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Gannett sells Burlington Hawk Eye to Illinois-based company

Des Moines Register newspaper Gannett
Josie Fischels
/
IPR
Gannett owns several Iowa newspapers including the Des Moines Register, the Ames Tribune and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. It sold the Burlington Hawk Eye Thursday to Community Media Group, a chain based in Illinois.

Iowa's oldest newspaper is under new management. Community Media Group claims more staffing, more coverage to come.

The nation’s largest chain of newspapers has sold the Burlington Hawk Eye to an Illinois-based chain. Community Media Group adds the paper to its collection of 41 publications across the Midwest and eastern U.S.

Chairman Larry Perrotto said the Hawk Eye is unlikely to return to a daily publication schedule, but the five-day-a-week paper should see continued service with a larger staff and delivery directly through the mail.

We'll produce a paper that will be very acceptable to the Burlington community," Perrotto said. "As we get rolling, it'll take us a little time. We've got to rebuild the staff. But it will be a real force for good in the Burlington area.”

Over the last decade, the Burlington Hawk Eye has seen many owners. Community Media bought it from Gannett Media, which inherited the Hawk Eye from its 2019 merger with GateHouse Media LLC. Before that, GateHouse bought it from Harris Enterprises in 2016.

As it changed hands, the newsroom was hit hard with staff cuts. Perrotto said reversing that trend is key to building back a subscriber base.

Susan Patterson Plank is the executive director of the Iowa Newspaper Association. She said buying a property in Burlington signals optimism about the area's potential.

"Buyers buy because they have optimism, and that's a good thing," Patterson Plank said. "That's good for the staff and it's good for the community. They want to buy in places that they want to have success in."

Community Media has tended to buy additional mastheads in regions where it already has a "cluster" of ownership. Perrotto said “the new” Burlington Hawk Eye will join a cluster that includes Fort Madison Daily Democrat, the Keokuk Daily Gate City and — across the Mississippi River in Illinois — the Hancock County Journal-Pilot. These publications will have a combined publisher in Bill Helenthal.

Patterson Plank said these regional clusters are increasingly important to the newspaper business. They allow operators to centralize certain infrastructure like HR or billing while devolving certain roles to the local publication.

"There are some things that need to be as community-based as possible," she said. "And the number one thing is the journalism."

The Beacon and The Hawk Eye

Perrotto confirmed that Community Media Group was in talks with another local publication, The Burlington Beacon. However, nothing came of the discussions. Jeff Abell, the owner of The Burlington Beacon, wrote about the talks in a Nov. 22 post on Facebook:

"The truth is these guys have no intention of making The Hawk Eye a better newspaper. On the contrary, they want to run it on the cheap and trick people into thinking it is a return to its former glory — a lot of smoke and mirrors and very little substance," Abell wrote.

IPR News read the full post to Perrotto who called it a "standard reaction" from someone who "considers himself a competitor."

"Everybody is entitled to their personal opinions. I don't get in those kinds of discussions," he said.

Abell was not immediately available for comment.

Despite 2022 sells, Gannett retains large footprint in the Hawkeye State

The nation's largest newspaper chain Gannett maintains a large share of Iowa's newspapers. It owns 12 Iowa papers including The Des Moines Register, The Ames Tribune and Iowa City Press-Citizen. It also runs large news sites like USA Today, The Indianapolis Star and Detroit Free Press.

Back in August, IPR News first reported major cuts to the Hawk Eye’s news and sports staff. That was part of a 400 job elimination throughout the company. Since then, Gannett CEO Mike Reed has announced spending cuts, furloughs, buyouts and multiple rounds of layoffs.

Gannett declined to comment on whether other properties were sold or are for sale. Including the Hawk Eye, it has sold off at least six Iowa publications. Last June, Gannett sold the Indianola Record-Herald to locally-based owners. Then in August, it sold off four weekly newspapers — the Belle Plaine Star Press Union, Marengo Pioneer Republican, Williamsburg Journal Tribune and the Poweshiek County Chronicle Republican — to Folience, the parent company of The Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa