Northern New York Newspapers restructure, closing four papers

Money pressure forces company to shift to digital investment

A section of the Watertown Daily Times is printed on the newspaper’s press. (Provided photo — Alec Johnson, Watertown Daily Times)

Tight times are driving serious consolidation at the North Country’s largest newspaper company.

The Northern New York Newspapers group announced Thursday that it’s closing four newspapers in this region — the biweekly Ogdensburg Journal and the weekly Carthage Republican Tribune, St. Lawrence Plaindealer and South Jeff Journal — and dropping the Monday print edition of its flagship Watertown Daily Times. The company also launched a consolidated news website called NNY360.

Northern New York Newspapers will now focus on NNY360, the WDT and its four other newspapers in the region: the Malone Telegram and the daily Courier Observer in Massena and Potsdam — both six-days-a-week dailies — and the weekly Lowville Journal. A collection of four weeklies and a shopper in Oswego County — the Oswego Shopper, Phoenix Register, Salmon River News, Citizen Outlet and Independent Mirror — will combined into one weekly newspaper, with a title to be determined, according to WDT Managing Editor Alec Johnson.

The Johnson family, which owns all these, also owns daily newspapers in Batavia in western New York and Hudson and Catskill in the Hudson Valley south of Albany. Alec Johnson said the Daily News of Batavia will also stop publishing on Mondays. The Register-Star of Hudson and the Daily Mail of Catskill will continue publishing Tuesday to Saturday, having previously dropped Sunday and Monday runs.

Alec Johnson said these decisions have been in the works for months and were “absolutely, 100%” driven by financial necessity. In early April, after the company was suddenly unable to pay its workers, he wrote a column for the WDT frankly discussing the company’s financial state. He said the company would assess which publications were profitable and which were not, and take action based on that.

“The gradual loss of print subscribers and the growth of a digital audience led to the changes, which will allow the company to effectively deliver news throughout a five county region at a time when the costs of fuel, paper, trucking and staffing continues to increase,” the company said in a story published in its papers Thursday.

Asked about the papers that are being shuttered, Alec Johnson said, “In each of those communities, we have more readers of other publications.” In Ogdensburg, he said, more people read the Watertown Daily Times than the Ogdensbug Journal, and “in Carthage, we have more subscribers to the Lowville Journal than the Carthage Republican Tribune.

“In these papers, we have more waste on the press run than subscribers to those papers,” he added.

NNY360 is also up and running. It’s free to read for now and has content from various papers in the chain, but by next week it will only let a reader click on five articles a month before it requires them to sign in as a subscriber — a metered paywall similar to that of many other newspapers — Alec Johnson said. The Northern New York Newspapers’ individual, free websites will be merged into NNY360 over the summer, he said.

Amid the restructuring, the company will eliminate positions “focused solely on the print editions of the newspaper,” the company said. Alec Johnson said eight positions will be cut, and two of those employees were offered jobs elsewhere in the company.

The WDT’s last Monday print edition will be published June 24. After then it will come out Tuesday through Sunday in print, and online continuously.

“Johnson Newspapers will survive going well into the 21st century,” company CEO John B. Johnson said in the company’s announcement.

“There has never been a greater demand for content; however, we have to provide it in an effective manner to reach those readers who use their cellphones, tablets and computers more than a printed paper.”

The company said it is “following a national trend that is tipping the traditional newspaper business model that predated digital advertising.”

“We are shifting from an advertiser-based pay model to a subscriber-based pay model,” John B. Johnson said. “We have to capture our readers where they are.”