Anatomy of a Family Newspaper Sale

Miles McMillin just couldn’t take it anymore. He had enjoyed most of his four years at Sun Publications, rising up the ranks from associate sports editor for the Sun newspapers to become the editor of College Boulevard News and the Johnson County Business Times. But the last three months of his employment there had been hell. Despite working 16 to 17 hours a day, he was still having trouble keeping up with his weekly work cycle. Typos and mistakes were showing up in the paper, and he often worried about the day when one of his papers wouldn’t make it to print at all. And he wasn’t alone. All the editorial staffers’ workloads had increased.

The added weight came in October of last year, when publisher Jim Gray eliminated the marketing services department, which had been responsible for an estimated 300 special sections of “advertorial,” in which advertisers pay for copy to be written about their businesses. Though the staff had been eliminated, the sections had not. Reporters and editors used to the toil of journalism now also had to produce what essentially was thinly veiled promotional copy. The added responsibility intensified the already widespread low morale throughout the company. Key people were leaving, and McMillin was becoming increasingly burnt out.

“Basically it came down to probably something that was a common theme at that time,” McMillin says, “which is the frustration resulting from decisions that were being made on the corporate side of the company that were trickling down and affecting my job performance — and (the performance) of a lot of people that I worked with. My name was going on the masthead as editor of those two publications and I didn’t feel that the quality was where it should be. It can be turned around and said I wasn’t doing a good job, but I didn’t think I was given the tools to do the job that I’d needed to do to get those two publications out.”

So on Jan. 6, without any known job prospects in his future, McMillin walked into Gray’s office and handed him a letter of resignation, which was effective immediately. Gray tried to persuade McMillin to stay for a week or two, but McMillin wasn’t interested. He needed to focus his efforts on finding a job, and he was confident that his staff members could get the papers out without him. And with that, he cleaned out his desk and left, joining a growing legion of Sun Publications staffers who were calling it quits.

Bloom off the Rose
It’s been a turbulent 18 months at Sun Publications. Since publisher Steve Rose sold his family’s suburban newspaper chain in October 1998 to Lionheart Newspapers, based in Fort Worth, Texas, what was once considered a family-owned, community-oriented business has in some ways been transformed into a corporatized profit center epitomizing the negative effects of the loss of local ownership.

In the past six months alone, Sun Publications has experienced many high-level resignations and dismissals. Just since October, the company has seen the elimination of an entire department and a large exodus of employees on all levels — from writers to the chief financial officer — and in several departments: production, advertising, circulation, editorial, and marketing. The Johnson County Sun newspapers, which all share an editor, have gone through three different editors in four personnel changes since June; The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle is conducting its second search for an editor since the beginning of the year. Last month the company’s publisher, who replaced Rose in August, was ousted. And this month a former editor of the Sun newspapers agreed to return as executive editor and oversee all of the publications — a move that many who have left the company see as a positive move for the future.

The turmoil no doubt has had an effect on the Lionheart papers’ quality — which even before the sale was arguable. Critics have long complained that the papers published little hard news and too many special sections filled with fluffy articles that sucked up to local businesses.

“The standard line in Johnson County for years has been: ‘How long does it take you to read the Sun?'” says Overland Park city councilman Neil Sader. “I mean, you can take it and you’re done in five minutes. If there are more than one or two articles of timely news, that is the exception.”

Of the hard news to be found in Sun newspapers, the strongest has always been coverage of state legislature news in Topeka and county politics. In general, the newspapers are strongly connected to their communities, particularly in Johnson County, and their contents reflect that. It has been said that while he owned the company, Rose was known to publish some special sections at a loss if he thought they would benefit the community. Say what you will about Sun Publications, but many of those who read the newspapers see them as an institution in their communities.

Look at the spacious Sun Publications building at I-435 and Metcalf and it’s almost difficult to believe that the newspaper group started in the basement of the house of Stan and Shirley Rose, Steve Rose’s parents. The couple founded the company with The Prairie Scout, a free-distribution, 3,000-circulation biweekly once described as a “gossipy mimeographed newspaper” covering Prairie Village. For 14 years, the Roses ran the paper out of their home. In 1965, they changed the name to The Sun and published it weekly for four years before switching the broadsheet to a twice-weekly schedule.

