WDN alumni react to sale of newspaper

Published 12:01 am Sunday, June 20, 2010

Community Editor

For better or worse, Washington Daily News alumni, as well as community leaders, believe change was necessary at the century-old paper.
That change came Wednesday with an announcement by Publisher Ashley B. Futrell Jr. that he is selling the Daily News to Washington Newsmedia LLC, a media company controlled by Boone Newspapers Inc. of Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Futrell said he determined more than a year ago the Daily News needed to align itself with a larger newspaper company to take advantage of economies of scale. The search led to Boone Newspapers, and subsequent discussions resulted in the decision to sell the paper, ending more than 60 years of Futrell family operation of the newspaper.
The Daily News follows a statewide — and nationwide — trend toward corporate takeover of independent, family owned newspapers. With the sale of the Daily News, a handful of independently owned newspapers in the state remain.
John Morgan, sports editor and all-around Daily News “handyman” from 1951 to 1964, compared the sale of the paper to the potential merger of Beaufort County Medical Center with a larger health-care provider.
“It follows along the same pattern,” he said. “People have been rolling it around in their minds, just like the hospital.”
Morgan, who lives in Washington and is active in the community, said the news didn’t surprise him.
“I’ve seen it coming. It’s a move that’s probably been in the offing for sometime,” he said in a brief interview.
He’s confident the paper will continue to provide strong, community-minded coverage.
“After reading the article this morning, I too feel it’s the best move for the Washington Daily News and everyone concerned,” he said Thursday.
Morgan said that with the Great Recession, “ain’t nothing going to be like it used to be,” even at the Daily News, which recently celebrated its centennial.
“We can expect change,” he said. “I do.”
Russell Woolard, who worked for the Daily News as a staff writer and later as news editor from September 1997 to December 2000, said he expects sweeping changes at the paper under its new ownership.
“My general thought regarding Boone is they’re going to bring in their own people and own ideas,” he said. “And they have a right to do that.”
When the sale is finalized, Ray McKeithan, the Daily News’ general manager and associate publisher, will succeed Futrell as publisher of the newspaper.
“We are fortunate to become associated with Ray McKeithan and with the excellent group of people at the Daily News,” said Todd H. Carpenter, president and chief operating officer of Boone Newspapers, in a written statement.
Woolard said he was surprised the Futrell family held onto the Daily News for so long while other newspapers merged with larger companies. He said The (Henderson) Daily Dispatch, where he worked as a staff writer in the early 1990s before coming to the Daily News, was bought by a larger company while he was there.
According to The Daily Dispatch’s Web site, the paper was sold to Paducah Newspapers Inc. in February 1994.
“Many other newspapers owned by families sold also,” he said, noting that the trend really picked up in the mid-1990s. “It’s sort of a surprise to me that Brownie was able to buck the trend for as long as he did.”
Woolard would not speculate any further on the future of the Daily News, or the newspaper industry as a whole.
“I don’t know what the future looks like,” he said, adding that he hopes Boone Newspapers will keep the Daily News’ community-oriented relationship intact.
“Bear in mind that the Washington Daily News has a unique tradition and relationship with the community,” he said. “I hope some semblance of that will be allowed to continue.”
Like Morgan, Woolard said he wasn’t surprised to hear the paper had been sold, but he called Wednesday a “sad day.”
“It was a sad day, but probably something that couldn’t be avoided given everything happening in the newspaper business and to family owned businesses,” he said Thursday evening.
Bartow Houston, a former columnist and Daily News sports editor, said the sale is another example of America being “Wal-Martized.”
“I suspect the Daily News has long been fighting an uphill battle. There aren’t that many family owned newspapers anymore,” he said.
Houston said he had two reactions to the newspaper being sold: sadness and realism.
“It saddens me when any venerable institution is overcome by economic realities, but particularly in a small town, and it reminds me that these are very difficult times for the industry and business entities,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”
“The point of it is, not all change is good, but reality dictates that it must be,” he added.
Houston encouraged the Daily News staff, as well as the community, to be “optimistic.”
“People don’t acquire properties to lose money,” he said. “You have to be optimistic and know there will be changes.”
Sarah Hodges, public information officer for Beaufort County Schools and a former Daily News staff writer, echoed Houston’s sentiments.
“Unfortunately, times change and many things must change with those times,” she said. “I wish the Futrell family all the best and hope for everyone down there the transition is a smooth one.”
Hodges praised the dedication and hard work of the elder Ashley B. Futrell, who became editor and publisher of the paper in 1949, who could be found writing humorous and topical editorials in his office almost on a daily basis until his death on Feb. 11, 2005.
“As one of those fortunate to learn the ropes under Mr. Ashley himself, I grew to have a great respect and appreciation for what a family driven, community paper could accomplish,” she said.
Beaufort County Manager Paul Spruill, who worked as a part-time summer intern in the Daily News’ sports department in 1993, said he is confident the newspaper will continue to be a strong voice for the community.
“Personally, I have a great deal of confidence that the Futrell family has found a partner that shares their vision of what the Daily News should continue to be,” he said. “I think the paper’s long history of community service speaks for itself.”
Catherine Glover, director of the Washington-Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce, said she looks forward to working with the newspaper’s new management to reach the community.
“They’re our partner in a lot of things. The voice of our businesses,” she said. “It would be devastating if we didn’t have a paper.”
“How would we all get the information out to the community?” she added.
Spruill called the Daily News an “institution.”
“It’s something Beaufort County and the City of Washington can always be proud of,” he said.