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Thursday, June 17, 2010 05:23 am

Big changes at the SJ-R

Parent company’s financial trouble may be cause

Tough economic conditions and a new approach to news distribution have prompted changes at Springfield’s daily newspaper.

The State Journal-Register newspaper, owned by Fairport, N.Y.-based Gatehouse Media, last month underwent a change in strategy and leadership possibly tied to Gatehouse’s troubled financial position.

On May 25, SJ-R announced the resignation of Scott Bowers as publisher of SJ-R and president and publisher of the Rockford Register Star, another Gatehouse paper. In the SJ-R article announcing his resignation, Bowers cited a wish to spend more time with his family and pursue personal interests, though multiple sources who asked to remain anonymous said Bowers chose to resign rather than make painful staffing cuts at SJ-R. Bowers’ wife, Kathleen Ostrander, continues to work at SJ-R as a reporter. Contacted by phone at his Janesville, Wis., home, Bowers hung up on Illinois Times and did not return a subsequent voicemail left for him there.

Sources who wished to remain anonymous say they were told in a staff meeting that layoffs may be a possibility. Walt Lafferty, who replaces Bowers as publisher, declined to comment on unnamed sources. Lafferty is former president and publisher at the Courier-Post newspaper in Camden, N.J., owned by the Gannett media company. Lafferty left that job in September 2009 and started at SJ-R on June 2.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Lafferty said by e-mail of his decision to join SJ-R. “When you’re a publisher moving into a new location, or even when you’re an existing publisher and have been one for quite some time, obviously what you’re looking to accomplish is to meet the needs of the community – the community being your customer base, your subscriber base and your advertising base. That doesn’t change no matter where you’re at.”

On May 23, SJ-R announced it would begin running certain stories in its print edition first, waiting an indeterminate time before making those stories available online in full. Articles by syndicated columnists will only appear in the SJ-R print edition under the change.

“The Web world changes drastically from year to year. Our strategy of providing the same information on both print and digital platforms has not been nearly as nimble,” wrote executive editor Jon Broadbooks in an article describing the move. “With these changes we have a chance to make sure that print readers — who pay for the privilege of reading the paper — get extra for their investment. We also have a chance to underscore the point that print is far from dead.”

According to filings with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, publicly-traded Gatehouse Media carries $1.19 billion in long-term debt, which is scheduled to be paid off by 2014. The top six executives at Gatehouse together received $1.15 million in bonuses in the first quarter of 2010, according to the SEC filing, which shows the company gave out $3.4 million in bonuses in 2009. Gatehouse stock traded at around 15 cents on June 10, down from a high of $22.25 in October 2006, when the company first went public. Last week’s stock price is an improvement from a low of three cents in December 2008.

Despite Gatehouse’s tough financial situation, Lafferty is optimistic about SJ-R’s future.

“The State Journal-Register continues to be the prominent and most respected source of news and advertising solutions to our readers and advertisers in the region,” Lafferty says. “Over 75 percent of local adults read the SJ-R or visit our website sj-r.com weekly, not including our menu of niche products that includes SO Magazine,  City Guide-Springfield, Homes Magazine and the Advertiser, our weekly product that reaches over 40,000 customers every week.  Wouldn’t you be excited/optimistic!”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

CORRECTION: This article previously said SJ-R staff were told layoffs may be imminent instead of previously-announced furlough days. New information indicates SJ-R staff were actually told layoffs remain a possibility, and that furlough days have not been instituted. We apologize for the error.

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