Gannett has agreed to sell the Pine Bluff Commercial to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and its parent company, WEHCO Newspapers Inc. of Little Rock.
The Commercial ceased publication today under Gannett’s ownership and will resume publication Tuesday as part of the Democrat-Gazette, said Walter Hussman Jr., publisher of the statewide newspaper.
“Going forward, there will be four pages of the Pine Bluff Commercial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette every day,” Hussman wrote in a letter to the Commercial’s 2,100 subscribers. “It will include local news, daily records, obituaries, an opinion page and sports.”
The Commercial will be published in a digital replica format seven days a week as part of the Democrat-Gazette. The digital replica is identical to the print edition but delivered on an iPad or other computer device.
The combined newspapers will also be printed and delivered to subscribers in the Pine Bluff area through Oct. 12. After that time, subscribers will receive a print edition only on Sundays as part of the Sunday Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Hussman said a broker approached him about buying the Commercial. No money is changing hands initially.
“We are buying the accounts receivable and assuming liabilities for the subscriptions that have been prepaid,” said Hussman. “After 90 days, we’ll settle up on accounts.”
In the deal, WEHCO also gets the Commercial’s name. He said it’s important to continue publication of such a well respected newspaper.
Founded in 1881, the Commercial is one of only two newspapers in Arkansas history that have won the Pulitzer Prize, which is journalism’s highest honor. The other was the Arkansas Gazette. Hussman purchased the Gazette’s assets in 1991 and published the first edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette the next day.
“We are pleased that the Pine Bluff Commercial, a newspaper with a great legacy and tradition, has found a new home with WEHCO and potentially a sustainable business model for many years to come,” said Jay Fogarty, senior vice president of corporate development for Gannett.
In his letter to subscribers, Hussman said he’s convinced the only way for the Commercial to continue daily publication is with a significant investment in local reporters and journalism, and to provide each subscriber with the full Democrat-Gazette.
The Commercial will have a news staff of four people led by Byron Tate, who has worked at the newspaper three times over his career. His last position was as both editor and publisher until June 2016.
Before being purchased by WEHCO, the Commercial was published and printed five days a week.
“While many newspapers are eliminating some days of publication, we are adding back two days in Pine Bluff so we can cover the news every day,” said Hussman. “Due to the collapse of advertising, not just during the covid-19 pandemic, but over the past 14 years, print publication is no longer economically sustainable.”
Subscription rates for the Commercial will be $34 a month, wrote Hussman. Some subscribers will see their rates increase by $1 per month until it reaches $34 per month.
Subscribers who want one will be furnished with an iPad free of charge.
In a news release, Hussman said readers have indicated the digital replica edition of the paper is preferable to reading a newspaper’s website. One-on-one, in-person iPad training will also be provided to subscribers.
“They not only get the exact same information in the same place they found it in print, but even more information in a more readable format by being able to enlarge type, as well as additional features like expanded photos, videos and the ability to receive the paper earlier and anywhere,” Hussman said in the release.
Under terms of the agreement, a new company, Pine Bluff Commercial Inc., is being established as a wholly-owned subsidiary of WEHCO Newspapers Inc.
The company’s affiliates, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and the El Dorado News-Times have converted from a seven day print publication to a seven day digital replica of the print edition along with the Sunday newspapers delivered to subscribers.
Gannett is the largest publisher of local news in the U.S. after recently being acquired by New Media Investment Group Inc., which has owned the Pine Bluff Commercial for five years.
WEHCO Newspapers, Inc. and its predecessor newspaper companies were started by Clyde Palmer in 1909 where he was publisher of the Texarkana Gazette, and the company has remained in the same Arkansas family ownership for over 100 years, with his grandson, Walter Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and his great granddaughter, Eliza Hussman Gaines, managing editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The University of North Carolina recently renamed their journalism school the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and adopted a statement of core journalism values, which will be published on page two of the Pine Bluff Commercial every day.
The Commercial’s new address is at the Donald W. Reynolds Community Services Center at 211 West Third Ave., Suite 105.
Check back for updates and read Tuesday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Pine Bluff Commercial for full details.