Taps for Banner-News; Post Buys Subscribers, Girds for Circulation War
It was appropriate that the decision to close the St. Charles Banner-News was announced on Memorial Day. Like a fallen soldier, the paper died to the anguish of friends and to the eternal question: why?
As with most newspapers that fail, the answer will never be fully known. And because the Banner-News was owned by a secretive, family-run business, there remains more of a mystery than usual.
Outwardly, the Banner was a healthy paper. Circulation was up. Advertising appeared to be in good, if not bountiful supply. The paper was a well-respected member of the community and part of a booming county, so its future looked bright by most standards. Furthermore, the Banner had a reputation as one of the better small dailies in the state, with a history of independence and a commitment to serious journalism. And finally, the paper was part of a profitable printing operation that made it easier for the owners to absorb losses, if in fact the Banner was incurring any. On this last point, one can only speculate. Ogden Newspapers, Inc., doesn’t talk publicly about money.
Here is what is known for sure: At 11 a.m. on Monday, May 30 (the real Memorial Day, remember?), Ogden Nutting, president of Ogden Newspapers, Inc., the company that owned the Banner-News, summoned an anxious Banner staff to a meeting in the paper’s small newsroom in St. Charles.
In a brief statement, he announced the Banner-News would join the ranks of the departed forthwith. He said that the Pulitzer Publishing Company had bought the subscription lists, name and good will of the Banner-News.
Finishing off the unpleasant business, Nutting told the staff: “The Post-Dispatch will be in at 1:30 to talk to some of you. The rest don’t need to come in tomorrow.”
Shortly thereafter, publisher Vince Wood gave a hand-written story to editor Betty Strother, announcing the “sale” of the Banner-News to the Pulitzer Co. Wood would later say that the story, which caused embarrassment at the Post-Dispatch, where it was branded “erroneous,” had been cleared by Nutting himself.
Then, with less than one-half hour to deadline, the shaken news staff returned to their desks and put out the last edition ever of the Banner-News.
By now, much of the sadness and shock have worn off. Bitterness is beginning to creep in. Questions are being asked, such as could the Banner have been saved? And there is this crowning irony: that it was the man who saved the Banner from almost certain death five years ago who administered the last rites on May 30.
Ogden Nutting is the third generation of the family to preside over the “mini-empire” known as Ogden Newspapers, Inc. At 42, he is something of an enigma, at least to some colleagues and his former employees at the Banner. One described him as an enlightened newspaper owner, one who really cares about his newspaper’s properties. “He is one of the finest men in the business,” said Donald R. Stimble, published of the Fulton, M. Sun-Gazette, and the man who sold the Banner-News to Nutting in 1973.
“His philosophy was, ‘put out the best product possible and the rest will take care of itself,’” said former Banner publisher, Vince Wood.
But there is resentment too. “He was smiling that day [May 30, when he announced the paper was closing] when the rest of us were very upset, said an ex-employee. “I didn’t think it was appropriate.”
Nutting has also been criticized for reneging on a promise to give two weeks’ severance pay to his employees.
Nutting, whose firm is operated out of Wheeling, W. Va., was in his late 30s when he bought the Banner-News. It became part of a chain that now includes 11 dailies – six in West Virginia, two in New York’s Westchester County, two in rural Iowa and one in Florida – and several weeklies.
He bought the Banner following a disastrous fire in 1972 that destroyed the paper’s offices and printing operation. By the end of 1973, Nutting had poured an estimated $600,000 into new facilities, including new presses, a new printing plant and newsroom.
When he bought the Banner, its news staff consisted of three persons and circulation was lagging at about 4,500. Within a year or two, Nutting had increased the news staff to 16 (it was down to 13 when the paper closed) and tripled circulation to an estimated 13,000.
With St. Charles’ population booming, things looked good for the Banner. But there were clouds on the horizon, in the form of free “shoppers” that were eventually to provide stiff advertising competition , plus the fact that much of the circulation of the Banner-News was in the St. Charles city area, whereas the population boom was largely going on in the western and central parts of the county, where the shoppers and two weeklies were strong.
Starting a couple of years ago, circulation increases began slowing to a trickle and advertisers started to defect to the county’s shoppers and weeklies.
The financial position of the paper is a matter between Nutting and his bookkeepers, but it is generally felt that the paper was not carrying enough advertising to “pay its way.” However, there is also speculation that the paper was not losing all that much money, if any at all, but rather wasn’t returning enough money on the investment.
But Nutting denies this. Closing the paper “was not strictly a business decision,” he said, without elaborating, but adding that in the end, “we had no alternative.”
The end came long before it was publicly announced. There are reports that Nutting quietly began looking to sell the paper as much as six months before May 30. Asking price: about $1.1 million. Nutting was also reported ready to part with the Banner-News Printing Co., for another $1.1 million.
Negotiations were handled through a broker in Connecticut, who is said to have spoken with several prospective buyers. At one point, reportedly early in May, he approached the Post with an offer to sell the Banner to the Pulitzer Co.
At first, the Post was enthusiastic. Publishing another afternoon newspaper would present few problems for Post officials and prospects for growth in St. Charles looked good.
But Post lawyers threw cold water on the idea, citing anti-trust problems if the giant paper were to buy another paper in the same metropolitan area. Instead, they hit upon the idea of “absorbing” the subscription lists, a neat way of cornering the market without offending the Justice Department.