From there the company grew to include 13 papers that have a combined circulation of more than 200,000, including nine biweekly zoned Sun newspapers that often share content, as well as four specialty publications: The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, Johnson County Business Times, College Boulevard News, and Kansas City Nursing News. The Sun newspapers’ content involves basic community newspaper fare: a bit of hard news combined with lots of pleasant community tidbits, announcements that read like press releases, some opinion columns, and, of course, special sections, such as real estate pullouts and bridal and gift guides. Except for Kansas City Nursing News, the weekly specialty publications are published in a tabloid format, but their contents reflect the same style as that of the Sun newspapers and include special sections.

Much of Sun Publications’ growth occurred after Steve Rose became president of the company in 1977 and began acquiring new publications, publishing zoned editions of the Sun, and creating the Johnson County Business Times, College Boulevard News, and Kansas City Nursing News. Rose eventually bought out his parents’ interest in the company, and in 1998, the company expanded by buying newspapers in the Northland and Lee’s Summit.

“We were in the community newspaper business, and wherever there was a community that wasn’t being served by a newspaper, we sought to fill that void — or serve a community that wasn’t being served as well as it should be,” Rose says. “In one case, north of the river, we actually went into competition with the existing publications. But other than that, each of these served a niche that no one was filling.”

Now the change in ownership has shaken what had once been a stable, growing suburban newspaper company. Both Lionheart and Rose contend that change is always difficult, so some instability is to be expected. But critics place the blame on the quest to increase the bottom line, arguing that when the owner is hundreds of miles away, it’s easier to make cost-cutting decisions that may inadvertently affect the coverage of the community.

‘Bloody Tuesday’
In the late ’90s, at a time when community newspapers were being bought at several times their value, Rose was introduced to Lionheart Newspapers. While Rose was looking to acquire a newspaper in another market, a broker told him about a startup suburban newspaper company that was looking for papers to buy and asked whether he would consider selling Sun Publications. Rose had known one of the company’s two partners for years and said he was open to discussing the possibility. “I didn’t shop the papers,” he says. “This is the only company I had had any discussion with.”

The deal took several months to negotiate. By August 1998, rumors began circulating around the company that Rose was selling Sun Publications. In late August, Rose sent out a memo dispelling the rumors and asking everyone to stop spreading them. Shortly thereafter, he issued another memo stating that he actually was having “serious discussions” with an unnamed company that had a “strong interest” in buying the papers.

“Although I was not actively seeking to sell the business,” Rose wrote in the Aug. 25 memo, “this particular company offers many opportunities that would not be available, were I to continue to operate this company single-handedly…. They are looking for experienced management and community involvement, which is why they have asked me to continue to run Sun Publications and stay actively involved with the organization for a very, very long time.

“The principals of this company are looking to bring some of our expertise to their other operations, including our creative niche publications.”

Rose’s assurances aside, staff members were surprised by the news, given the fact that Sun Publications had been in the Rose family since its inception.

“When I first announced it,” Rose remembers, “there was a lot of sadness (among the staff) — not because of who the buyers were but because we would be ending a 50-year tradition of family ownership, and, of course, everybody knows that things are never the same after a family sells its business. That’s just the way this business is. So there was a sadness about it, and I expected there to be. There was a certain sadness with me as well.”

After Rose announced he was in negotiations to sell the paper, rumors continued to circulate about the company’s fate. What changes would take place? Would there be cuts? When would all this happen? Before the sale, Sun Publications provided a stable working environment where it was not uncommon to find employees who had worked there for decades, and many staffers describe the atmosphere as “familylike” — a feeling that immediately ended when Rose sold the paper.

Rose explains that such an effect is to be expected. “My father and mother, and then I, basically ran a family business, and we thought of our employees as part of the family. Times change and situations change, and I would not expect an outsider who owns the papers to feel the same way. That’s just not something that’s realistic.”

