Can politics play into newspaper battles?

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In newspaper wars, such as the one that is brewing in the Treasure Valley with the Idaho Press of Nampa and the Idaho Statesman of Boise, the big guys don’t always win.

Such was the case in Arkansas when the Arkansas Democrat in 1991 slew the Arkansas Gazette, the oldest and largest newspaper in the state at the time.

As a former reporter and press secretary in Arkansas during the early stages of that battle, I thought that politics played a role in the Democrat’s eventual victory. The Gazette, nicknamed the “Old Lady,” was the dominant paper when Democrats such as Bill Clinton ruled the state. The Democrat, which was anything but a “Democrat newspaper,” on its editorial page, was no fan of Clinton and gained more influence as Arkansas transformed as a Republican state.

The politics are not as transparent in the Treasure Valley papers as I saw in Arkansas, but it does figure into the mix – at least on a small level. At the Statesman, presidential endorsements show where the paper’s heart is. The Statesman has endorsed one Republican presidential candidate in this century, George W. Bush in 2000. The paper flipped to John Kerry in ’04 and went with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton after that.

Right or wrong, those endorsements have branded the Statesman as a liberal-leaning newspaper. To Democrats in the capital city (and most of Boise is Democratic), the Statesman presented itself as a refreshing voice of reason with those presidential-election calls. Some Republicans have never forgotten, or forgiven, the Statesman for those “out-of-touch” endorsements. Idaho has been solidly Republican since 1964.

The Idaho Press does not endorse in presidential races, so it’s difficult to put a political tag on the paper. But in other endorsements, it tends to favor legislative candidates who are Republican and to the center/right on the political scale. Most of its regular editorials are somewhere in the center.

Idaho’s clash is more of a test case on the future of the newspaper industry. The Statesman, which earlier this year moved its printing operation from Nampa to Twin Falls, is not focused exclusively on the printed product. The print version cannot publish game stories or breaking news from the night before because of early deadlines. But it does have a strong digital presence, with timely stories coming out several times during the day.

The Idaho Press is going with the more traditional route – attempting to appeal to those who would rather read a newspaper with their morning breakfast than run to their computers. Readers can get full coverage of Boise State sports and more complete election results – all delivered at their doorstep, and for a comparatively cheap cost.

The battle in Arkansas was fun to watch. I had a front-row seat when I worked with the Democrat briefly in 1980, and a more distant view when I was a reporter with the nearby Pine Bluff Commercial and was a press secretary for then-Congressman Ed Bethune, a Republican.

The Democrat in those years had a flamboyant editor named John Robert Starr, who wrote daily columns – often slamming the Gazette for its news coverage, and any number of other reasons. Over time, people paid more attention to Starr and I’ve thought that his attacks took a toll on the “Old Lady” in the circulation battle. The Gazette did not have an effective counter to John Robert Starr.

In 1986, the Gazette sold to Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain – giving the Gazette some generous financial resources. But the move backfired miserably in a state where part of “southern pride” meant keeping “Yankees” in their place. The Gazette was roundly criticized for bringing in too many out-of-state reporters and losing its local touch. Finally, in October of 1991, Gannett waved the white flag, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was born – leaving disgruntled Gazette staffers in the wake.

What happens in Idaho depends on the marketplace, and which parent organization has the stomach to fight to the end (Adams Publishing for the Press and McClatchy for the Statesman). It very well could end in a tie, with the papers merging and readers in the Treasure Valley getting the best of both worlds – a solid traditional newspaper that is printed locally and a strong digital product that is reflective of the industry’s changing times.

Stay tuned.

Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com

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