The future of MY newspaper

Here at the Journal Star in Peoria, we’re getting the sour taste of being bandied about and prettied up before our parent (Copley Press) sells us off.

A locally-owned and then employee-owned paper until just 11 years ago, the Journal Star eventually made those employee-owners too rich. They cashed out, en masse, taking much of the money with them. So it was decided to put the paper up for sale. Copley Press, whose San Diego Union Tribune is their flagship, purchased the JS for $175 million and added it to the other Illinois papers they owned. Employees feared the worst, bracing for massive cuts and hoping to retain editorial control. But the Copley family would be a good steward, increasing the Journal Star‘s philanthropic reach and keeping the operations at status quo.

But there’s more.

In 2004, Helen Copley died. The matriarch to the chain, her death put her son David in charge. And suddenly the family was faced with an enormous inheritance tax, one so substantial that Copley decided to sell off almost a dozen papers and keep only their flagship in San Diego. (more about the Copley dynasty here and here and here.)

That announcement came in the fall of 2006 and made us sweat. Every journalist knows how papers fare in sales, often gobbled up by Wall Street-serving newspaper giants like Lee or McClatchy. Things looked bleak.

There are four unions at the JS, including the Local 86 Peoria Newspaper Guild (of which I am a member.) A campaign was started, with the intent of informing the public of what could happen in a sale to their newspaper. “Save the Journal Star” would eventually hold press conferences, form a website, and even produce yard signs for supporters. The campaign attracted national attention, with the Associated Press and Editor & Publisher writing several stories on the effort. The mayor of Peoria made an official proclamation, the Lt. Governor of Illinois wrote a letter to Copley Press and state politicians allied themselves with the newspaper.

So on Tuesday, it was announced that we are now a part of GateHouse Media. The New York-based company purchased seven Copley dailies for $380 millions, whose circulation totaled 241, 060, increasing their current total daily circulation of 400,000 by about 60%. This has been their strategy; buy small-to-midsized dailies/weeklies and monopolize entire markets to keep costs down. The pseudo suburb of Pekin to our southwest is already a GateHouse paper, likely worrying their staff about the possibility of being moved to 1 News Plaza at the Journal Star headquarters. Our new multi-million dollar offset press, ranked in the Top 50 color presses in the world, will probably be running much more often in a few months.

The sale is set to close at the end of April; any buzz about the future at this point is pure speculation.