But some persons in St. Charles were offended. Because of the “erroneous” story in the Banner-News announcing the sale of the paper to the Pulizer Co., Banner-News readers were given the impression that the carnivorous Post-Dispatch had eaten the Banner-News alive. “It created some hostility,” said Post Managing Editor Evarts A. Graham.
The Post acquired about 10,500 names, but this was reduced to 7,800 when the 2,700 Post subscribers were eliminated. It’s not known for sure what Pulitzer paid for the list, but reports range from $100,000 to as high as $300,000. Post officials would not comment. One immediate effect of the Post’s acquisition of the lists was to put the paper back on top in the overall circulation war with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
But while the Post was buying its way into the homes of St. Charles residents, the Globe-Democrat was winning its way into their hearts. A series of articles on the Missouri Highway Department by Globe financial reporter Thomas L. Amberg contributed to the decision by the state to speed up construction of the I-70 bridge at St. Charles by one full year. Amberg won a commendation from the St. Charles city council and the Globe the undying gratitude of thousands of St. Charles commuters.
With the Banner gone, a circulation battle seems to be shaping up in St. Charles County, with the Post, the Globe-Democrat and the Journal chain fighting for pre-eminence in the county of 120,000. The Globe’s commitment at this point seems uncertain, as the morning St. Louis daily waits to see what the Donnelly chain does. Donnelly holds the key. The company, owners of a chain of free shoppers, is planning to publish a paid morning daily starting Aug. 16 to augment its highly successful St. Charles Journal.
As of this writing, publisher Jim Donnelly, Jr., claims 6,000 subscribers and says he will have 6,000 more before he begins publication. “The response has been excellent,” he said. If the paper succeeds, it could dampen the Globe’s urge to move heavily into the St. Charles market.
The Post could also be hurt. Even with its new eight-page St. Charles wraparound edition, it would still be seen as the outsider from St. Louis coming in to trample the local small fry.
But the Post is seemingly undaunted. It has hired several ex-Banner staffers and has already doubled the size of the original zone edition which it began publishing May 31. The paper has poured thousands into modernizing news operations in St. Charles, moving into larger quarters, installing electronic video display terminals, and increasing editorial and sales staffs.
The Post stumbled getting out of the starting gate on May 31, due to the Banner story announcing the “sale” of the Banner-News to the Pulitzer Co. How did that happen? Some persons say Nutting, wanting to save face, purposely cleared the story knowing it was wrong, to give the impression that the paper was not folding but would continue to publish.
Others say even Nutting was not sure what was going on, so confused were the negotiations between the Banner and the Post.
Still others content the Post and Banner did in fact “merge” and that is what Nutting tried to convey in the Banner’s story. This version could in part explain why he told the Banner staff on May 30 that the Post had bought the name, good will and subscription lists of the Banner-News.
As to what brought the Banner-News down after 115 years, most persons associated with the business side of the paper cite lack of advertising support, while those on the editorial side point to lack of direction and internal problems.
Nutting himself said on May 30, “Advertising never came up to what we thought it should be, or to what we thought it could be.”
An anonymous source echoed these sentiments, saying the business community in St. Charles failed to support the paper. “We were carrying about 50 percent advertising, which meant about eight pages a day, and that just wasn’t enough to support a staff of 30.”
Advertising staff turnover was high, with relatively low salaries being a factor. Salaries in the newsroom were generally low, too, ranging from $125 to $230 per week.
With respect to the editorial product, the paper began drifting like a rudderless ship, some said. Former editor Betty Strother said the paper should have emphasized more than just local news. “In a metropolitan market so close to St. Louis, our readers wanted more than just local news, and that’s more than Ogden newspapers are used to giving.”
Others said the Banner would have been better off if it had offered nothing but local news. But the news staff was generally given high marks. The Banner printed stories about evidence disappearing from the sheriff’s department, the city overbuying vast quantities of weed killer, and brutality in the police department, among other “investigative” pieces.
Nutting, for better or worse, maintained a hands-off policy in dealing with the paper. He is reported to have made three trips to St. Charles in five years: to buy the paper, to open the new plant and to shut the paper down.
Nutting had virtually nothing to say about why he disposed of the paper. “I realize I’ve created a mystery,” he told the Journalism Review. “But we never tell why we buy a newspaper or why we sell one. We don’t discuss publicly our successes or our lack of successes. I just have nothing to say.”
One political endorsement cost the Banner 50 subscriptions in a single afternoon, and a news story about faulty Christmas tree lights cost the paper all its advertising from its biggest client for four months.
There is wide disagreement, in the end, that St. Charles County simply could not support a total of eight newspapers and/or publications that purported to be newspapers. This number includes both the Post and the Globe, which maintained small bureaus in St. Charles, before the Banner folded.
The biggest nemesis was the St. Charles Journal, the Donnelly publication distributed free to about 40,000 persons. With Donnelly about to begin publishing daily, ex-Banner people now with the Post find themselves once again competing against the successful suburban chain. The only consolation this time is they won’t have to listen to readers and advertisers tell them, “I read the Banner for news, but use the Journal for shopping.”
(Originally published in the St. Louis Journalism Review 8/1978).