OCEAN SPRINGS AND GAUTIER — Just as there has been a trend towards mergers in the banking industry, in recent years the trend in newspapers been towards more chain ownership. Locally-owned newspapers have become less common. But there are some people who argue there can be some advantages to local ownership and control of a newspaper.
Publisher James Ricketts has now worked on both sides of the fence. For about nine years he worked for the large newspaper chain Gannett as publisher and editor of the Ocean Springs Record and Gautier Independent. In 1999 Ricketts left the paper over disagreements about management of the newspapers.
“Our financial performance in 1998 was not as good as we would have liked,” Ricketts said. “We had different viewpoints of how to make the paper successful, and I couldn’t give up on the beliefs that I had. The primary issue was I felt like the way to make it financially successful was to ensure that the content was quality. I felt you couldn’t sell your way to success in a paper this size in a market this competitive. I felt the problem was I needed to work on the news side, but we were low on reporter staff at that time because I wasn’t allowed to hire anyone. All the emphasis was on hiring sales people. But if you don’t have content to support the advertising, advertisers won’t see the value in the paper, and certainly aren’t going to invest in it.”
Ricketts and his wife, Cindy, who also worked for the newspapers, had become very firmly entrenched in Ocean Springs, and had planned to make it their permanent home. When they left, the community threw them a large going away party at the Ocean Springs Community Center. The Ricketts moved to Marianna, Fla., where Ricketts was publisher of a five-day per week newspaper, the Jackson County Floridian.
Local news content
In Ricketts absence, the local news content of the newspapers in Gautier and Ocean Springs diminished considerably. The two newspapers were merged into one, and at times old AP news stories that had already run in the local daily newspapers made up most of the front page of the newspaper. Content started to improve more recently, but the newspapers still didn’t have the news staff seen previous to Ricketts leaving.
When the Ricketts left in 1999, they wanted to buy the newspapers. But Gannett wasn’t interested in selling. Earlier this year Ricketts accepted a dare from a friend back in Ocean Springs who suggested Ricketts once again approach Gannett about buying the newspapers.
Hattiesburg American publisher David Petty, who oversaw operations of the two Coast weeklies prior to their sale, said that it is key for anyone who runs a newspaper to have a stake in the community. With Ricketts, Gannett had such a person. But Petty said they weren’t able to sustain the level of management needed there after Rickett’s departure.
“We sold it basically because James Ricketts is a known commodity to us, and was doing a fine job for us before,” said Petty, who was not involved in the earlier disagreement with Ricketts over management of the papers. “He wanted the paper and had local support for the paper. It was a good time for him to buy. I think particularly in small communities it is important for you to have an awful lot of local support for the operation you are doing.”
Petty said he doesn’t know if Ricketts will be able to make the paper a lot better than he made it when he was there before because it was a good strong community paper at that time. In the 1990s the newspapers won quite a few awards from the Mississippi Press Association, and between 1990 and 1995 revenue doubled.
The Ricketts’ purchase went through in late September, and the first thing done was splitting the two newspapers apart, a move welcomed by readers and advertisers.
“Everyone couldn’t believe they were combined to begin with,” Ricketts said. “These two communities are very different, and it didn’t make sense to combine them. I resisted for a couple of years combining them because I didn’t think it was a good business decision, or good for the community.”
Ricketts said that there isn’t a big difference between working for Gannett and working for himself. The nine years he was there previously, he always treated the paper like it was his own.
“I felt responsible for every penny I spent just like I spent it out of my own pocket,” Ricketts said. “I thought that was the only way I could run it effectively. Now I do have to worry a little more about cash flow and some things like taxes. Otherwise, I am doing the same as I did before. One difference is I don’t have to guarantee stockholders a 3% increase every year and a rising stock price.
“I tell people that it is nice to be out from underneath the corporate umbrella, and now I know what it feels like to stand in the rain.”
His news philosophy is that the community wants in-depth reporting on issues that are ignored by the daily newspapers in the area.
“It is fine for USA Today to capsulize the world in a paragraph or two,” Ricketts said. “But in a community where everything that goes on affects people, you need depth for the kinds of things the dailies don’t find space for. Really my philosophy is that I may own the building and be responsible for the paper, but the community owns the newspapers and if it is not a reflection of people’s lives and interests, then they ought to take the franchise away from you.”
Ricketts compares newspaper markets to maps. USA Today would represent a map of the entire U.S. The Clarion-Ledger would represent the state of Mississippi, and The Sun Herald, a map of the Coast. The Ocean Springs Record is a street level map of Ocean Springs, and the Gautier Independent a street level map of Gautier.
“We can’t replace any of the others, but they can’t give the detail we can because we focus on covering a smaller area,” Ricketts said. “Each one of them has a purpose and they are important. They just don’t replace each other.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.