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Black Press publications are epitome of community newspapering

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O'Connor
O'Connor

Black Press President and CEO Rick O’Connor portrays the Victoria, British Columbia-based company this way: “We describe ourselves as being in the community media business.”

It’s a modest description for a media company that has grown from a single British Columbia weekly that Chairman David Black bought from his father in 1975 to the largest private newspaper publisher in Canada, with U.S. properties in Hawaii, Ohio and Washington state.

Black Press publications vary from an every other week publishing schedule to full 7-day dailies. The company has a robust offering of digital media. It has a commercial publishing company in Alberta, and publishes magazines—more than a dozen in Hawaii alone. Black Press is majority-owned by David Black, with Torstar, publisher of the Toronto Star, owning a 20% stake.

Two of Black Press’ U.S. newspapers—the Akron Beacon Journal and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser—are longtime Inland Press Association members. Earlier this year, the entire company joined Inland.

“We just kind of felt that Inland’s approach to its association work was a little bit more in keeping with our type of newspapers,” O’Connor said.

Black Press newspapers work close to their communities, he said. Management is decentralized, with individuals responsible for managing each of its six clusters of newspapers and associated properties.

“We don’t have a corporate structure,” O’Connor said. “We want to make decisions that are really reflective of the community’s needs.”

From the first British Columbia weekly, David Black grew its Canadian cluster, and the in 1991 expanded into the U.S. with the purchase of three papers on the Kitsap Peninsula and the founding of Sound Publishing. Now, Sound is the largest newspaper publisher in Washington state.

Black Press expanded into Hawaii when Gannett Co. put its Honolulu Star-Bulletin up for sale in 2000. After competing with Gannett’s The Honolulu Advertiser for a decade, Black Press bought the Advertiser and merged it with the Star-Bulletin to create the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

“There was never a big plan to get big,” David Black once said. “It’s just that another opportunity would come over the hill.”

Opportunity struck again in 2006, when The McClatchy Company bought the old Knight Ridder chain and the Akron Beacon Journal was one of the so-called “orphans” McClatchy decided not to keep.

Black Press remains on the lookout for newspapers that could be strategic “tuck-ins” for its clusters, O’Connor said. In fact, the day he spoke with The Inlander, the company was closing on its purchase of a small British Columbia paper.

The continued growth reflects an optimism about the future of newspapers, even as the company must wrestle with the factors bedeviling all publishers, especially the declining health of big retailers.

“I’m pretty excited” about the future of newspapers generally and Black Press specifically, O’Connor said. “Financially, we’re a very healthy company with a good balance sheet.”

And amid the proliferation of “fake news,” Black Press newspapers are more vital than ever to the communities they serve, O’Connor said. “I’m certain that if you ask the community about their local paper, I’m sure they’d say they appreciate having a news source that is accurate and can be trusted.”