The area daily newspaper landscape could be in for a tumultuous shift in 2012 due to the imminent sale of the entity that runs the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
The newspaper, with a 12-month average daily circulation of 76,693, is the largest daily newspaper in the Sarasota-Bradenton region. The New York Times Co., through its Regional Media Group, has owned the paper since 1982.
But that relationship is coming to an end. Halifax Media Holdings LLC, which is backed partially by a Little Rock, Ark.,-based investment and equity firm, is in the final stages of acquiring the Regional Media Group, says Herald-Tribune Publisher Diane McFarlin. A sale price wasn’t disclosed.
Halifax was founded in 2009, and in March 2010 it bought the Daytona Beach News-Journal, the largest daily paper in its region.
“I’m very hopeful this will be a good thing for the Herald-Tribune and the Sarasota community,” McFarlin told the Observer Group.
Some journalism industry watchers aren’t as confident. Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg-based journalism training center, speculates significant changes could take place soon.
“(Halifax) has a record so far of cutting staff and being pro-industry,” said Edmonds, who adds that he knows and admires McFarlin and Herald-Tribune Executive Editor Mike Connelly. “My belief is that they will find parts of the Herald-Tribune run in a way they don’t like.”
Edmonds expanded on that point in a Dec. 19 blog post on poynter.org. Wrote Edmonds: “The editorial ambition that won the regional group’s flagship, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, its first Pulitzer this April for an investigation of the insurance industry may not fit with the boosterish, pro-business agenda Halifax defined in Daytona Beach.”
Halifax officials couldn’t be reached for comment. Michael Redding, appointed CEO and publisher of the News-Journal when Halifax bought it, addressed the community in an open letter the paper published April 1, 2010. “We are a small collection of long-term investors and career newspaper veterans who strongly believe in the future of the News-Journal,” Redding wrote.
The investor group behind Halifax includes Stephens Capital Partners, the firm out of Arkansas, states Redding’s letter. Stephens Capital owns other newspapers, including the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The firm also holds investments in a host of other businesses and industries, from livestock to charter schools to kitchen appliances, according to its website. Destin resident Rupert Phillips, who owns a few newspapers in other ventures, is also part of the Halifax/News-Journal ownership structure.
McFarlin said she had few details on the acquisition because it hasn’t officially closed. She said there was some feeling of sadness among employees, both on the editorial and advertising side, in losing the New York Times as a parent company.
Still, McFarlin said, given declines all daily newspapers have seen in circulation and advertising revenue, it was reassuring that a company approached the Times to buy the unit. In addition to the Herald-Tribune, the Regional Media Group owns 15 other newspapers nationwide, including ones in Lakeland, Winter Haven and Gainesville.
Plus, McFarlin said she had heard good things about Halifax, especially when it comes to local news reporting.
“I understand that Halifax is a big believer in local community news,” McFarlin said. “It is my expectation that we will retain a great deal of autonomy.”
News fit to sell
The Regional Media Group owns 16 newspapers nationwide, including the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Other papers include:
• Daily Comet, in Thibodaux, La.;
• Herald-Journal, in Spartanburg, S.C.;
• News Chief, in Winter Haven;
• North Bay Business Journal, in Santa Rosa, Calif.
• Petaluma Argus-Courier, in Petaluma, Calif.;
• Star-Banner, in Ocala;
• Star-News, in Wilmington, N.C.;
• The Courier, in Houma, La.;
• The Dispatch, in Lexington, N.C.;
• The Gadsden Times, in Gadsden, Ala.;
• The Gainesville Sun, in Gainesville;.
• The Ledger, in Lakeland;
• The Press Democrat, in Santa Rosa, Calif.;
• The Tuscaloosa News, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.;
• Times-News, in Hendersonville, N.C.;
— Kurt Schultheis