Two-paper Town: Wilkes-Barre Market A Rarity
Wilkes-Barre became a city with two daily newspapers in October 1978 when striking workers started publishing The Citizens’ Voice to compete with the Capital Cities-owned Times Leader.
Forty years later, the newspaper competition continues — a surprising feat for a city with a population less than 50,000 and a newspaper market of around 200,000.
“The success and longevity of The Citizens’ Voice is particularly commendable in light of the dramatic decline of two-newspaper towns in the U.S.,” Newspaper Guild president Bernie Lunzer said.
The Newspaper Guild union turned over control of The Citizens’ Voice to the original striking employees in 1989. Scranton-based Times-Shamrock Communications has owned the Voice since 2000.
“The Newspaper Guild, along with other striking unions, helped the workers create The Citizen’s Voice in 1978. It was expected to be a temporary strike publication, but the strike lingered on, and the publication did, too,” Lunzer said. “Forty years later, the strike is long gone, but the CV continues its mission of providing fresh, relevant news to its community. It’s almost unheard of, and of course it is the oldest publication formed by former strikers in the United States.”
King’s College history professor Thomas Mackaman taught a class about the 1978 Times Leader strike during this past spring semester.
“The veterans of that strike felt they had won because they were able to hang on to the newspaper,” said Mackaman, adding many of them never thought the competition between the two newspapers would last this long. “Capital Cities lost a ton of money. It’s well documented. I just wonder if they didn’t want to accept defeat for the precedent.”
Capital Cities, which owned newspapers and television and radio stations in mid-size markets around the nation, purchased the The Times Leader from its local owners in 1977 and the American Broadcasting Co. in 1985.
The Times Leader made some smart business decisions after the strike, such as launching a Sunday edition and buying Sunday competitors, according to Ed Ackerman, a journalism professor at Luzerne County Community College.
Ackerman was managing editor of The Sunday Dispatch in Pittston when Capital Cities/ABC Inc. bought the weekly from the Watson family and he left The Dispatch to work at the community college.
“There was talk about a boycott, and one response was, ‘Well, then you got to stop watching Monday Night Football because it’s on ABC,’ ” Ackerman said.
But pro-Voice sentiment remained strong, said Ackerman, who recalled turning down a job at the Times Leader during the 1978 strike.
“I got a phone call that Capital Cities was looking to hire. I said no. I felt high and mighty.”
The Times Leader started its Sunday edition in 1987 and went head-to-head with The Sunday Independent, Wilkes-Barre’s only Sunday newspaper at that time. Six years later, the owners of The Sunday Independent shut down operations.
Days later, The Citizens’ Voice launched a Sunday edition, and the Times Leader bought the Independent’s assets — including its property, building, equipment and advertising and subscription lists.
In the 1980s and 1990s, advertisers supported both newspapers because ad rates were lower in a competitive market and each paper established its own identity, Ackerman said.
“The Voice became the blue-collar paper, popular in areas like Nanticoke and Hanover. The Times Leader became more popular in more affluent areas like Mountain Top and the Back Mountain,” Ackerman said.
The Citizens’ Voice had a tabloid format that gave the paper “an everyman feel” in comparison to the Times Leader’s broadsheet, Ackerman said.
The Voice began printing its Sunday edition on a broadsheet in 2003 and went to a broadsheet for all editions in 2017.
Over the years, some of the animosity directed at The Times Leader in the community started to subside, said Ackerman, who in 2000 returned to work part-time for The Dispatch after Capital Cities/ABC purchased the Walt Disney Company and sold its newspapers to Knight Ridder, a national chain. Ackerman stopped working for the Dispatch in 2014 and is now a columnist and consulting editor for the Greater Pittston Progress, a weekly launched by the Voice.
The competition became a little more contentious when Richard Connor, The Times Leader publisher from 1978 to 1986, came back in 2006, Ackerman said.
In 2006, Knight Ridder was sold to The McClatchy Co., which retained most of its newspapers, but sold The Times Leader to a company headed by Connor.
Connor resigned as editor and publisher of The Times Leader in 2011. Civitas Media LLC, the creation of Philadelphia private equity group Versa Capital Management LLC, has owned The Times Leader since 2012.
“You wonder how on Earth has Wilkes-Barre been a two-newspaper town for the last 40 years and how on Earth it will continue as a two-newspaper town,” Ackerman said.
One reason the city supported two newspapers this long is “people around here read a lot of newspapers,” he said. Studies have ranked Wilkes-Barre among the leading markets in the nation for the percentage of adults who read a daily newspaper.
The biggest challenges in the future are declining print circulation and ad revenue due to younger generations preferring to get information online, Ackerman said.
“I love the feel of a newspaper,” said Ackerman, 68, explaining his preference for print over digital.
Between 2004 and 2014, newspaper circulation nationally plummeted 20 percent, and the number of daily newspapers in the U.S. dropped from 1,469 to 1,331, according to a study by the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
A region with two daily newspapers reporting local news “is an absolute asset,” Wilkes University communications professor Kalen M.A. Churcher said.
“Not only for the people who live here, but from an educational point of view for the students who all go here,” Churcher said. “We will talk in my classes really about the novelty of having a two-newspaper town in this era, particularly when you are talking about the size of an area like Wilkes-Barre. I’ll have them pull up story from The Times Leader, pull up a story from The Citizens’ Voice, put them side by side, compare and contrast. It’s a great learning opportunity for them.”
Churcher is adviser to the Wilkes student newspaper, The Beacon. She grew up in the area, graduating from Wyoming Valley West High School in 1993, and worked at The Times Leader when Knight Ridder was the owner.
“I think that loyalty has helped allow the two newspapers to survive. On the flip side of that, there are people who do appreciate the fact that there is so much media in this area for them. It’s really a win for the public. They are getting the best of local journalism,” Churcher said. “I think the competition contributed to the longevity of the newspapers. I would really like to see it continue because you lose something when you lose a newspaper in your community.”
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