The layoffs that occurred in conjunction with the sale probably didn’t help.

On Monday, Sept. 28, Rose sent out a pre-announcement memo explaining that soon all would be revealed about the changes in the company. “Tomorrow, September 29, is a big day. I have lots to tell you about, questions to answer, changes to announce for a few departments.” Much of the memo outlined meeting times and places for all of the departments, including a companywide meeting at 2 p.m. outside Rose’s office.

At 8 a.m. the next day — which soon came to be known as “Bloody Tuesday” among staffers — one of the first departments to meet was accounting. Many of the employees who went into that office for the meeting came out carrying boxes filled with their personal possessions. Other employees noticed; it wasn’t a good sign.

Rumors again circulated through the building, with the most rampant speculation occurring on the sales floor — the large, open room on the first floor of the building where the advertising sales staff worked. Everyone was on edge until each department attended its scheduled meeting. The departmental meetings were handled quickly, with the last of them taking place at 10:15 a.m. By lunchtime, 25 of the company’s 175 positions had been eliminated. Those who remained felt relieved — but many were upset that the jobs of some of their friends and co-workers had been eliminated.

Then came the 2 p.m. companywide meeting, in which Sun Publications employees were introduced to the new owners. Still dazed from the earlier drama, employees listened to Rose assure them that his column would remain on the front page — “As though that’s what we’d be losing sleep over,” one staffer remembers. Then Lionheart founders Rich Connor and John Coots spoke to the staff, trying to allay fears that any further cuts in staffing would occur.

They passed out three sheets of paper to employees. The first page carried the title “Question & Answer: Where do I stand?” The first question: “Do I still have a job?” As though to say the remaining staffers had survived some sort of audition, the answer read: “Yes, emphatically. Job cuts are done. You have survived the elimination of about 25 of the company’s 175 positions. The new owners asked Steve Rose to lean down the staff, and the painful decisions of whose job would be forfeited were left to him. That difficult process is over as of this morning.”

The scene and tone seemed as if Lionheart was telling the remaining staff that now that the unpleasantness of the job cuts was over, they could take satisfaction in the fact that they were the lucky ones.

Rose later told The Kansas City Star that he had paid out $30,000 in severance. “We are getting leaner than we have been in the past,” he was quoted as saying. “That is to be expected when an outside company that is professionally run has certain budget expectations that are a little more aggressive than a company that has been family-owned. That is part of the new world, and I accept that.”

Those staffers who had “survived” the cuts, however, were feeling vulnerable. There was more in Lionheart’s “Question and Answer” handout. The answer to the second question — “Is my job guaranteed forever?” — read, “No. There are no guarantees. Keeping any job really depends on the company’s need and your ability. For any foreseeable future, we think this company needs this size workforce for its current level of operations. So keeping your job mostly depends on your working hard at it. No more layoffs are planned or foreseen.”

But by the time marketing services feature writer Terry Scruton left the paper in June 1999, a sense of uncertainty remained among the staff. “Everybody was still kind of looking over their shoulder and waiting to see what would happen next,” Scruton says. “(Lionheart was) starting to tighten up on a lot of things. There wasn’t as much leeway as we used to have, mostly in terms of space requirements for the paper and deadlines and things like that. And because it had been a more relaxed atmosphere before, people were a lot more tense.”

Lionheart made its first acquisition in July 1998, and by the time it bought Sun Publications in October 1998, the Texas company had experienced tremendous growth. In that short time, it had made six acquisitions, amassing more than 30 papers and 400 employees. Lionheart now owns 49 papers, concentrated in the Midwest, with a combined circulation of more than 1 million.

Founded in 1997 by former Capital Cities/ABC Inc. executives Richard Connor and John Coots, Lionheart was named after Coots’ nickname for Connor. Connor had recently been fired as president and publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and filed wrongful termination lawsuits, which were settled under undisclosed terms. (Coots has since left the company.)

In 1998, Weiss Peck & Greer LLC, a New York investment firm, began backing Lionheart, creating Lionheart Holdings. Shortly thereafter, the newspaper company went on a buying spree of community papers in Texas, Minnesota, Kansas, and Missouri.

