Four years later – the decline is faster than I expected

Four years later – the decline is faster than I expected

In just a few days, Nov. 15, 2020, it will be an anniversary very few will celebrate. That date is very significant to me, though. I even have a printed copy of The Hutchinson News from that date sitting at my desk in Newton, just to remind me that on this day four years ago, my hometown newspaper died.

I told many in my close circles back home what I thought would happen when the Harris Family put the Hutchinson News and several other papers in the state up for sale.

When it happened, I even wrote a blog post with my thoughts all laid out on what I thought would happen to the once great Hutchinson News and the rest of the Harris Family Newspapers.

I take no glee in being right, despite many who used to work at the paper telling me I was dead wrong, but all those who protested my “R.I.P. HUTCHINSON NEWS – IT WAS A GOOD RUN” blog post aren’t employed by Gatehouse any more to care.

The thing that strikes me as I look at the Hutchinson News today versus what it was four years ago is just how fast the poison leached into it.

I told friends and former co-workers I thought the paper’s decline would take seven to 10 years before turning into an also-ran newspaper full of Associated Press stories and regional crap they could put in every paper in the state.

Boy, was I wrong, though.

I haven’t seen a local editorial written on the Hutchinson News opinion page in so long, I couldn’t tell you the last time it happened, although I did quit reading it daily several years ago because it made me too sad to do so.

To my knowledge, there are two veteran holdouts on staff, still fighting the good fight for the current paper—John Green and Sandra Milburn—but that is it.

Gone are the good ol’ days, where Jason Probst had a local editorial, Amy Bickel was writing about agriculture, Brad Hallier had a great feature about the Buhler football team, and Darcy Gray, Kathy Hanks, Kristin Birket, Mary Clarkin, and Ken Stephens filled the front and inside pages with local news and features.

Gone is John Montgomery, who was the publisher when I toiled away on the copy desk. Gone is the copy desk, for that matter. Gone is Ron Sylvester, who largely kept things going and was creative with how to keep The News as local as possible, despite the Gatehouse limitations. I never worked with Ron, but from what I was told, he was wonderful to work with and someone who was incredibly creative in how to manage the daily issues that came with Gatehouse life.

Everyone is gone. Anything outside of John Green and Sandra Milburn that made the Hutchinson News Editorial Team a part of the community has vanished in four short years. It makes me incredibly sad to think that the good all of those people and more did for the community has been tossed away like it meant nothing by an ownership group who wanted to get paid rather than sell to a responsible ownership group that would have stewarded Hutchinson and the rest of the papers into the future. There were other options.

What Hutchinson and the thousands of towns served by Gannett (used to be Gatehouse) lose isn’t obvious to the average person walking the streets each day, but it is by those who understand the impact of not having a reporter in the back of each meeting, a strong editorial voice, and someone to shine a light on important topics in the community.

The people who are left in the shell of a once great newspaper do their best. It’s not John or Sandra’s or anyone else who is unfortunate enough to work for Gannett’s fault the company is so poorly managed. They do the best they can with the resources they are given.

The fault lies with ownership who is out of touch, lives states away, and doesn’t care about any of these towns outside of how much they can milk out of them for profit.

If you have made it this far in my column, wow, you really need something better to do, but not all is lost for Hutchinson, Hays, Newton, Garden City, Topeka, McPherson, El Dorado, Salina, Ottawa, Dodge City, hell, throw Wichita in there, even though another group owns them, and the list goes on and on to pretty much every decent-sized city in Kansas.

Companies like ours are starting to pop up all over the country. We compete with Gannett in Newton and McPherson. We have been knocking heads with them going on six years in Newton and recently took over a start-up in McPherson, too.

We think we provide a pretty damn fine product, even if not everyone loves us, which is fine. It’s at scale with what we think works, and we think that model could work in other cities. More and more folks are realizing that and starting their own competitions.

I say all of this to get at one point: I don’t think Hutchinson will be without a great journalism product forever. It might take some time, but like a phoenix rising from the ashes, something will take the place of The Hutchinson News some day.

My ask to each one of my friends in Hutchinson or in another market served by a hedge fund like Gannett who might be reading this, is to support that product when it comes. Jump in when it’s announced and sign up for what they offer. Give them some help.

My business partner and I walked around like ghosts, questioning everything for the first six months of Newton Now. I was literally sick with fear due to cash flow problems.

We bootstrapped our asses out of the muck though and eventually made a go of it. Now, Gannett couldn’t get rid of us even if they tried.

That kind of stickiness is important to a start-up news publication. So, remember this column, put a reminder like I did next to your desk or whatever you need to do to tell yourself that when the time comes, you’ll support locally owned, quality journalism, as not everyone gets it and many towns crave it once it’s gone.

R.I.P., Hutchinson News, but to whatever eventually comes next, know I will be first in line to buy a subscription. I miss my old hometown newspaper.

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