State Journal-Register building up for auction

Questions linger about the future of Springfield's daily paper

click to enlarge The banner hanging above the front door of the State Journal-Register building reads: Auction Sept. 13-15, Tours Sandy Hamilton 217-778-1010, Register LOOPNET.COM, Re/Max Professionals, BellCornerstone. - CREDIT: STACIE LEWIS
Credit: Stacie Lewis
The banner hanging above the front door of the State Journal-Register building reads: Auction Sept. 13-15, Tours Sandy Hamilton 217-778-1010, Register LOOPNET.COM, Re/Max Professionals, BellCornerstone.

The State Journal-Register building will be auctioned this month, raising questions about the future of Springfield's daily newspaper.

"I remember moving into that building in the 1980s – it had so much room," said retired columnist Toby McDaniel. "I can't blame them for wanting to sell it now. Their staff is so small that they don't need a building that big, and they have to pay taxes on it and try to maintain it."

As advertising dollars have shifted from newspapers to the internet during the last decade, publishers nationwide have taken a near formulaic approach: move printing, copy editing and circulation functions to centralized hubs and cut staff.

And the final move often is to sell their building.

Today, the SJ-R is printed in Peoria, its circulation call center is in Arizona and copy editors design its pages in Texas, or in their homes scattered across the country. The news staff has atrophied from about 60 people to just nine full-time employees, said Ryan Mahan, who leads the newsroom's union.

But it's not just the size of the staff that has dropped. In 2007, the SJ-R claimed a print weekday circulation of 50,212. Today, according to the Illinois Press Association, it is 12,932.

SJ-R editor Leisa Richardson has said once the building sells, the staff will relocate elsewhere in Springfield. The online auction is slated to begin Sept. 13 and close Sept. 15.

"Newspapers once would build big buildings in downtowns as a statement that they were important and that they were prominent in the community. Now, papers across the country are selling their downtown buildings because they need the cash. They don't want to send this message, but the reality is they are saying: 'We're no longer important. We're no longer prominent in this community,'" said John Newby, a national newspaper consultant who has been a publisher in Illinois, Indiana and Oklahoma.

Former State Journal-Register publisher Pat Coburn agreed.

"This is what happens when you have money people, not news people, running things," he said. "Hedge funds and investors are buying up newspapers all across the country. To me, that building is symbolic. It is emblematic of the role of newspapers. It is right across the street from government. The role of a newspaper is to keep an eye on government."

The building, located at 1 Copley Plaza near the intersection of Ninth Street and Capitol Avenue, is just south of the Sangamon County courthouse and east of Springfield's city hall.

Coburn, who started at the SJ-R as a police reporter and retired four decades later in 2006 as publisher, left shortly before California-based Copley Press sold its Illinois holdings, including the SJ-R, to New York-based GateHouse Media. GateHouse has since acquired Gannett and assumed its name.

The Sangamon County Assessor's office lists the fair market value of the building at $1,457,889. The building, which has been on the market for almost 10 years, has in the past been listed for prices ranging from $1.75 million to $2.9 million, according to the State Journal-Register.

Mahan said the newspaper only has four news reporters covering the entire community. By contrast, the SJ-R and Copley had five people covering just the Illinois Statehouse before the Gatehouse acquisition.

"The reporters at the State Journal-Register are working their butts off," McDaniel said. "I know two of them, and they are absolute workhorses."

But the smaller staff has resulted in fewer Springfield-area news stories being written.

McDaniel said fewer people are reading the newspaper because it has less local news. Coburn added that reader habits have changed as people seek more of their news from social media and other online sources.

Newby, the national newspaper consultant, said as advertising revenue has dropped, papers have tried to make up the shortfall by increasing subscription rates.

"Let's say you have 20,000 subscribers; you double your rates and 10,000 people cancel because they don't want to pay that much. Well, revenue-wise, you are coming out the same – even though you have lost half your subscribers."

Newby said such moves may help a newspaper's bottom line in the short term but they are hardly a strategy for long-term success.

Union president Mahan indicated there is little reason for optimism.

"Every time there's a cut, every time there's opportunity for layoffs, or whatever, you think, there's nothing more to cut," he said. "They can't get any less than this. And yet every time you feel that way, they find some other way to cut or not rehire. It's really depressing."

Editor Richardson said she could not say what Gannett will do with the proceeds of the building's sale.

"I'm not optimistic that they ever will really invest more money into staff or anything like that," Mahan said. "I can see someone from Gannett putting on an old coat that they haven't worn for 10 years and finding, you know, a billion dollars. But even then, I don't think they're going to add another staff member to our paper."

Contact Scott Reeder at sreeder@illinoistimes.com.

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