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News from the Northwest.

As Northwest Arkansas Changes, so Does Its Newspapers

IN THE FAST-GROWING AREA of northwest Arkansas, the four main local news-papers covering the daily changes have been making changes of their own to keep up with the progress.

With the population booming and with businesses prospering, there's increased opportunities for the papers.

"There's no excuse for us not to succeed with that kind of market," says Steve Trolinger, publisher of the Benton County Daily Record at Bentonville. "We should all be doing well."

But all is not well at every paper.

Under the guidance of Publisher Dave Stokes, the Northwest Arkansas Times at Fayetteville underwent the most substantial alterations.

"I'd say there's been more changes in the last year than in the previous 13," says City Editor Rusty Garrett, a 14-year veteran of the Times.

But the changes haven't necessarily paid off.

Before being fired Nov. 19 for undisclosed reasons, Stokes was able to bring advertising revenues up by almost 16 percent, but daily circulation remained flat. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, 1992's daily circulation of 12,726 at the Times barely increased compared to 1991's daily circulation of 12,531. The paper moved from afternoon to morning publication in May.

Sunday circulation actually dropped from 14,023 in 1991 to 14,014 this year.

At the Northwest Arkansas Morning News at Rogers, daily circulation stayed similarly steady at 14,911 compared to 14,865 in 1991. Sunday circulation only gained by 289 with 1992's circulation at 17,542.

The Daily Record showed modest increases. Daily circulation went from 7,793 to 8,104 and Sunday circulation moved from 8,187 to 8,914.

The Morning News at Springdale has had the biggest gains, going from a daily circulation of 16,089 to 17,067. Sunday circulation had the largest jump when it increased by 1,081 to 18,544.

But even the success of The Morning News isn't terribly impressive when the closure of the Arkansas Gazette on October 18, 1991, is taken into account.

Even officials from the statewide Arkansas Democrat-Gazette say they thought the northwest papers would increase their business more than they have.

Instead, the Democrat-Gazette has capitalized on the void. Its daily circulation in Washington, Benton and Carroll counties doubled from 3,565 before the Gazette closed to 8,376 in March 1992.

The paper's Sunday circulation is doing almost as well as the Springdale and Rogers papers -- it increased from 7,304 before the Gazette closed to 15,022 this March.

The Democrat-Gazette used to put more sales emphasis in the northwest area but no longer because circulation is up without it.

Times for Change

The Times seems to be the only paper making major changes in an attempt to boost circulation. The other papers have settled into their own niches, with only minor changes in the past year or changes that have actually stemmed from their prosperity.

For instance, The Morning News added a Saturday edition in July.

"We just decided that we're large enough, and if we were ever going to be a truly regional paper we needed to be seven days a week," Editor Jim Morriss says.

In 1990, the paper added a Fayetteville bureau, switched from an afternoon to a morning paper and dropped "Springdale" from its name.

Outside of adding a Saturday edition, the only other change of note is the addition of a full-time business reporter. Morriss says he felt business coverage was a deficiency at the paper, so when the Democrat-Gazette decreased its business reporting this year, he decided it was a good time to increase his.

The reporter, Patricia May, who was with the Gazette at its closing, is actually shared between the Springdale and Rogers papers. Both are both owned by Donrey Media Group.

Donrey officials indicate no plans to combine the two papers. The Morning News at Rogers also recently added a Saturday edition.

The Daily Record also has increased its business coverage. Trolinger, like Morriss, cites the Democrat-Gazette's decreased coverage as the reason.

The Times, meanwhile, has gone through something of an overhaul.

Managing Editor Janet Fontenot says the changes are in response to a reader survey and to requests made from a reader advisory board she formed one month after her arrival in October 1991.

"What we did was based on what our readers told us that they wanted and not based on activities from Springdale," says Fontenot in response to the suggestion that the changes stem from her paper's attempt to top The Morning News.

A "newspaper war" is the what some term the rivalry between the Times and The Morning News, but most just call it intense competition.

"It's no different than Sears and J.C. Penney competing for business," she says.

Along with the publication time switch in May, the Times intensified its Fayetteville coverage and added bureaus in Springdale and Siloam Springs.

New equipment was purchased and more graphics and color were added to the paper. Most stories of about 30 inches in length were shortened to 10-15 inches, adding to the USA Today look some say the paper now has.

Eight new editorial positions were created in May; only five of those remain due to economic cutbacks.

There's been much turnover at the paper this year, with several longtime employees either being fired or quitting.

"Some of them were told they were no longer needed and some were made to feel that way," says Garrett, who blames much of the paper's problems on Stokes.

Garrett submitted his resignation and announced he was moving to The Morning News after Stokes hired a private investigator to research a local candidate for office. When Stokes was fired, Garrett decided to stay.

It was largely reported that Stokes' firing resulted from his hiring the investigator. But David Smith, vice president and chief operating officer of Thompson Newspapers Inc., which owns the Times, says that isn't true.

He also says Stokes' firing wasn't due to the flat circulation figures.

Smith won't say exactly why Stokes was let go, and when asked about staff turnover he says, "I really wouldn't want to comment on personnel matters."

But morale problems at the paper are supposedly part of what led to Stokes' downfall, with the investigator incident being the final straw.

Stokes says he's prohibited at this time from discussing his dismissal but says the information may be made available later.

The Times may have lost readers due to Stokes' aggressive tactics, and that's one more hurdle the paper now has to overcome.

In the supposedly nonexistent newspaper war, most people say it's The Morning News that's winning.

"Fayetteville tried to make a dent outside of Fayetteville by spending a lot of money, but they weren't able to do it," says Trolinger, who is watching the action from Bentonville.

But Fontenot remains confident.

"We're not in a cutthroat situation like the Democrat and the Gazette were," Fontenot says.

She says there is plenty of time for improvements.

"I think we've succeeded in creating a regional paper," Fontenot says. "It's not to say the job is finished."
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Arkansas' local newspapers; Northwest Arkansas Times
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Dec 21, 1992
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