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The just-announced purchase of the local Arkansas Valley Publishing group by an Arizona-based media means that the ownership of our competitor will no longer be local. While the buyer has assured employees and the public that there will be no change, this is as yet an unrealized promise. If this is true, well then we still have worthy competition.

More commonly, conglomerate purchases of local media can be a blow not just to local journalists and in-depth local coverage, but to diverse viewpoints and perhaps long-term, to democracy itself.

This is not an exaggeration. The mass buy up of so many legendary newspapers and broadcast entities by massive hedge funds and private equity groups in the past five to ten years shows no sign of letting up. The trend is moving down the media ladder to smaller and more rural news media.

The result in many local news markets has been homogenized content because the focus is on revenue production (translation: advertising) rather than the newsroom. Newsrooms are always an expense line item; the organizational mission that is an investment in democracy. But in media consolidation, news often takes a back seat to the revenue goal.

Owners of corporations certainly have a right to sell to whomever they want to. In today’s deregulated environment, this has occurred in any number of business categories. But news coverage is a different animal than shifting the ownership of a widget company.

As many communities, both large and small have discovered, journalism involves the public trust. In this day and age, making sure that truth itself has a voice — that the news is told factually– can be a matter of shifting importance. Assuring that a newsroom remains free and independent to report the news and not the company line, can get lost any time, let alone in a buyout.

A search into our “new” competitor revealed the following:

The Arizona Secretary of State current filing shows other addresses, including Illinois and Vermont (which given the number of local media the group has purchased, was not surprising).

A search of the Arizona Secretary of State’s records indicated this:

O’ROURKE MEDIA GROUP, LLC where Tempe, Arizona, is the agent’s address — Camryn O’Rourke

Mailing Address: 10645 N. Tatum Blvd., STE 200-413 Gilbert, AZ 85028 (Gilbert is a Maricopa County town near/southeast of Phoenix). This address appears to be located in a shopping center.

Their statutory agent status is listed as St. Albans, Vermont (which for Arizona, gives it a “foreign” corporation domicile status, meaning out-of-state).

The Principal LLC Member is James O’Rourke with their principal office at 4328 Lacebark Lane, Naperville, IL, 60564.

A search of the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office shows:

The designated office business address and mailing address (which appears to be a residence) is:

James O’Rourke’s principal member physical address
Attention: James O’Rourke
Address: 4328 Lacebark Lane, Naperville, IL, 60564
County: Will
Last Updated: 7/9/2020

A search of Dun & Bradstreet for Illinois or Vermont (both point to the VT address below) indicates this is a “headquarters”. There is no D&B listing in Arizona unless it is a pending filing:

281 N. Main St, St. Albans, VT 05478-2503, phone: 802 524-9771
With a corporate office at 10645 N. Tatum Blvd., STE 200-413 Gilbert, AZ 85028

A self-described, professional website explanation gives this description of the business:

“O’Rourke Media Group offers creative marketing solutions for both print and digital, including search engine marketing, social media management, targeted email, graphic and web design, photography, and in-house printing services. One location, one team, endless possibilities. Whether you have a new business in need of graphic identity and branding, or you need to get your message out to more people, O’Rourke Media Group is ready to help.”

From their own corporate website/About Us:

“O’Rourke Media Group currently operates in six states with a full-service digital agency and 24 publications and hyperlocal websites. Our team of marketing experts specialize in providing customized digital marketing strategies and solutions for any size business and budget. We’re also a hyper-local community news publisher with an engaged audience of print subscribers, digital subscribers, website pageviews, social media followers and email newsletters.”

“We have established ourselves as a top-performing, full-service digital agency in the communities we serve and for many customers outside of our core market areas. Digital revenue is increasing at a rapid pace, we have excellent customer retention and amazing talent leading the way when it comes to strategy, sales execution and fulfillment.”

Ark Valley Voice has not been able to find a single reference in the O’Rourke Media Group’s communications to journalistic ethics, fact-based news coverage, investigative reporting, or any mission related to news. There is a reference to “hyper-local community news publishing”.

In Colorado and across the nation, media conglomerates such as Alden Global are buying up historic news entities such as The Denver Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Buffalo News. What is Alden Global? The Washington Post describes it as “a hedge fund with a reputation for laying off journalists, selling buildings and slashing newsroom budgets.” It made that comment when Alden Global proposed buying Lee Enterprises, one of the last large independent newspaper chains in the United States.

The Unraveling of News Media through Deregulation

How did this amount of news media consolation become commonplace? In 1934 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was enacted to keep local news in the hands of local organizations, and that rule did its job through the 1970s.

Federal Communications Commission. Courtesy image

Then in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s FCC Chairman Mark Fowler proposed a new, deregulated view. The federal government’s efforts to prevent media consolidation of print, radio, and television began to unravel.

