In a speech saluting Statesboro as a community with “dynamic energy and sense of purpose,” Charles H. Morris, whose company owns the Statesboro Herald, warned that the decline of newspapers threatens to make America “a news desert” with dire results for small towns.
Morris, chair and CEO of Savannah-based Morris Multimedia Inc., was featured speaker Monday for the annual Citizen of the Year luncheon hosted jointly by the Statesboro Rotary Club and the Rotary Club of Downtown Statesboro in the Forest Heights Country Club ballroom.
“I am a huge fan of Statesboro and Bulloch County,” he said. “We own newspapers and television stations in many great communities from here to California and from the Caribbean to Wisconsin, so I get to see a lot of American small cities and towns. But I can tell you I see few communities with the dynamic energy and sense of purpose I see in Statesboro.”
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Founded in 1937 by three brothers – James, Leodel and G.C. Coleman – the Bulloch Herald was not Bulloch County’s first newspaper. Historical news from earlier papers dating back 100 years and more is sometimes noted in the “Do You Remember” column. But it was the Bulloch Herald that continues as the Statesboro Herald, after Morris bought if from the Coleman family 48 years ago, in 1971.
Today, Morris Multimedia owns newspapers in eight states and the Caribbean, and also 11 TV stations, reported Morris Newspaper Corporation Regional Vice President Joe McGlamery, who introduced Morris. Also the Statesboro Herald’s president and now Statesboro Magazine’s publisher, McGlamery first came to work for Morris at the Herald in 1975.
As probably everyone knows, newspapers have struggled to claim a future in the digital media environment. Morris observed that the playing field is not level between newspapers and social media companies and internet news aggregators.
“Google, Facebook, Twitter and some other digital sites are using our original, created newspaper content and not paying us a dime for the content,” he said. “These three digital companies alone are generating over $50 billion per year of advertising revenue.”
‘A news desert’
Morris cited some “sobering statistics.” Since 2004, weekday newspaper circulation in the United States has dropped from 122 million to 73 million copies. Meanwhile, the number of working newspaper journalists has been cut in half, and nearly 1,800 daily and weekly newspapers have stopped printing.
Now a few more than 7,000 U.S. newspapers remain, according to a Jan. 16 story by Associated Press media writer David Bauder. Bauder credited Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina journalism professor, with the statistics and with a study giving rise to the term “news deserts” for communities no longer covered by daily journalists.
“This loss of local community newspapers across America is now being called by some as a news desert,” Morris told the Rotary Clubs and their guests. “I don’t even like using that term, but it is one way to describe what is happening in our industry.”
He thinks “some of these small towns could dry up and go away” without newspapers,” he said.
“Local community newspapers are a way for citizens to have numerous conversations through the printed newspapers’ product or online with a newspaper’s local community website, put together by a local newspaper with paid journalists writing the stories,” Morris said.
Copyright law update
He then suggested that the newspaper industry may need to follow an example set by the music industry in the recent passage of Music Modernization Act. Passed with unanimous consent votes of the U.S. House and Senate and signed Oct. 11 by President Donald Trump, the act updated copyright law to increase payments to song writers, musicians and artists in the music industry.
“We have challenges here in Statesboro, too,” Morris said. “As many of you know, we stopped publishing a Monday paper 10 years ago because we were losing money with the Monday publication. Like other newspapers, our print circulation has dropped more than we would like it to be.”
He believes that newspapers like the Herald are important, for “all the uplifting stories about your neighbors, friends and civic groups like yourselves” but also for “the ‘not so good’ stories’ that are a part of every community” and for holding local governments and officials accountable, he said.
“Too many cities and towns across our nation have lost those independent eyes looking over the shoulders of public officials,” Morris said. “I remain a believer in the importance of newspapers in our society and I hope you will continue to support the Statesboro Herald.”
From Trustees Garden
Before mentioning some property he intends to redevelop in Statesboro, Morris had talked about his Trustees’ Garden project in Savannah. This started with his purchase of 6.3 acres in the historic district in 2003. On the site where the British first settled in 1733 to create the last of the original 13 colonies, Trustees Garden’ provides indoor and outdoor spaces for events and preserves historic buildings.
Originally from Augusta where his father was also a newspaper owner, Morris referred to Savannah as his “adopted hometown.”
“So I feel I’m a very fortunate man to have been able to buy the Trustee’s Garden property and been able to restore the historic buildings on this property,” Morris said.
To Herald Square?
The property he acquired for redevelopment here, across Proctor Street from the Statesboro Herald, isn’t quite so historic, having housed a Winn Dixie and later an IGA store and most recently Maxway, now in its going-out-of-business sale. Next door to that is a space that once housed Sears and then, a few years ago, what Morris called “a somewhat notorious bar.”
So, not including the Statesboro Herald building, Morris now owns about two acres in downtown Statesboro.
“We have been studying what is the highest and best use for this tract of land, whether it be an event space or something else that could improve downtown Statesboro,” he said.
He asked people with ideas on what to do with the property to share them with McGlamery and Statesboro Herald Operations Manager Jim Healy. After the meeting, Morris said he still hopes to develop the property as an event venue of some kind.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 764-9458.