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Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007 12:23 pm

Exodus

Resignations of SJ-R top brass are just the latest in a long line of GateHouse departures

Untitled Document At the end of next week, State Journal-Register editor Barry Locher, who started interning at paper before he graduated from the University of Missouri in 1977, will be gone.
Joining him will be his second-in-command, veteran managing editor Robert Pope, and his boss, publisher Sue Schmitt, who’s been in Springfield for about a year. News that the three top executives were leaving was announced to readers via the paper’s Web site on Nov. 20. The simultaneous resignations made national headlines from coast to coast. For anybody who’s followed their parent company GateHouse Media Inc., which bought the SJ-R in the spring, however, the departures in Springfield weren’t that much of a “shocker,” as the headline read in the trade magazine Editor & Publisher. In Springfield, the resignations came as 200 or so employees were mulling over buyout offers from GateHouse. Locher, Pope, and Schmitt’s resignations, however, were spurred by an optional severance agreement, set to expire at the end of 2007, offered by their previous employer, Copley Press. Schmitt explains: “Once we realized we were all planning on leaving before Christmas, we decided we needed to tell the staff while we were still in the consideration period for the voluntary severance offer.”
The three resignations in Springfield fit a pattern at other daily newspapers recently acquired by GateHouse in Illinois and elsewhere. Industry analysts say the Fairport, N.Y.-based chain is keen on putting its own top managers in place while reducing personnel costs.
Among recent changes: • David J. Greenfield, publisher of The (Canton, Ohio) Repository, who retired in May. The Repository’s editor, Dave Kaminski, resigned at the same time after 33 years with the newspaper. • Michael B. Starn, publisher of the (Dover-New Philadelphia, Ohio) Times-Reporter, who resigned in October. Starn cited a desire to live closer to family members in another state. The story has been no different in Illinois.
• Jeff Nelson stepped down in September from his post as managing editor of The (Lincoln) Courier. Galesburg Register-Mail publisher Don Cooper left in November, and was subsequently replaced by GateHouse regional vice-president Tony Scott. • Jack Brimeyer, managing editor of the (Peoria) Journal Star, also called it quits in November. GateHouse also this week finalized the acquisition of 14 newspapers in Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Florida from Augusta, Ga.-based Morris Communications for $115 million. Before the deal closed, Armand Nardi, publisher of the Morris-owned Winter Haven, Fla. News Chief, announced his resignation.
Publishing industry experts say it’s usually a sign of things to come for a company that’s expected to squeeze down hard on spending. For instance, succeeding Schmitt is Scott Bowers, a certified public accountant and controller for all of GateHouse’s Illinois newspaper properties. In a story published in the SJ-R on Dec. 1, Bowers said that naming successors to Locher and Pope are among his early priorities. He attempted to allay concerns about the SJ-R, saying that reports about “the death of newspapers have been greatly exaggerated.”
In a memo to employees explaining why Gannett was selling the paper to GateHouse Media this spring, Rockford Register-Star publisher Fritz Jacobi offered an analogy, which he attributed to Bowers — When is the best time to sell your used car? When it needs new tires and an engine overhaul, or when it has new tires, an engine overhaul, and the paint looks new? Now in the driver’s seat as the newly selected publisher of the 60,000-Sunday-circulation State Journal-Register, Bowers must convince readers and advertisers that GateHouse isn’t running a chop shop — and that he won’t drive the Springfield daily paper into an abyss. Copley decided to sell off its Illinois and Ohio publications in the fall of 2006. Six months later, GateHouse completed the purchase. After triggering the first successful newspaper initial public offering of the past decade in October 2006, the price of its stock has plummeted from a high of $22 last fall to under $8 this week. (Its falling share price landed GateHouse on Motley Fool’s Wednesday’s Worst Stocks in the World on Nov. 15). Despite that, GateHouse is also regarded as a likely suitor for seven titles of Ottaway Newspapers Inc., now controlled by Dow Jones, which prints the Wall Street Journal and merged with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in July. Even in today’s challenging environment for dailies, having three top executives leave a newspaper all at once is peculiar, says Brian Steffens, executive director of the National Newspaper Association. The SJ-R’s “three tops” likely represent the largest salaries on the payroll, he says, and newspapers everywhere are looking for creative ways to cut costs as well as hold the line on new spending. (Steffens has been soliciting GateHouse to join his organization, with no success thus far, he says.)
To regular readers of the SJ-R, there has been a measurable change in recent months, and the loss of high-profile editorial talent — which has already included columnist Paul Povse and Charlyn Fargo and others — will be another sign that the state’s oldest newspaper has changed, and not necessarily for the better. Setting minds at ease is exactly the thing new publisher Bowers should be doing right now, Steffens says. “They need to get new people in place. Then they need to get those people out in the public to meet with advertisers and readers, get out in front of civic groups, and hit the road with sales staff, which is hard to do because there’s a lot of work to be done in the building. They need to get past that anxiety.”
Anxious SJ-R readers may also appreciate fuller disclosure about the changes ahead, but that may prove difficult. Newspapers, which traditionally extol virtues of transparency for public institutions, are notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to reporting on themselves, Steffens says.
“They’re not government funded, but on the other hand newspapers do paint themselves as a public trust,” he says. “Where you get tripped up is legally — going public is an added liability, especially when you’re cutting costs. That’s part of the failing of the system.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.
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