Lee Walls, president and CEO of Walls Newspapers and owner of The Bolivar Commercial, announced this week that The Bolivar Commercial would cease publication and operations at the end of April.
“It is a sad thing to have to announce, and it is something I’ve spent years and a great deal of money, trying to avoid,” Walls said.
Prior to the recession of 2008-2009, newspapers, both big and small, were feeling the strain of thinning advertising dollars. The options for advertising provided by the Internet were growing rapidly, and the main strength for community newspapers was their focus on local news.
“With the recession came an abruptly downward shift in ad dollars. Even when times are tough a business still has to pay a variety of bills, such as power, rent, water and phones. One expense a business can quickly control and stop, however, is advertising,” said Walls.
“By the spring of 2009, following dismal car sales in 2008, General Motors and Chrysler were at the tipping point of bankruptcy. The bailout of GM by the federal government required them to terminate their franchise agreements with hundreds of dealerships across the U.S., and Cleveland had one of those dealerships. It just so happens they were one of our best advertisers,” explained Walls.
Two years prior to the recession, Facebook changed its requirement for membership from that of being a student or school administrator — meaning you had to have a .edu email address — to being open to anyone with a valid email address.
“Facebook, and social media in general, have done more to harm community newspapers than the Internet as a whole. With social media, a user can choose to have a ‘news’ feed of legitimate stories, incorrect stories, hateful rhetoric, harmful gossip and defamatory commentary. As if that’s not enough, they can have all of that in the form of video or text. You get all of that by simply giving up your personal data and privacy, no money required,” Walls said.
“We don’t have the option to compete against that business model because we are held to a higher standard. Based on very objective statistics, it is clear that people are choosing social media and to give up their privacy, over community journalism.
“In 2010 Facebook had around 600 million users worldwide. It is expected to hit 1.69 million users this year. In contrast to that growth, daily circulation for U.S. newspapers has fallen by about 50 percent since 2000.”
Walls said adding to these multiple headwinds, Bolivar County and Cleveland have had a declining population for decades. The change for Cleveland since 2000 is minus 15 percent, and both the city and the county have poverty rates over 25 percent.
“The closing of this newspaper has nothing to do with the performance or leadership of the staff. My publisher, Diane Makamson, has been with us for 42 years, first as a bookkeeper when my father, Lee Walls Sr., bought this paper in the early ’80s, and then I promoted her to publisher in 2012. She has been a wonderful employee and leader through all that time.
“I have nothing but respect and pride for all of my employees and their hard work, which is why I have personally covered the losses for many years now to keep the paper running,” said Walls.
“This is a heartbreaking situation for all of us,” said Makamson. “The remaining employees — nine full-time and one part-time — have a combined 222 years working with the paper. I would like to thank them for their dedicated service to The Bolivar Commercial and to the community. I could not have had a better, more hard working staff. We are like family.”
“My grandfather used to say that a community gets the newspaper it is willing, or able, to pay for,” said Walls. “I’m sure there are people and businesses in Bolivar County and Cleveland who are willing to pay for a local newspaper, through subscriptions and advertising, but history has taught me there are not enough.”
“I’d like to thank the community and advertisers that have always supported The Bolivar Commercial,” said Makamson.
“I am also very thankful for the opportunity to have worked for Norman Van Liew who hired me in 1978 and honored to have worked closely under the leadership of Mark Williams for many years.”
During the transition all prepayed subscriptions will be refunded in full. Checks will be mailed in May.
The Bolivar Commercial has served the community for 104 years and has continually employed an award winning staff.