When newspaper chain Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. (CNHI) recently announced it was up for sale, either as a whole or in pieces, there was probably a collective exhale of relief in newsrooms that currently field 140 newspapers across 22 states.
Long seen as one of the bottom feeders in the industry, CNHI has a reputation for operating its publications as cheaply as possible. Non-sales employees have endured quarterly unpaid week-long furloughs for nearly ten years. Raises are nonexistent. The company invests little in software, computer systems or equipment. Many of its buildings are dilapidated. Staff levels are at best barely adequate.
It's probably a safe bet that at this point, CNHI employees would see any possibility of a sale as relief from the company's years of penny-punching and overall lack of concern for their well-being.
I know this because I worked for a CNHI-owned paper, the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, for many years. I saw first-hand how things suffered under CNHI's miserly version of "leadership" after they acquired us from Thomson News.
There was much fanfare in Fall 2017 when Raycom Media announced it had acquired CNHI. Wonks at both companies gushed about merger synergies, positioning the combined entity for future growth, and other feel-good buzz phrases.
This rather odd (and brief!) union between a newspaper chain and a television/radio chain saw the honeymoon come to an abrupt end this year when Gray Television Inc. began cuddling up to Raycom. Gray wanted Raycom's television properties but had no interest in operating a newspaper business.
Unable to resist Gray's charms, Raycom gave in, willingly offering itself to its new suitor and leaving jilted CNHI behind to twist in the wind.
CNHI's chief executive officer Donna Barrett, who has a penchant for flying in private jets while extolling the rank and file to cut costs, was artificially upbeat in a statement regarding the sale:
"We’re excited to open the next chapter in our commitment to top-flight community journalism,” said Barrett. "We are looking for a transaction or transactions that will carry on CNHI’s rich tradition of public service through award-winning journalism."Ms. Barrett, and other CNHI executives, no doubt have nice golden parachutes on standby no matter what happens.
CNHI will probably be able to sell all or most of its newspaper operations, albeit at garage sale prices, despite the fact that print news is still struggling to cope in the age of online media consumption.
Unfortunately, most of the companies buying newspapers today operate along the same lines as CNHI. Other "McPaper" chains such as Gatehouse Media or Digital First Media would be the likely buyers, and like CNHI, they are notorious for running their papers on a shoestring budget and generally producing cookie-cutter content among their properties.
However, a reliable source tells me the Bluefield Daily Telegraph and the Beckley-based Register Herald are likely to be purchased by HD Media, which owns several other West Virginia newspapers including the Charleston Gazette Mail. Based in the state, HD Media might be the best thing to happen to either paper in a long, long time.
HD Media seems to understand that small town newspapers still have a place in the communities they serve -- as long as they keep their unique voices and their managers are allowed to run things without being micromanaged from a far-away corporate headquarters.
In the meantime, few if any will lament the passing of Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., whose rapaciousness has contributed greatly to an overall decline in print news quality.
CNHI, die already. Your newspapers and the people who run them deserve better stewardship.