Around the time Lionheart was negotiating with Rose, Connor outlined the company’s goal in a newsletter known as News Inc., which seemed to indicate Lionheart’s interest in owning newspapers with strong local ties: “We think that there is a very strong future for intensely local, small community newspapers, run by people who live and work in those communities and have a stake in them.”

While that might have sounded reassuring at the time, another scenario that played out a year ago in Texas may have been an omen for what was to come in Overland Park. According to a Dallas Business Journal report, D/FW Community Newspapers in that market had a staff of 194 when it was purchased by Lionheart at the beginning of 1999. By May, 51 had been laid off and about 20 had quit. “I’m pleased with where we’ve gotten so far,” publisher Bruce Raben told the Dallas Business Journal at the time. Raben, a former Fort Worth Star-Telegram executive, had been hired by Lionheart shortly after the acquisition of D/FW. At that time he told the Dallas Business Journal, “We plan to do two things: make the papers more profitable for our investors and make better customer service for our readers. We will look at every expense and question it to see if it is necessary.”

Erasing the line
When Rose decided to sell the paper, one of the selling points was that he would be allowed to stay on as publisher and continue to write his “Memo” column for the front page of the Sun newspapers’ Johnson County editions. So for the first six months under new ownership, he oversaw the business as he had when he was owner.

“Then we reached the mutual decision that it was difficult for me to work for somebody else after having run the company myself,” Rose says. “And I think it was difficult for them to deal with somebody who had been an entrepreneur, because I’m not used to answering to anyone else…. I think it was in fact inevitable at the time. I think we both tried really hard, but it just didn’t seem to fit as well as we had thought going in.”

So in June 1999, Lionheart hired Jim Gray, formerly an executive of a southwest Iowa newspaper group, to run the day-to-day operations while Rose stayed on as chairman and continued to write his column. Four months later, Gray made a decision that triggered what could be described as the most tumultuous period in the company’s history.

“Rumors had been circulating ever since September that they were going to change our department,” says former marketing services section coordinator Matt Derrick. “There were rumors that they were going to eliminate us, and most of us figured they were probably going to do it at the first of the year. So when they did it in November, it was a bit of a surprise.”

The six-person marketing services department was responsible for producing all of Sun Publication’s special “advertorial” sections, for which the ad staff would sell advertisements on the basis that the advertisers would get a story in these special sections in addition to their ads. Cranking out 300 special sections a year with a staff of six, the marketing services department had made the company a lot of money over the years.

“When Lionheart first took over, we were told that they were really impressed with the things our department was doing and that they didn’t have any other publications that were doing what we did with the Sun in terms of special sections like that,” says Scruton. “So I was very surprised when they just cut the whole department in that respect, but I knew they were cutting stuff back left and right. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.”

But the fact that none of Lionheart’s other publications had such departments became justification for cutting the marketing services staff. Derrick recalls, “When Lionheart first purchased the Sun they had made it clear that none of their other newspapers had a department like ours, and when they made the change Jim Gray told us that it had been decided that all of our duties could be folded in with the editorial department and that they could handle it, which we found kind of curious. We had six people working 50 hours a week … to produce our special sections and they were just going to dump it on other people.”

That’s exactly what happened. The day the department was cut, the marketing services staff members had five minutes to pack up their belongings and leave the building. The editorial staff members were then expected to pick up where marketing services had left off, in addition to performing their regular editorial duties.

When McMillin found out about his new responsibilities, he recalls, “I thought, ‘I don’t even have story ideas for next week’s editorial, nor people to go out and do them, and now I’ve got to do this? … Certainly Jim Gray has a plan. You don’t make a decision like this and not have a plan.'”

At 8:30 the next morning the editors met with Gray. His plan was simply to have the editorial staff take on the extra work. “We go in there,” McMillin says, “and he’s looking at us and he’s saying, ‘Well, why can’t you do this? What’s the big deal? I don’t know one newspaper in the country that has their own marketing services department. They all do their own special sections.’ I wanted to say that I don’t know one editorial department that does their own advertorial either.”

