Dispute results in new daily paper for southwest Kansas

A company's move to scale back publication of its daily newspaper in Liberal, Kan., has spawned the unlikely launch of a new competing daily in the southwest Kansas meatpacking town.

The new newspaper, the High Plains Daily Leader, published its first edition Sunday and joins a market that also includes The Times, which cut back in January from publishing daily to three times a week, and The Liberal Light, a weekly.

The addition of the Daily Leader comes at a time when newspapers are struggling to compete in the midst of a broad downturn in classified advertising.

"Three newspapers? We'll have to wait and see if that can happen," said Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association.

"It's unusual in this day and age where we have newspapers going in the opposite direction, and dailies switching to weeklies, then where we have a completely new newspaper picking up and going daily," Anstaett said.

Liberal, a town of about 20,000 residents, many of whom work in the meatpacking industry, also has a Spanish-language weekly, Los Tiempos, owned by the Times. About half of Liberal's population is Hispanic.

Earl Watt, publisher of the High Plains Daily Leader, had been publisher of the Times but resigned that position last week. He said officials at Lancaster Management Inc., which owns the Times, told him last fall it had plans to cut back publication to twice a week as a cost-saving measure.

"I told them this community would reject that like a baboon's heart," said Watt, 37. But three days a week didn't fare much better, he said.

"The public was upset," he said. "They were dropping subscriptions. ... Three days a week was kind of a slap in the face to the community. They felt embarrassed by it."

About 70 percent of the Times' employees, including all full-time newsroom staffers and the business manager, also left the Times last week to work with Watt, he said.

Michael Schuver, executive vice president of Gadsden, Ala.-based Lancaster Management, referred questions about the changes to a letter he published in the Times on Friday. He did not immediately return calls seeking additional comment.

In his letter, Schuver said Lancaster, which has owned the Times since 1999, had employees coming from some of its other 17 newspapers in eight other states to help out.

"Numerous Times employees refused to follow Watt's lead and remain employed at the Times," Schuver's letter said. He said a new publisher would be named soon.

"Despite the actions Wednesday of a few former employees, the owners of the newspaper pledge that the Times will continue to serve this area for at least another 121 years," he said.

Schuver said the Times would do its best, "but for the next few weeks, we're going to miss a few stories. We're going to fail to call on all advertising accounts. We're going to make a few mistakes. But we are going to publish on our regular schedule."

Watt said 7,000 copies of the Daily Leader, a 14-page afternoon broadsheet, were being printed daily, and a free Spanish-language weekly would be published on Thursdays. A Web site was expected to be running later this week.

He said he hoped to appeal to readers with more features and "timeliness."

"For example the president was in Greensburg yesterday, and the soonest the Times will have that is Wednesday," he said. "But we'll have that out this afternoon."

Anstaett said it had been likely a decade since a new daily had started up in Kansas, largely because of advertising competition.

"That's the biggest dynamic of this change, the advertising base of support," he said. "More mom and pop stores are gone. That used to be the bread and butter of the regional market."

However, despite the economic climate, Liberal's location may give it an edge in sustaining three newspapers, he said. Liberal is located in the far southwest corner of Kansas along the Oklahoma border.

"As you get more isolated, and your market draws more shoppers from a larger area, you tend to have more potential to keep your daily," he said.