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Thursday, Feb. 3, 2005 12:51 am

Paper chase

Lee Enterprises Inc., a once-obscure media company based in the Quad Cities, is poised to become a major force in shaping Illinois news coverage when it completes the acquisition of St. Louis-based Pulitzer Inc.

The Davenport, Iowa-based company on Sunday announced a $1.46 billion deal to buy Pulitzer, which owns more than 100 weekly newspapers and 14 dailies, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Once approved, the deal would make Lee the seventh-largest U.S. newspaper company in terms of total circulation, operating 58 dailies in 23 states. Lee’s combined daily circulation will be 1.7 million, and Sunday circulation will total 2 million.

In Illinois, Lee will also add the Pantagraph in Bloomington and Daily Chronicle in DeKalb to its empire, which already boasts daily newspapers in Carbondale, Charleston, Decatur, and Mattoon. The Quad-City Times in Davenport also circulates in northwest Illinois.

“Lee’s geographic presence will now include the entire state,” says Charles Wheeler III, director of the public affairs–reporting program at University of Illinois at Springfield.

In Springfield, the deal may cause a shakeup of reporters covering state government at the Capitol, according to Lee spokesman Dan Hayes.

“There could be some consolidation,” says Hayes, adding that editorial changes at Lee papers would be discussed after the deal is finalized in June.

Currently Lee’s statehouse bureau includes just one reporter — down from three last year — and a pair of interns from the UIS public-affairs program.

Their reports are circulated among all of Lee’s Illinois dailies.

Pulitzer’s Post-Dispatch and the Pantagraph also have reporters assigned to the statehouse.

Mike Lawrence, who served as Lee’s statehouse-bureau chief from 1979-1986, says he is hopeful that the company will increase, rather than reduce, its Capitol reporting staff.

“Lee has an opportunity to become a major force in the coverage of state politics in Illinois,” says Lawrence, now director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “We need to wait and see how Lee responds to that challenge.”

Some media analysts say they were surprised by Lee’s purchase because the Post-Dispatch, with a daily circulation of 286,310 and Sunday sales of 449,845, is significantly larger than Lee’s other holdings.

Others say they were stunned by the Pulitzer family’s decision to sell off its flagship paper, which has been under its control for three generations starting in 1878.

“The Post-Dispatch was synonymous with the name Pulitzer,” says Taylor Pensoneau, a New Berlin resident and former Springfield-based correspondent for the Post-Dispatch. “I never thought I would see the company sold.”

Lee’s acquisition of Pulitzer continues the national trend toward media consolidation; fewer than 20 percent of the country’s daily newspapers are now independently owned and family-operated.

“There’s been a gradual erosion of independently owned newspapers that has been going on for many decades,” says David Bennett, executive director of the Illinois Press Association, which represents 600 newspapers.

“The same is true for a lot of businesses, from banks to retailers. Newspapers are no different than any other industry.”

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