The way McMillin describes it, the editors had a choice to either produce the special sections or leave the company. They all decided to stay — for the time being. “In the next 48 hours,” McMillin says, “I was besieged with photo requests and copy requests and salesmen coming up and saying, ‘You need to call this person.’ There was no training, no guidance, no nothing. Just do it. And, by the way, the deadline is in three days. It was something else. It was amazing anything got out the door.”

But perhaps more troubling to the journalists working at Sun Publications was the fact that they now had to compromise their integrity by writing advertorial.

“I became unhappy,” says former Jewish Chronicle editor Rick Hellman. “I didn’t like the erasing of the distinction between the editorial and advertising functions that (the elimination of marketing services) represented. One day, on behalf of the ad staff, you would be calling the head of the local Jewish day school, who bought an ad, and you’d be writing a story to their specifications, and giving them final editing of the thing, which was fine as far as it went as a marketing function, but then the next day you’d be calling them as the journalistic editor of the newspaper and having to ask them some uncomfortable questions.” Not only could this process cause confusion among such advertisers, he says, but it also “went against my journalistic ethical training.”

The extra workload created by the loss of the marketing services department also affected the quality of the newspapers the editorial staff was putting out. “The typos were appearing more,” McMillin says. “The readers don’t understand the inner workings of the paper; what they see are the typos. They see it and that bothers them. At a newspaper, the last thing you want is misspelled words, because it threatens your credibility.” McMillin adds it was tough explaining the situation to readers who complained about such problems. “You couldn’t sit there and say, ‘Oh, well, you wouldn’t believe it, here’s why “the” was misspelled. You’re lucky to even see your paper.'”

The revolving door
Not long after the marketing services department was cut, the exodus of high-profile staff members began.

In November, Sun newspapers editor Terri Linn, who had replaced longtime editor Jack Lovelace in August, left and was replaced in mid-December by Dennis Minich.

Then in December, Dan Margolies reported in the Kansas City Business Journal that Hellman, who had openly criticized the cutting of the marketing services department, saw an ad on the American Jewish Press Association Web site for his position and realized Gray was searching for his replacement although he had not yet resigned.

While other staff members thought the ad was underhanded and disconcerting, it didn’t faze Hellman. “I was looking around for a job and Jim Gray either knew it or suspected it, so why should I have been mad about him trying to find a replacement?”

In January, the resignations starting piling up on Gray’s desk. The first week of January, McMillin and Richard Woodward, advertising manager of College Boulevard News and Johnson County Business Times, both quit. On Jan. 10, Grant Cynor, Sun Publications’ chief financial officer, left. Three days later, Hellman, who had been with the paper for 14 years, quit to go work as an editor at Kansas City-based BizSpace, an online publisher. All of those resignations came in addition to the circulation manager’s, the chief photographer’s, and several reporters’ walking out.

The common theme among many of the resignations involved the elimination of the marketing services department. Many former staffers say they had begun to feel like cogs in a machine and were concerned about having their names on the publications’ mastheads.

“There were some great, great people walking out that door,” says McMillin, who now works as a communication specialist at Sprint North Supply. “The people make that place. My biggest hesitancy (in quitting) was leaving the people that I worked with.”

The high turnover intensified the depression felt among Sun Publications’ staff. Gray reportedly clashed with many employees and has been described as “terse” and “unpleasant.” Resentment toward him grew until Feb. 29, when Gray was fired — eight months after being hired. Lionheart representatives declined to comment on Gray’s termination other than to release a statement that said, “His achievements were large in a short period of time. We’re very appreciative of all he did for us.” Current staff members aren’t talking, but several sources say morale lifted as soon as Connor told staffers of Gray’s departure.

“There were a lot of good people who worked at the Sun,” says Derrick, “and there still are good people who work there. I have no doubt that if (Gray) had continued there, a lot of people would have eventually left and 50 years of hard work would basically be down the drain.”

