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USA WEEKEND
MONDAY, AUGUST 30, 2004
HOME | NEWS | FORUMS | ARCHIVES | OBITUARIES | WEATHER

Family-owned papers — more than bottom line
DAILY, Anniston Star unique among Alabama publications

By Eric Fleischauer
DAILY Staff Writer

eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

The editor and publisher of one of the last two family-owned daily newspapers in the state said he runs his paper like he would run any business, with an eye on the bottom line.

The newspaper is THE DAILY, which today, at the age of 92, remade itself into a morning paper.

The publisher is Barrett C. Shelton Jr., and his tough business pitch deserves skepticism.

First, selling newspaper companies to media conglomerates is usually a remarkably good move. Shelton said several national publishers have come a'courting, but he declined to say how much they offered. All went away without a ring.

The Anniston Star has about the same circulation as THE DAILY. Its publisher, H. Brandt Ayers, said he received a $50 million offer to buy his daily newspaper.

News vs. advertising

Shelton's fib — that he regards THE DAILY as he would any business — also reveals itself in his discussions about the paper's content.

Speaking about one of the media giants that has lusted after his publication, Shelton said if he sold, the buyer would immediately cut newsroom employees in half and lower the ratio of news to advertisements to 50-50 or 45-55. "Their idea about newspapers and news coverage was that you use the news to separate the advertisements," Shelton said.

Under Shelton's ownership, only 20 to 30 percent of THE DAILY's content is advertising copy.

Judging from the bottom-line approach he preaches, the obvious question is why he does not use the advertising ratio followed by the chains.

"It makes for a better newspaper," Shelton said. "I want the subscriber to get his money's worth."

Paper's obligation

Straying even further from his bottom-line claims, he talks about obligation.

"A lot of the news in (conglomerate-owned) newspapers, people could get from the television. We are the only ones that can produce local news. We are the only ones that can tell people what's going on, what to expect and how it affects them," Shelton said.

"That is our responsibility."

There is a pensive moment as he realizes this talk is miles away from his professed focus on profitability; then he adds, "I feel the better news product you put out, the better your earnings are going to be in the long run."

Pushed to provide the basis for his claim, he settled for staring at the reporter. The reporter went to the next topic.

Community focus

Shelton said the major difference between a family-owned newspaper and a newspaper owned by a national chain can be found in its focus on the community. Management turnover is quick in chain-run newspapers. That makes it tough for the newspaper to find the community's pulse.

"The biggest difference would be in the relationship to the community. I've lived in Decatur almost my whole life. I certainly don't know everything about it," Shelton said, "but I know a lot. I can see the benefits of long-range building of the city more than a publisher who comes in for three or four years and then goes elsewhere."

Caring relationship

Ayers, whose Anniston Star is also family-owned, has a formula for that relationship.

"A community newspaper's special mission is to have a relationship with the community that is loving, scolding, supporting, challenging, hurting, being hurt, but always — and above all else — caring," Ayers said. "Like a slightly dysfunctional family."

Ayers is passionate about the importance of community newspapers, so much so that he plans to start a program, in affiliation with The University of Alabama, on the topic. Journalists who participate in the program will be able to earn a master's degree in community journalism.

Media consolidation

The prominence of chain newspapers is not new, according to Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Even in 1948, Clark said, media experts were concerned about the consolidation of media outlets into a handful of large companies. In that year, a group of journalism watchdogs published "A Free and Responsible Press." Clark said the group called concentration of ownership the biggest single threat to a free press.

"God knows what they would think today," Clark said.

Clark agrees with Shelton, however, that the Internet "and the democratization of information" have lessened the problems of such industry concentration.

Shared goals

THE DAILY's relationship to the community was set in lead type by Shelton's father, Barrett C. Shelton, a man who spent as much time pursuing desperately needed commercial development for the city as he did editing galley proofs.

Shelton Sr., known as the Old Man, saw his newspaper's relationship to the community as more friend than watchdog. In an undated memo, he tried to explain the relationship.

"The daily newspaper is concerned with everything and everybody in the community it serves, the good and the bad, the rich and the poor," Shelton Sr. wrote. He singled out commercial development, education and health as areas in which the community's goals and the newspaper's goals were identical.

"The responsibility of the daily newspaper," Shelton Sr. continued, "is to provide the leadership toward these ends."

Clark is a believer in family newspapers, but he worries when owners become involved in commercial development.

"That's really dangerous," Clark said. "The more the owner goes beyond his newspaper interests, the more danger there is for conflicts of interest."

It is hard to second-guess Shelton Sr., however, as he was instrumental in attracting some of the area's major employers to North Alabama.

Eye on profits

Clark's main gripe with publicly owned newspaper chains has to do with their tendency to cater not to the reader, but to the shareholder.

"Large media companies that are dependent on Wall Street often have to take a short-term view of profitability in order to please the analysts whose recommendations will be followed by investors," Clark said.

"Communities benefit when the newspapers' owners live and work in the community they serve," Clark said, "when they have a personal stake and a personal vision."

Shelton Sr. had the first word on family-owned newspapers. He should also have the last.

"When there is a newspaper alive to its responsibilities, there you will find a vibrant, shining community of achievement in the present and hope in the future."

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