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May 17, 2017

Local newspaper continues to fight industry trends

Photo/Cassandra Brown
Since Piedmont Media LLC bought The Fauquier Times and related titles in August, circulation, revenue and staffing have increased, according to company representatives.
I’m not going to comment on personnel. I am not going to comment on anything.
— Publisher Bailey Dabney
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Staff Journalist
Despite a capital infusion from new owners and expanded coverage, The Fauquier Times continues to struggle with the industry headwinds that prompted the newspaper’s sale last year.

The Times’ management recently dismissed four staff members and reduced remaining employees’ pay by 8 percent.

Media companies across the nation in the last decade steadily have whittled staff and cut other costs — practices that almost have become commonplace. BH Media, which owns half of Virginia’s daily newspapers, in April eliminated 289 jobs, including 33 at the Richmond-Times Dispatch. The Culpeper Star-Exponent will cut print publication from seven to five days a week May 28.

But, in some places, newspapers recently have reported increased readership. Times representatives say that has happened here.

Publisher Bailey Dabney announced the salary cuts in a staff meeting last month.

Mr. Dabney this week refused to discuss the streamlining measures.

“I’m not going to comment on personnel,” the publisher said in a phone interview Monday. “I am not going to comment on anything. This is not a news story in our town.”

Besides the Times, Piedmont Media LLC publishes two free distribution weeklies — The Gainesville Times and The Prince William Times. The company also has four quarterly magazines — InFauquierInPrince William, She! and Country Spirit — along with websites. A combined staff produces all of the media products from offices in downtown Warrenton.

Marshall resident and Piedmont Media board Chairman George Thompson referred questions about the cuts to Mr. Dabney.

“I’m not a very good one to talk to about this,” said Mr. Thompson, who assembled a group of about 45 local investors and headed last year’s negotiations to buy the publications. “He’s running the paper. You better talk to him.”

While unfamiliar with all of the details about the staff and salary reductions, Piedmont Media board member and company investor Andy Budd said he backs the publisher.

“The board was informed it was coming, and it was strictly the decision of the publisher,” said Mr. Budd, owner of Warrenton’s Country Chevrolet, Leesburg’s Country Buick-GMC and a stable of used vehicle dealerships. “He had his reasons. The board’s 100 percent behind him.”

He described Mr. Dabney as a “dynamic, exciting guy who knows what he’s doing.”

Mr. Dabney started work in Warrenton last July — about a month before Mr. Thompson and his partners bought the publications from Peter Arundel.

Under Mr. Dabney’s leadership, revenue, circulation and pages published have increased, Mr. Budd said.

So have expenses, the businessman acknowledged.

“We’re employing a lot more people,” Mr. Budd said.

When Piedmont Media bought the publications, the company had about 19 full-time employees. Before recently dismissing two newsroom staffers, an advertising accounts-receivable clerk and a receptionist, the company had about 34 on the payroll, Mr. Dabney said in an April 6 interview.

Leaving Mr. Arundel’s Virginia News Group, the local cluster of publications hired graphic artists, business office employees and the new publisher for functions previously handled in Leesburg.

The new owners spent heavily to upgrade software, computers and the phone system. Piedmont Media also inherited an expensive lease for the offices at 39 Culpeper St.

Mr. Dabney announced the salary cuts during a staff meeting in mid-April, said former Times Real Estate Editor Mara Seaforest, who lost her job in the downsizing.

“He said revenues were up and doing very well,” recalled Ms. Seaforest. “But, the expenses were too high.”

Mr. Dabney seemed uncertain whether there would be another salary cut, she said.

“He hoped not — that they would be able to keep it at that . . . . Everybody took it like a soldier.”

Ms. Seaforest appreciated the job and said she has no complaints about the company’s treatment of her.

“We really did part with hugs and handshakes,” she said, adding that she hopes to write for The Times as a freelancer.

From the start, Mr. Thompson and Mr. Dabney have created great expectations for The Times.

“We will invest in expanded coverage of the topics of greatest interest to the people who hold the county dear,” Mr. Thompson said in a press release last July, announcing Piedmont Media’s purchase of The Times and other publications. “Our primary objective is to improve, over time, reporting and presentation of news, local business, events, agriculture, conservation, sports, equestrian and other features.”

Mr. Dabney told the Leeds Ruritan Club last August: “We’re working very hard on delivering you a print newspaper, on a weekly basis, that is as good as any you’ve ever read.”

Many in Fauquier have praised the new owners’ work to improve a newspaper that had declined on all fronts before they bought it.

Over the last decade, before Piedmont Media purchased The Times, the newspaper faced challenges that have hammered the industry nationwide. The recession and changing habits resulted in the losses of advertising and readers.

From its peak of about 14,000, the Fauquier Times’ paid circulation last fall had declined more than one-third, by about 5,000 copies a week.

Much of classified and display advertising migrated to Craigslist, Facebook, Google and other online media. Like its peers, The Times under the Arundel family’s ownership began charging for obituaries and relying more on niche publications to compensate for the loss of ads in the newspaper. The previous owners raised the single-copy price to $1 and annual subscriptions to $69.

The Times a decade ago cut its newsroom staff in half from a peak of 15 full-time journalists. The new owners beefed up the staff last fall and expanded coverage, particularly of agriculture, local history and real estate.

For several years, Mr. Thompson had talked about purchasing The Times, which the late Arthur W. “Nick” Arundel bought in 1974 from an absentee owner.

Mr. Thompson hired W.B. Grimes & Co., a Gaithersburg, Md.-based media broker, to determine the publications’ market value. The broker valued the assets at $2.76 million about eight months before the purchase.

Two sources familiar with the transaction said last year that Peter Arundel sold the publications for $1.6 million. Mr. Thompson declined to discuss the purchase price.

“We envision that Piedmont Media LLC can acquire the assets of the paper for about $2 million,” said the prospectus that Mr. Thompson distributed widely to potential investors last spring and summer. The document also contemplated a bank loan of $500,000 for working capital.

In talking with potential investors and distributing a 30-page prospectus, Mr. Thompson said he wanted “a conservation-minded newspaper.”

The prospectus estimated that Piedmont Media’s operating profit (before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) would grow from $664,000 this year to $997,000 in 2020.
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Jim Griffin · May 18, 2017 at 1:38 pm
With full respect for Bailey, this *is* a news story in this town, or any town. The news is news. The irony of journalists ducking journalists is rich.

And this: I wrote the Times months ago asking to start a paid subscription without delivery of the print version. They claim they are conservation minded. I agree: Less paper, more trees. Still, I was willing to pay.

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