Gray’s firing has not completely stemmed the outflow. Chris Goldman, who replaced Hellman at The Jewish Chronicle, left last month, and Sun newspapers managing editor Mark Reddig and production manager Angela Sheehy have tendered their resignations.

Lionheart executives seemed unconcerned by the high turnover. Raben, who is serving as interim publisher at Sun Publications, did not return calls for this story, but in a previous interview regarding Gray’s departure, he said, “When new people come in, some of the people who are already there decide it’s not their future. It happened to me when I went into Texas, where I was publisher. It’s just a different atmosphere and a different work environment.”

McMillin agrees with that assessment to some extent. “You’re starting to report to some guys down in Texas and they’ve got investors to report to and it’s bottom line, bottom line, bottom line. And it was a very difficult transition for a lot of people to make. There were people there that had been there since Stan Rose started publishing the thing out of his basement in Prairie Village … and all of a sudden it’s just a different flavor.”

Perhaps the most surprising development yet may signal a new direction for the company. Linn returned to work at Sun Publications as executive editor on April 12, and Minich, who was hired by Gray, was ousted. In an announcement printed in the April 5 edition of Sun newspapers, Raben said, “We’re very pleased Terri is coming home. She has a terrific understanding of what our publications mean to the community and a great sense of the value, trust, and faith our readers have for those publications.” Linn did not return calls for this story, but former colleagues speculate that Linn would not have agreed to return if there weren’t some indication that the marketing services department would be reinstated or that somehow the working conditions for editorial staff would improve.

Hellman has confirmed that he also was contacted last month about returning to The Jewish Chronicle following Goldman’s departure. Hellman declined the offer, saying, “I enjoy too much what I’m doing now — working for BizSpace — to do it.” He adds that he had a frank discussion with Raben, making suggestions on restoring stability at Sun Publications, which included reinstating the marketing services department.

As this story went to press, that had not yet happened; however, the day before the announcement of Linn’s return, Rose, who has been asked to help Lionheart in its search for a new editor of The Jewish Chronicle, said, “I think they (Lionheart executives) are changing some things now. They’re going to be hiring some people for marketing services to write advertorial copy. And I think that they’re going to be bringing some people back who have left…. They’ve made some really smart business moves and they’ve made some other moves where they’ve perhaps reconsidered. I give them credit for that.”

From the outside looking in
Despite what seems like a turnaround for Sun Publications, some members of the communities covered by the company are concerned by what they see in the papers.

Local attorney Sidney Willens, a former publisher and general counsel of The Jewish Chronicle, was part of a four-person group of owners that sold The Jewish Chronicle to the Rose family, editor Milton Firestone, and Firestone’s wife, Bea, in 1964. When Milton Firestone died in 1983, Bea Firestone eventually sold her share of the paper to the Roses. Willens points to an article printed in the Feb 18 issue of The Jewish Chronicle as a prime example of what has happened to the publication. He says the article appeared to be a full-page feature story about Shalom Village, a new retirement community run by Shalom Geriatric Center, that read like a publicity piece. Although there were no indications that it was a paid advertisement, a Shalom Village representative confirms the center paid for the advertorial.

Sun Publications has always danced around the separation of editorial and advertising with its special sections, which typically are clearly identified as such so as not to be confused with editorial. But Willens says this article was not marked as such and looked as though it were editorial content. He argues that the full-page ad threatens The Jewish Chronicle‘s editorial credibility much like the practice of having editorial staffers write advertising copy does.

When asked what changes he has seen in the quality of The Jewish Chronicle‘s editorial content, Willens says only, “The most outrageous example of the perversion of journalism is the full page-3 paid advertisement for the new Shalom Village disguised in the Chronicle on Feb. 18 as a feature story. By assigning news reporters to cover advertisers, the Chronicle‘s out-of-state corporate owner disgraces itself, our Jewish community, and a venerable institution of 80 years.”

Willens, however, had been concerned about the new ownership even before the appearance of the Shalom Village ad. In January, Willens sent a letter to Connor imploring Lionheart to sell The Jewish Chronicle to a group of local investors.

