The Clayton News, which is Clayton County’s newspaper of record for legal notices, has been sold.
Times-Journal, Inc., which owns several newspapers around Georgia, bought SCNI, Inc., which owned the Clayton News, Henry Herald, Rockdale Citizen, Newton Citizen, the Jackson Progress-Argus, and the Gwinnett Daily Post. SCNI President and CEO Mike Gebhart is keeping a seventh SCNI paper, the Albany Herald, and will serve as a senior adviser to Times-Journal, Inc.
News of the sale was largely hidden behind a paywall on the Clayton News website. The Calhoun Times, which is owned by Times-Journal, Inc., reported the sale. TJI also owns the Marietta Daily Journal.
Owner Otis Brumby III was quoted in the Calhoun Times announcement as saying, “We believe in Friday night football. We believe in covering local schools, local politics, local churches and local events: the who, what, when, where and why of everything happening in your community. We spend most of our lives living and working in communities that the big media are not going to cover. We believe your stories — local stories — actually have the most relevance and meaning, and we are committed to continuing that tradition.”
SCNI bought the Clayton News Daily and Henry Herald in 1988 from Millard B. Grimes and created a subsidiary called Southern Crescent Newspapers, managed by SCNI, Inc., according to United Press International.
The Clayton News has been outsourcing much of its operations to TJI in recent years, which Brumby acknowledged in the Calhoun Times story. In 2020, TJI started printing SCNI’s papers in Rome. Before that, SCNI had turned over customer service, creative services, layout, and pagination to TJI.
In the spring of that same year, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Clayton News gutted its news staff, promising to rehire reporters should the company get federal assistance. After Gebhart said those funds did not materialize, the company laid off another round of staff. Since then, it has relied primarily on non-local content, paywalls, and calls for donations to keep the paper afloat, while continuing to outsource key operations to TJI. In May 2020, Gebhart bought a controlling stake in SCNI, Inc.
The Clayton News’ office in historic Jonesboro has operated with a skeleton staff in recent years and does not have a fully-staffed newsroom on site. The Henry Herald also stripped its staff and physically emptied out its newsroom, which at last check was occupied by an insurance company.
The layoffs prompted former Clayton News and Henry Herald crime and safety reporter Robin Kemp to found The Clayton Crescent, using her unemployment check and small donations from friends and family, to meet the newsgathering needs of Clayton County and nearby communities. The Clayton Crescent is an all-digital nonprofit news site associated with the Institute for Nonprofit News and does not have the significant expense of maintaining a printing press and distributing newsprint papers.
The Clayton News’ sale means greater concentration of media in the hands of one company across the state of Georgia. TJI owns 21 Georgia newspapers. When one company owns numerous news outlets in an area, that poses a danger for dissenting voices and thus democracy. The example of AM radio is perhaps the most obvious, where talk shows on the far right of the political spectrum have dominated the public airwaves for decades, but numerous newspapers and TV stations also have fallen prey to media consolidation by a handful of companies.
The local paper’s sale also comes as communities nationwide struggle with the “news desert” phenomenon. A news desert is a place with one or no newspapers. Clayton County is a news desert, which is why The Clayton Crescent began publishing. According to research by Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, news deserts lead to greater political corruption. That’s because journalists keep politicians and powerful business interests accountable to citizens and the voting public. When newspapers or other media outlets stop investing in local news reporters and stop covering local news on a consistent basis, citizens are left in the dark.
As a consumer, you can use this guide from UNC’s News Desert project to rate your local news outlets, including The Clayton Crescent:
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