Jarring sales bring disruptive year for local news industry | The Free Press Initiative

Black Press - which includes Sound Publishing and the Enumclaw Courier-Herald - was recently sold to Carpenter Media Group.

One of Washington’s largest newspaper publishers announced a restructuring and sale in a desperate bid to survive, providing further evidence of local journalism’s precarious state.

Black Press, a major Canadian publisher and owner of The Herald in Everett and dozens of smaller papers in Washington, announced its sale Monday to financiers and Carpenter Media Group, a Mississippi-based publisher.

The deal isn’t final, however. It’s a proposal in Canadian court where Black Press is seeking to avoid bankruptcy after it was unable to meet debt obligations or find a buyer for its newspapers last year.

In a story published in Black Press papers, CEO Glenn Rogers said the plan “will lead to a stronger, more sustainable Black Press.”

“We are all committed to maintaining the company’s vital journalistic presence in Canada and to a plan that creates the most financially beneficial environment for Black Press to continue to do what it does best — produce excellent journalism and advertising services for the communities it serves all across Canada and the U.S.,” Carpenter Media Group Chairman Todd Carpenter said in the story.

The company also announced the retirement of founder David Black. The Victoria-based publisher took over his father’s community paper in 1975 and built it into a chain of more than 150 dailies and weeklies across Western Canada and several U.S. states. An interview request was declined, with his office citing poor health.

The story was overshadowed in U.S. journalism circles by the simultaneous news that The Baltimore Sun was sold by notorious investment firm Alden Global Capital to David Smith, executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Smith is buying The Sun as a personal venture but there are concerns that he’ll inject his Trumpian politics into the paper, similar to the way Sinclair became more politicized under his watch.

Either way the deal could invigorate a rivalry with The Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit outlet launched in 2022 by another local billionaire, hotelier Stewart Bainum Jr., after his failed attempt to acquire The Sun.

While it’s farther from the Beltway, more people will be affected by the outcome of Black’s Hail Mary.

Black Press’ announcement said its newspapers reach more than 4.5 million readers and its websites draw more than 19 million monthly visitors.

“They’re a very important regional publisher,” said Paul Deegan, CEO of trade group News Media Canada.

Black’s Sound Publishing subsidiary lists 43 local news outlets in Washington and Alaska on its roster, including dailies in Port Angeles and Aberdeen. Black also owns Hawaii’s largest newspaper, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Altogether, Washington had 119 newspapers in last year’s tally by Northwestern University.

But after years of cutbacks, a number of Sound papers are ghosts, sharing offices and coverage with sister papers that employ few people in their newsrooms.

After consolidations, “they’re running three, four, five newspapers out of one office or in many cases, there’s just one person at a newspaper,” said Fred Obee, Washington Newspaper Publishers Association executive director.

Obee was editing the Whidbey News-Times when Black acquired it in 1989, beginning a push into Washington with a strategy to acquire smaller papers surrounding urban areas. The business relied on advertising inserts that have largely disappeared, Obee said.

“People rely on those papers for local news,” he said. “I just don’t know what the future is.”

Black Press said in its release that it now has around 1,200 employees in Canada and the U.S. Its court filings say it employs “approximately 300 editorial and newsroom staff” plus freelancers, which seems awfully low.

After acquiring a group of community papers in east and South King County in 2006, Black halted publication of the Kent-based daily King County Journal in 2007.

In 2022 it spent more than $10 million moving its Everett production to a new printing plant in Lakewood, Pierce County.

The buyers, besides Carpenter, are Canso Investment Counsel and Deans Knight Capital Management.

The proposal is being made under a Canadian law that gives companies a chance to reorganize before declaring bankruptcy. It still needs approval by courts in Canada and the U.S.

Filings reveal that a broker was retained last July to sell the company but that “did not result in a viable bid for any portion” of the company or its assets.

After a $68.5 million (Canadian) write-down in the value of Black’s assets, the company recorded a loss of $57.6 million in its 2023 fiscal year, down from a $12.4 million profit the year before.

That was despite overall revenue growing to $243 million, from $231 million the year before.

In addition to the plunging value of assets amid declining readership, Black failed to keep up on debt payments and payments are looming in 2024 and 2025. Altogether, it owes around $61 million.

Black is also burdened by a $45 million obligation to fund the pension of The Akron Beacon Journal, an Ohio daily it bought for $165 million U.S. in 2006 and sold for $16 million in 2018.

In 2019, the company asked the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to terminate the plan because of its “financial difficulties and its inability to stem its losses despite significant restructuring efforts since 2016,” filings state.

Carpenter Media Group publishes about 30 newspapers in eight Southern states. Todd Carpenter, who lives in Natchez, Miss., could not be reached for comment.

The group was spun out of Boone Newsmedia, a company that began publishing in Alabama in the 1950s and now has 91 papers in the South and Midwest. They formally separated in October.

Long-term plans for the Sound papers are unclear but Obee said there’s still opportunity for them to succeed in places.

“I definitely think there’s a market for that,” he said, “but the formula that is in place now is apparently not working, so something different has to happen.”

This is excerpted from the free, weekly Voices for a Free Press newsletter. Sign up to receive it at the Save the Free Press website, st.news/SavetheFreePress. Seattle Times’ Brier Dudley is the editor of the Free Press Initiative, which aims to inform the public about issues facing newspapers, local news coverage, and a free press. You can learn more about the Free Press Initiative, or sign up for a newsletter, at company.seattletimes.com/save-the-free-press.