“As a Jew, native Kansas Citian, former newspaper editor,” Willens wrote, “I have, of course, loved the unifying force The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle has had on families in our community for 80 years…. By returning The Chronicle to local ownership at fair market value, Lionheart Holdings of Fort Worth, Texas, will be performing a great public service for Jewish families in the Kansas City metropolitan area.

“Please be kind enough to explore with me the possibility of restoring this venerable institution to local ownership.”

Lionheart declined the offer.

But Rose says that although Sun Publications is no longer locally owned, he has been “strongly encouraged” to provide some guidance and bring story ideas and suggestions to the current staff. “I’ve got a few ideas in the back of my head, and if they want to tap that, I’ll take them up on it,” he says.

Overland Park city councilman Neil Sader sees the effect of Lionheart’s ownership in a different way. “The main change is that Steve Rose no longer appears to have any control in operating the newsroom or in making editorial policy, other than in his front-page Memo column…. So it’s really premature in terms of a lot of political issues to say which way it’s going or how it’s going.

“Thus far, they don’t seem to be changing their editorial positions very much — if at all.”

However, Sader says he has seen an improvement in one area: “I think that I am starting to see efforts at more hard news.”

He points out that the Sun newspapers have lost some of their institutional memory. “Basically with the Sun now, we’ve got all new reporters (covering city politics and government), so we’re having to educate them. It takes a lot of patience, it takes a lot of time, and they don’t always get everything right…. At The Star, you’ve got (reporter) Jim Sullinger, who knows where every body is buried in the entire county. Sullinger has been there for 30 years and every new reporter can go talk to him and he’ll fill them in, which is very helpful. At the Sun, there isn’t that anymore. They’re gone from top to bottom.”

He is, however, hopeful. “My own opinion is that I’m optimistic that it will end up being a good product.”

Rose also laments the loss of the company’s institutional memory. “I think that some of the publications have suffered some because we’ve lost some veterans…. As someone who knows the community intimately, from time to time I’ll see something that I know if a veteran had written it, they might have picked up a detail or some information that was missed. But that’s just going to take awhile. When you lose veterans and replace them even with very bright, talented, skilled people, it does take awhile to learn the community.”

Rose also is optimistic about the company’s future. “I think things have definitely turned in a more positive direction. I think that they’re now really focusing on the quality of the publication and on the staffing. I think the whole philosophy has changed and part of that has to do with the fact that the person they had running the papers for a while didn’t share many of the values and philosophies that, I think, the people at Lionheart share. I think they had someone here that not only did not reflect what I would have wanted for the communities and the readers and the advertisers, but I don’t think he reflected what Lionheart wanted. But, you know, they believe in a hands-off approach, so for a while they didn’t really meddle with him.”

Does Rose have second thoughts about selling his family-owned newspaper group? Rose pauses. “Well,” he says after considering the question, “I suppose the ultimate question would be if they wanted to give me back the company and I gave them back the money, would I swap back? And I guess I would have to say no, that I did the right thing. It’s been painful in many ways, in ways that I did not imagine, but I still think that selling was probably the right thing at this point.”

And from Lionheart’s perspective, it seems that buying the paper also was the right thing. According to Raben, in 1999 Sun Publications financially performed three times as well as its best year before the sale of the company. “And sometimes to achieve those results,” he said in an interview following Gray’s dismissal, “you go through some turmoil and chaos, and hopefully we’ve got it going in the right direction and we’ll get a publisher in here who will continue to do that.”

Because current Sun Publications employees aren’t talking to the press, referring all questions to Raben, it’s hard to tell whether morale has improved at the company. Hellman and McMillin, however, agree that the worst may be over. Though they don’t regret their decisions to leave, they do think peace can be restored at Sun Publications.

“There’s been a lot of damage done as far as morale … but once Terri Linn gets it going and people get confidence back, it will take off,” McMillin says. “The Sun hasn’t been around for 50 years and not had to overcome problems before.”

Hellman explained that Linn’s return, though surprising, may be simply an indication that “the journalists put the kibosh on an owner who wanted to blur the line between editorial and advertising.”

Contact Michelle Rubin at 816-218-6784 or

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