Breathing life back into The Sun

Newspaper veteran Larry Hiatt has a history of rescuing ailing publications. His latest venture is the Pittsburg Morning Sun.

By

Opinion

August 27, 2021 - 11:58 AM

Larry and Sharon Hiatt

Over his 60 years in the business, Larry Hiatt has become a newspaper “whisperer,” rescuing publications on the path to ignominious death.

Susan Lynn, Register editor

His most recent — and by far most challenging — endeavor is the Pittsburg Morning Sun, which in the last decade has become a shell of its former self, Hiatt said, a fate that he takes personally. 

As a student at Pittsburg State University, Hiatt worked at the paper, which then had a morning and evening edition, the Morning Sun and Evening Globe, and published seven days a week. Back then, it was delivered to 16,000 households. Its peak exceeded 20,000 subscribers.

Tuesday’s press run was 1,751 copies, for a regional population of more than 25,000 that includes six school districts in addition to the university.

“When you do everything wrong, it’s amazing they have even that many subscribers,” Hiatt said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Hiatt ticked off its shortcomings. 

The newspaper’s doors remain closed, well past the time businesses were temporarily shuttered in the spring of 2020 when COVID-19 slammed the midwest. Hiatt likened the office setting to a ghost town. Empty desks gathering dust. A printing press long-idled. And the worst: silence. 

Of the staff, all that remain are two reporters and an office manager, “who comes in only to check phone messages.” 

As for the two reporters, they take working remotely to the extreme. “They don’t cover city, county or school board meetings in person,” Hiatt said. Instead, they rely on video recordings or the official minutes taken by the city, school or school board clerks. 

The Pittsburg Morning Sun’s office

There’s no editor or publisher at the helm to help decide how the news is covered or what prominence it deserves. The day’s newspaper is designed by a crew elsewhere; Hiatt thinks it’s in Hays.

There’s no in-house advertising department. 

ON THE UPSIDE, Hiatt figured the newspaper’s remaining subscribers were testament they wanted a local newspaper, after management had done “everything they could to run them off.”

His instincts have proved true.

Over the course of a few months Hiatt has gathered 17 Pittsburg-based investors to join him in purchasing the newspaper from Gannett, Inc., the country’s largest newspaper chain.

“I told my accountant I needed 10 investors. In a week, I had 17,” he said.

It’s officially theirs on Sept. 1.

Starting from scratch

The business model of large newspaper chains today includes downsizing staff to a bare minimum and outsourcing as many functions as possible.

According to Hiatt, The Morning Sun’s decline began in 2007 when the paper was swept up by GateHouse Media along with 11 other dailies including the Dodge City Globe.

Right away, change was in the air. Production was cut from seven days a week to five. The publishers were given regional responsibilities, overseeing as many as 10 newspapers at a time.

Then in 2019, GateHouse Media purchased its smaller rival Gannett, consolidating more than 550 newspapers into one entity, and adopting the Gannett name. 

Related