Updated to include comment from Paxton Media Group representative.

Stevie Lowery thought she’d retire from the Lebanon Enterprise.

She grew up at her hometown newspaper that her father had once edited and spent 19 years there – starting as a staff writer and eventually moving up to the publisher. She raised her kids there – her son accompanied her to the office after night meetings at times. And she’d grown to love the other members of the newspaper’s team – two of whom had been there for 43 years.

When Landmark Community Newspapers sold the Lebanon Enterprise and other newspapers to Paxton Media Group, she was cautiously hesitant.

“I didn’t know anything about Paxton,” she said. “I was like, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt. I thought this could be a good thing.”

Landmark Community Newspapers published 47 daily and weekly papers in Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, and Virginia. 

In May 2021, Paxton Media Group, headquartered in Paducah, Kentucky, purchased all of the Landmark publications. The acquisition means that Paxton now owns a third of the newspapers in the state, including papers in Elizabethtown, Shelbyville, Shepherdsville, Lebanon, and Bardstown, among others.

According to Associated Press reporting, in all, Paxton now owns 120 publications across 14 states, including 37 newspapers in Kentucky alone.

For Lowery, however, Paxton’s purchase meant changes. Changes in procedures handed down by the new company meant advertising clients couldn’t sit down with their ad reps and talk about their ad. Laying out the paper, one of Lowery’s favorite aspects of the job, moved to a graphics hub in a different state. And as the company switched the paper to their new billing system, some customers received duplicate bills or their gift subscriptions ceased entirely. To make matters worse, she said, Paxton eliminated the papers’ voicemail system, leaving customers with limited ways to get in touch with newspaper staffers. 

Changes affected some staffers’ roles, as well. One 43-year employee opted to leave rather than take on a different role when her position was eliminated. When she left, another 43-year employee left too. Without them, Lowery said, the changes to the paper were just too much.  

“There was only a few of us left; it was a small staff,” she said. “We didn’t want to stay here with the mess that this was becoming… We all sent in our resignation letters, basically on the same day.”

Their last day as a staff was August 20.

But the purchase changed more than just who worked at the paper, she said. It also changed the content of the paper. One pastor, Lowery said, was told he wasn’t allowed to place a free notice in the community calendar about Thanksgiving dinners. Funeral parlors complained to her that they were no longer being given the opportunity to proof obituaries, she said. And coverage of local events like Marion County Country Ham Days went from large spreads detailing the county’s biggest community event to a few pictures with no captions identifying people or describing activities.

The changes, Lowery said, meant the paper she loved and grew up with became a shell of its former self.

“I can’t bring myself to look at it. It hurts too much,” she said. “This community loves its Lebanon Enterprise, you know… It’s still a paper that people wait at the gas station for… It was truly a community newspaper. What I have heard and what people have shared with me is ‘What’s happening to the paper?’ The Lebanon Enterprise that it once was is gone.”

Similar situations are happening across the country as some rural newspapers are being bought by corporations. In 2016, Alden Global Capital, a New York hedge fund, purchased more than 100 newspapers in Northern California. As of mid-2020, Alden Global owned around 200 newspapers. In May 2021, the hedge fund, operating through Digital First Media, purchased Tribune Publishing, making it one of the largest newspaper publishers in the United States, second only to Gannett.

While these purchases may keep local papers running for the short term, they can damage the journalism that comes out of them.

Mary Rose Kaczorowski, a freelance journalist in California, said the corporate purchases of local papers have, ironically, eliminated local news. Local papers now run news pieces from all over the state, she said, instead of focusing on local news.

Al Cross, journalism professor and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, said the impact Paxton buying Landmark will have on local journalism isn’t yet clear.

“We have yet to see,” he said. “The departure of the staffs in Lebanon and Williamstown is very concerning because it’s difficult to publish a good weekly newspaper without local staffers who are invested in the community and have enough experience, courage, and integrity to make the tough calls that are often necessary in community journalism: what to cover, how to cover it, how much risk to take and how to deal with the fundamental challenge of community journalism: managing the ever-present conflict between journalistic obligation to public service and personal preferences for friendships, lack of conflict, business success and other pleasures.”

Having people from the community writing about it is the key to good coverage, Lowery said.

“There’s something to be said for when you had a staff of people that were raised in this community and knew this community very well and were very entrenched in it,” she said. “We were invested in making sure that we not only attended those meetings, but you know that we made sure to report on the important things that were happening,… and to report extensively about whatever it might be in the newspaper and do follow-up stories the following week. Now, that’s not happening. People have no idea what’s going on.”

Oftentimes, however, without the money corporations offer small newspapers, newspapers close. A lack of advertising and subscriptions combine to leave rural newspapers at a disadvantage. Over the past 15 years, more than 2,400 newspapers across the country have closed.

“So many small counties are not economically capable of supporting a newspaper worthy of the name,” Cross said. “Not all rural counties, by any means; once you get below 10,000 population, there’s usually not enough revenue to support robust newsgathering, unless the owner has strong journalism chops and is doing much of the reporting. There are several papers like that, such as The Canadian Record in Texas and the Timberjay in Tower, Minnesota, but they are scant.”

Update

Paxton Media Group publisher Mike Weafer provided the following statement to The Rural Blog, a publication of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues based at the University of Kentucky:

“Paxton Media purchased the Landmark papers with the expectation that all the local news staff would remain on staff. No local editorial positions were eliminated. Paxton believes in local journalism and gives the local editor the authority to decide what is news for each local newspaper. The changes that are implemented are predominantly back end processes around production and business office functions that are far more efficient if done in a consolidated manner. These changes are necessary to offset reduced revenues local newspapers are experiencing. Any reduction in local reporting noticed has been because of the labor shortage every industry is facing now. We have many open positions we are struggling to fill. We are sorry to see any employees leave because of necessary back end process changes. But Paxton Media Group remains committed to local journalism.”