe News and the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal from Morris Communications. Also last year, the Dallas Morning News outsourced its print page design and layout to a GateHouse production center in Austin.
By New Media’s own description, before the purchase of the Statesman, it owned 142 daily newspapers. But its history has been one of layoffs and staff reductions. At one point last year, the Amarillo newspaper was down to a single reporter. The same thing occurred at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri, which last month due to layoffs and attrition only had one reporter. The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville — one of the stops in my own journalism career — let go 50 production people just before last Christmas, and then let go at least nine seasoned journalists earlier this year.
The liberal American Prospect magazine in December published a lengthy and scathing story on New Media and GateHouse and other newspaper purchases by private equity firms. “The model is simple. Buy a newspaper on the cheap, often from a legacy chain like Gannett or from a family owner whose siblings and cousins want to cash out. … Since 2012, a second wave of private equity purchasers has swept in to buy newspapers for prices at just three or four times earnings. That means the new owner can make back its money fast, and even faster if it strips staffing and siphons off cash flow.”
At the same time as the American Prospect story, GateHouse publications came under fire from environmentalists last year with a series of articles that claimed wind farms are harmful to residents who live nearby: “Wind farms generate clean energy, but living in their shadow has its costs, according to a six-month GateHouse Media investigation.” Among other places, the series ran in GateHouse’s newly acquired Amarillo Globe News. Just five years ago, Statesman reporter Asher Price joined with Kate Galbraith of the Texas Tribune to write a book on how Texas was leading the nation in converting electricity production from polluting coal-fired power plants to wind.
The impact on the Statesman may not be as immediately dire as at some of the other newspapers because most of the copy editing and layout operations had been moved to other Cox production centers, and the printing currently is being done at the San Antonio Express-News.
The Statesman was originally founded in 1871 as the Democratic Statesman and essentially was an organ of the Texas Democratic Party in the years following Reconstruction. The newspaper was merged with the rival Austin American in 1924 under the ownership of Waco newspapermen. Cox Enterprises bought the newspaper in 1976. The Newsonomics column at Nieman Lab last month reported the Statesman‘s circulation as 79,000 Sunday print editions; 51,000 daily; and digital-only subscriptions of about 3,000, a number the Statesman disputed. But even the Statesman‘s own accounting only got it up to 16,786 digital-only subscribers — a small number in a tech-savvy city like Austin.
Texas newspapers, like those across the nation, have seen dramatic declines over the past twenty years. Second-ranked circulation newspapers like the Dallas Times-Herald, Houston Post, and the San Antonio Light went out of business in the 1990s. During the 2000s, other major papers in the state seriously reduced staffing and shrank circulation areas — that resulted in reduced readership.