Will the ‘Sustained Outrage’ of One W. Virginia Newspaper Survive Auction Block’s Hammer?

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The deeply embedded troubles of the local news industry have been aired numerous times, including in this column. The same shortfalls repeated too many times can produce a collective numbness. But occasionally there is heartbreak that pierces through the fog of consistently disappointing numbers.

The biggest heartbreaker is what happens to those families whose long-held newspapers were dedicated to publishing all the news without fear or favor. In print’s heyday, those locally owned papers invariably made handsome profits of 20% and more. But they did more than print money – they were the cogwheel for how democracy worked in their communities.

This is the story of one of those families, the Chiltons, and their paper, the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette-Mail, which the Chiltons owned for 111 years. (The family merged its Gazette and the once separately owned and published Mail, which it acquired from NewsMedia Group in 2004, into a single paper in 2015.)

Ned Chilton, who was publisher of the Gazette from 1961 until his death in 1987, made the paper into what his daughter, Susan Chilton Shumate, the family’s current and last publisher, called “a major force for reform.” In a farewell letter to the Gazette-Mail’s 210 employees on Jan. 29, after announcing the paper’s bankruptcy and forced auction, Shumate proudly recalled that her father had coined a special phrase to describe the paper’s mission: “sustained outrage.”

Much of the Gazette-Mail’s outrage under the Chilton family’s ownership came in response to the coal-mining industry’s operations in West Virginia. The industry leveled whole mountains to extract coal, a practice which befouled the “Wild and Wonderful” state’s environmental resources, and ignored federal safety standards for miners, an offense that in 2010 led to the death of 29 workers in a methane gas explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County. In 2015, the former chief executive of Massey, Don Blankenship, was convicted of a misdemeanor violation of federal safety standards in connection with the explosion and served one year in prison.

Today, Blankenship is a Republican candidate for U.S. senator in the state, running a campaign that enthusiastically supports the all-out pro-coal positions of President Donald Trump, against which the Gazette-Mail has run sometimes damning articles, like this one.

In this era of digital news, when the value of even highly regarded newspapers has plummeted up to 90%, journalistic principles have come at a heavy cost to the Chilton family, as Susan Chilton Shumate said in her own words to employees.

“The Charleston Gazette, now the Charleston Gazette-Mail, has been my family’s passion for the last century. To follow in the footsteps of Ned Chilton, my father, and Betty Chilton, my mother, as publisher of this paper has been a tremendous honor for me and my family. At the end of this process, we will be letting go of that passion.”

Last year, that passion helped Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre win the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism for his coverage of the opioid crisis created when drug wholesalers flooded West Virginia’s poorest counties with 680 million pain-killing pills.

For its 111 years of dedication to the newspaper and the community, the Chilton family will receive a grand total of $350,000 from the paper’s $11.5 million sale to HD Media of Huntington, W.Va., which owns several other papers in the state.

It is cold — very cold — comfort to know that the Chilton family’s undoing was not caused primarily by its pursuit of its journalistic mission. The family’s publishing fate was sealed when the Chiltons exercised their right of first refusal in a mini-bidding war with a competing newspaper chain and chose to pay a reported $55 million for the Gazette’s longtime local rival, the Mail, in 2004.

Paying down the debt from that acquisition put extreme pressure on the Gazette’s earnings. The Charleston area economy went into a deep plunge as U.S. electric-power providers continued to switch from burning coal to oil. Even a totally merged Gazette-Mail couldn’t make it while carrying the heavy load of debt. Once-reliable print advertising revenues fell as distressed businesses shuttered their stores in downtown Charleston. “Digital dimes” from the paper’s fledgling website didn’t begin to offset losses of print dollars.

As 2018 arrived, the only exit for the Gazette-Mail was bankruptcy with its forced auction.

HD Media’s winning offer, made as the auction was closing, was $600,000 more than an earlier – and, at the time, seemingly conclusive – bid by Ogden Newspapers, which also owns the Wheeling (W.Va.) News and a number of other daily and weekly papers stretching from New York to Hawaii. Ogden’s owner is the Nutting family, which also owns the Pittsburgh Pirates, where Bob Nutting, son of family patriarch Ogden Nutting, is board chairman and president.

When Bob Nutting, who is also Ogden Newspapers’ CEO and president, made his $10.9 million offer for the Gazette-Mail, it was noted in the news media that his price was just $400,000 more than he agreed to pay for the services of Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli for the six months of the 2018 Major League Baseball season (plus spring training).

Whether the Gazette-Mail’s vigilant coverage of the coal industry will continue under its new ownership remains to be seen. HD Media is owned by Doug Reynolds, a former Democratic member of the West Virginia House of Delegates who was his party’s unsuccessful candidate for state attorney general in 2016.

After his winning bid for the paper, Reynolds said: “Obviously, we need to continue to support great journalism and work on making sure that the great things they’re doing will continue to be reported across different venues, and mainly work on the business side of that.”

One of Reynolds’ partners in his purchase of the Gazette-Mail was NCWV Media, which owns eight newspapers in West Virginia. In July 2017, one of the papers, the State Journal in Clarksburg, featured a prominent piece written by Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, which was labeled as an “article” and was headlined, “Trump Delivers for West Virginia Coal.” The article stated in its lead sentence:

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s recent visit to West Virginia serves to underscore the importance of West Virginia coal to President Donald Trump and his administration, and another step toward ensuring that West Virginia coal remains the centerpiece of our state’s economy and to reap economic benefits for years to come” [sic].

Another NCWV Media paper, the Exponent Telegram, which, like other company papers, serves the North Central part of the state, wrote editorially against Obama administration policies to de-emphasize coal production because of environmental costs versus other forms of energy. In one editorial, the Exponent Telegram, echoing the argument of the coal lobby, wrote: “Among the types of fuels, oil is the highest-priced. The price of coal is much lower, especially if it is locally produced.”

It is yet unclear, then, whether Reynolds’ financial partnership with NCWV Media will affect his pledge to “support great journalism” at the Gazette-Mail. What’s for sure is that a local paper sold via auction to big buyers is unlikely to experience the autonomy it knew for over a century as a family-owned operation.

Maybe the passion that the last Chilton publisher at the Gazette-Mail, Susan Chilton Shumate, had to leave under the hammer on the auction block will be reignited under HD Media’s ownership. As the GOP primary campaign for U.S. senator featuring convicted coal operator Don Blankenship progresses and President Trump continues to champion coal, the news and opinion pages of the Gazette-Mail will surely provide the answer to a curious world that extends far beyond West Virginia.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.