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Newspaper Families Offer Survival Lessons

Newspaper Families Offer Survival Lessons “Anybody that is still standing has a pretty clear idea of what they want to do with the paper. There’s nothing naïve about the situation anymore.” A recent issue of Editor & Publisher used its cover story to focus on family-owned newspapers. Factors that promote successful generation transitions include:

  • Good family relations. “If there is essential friendship inside the family, then continued ownership is much more likely,” says Ray Carlson, executive director of The Inland Press Association.
  • A sense of mission. “It’s almost a duty to show that independent daily papers can survive,” says Christopher White Walker, of the Emporia (KS) Gazette. Or the opposite experienced by newspaper acquirer William Dean Singleton. “Show me a generation that’s not interested in the newspaper – and I’ll show you the paper that is going to be sold.”
  • Extended family communication. “The most important factor in keeping the paper in the family is keeping in the loop all those family members who don’t work at the newspaper,” says business broker Owen Van Essen. Family meetings, retreats, seminars and other methods are used increasingly to keep family ownership informed. Says Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen: “I spend 30% of my time on things relating to family-communications, planning meetings, sharing information, meeting with relatives.”

The number of family-owned, independent newspapers has fallen from 1650 at the beginning of the 20th century to 250 at the start of the 21st. but those remaining offer lessons on family business succession and survival. Indeed, given that a century represents about four generations and the average family business survival rate is about 30% per generation, 20 still in family hands represent a rate more than 18 times the survival expectation. The prognosis for the remaining properties is good. Says Alex S. Jones, biographer of the Bingham and Ochs-Sulzberger newspaper dynasties and a member of a newspaper-owning family’s fourth generation, By promoting good family relations, shared sense of mission and communication with extended family shareholders, newspaper-owning families are hopeful of keeping their papers for generations to come.




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