Sorry, sad or strategic: How US papers are changing hands

As thoughts turn to the possibility of Gannett selling to DFM in the US, a Tweet by an organically-growing community publisher has focused attention on the demise of the independently-owned daily.

It started with a review by business sales specialist Dirks, Van Essen, Murray & April, and was picked up on Twitter by Community Impact boss John Garrett.

The DVM&A review makes the point that the proportion of the country's dailies changing hands each year - typically between ten and 25 per cent since the early 1990s - had peaked at 37 per cent last year, with fewer than 100 groups now owning two or more papers.

The number of independently-owned dailies had fallen from 541 in 1983 to 151 today. The trend isn't new - in 1900, about 90 per cent of dailies were independently-owned; by 1940, the majority were owned by groups - but its current iteration is interesting.

We're not back in the 'old days' - DVM&A mentions the assembly of the Hearst, Copley, Cowles, Ottaway, Scripps and Gannett groups - but rather of smaller groups seeing a strategic opportunity. A couple that rounded off the year were privately-held Paxton Media Group - adding daily newspapers in North Carolina and Kentucky - and Adams Publishing Group, which picked up two operations in south-eastern Wisconsin.

Dirks, Van Essen, Murray & April says another 17 independently-owned daily newspapers were sold last year: "Almost always, and as was the case this year, the buyers of these dailies were companies that own several other daily newspapers, rather than another independent owner," the report says.

Viewing the US situation from afar - and wouldn't we love to have 100 groups of independent dailies active in Australia! - what we see is a revaluation of newspaper assets, and that economies of scale are needed especially in the borderless world of the web.

There's a belief here that the future of printed newspapers lies not with dailies, but with community newspapers of lesser frequency - tri, bi or weekly - but there may be lessons for little Australia from the much larger US market. That realisation will start with major players such as Nine and News deciding what they want to do with the community papers their predecessors assembled decades before... and perhaps making them available to what DVM&A called "expansion-minded" privately-held publishers.

Bring it on!

Peter Coleman

Pictured: Some of the mastheads from DVM&A's 2018 transactions

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