There was a watershed moment in the 1990s with Bill Clinton’s decision to sign the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (passed by a Republican-controlled legislature). The law was a massive dose of deregulation that dramatically increased the number of local newspapers and television stations a single corporation could own, as well as the percentage of the national audience a single corporation could reach.

More concerning than the consolidation of media into the hands of fewer and fewer owners is a threat not just to local news coverage and in-depth coverage of local government activities, but to democracy itself. A diversity of journalist sources and viewpoints has been a hallmark of this democracy.

But in 2019, the Stanford Review pointed out that their research confirmed that “media consolidation means less local news, and more right-wing slant”. In the case of broadcast, that same study showed that “the trend toward conglomerate ownership is causing local broadcast stations to focus more on national politics at the expense of local politics, and much of it is right-wing.”

The Knight Foundation and Gallup polled Americans this past summer on their views of local news consolidation. They found that respondents were much more concerned about national ownership bias than about potential cuts in the budgets or local news coverage.

“More than nine in 10 Americans are ‘very’ (66 percent) or ‘somewhat’ (26 percent) concerned that the owners’ views would influence coverage if a large company purchased their local news organization,” wrote Megan Brenan and Zacc Ritter in their findings.

Since 2005, approximately 2,200 newspapers have folded, and some 1,200 newspapers have been sold since 2014, most have been either family-owned enterprises or small private regional chains. Three major chains have bought nearly one-third of the major newspapers that have been sold; New Media/GateHouse (which just merged with Gannett under the Gannett name), Adams Publishing, and AIM Media.

How the Bedford Minuteman Becomes “Wicked Local

The consolidation doesn’t always stop with the first purchase. What follows describes a multi-year saga of a print newspaper in a rapidly growing, Massachusetts town incorporated in 1729. Bordered by Bedford’s more well-known cousins (Lexington and Concord) sites of the battles of the “Minutemen” on April 19, 1775, are famous for the ‘shot heard round the world’, which marked the start of the American War of Independence (1775-83)

The Bedford Minuteman began as a weekly in 1957, as an offshoot of a publication in the neighboring town of Lexington. The Bedford Minuteman was part of the now-defunct Beacon Communications Corp., a newspaper publisher in Acton, Massachusetts that operated a dozen weekly newspapers as well as daily newspapers in local markets of Hudson and Marlborough, Massachusetts.

In 1993, Beacon Communications was bought by Fidelity Investments and incorporated into Community Newspaper Company (CNC), then Massachusetts’ largest weekly newspaper publisher. It covered local news and events in Bedford and the surrounding communities of Middlesex County in northeastern Massachusetts.

In 2001, Fidelity sold CNC to Herald Media, the publisher of the Boston Herald.

In 2006, Herald Media sold CNC to GateHouse Media. On November 19, 2019, the paper became part of Gannett Company Inc. when the owner of GateHouse Media bought Gannett and merged the two companies under the Gannett name.

The newspaper was published weekly in print [for 65 years] until May 5, 2022, when it switched to digital-only distribution. under the unbelievable name “WickedLocal”. Now highly commercial, with a paywall, and lots of ads, it has a circulation estimated at 2,700. – Source: Mondo Times

According to The Economist, one of the major trends in the purchase of newspapers is the involvement of private equity firms who often swoop on businesses in distress or where owners are near retirement. The share of American newspapers owned by private-equity groups increased from five percent to 23 percent between 2001 and 2019.

As a counterpoint to that trend, in 2021, a first-of-its-kind local and national partnership organized the purchase of a network of 24 weekly or monthly newspapers in Colorado, preserving local mission-focused community ownership rather than dropping local news outlets into a national consolidation.

Colorado Community Media (CCM) was an independent, family-owned group of 24 community newspapers and websites plus two shoppers, that was acquired by the newly created Colorado News Conservancy, a public benefit corporation jointly owned and operated by The National Trust for Local News and The Colorado Sun (a fellow member of the Colorado News Collaborative, of which Ark Valley Voice is part)

Editor Note: Bedford, MA (a town of nearly 15,000) is fortunate that 11 years ago, local residents with foresight created an online, nonprofit local news publication that thrives today, along with other, similar but independent, nonprofit publications in surrounding towns, many of whom are also members of the Institute for Nonprofit News to which Ark Valley Voice belongs.

Editor Note: ArkValley Voice will continue to cover this as we learn more about the entity that has purchased Arkansas Valley Publishing. For those who wish to dig deeper into the challenges of keeping professional, independent journalism alive, two columns from “What Works: The Future of Local News”, by Northeastern University Professor of Journalism Dan Kennedy focus on some of the big media players in this story:

Slashing and burning local news outlets proves profitable for Gannett” Feb. 24, 2023

Veteran editor Greg Moore on local news, diversity and life after Alden Global Capital” Feb. 26, 2023 (Moore was longtime editor of the Denver Post)

Journalists contributing to this news story; Jan Wondra and Merrell Bergin.