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Community Paper

Sun Valley residents band together to buy local paper

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A group of investors is hoping to take the idea of a community newspaper to a new level.

A dozen Sun Valley residents are pooling their resources in an effort to purchase the Wood River Journal, one of the resort area's two weekly papers. The move would bring the established paper back to local ownership and give it some needed financial capital.

The sale would also mean a local board of directors and an editorial board made up of valley residents.

The recently formed Newsies LLC is headed by John Sofro, a Wood River Valley developer and real estate agent, who said he was approached to buy the paper after a planned purchase by the Journal's competitor, the Idaho Mountain Express, fell through.

Mountain Express publisher Pam Morris declined to verify if there had been an attempt to buy the Journal.

While Sofro did not release the sale price, he did say he was hopeful the deal will be finalized soon. The due-diligence period ends March 31, after which a closing date will be set.

Sofro, a 15-year Ketchum resident, said the idea for a group of locals buying the paper quickly emerged during his discussions with the sales agent, former Journal publisher Dan Gorham.

Sofro said the response was positive from most of those he contacted. Ideally, Sofro would like to have roughly 30 investors, but to date, just 12 have signed on.

"I know who's interested in what's going on in the community," he said. "And those who are willing to do more than just talk."

Sofro is calling it the "Green Bay Packers" form of ownership, referring to the only professional football team to be owned by the town in which it's based. There would be different levels of involvement depending on the investor, allowing some to be silent partners while some may sit on the board of directors, and still others may join the paper's editorial board.

The Journal is currently owned by Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, a fact that has hurt the publication's reputation in the tightly knit mountain community.

"[Corporate ownership is] something that we've been beaten up heavily [about] by other media, especially the Mountain Express," said Journal publisher Trey Spaulding.

Spaulding, who took over the Journal in 2005, hopes the sale will bring some much-needed stability to the paper, which has changed hands numerous times since it was founded in 1974. The paper has been locally owned at various times in its history, and Spaulding said the Journal was at its most profitable during those periods.

"It's a good move," Spaulding said. "It's positive for the community and the paper."

While Lee Enterprises was cast as the Boogie Man, sucking money out of the area, Spaulding said the paper has not been profitable for years, yet the company continued to invest in the Journal.

Sofro said the sale price of the paper isn't the biggest money concern, but rather coming up with the operating funds to keep publishing the paper.

So why would anyone want to buy an unprofitable newspaper in a time when print journalism's relevance is already being called into question?

For Sofro and the other investors, it's a matter of maintaining two distinct voices in the area.

"It's never going to be a great money maker, but the need to have a second newspaper is even greater than the need to have great [financial] returns," he said. "It's as much doing something for the community as making a buck," Sofro said.

"It's in the best interest of the public to have two sources of news," Sofro said. "Ultimately, it's the community that would decide whether to keep the paper or not."

Not only does the presence of competing papers guarantee different voices, but Sofro argues that it gives advertisers a choice and forces both papers to offer competitive rates.

Both the Journal and the Mountain Express print roughly 14,000 copies each week, but the Mountain Express has been considered top dog for years.

This is Sofro's first experience in the media industry, and he admitted that the growing challenges newspapers are facing from other media outlets, especially the Internet, are a concern.

"There are concerns from potential investors. [Some say] 'there's no need for a second paper in a small town,'" he said. "Those of us that really care deeply about this community really believe this is in the best interest of everyone who lives here."

Sofro has done his homework, though, and quickly points to industry statistics that show weekly papers are faring better than their daily counterparts, on a whole.

He also that believes that the character of the Wood River Valley will help in the Journal's overall success.

Sofro describes how residents still eagerly pick up a copy of the paper each Wednesday morning, sitting in coffee shops and restaurants to pore through the latest edition.

Spaulding said he expects that the nature of the paper will not change, and said there will be no layoffs. In fact, he already plans to expand the current staff of 10, including hiring more reporters. The paper will continue to be printed in Twin Falls.

Plans are already in the works to create a local editorial board that will be comprised of members of a cross section of Sun Valley residents, including representatives from the tourism and retail industries, medical workers and farmers. "A diverse group of people will help give us story directions," he said.

"We're hoping to [include] a very broad-based group of people who represent all walks of life," Sofro said. "We want it to be the voice of the people who live and work here."

For Sofro, it's just a matter of waiting out the next two weeks while he tries to line up additional investors. He remains highly optimistic that the deal will ultimately go through, yet he admits "it remains to be seen if [promised investors] will put up the money.

"It's a very uncertain world we're living in," he said, referring to both the economy and world events. "[We'll just have to] wait and see."