The Monday edition of the 105-year-old Waycross Journal-Herald will be the last, the publisher confirmed Sunday.
Roger Williams, whose family has owned the newspaper since his grandfather, Jack Williams Sr., bought it in 1916, said his brother, sister and other stockholders had no choice other than to exhaust their personal funds to continue publication.
Williams, the publisher and principal stockholder, said he gathered the employees Friday and told them of the decision.
“We told them what the situation was. I hate it, but we didn’t have any recourse,’’ Williams said.
Williams said the financial status of newspapers has changed rapidly and that it is especially hard for an independent publication to survive downturns in the economy. During the recession, revenues flagged. And although the economy has come back, the revenue stream never fully recovered, he said.
The closure of the newspaper leaves Waycross and Ware County without a legal organ to publish matters as required by law.
George Barnhill, district attorney of the Waycross Judicial Circuit, said that Georgia law requires governments to buy legal ads to advise the public of everything from foreclosures to public hearings to meetings.
Clerk of Court Melba Fiveash said that she and two other constitutional officers, the probate judge and sheriff, are the ones to designate the legal organ and must meet to figure out how to find a new one.
The legal organ must be a publication with paid circulation and should be the one with the most subscribers, she said. The law also says preference must be given to publications within the state.
Fiveash said she learned of the planned closure late Friday.
“This was not fun for me to to learn on a Friday afternoon,’’ she said.
Among other things, her office has to give public notice on condemnations and name changes while the Probate Court must publish guardianships and give notice when someone dies without a will. The sheriff has to advertise levies on property while the tax collector has to advertise sales of property for unpaid taxes.
Waycross City Attorney Rick Currie said the city has to give notice of public hearings and meetings.
“At least every two weeks, we have ads in the paper,’’ he said.
The city must also advertise all rezoning and annexations, and those proceedings aren’t legal unless the publication requirements are carried out.
“I don’t know how you’re going to get around that,’’ he said.
The Journal-Herald has been the primary daily paper for Brantley and other neighboring counties, especially in face of pullbacks by the Florida Times-Union and Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Williams said he regrets it for everyone, but at 71 he couldn’t risk his personal finances in hopes things would somehow turn around.
The family has tried to sell the paper and had two offers, but both fell through.
Williams, the publisher for 27 years, knows the business. As a youngster, he had a paper route and has run the presses on printing jobs.
“I went to work here when I got out of (journalism) school in the 1970s,’’ he said.
His grandfather, Jack Williams Sr., bought the paper in 1916, and passed it on to his son, Jack Williams Jr. Roger Williams’ brother, Jack Williams III, is the long-time editor.
The family had seen the end coming, but it’s a shock that it came so soon, he said.
It has come sooner than later for a lot of newspapers, as revenue has plummeted in the past dozen years.
According to Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat in an April interview with the publication Arkansas Money and Politics, in 2005 printed newspapers in the U.S. took in about $47.4 billion. But by 2017, that had fallen to about $12 billion. Although virtually every publication in the country has online editions, the revenue from online publications is a fraction of that of print.
According to Hussman, industry wide, digital ads brought in $2.6 billion in 2006 and had increased to only $3.6 billion in 2017. Over that same period print publications saw revenue drop by $35 billion, he said.
In spite of those numbers, Hussman sees hope in digital publication and has invested $12 million to provide iPads in place of print for his subscribers.
As Hussman sees it, digital publication is a means of survival because there is no cost for newsprint and his editorial staff can post as much news as they want and spread it around the world with little additional cost. As he puts it, he can double the number of counties in which the the newspaper circulates and double size of the publication with little additional cost.
Huffman says he sees no alternative to local newspapers.
“People don’t realize how bad things are,” he said. “The newspaper industry in America is verging on total collapse … You’re going to start seeing more daily newspapers close. We’ve lost Arkadelphia. We lost Hope. I think we’re going to lose more.
“If [local reporting] goes away, if things aren’t covered, I worry about how the government will react when no one is asking them questions and holding them accountable,’’ he said. “That’s our only reason for existence.”
In Waycross, no one will be asking those questions for the first time since the late 1800s when the weekly Herald began publication.
For his part, Roger Williams said it has been a stressful time.
“You feel like you’re losing a part of yourself,’’ he said of the closure. “I’m a Christian. I pray about it. The Lord will help you get through it.”