Newspapers, then and now

The passing of Bill Hamel, whose 45-year career at the Journal Gazette and Times-Courier was consequential in multiple ways, elicits memories of the changing newspaper landscape through the years.

In a column in February 2002, Hamel revisited some of the highlights, beginning with memories of his father’s era, which started in 1926 (his father was publisher from 1939 until 1961). Hamel Jr. once told me of his father’s concern that the emergence of radio would negatively impact newspapers. His father expressed the same concern about television. In both cases, newspapers survived and thrived.

Paid circulation, deep penetration throughout local markets created opportunities that made newspapers a powerhouse both financially and in community impact. Hamel Jr.’s career started in 1955 on the sales side. He was named publisher in 1965 by a local board comprised of all minority stockholders.

In the 2002 column, he wrote that he was contacted by a representative of Howard Publications in 1967. They met in the Rebel Room at the U.S. Grant Hotel. The representative outlined the interest of Howard to purchase the Journal Gazette.

The Howard interest prompted back-and-forth conversations among the various parties about which Hamel said he could have written a book. Some stockholders were ready to sell, others not. Howard persisted.

As Howard laid out the investments necessary to modernize equipment, production and build a modern office at 100 Broadway Avenue, he convinced more sellers. The Howard’s acquired a majority. The goal was to own all the stock, which Howard accomplished in 1973.

Howard also had purchased the Times-Courier in Charleston, making both Coles County newspapers owned by a private company based in Oceanside, Calif.  The growth of corporate ownership was a trend reaching Coles County.

For the Howard’s, newspapers were an excellent investment.  For accountants, much of the value came through an accounting term known as goodwill, which places values on non-physical assets like subscription lists and historical profitability. Assets convertible to cash, things like real estate, presses, computers, forklifts, wouldn’t come close to measuring the dollars investors saw in newspapers.

The Howard’s saw newspapers produced ongoing cash-flow and steadily increasing overall value. They wanted a reliable, community-oriented operator to handle the rest. They found the perfect partner in Hamel.

Hamel was a community pillar. He was people oriented inside and outside the office. He was passionate about newspapers, about Mattoon and the surrounding region.

Once when it was suggested he has trouble eating lunch out because of interruptions from multiple people who approach and talk to him about some topic important to them, Hamel said something along these lines: “They are all my customers.” That was true regardless of how they felt about what was written on any particular day. In the community newspaper world, someone who is happy about an article one day may be mad about an article the next. Regardless of the day, they are your customer, even realizing that customers aren’t always right.

Most Mattoon people didn’t know someone else owned the newspaper because Hamel was empowered to operate like he owned it. Hamel said in doing research on the Howard’s, he was told they will never call you. Howard would leave you alone if you did your job and generated a decent profit. He said that was a correct forecast.

Hamel said he might speak by phone to Mr. Howard Sr. no more than once a year. They might spend a few minutes talking about the newspaper. Then the conversation moved on to other things, like family. Of course there was communication between departments like finance and IT.  But when it came to day-to-day operations, the Howard’s were just fine to benefit from Hamel’s efforts.

Hamel and the Mattoon area benefited from private ownership that could allow operators to lead in their communities. They were fortunate to have each other.

In the same early 1970s, there also were publicly-traded companies rapidly growing their collection of newspapers. The biggest was Gannett, whose growth and profitably are chronicled in Al Neuharth’s book Confessions of an SOB. The combination of paid circulation, market penetration and the influence of newspapers made Gannett an attractive investment as many family owners cashed out. Gannett’s corporate structure differed from owners like the Howard’s. There were more layers.

In some Gannett markets where local owners continued to compete, Gannett fought hard. To understand more on that topic, read Dick McCord’s excellent book The Chain Gang that details newspaper competition in Green Bay, WI.

In Mattoon, a significant decision came in 1982 when the Journal Gazette moved from an afternoon to morning publication schedule. That put the Mattoon newspaper on the same production schedule as the Charleston Times-Courier.

At that time, the morning was the preferred publication cycle. In Mattoon, it enhanced the newspaper’s efforts to expand in neighboring communities. Motor route drivers met some of their customers at the newspaper box in front of their homes as early as 4 a.m. The relationship between the newspaper and the region deepened.

When Hamel’s tenure as publisher ended in 2000, the newspaper had experienced growth both as an investment and influential community leader. Newspapers thrived around the country, though in some mostly larger markets, the business and production functions were combined while keeping separate newsrooms through Joint Operating Agreements thanks to legislation termed the Newspaper Preservation Act. Places like Detroit and Tucson had two newspapers published with a business arrangement favorable to two different owners.

The Howard’s cashed out in 2002, selling their 16 newspapers to Lee Enterprises for $694 million. Their timing was excellent.

The next dramatic shift in the newspaper business was around the corner, the recession of 2007, which never stopped in the newspaper world that we understood during Hamel’s tenure. While neither radio nor TV had a major negative impact, the digital world did. The big three Classified ad categories of automotive, real estate and help wanted took shifts that gutted the financial formula.

Most newspaper companies shifted in ways that with hindsight ultimately were detrimental, both financially and in community leadership.

Just a few years ago while in Southern Illinois, I ran into an area resident who was a long-time Journal Gazette subscriber. We talked newspapers for a few minutes. He missed having a newspaper delivered to his home about 5 a.m. each morning. He missed the local news, the connection to where he lived. “I feel like I don’t know what’s going on,” he told me.

That statement can easily be repeated in communities across the country. The term news desert is becoming more common. Substantial value came in relationships between paid subscribers and newspapers. You might call it goodwill.

What is ahead is not entirely clear. I’m hopeful and somewhat confident a formula will emerge. Online newspapers like the subscription-based model deployed by the Springfield, MO Daily Citizen, which just celebrated its second anniversary, are to be encouraged. It is backed by caring community leaders like so many American cities benefited from for many years.

The world would be better if that or a similar model emerges as viable. News deserts make us poorer.  The Bill Hamel’s of the world add value.

As a big-picture way to think of Hamel and the era in which he and the local newspaper flourished, these are words from the late Richard Lumpkin, who was chairman of Illinois Consolidated Telephone Co., upon Hamel’s retirement: “No community ever had a more loyal booster than Bill, and Mattoon is better for it.”








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