In Coweta County, a newspaper’s physical footprint shrinks

Clay and Beth Neely, co-publishers of The Newnan Times-Herald. Jim Galloway,

Clay and Beth Neely, co-publishers of The Newnan Times-Herald. Jim Galloway,

Last week, the Coweta County Commission held a public hearing on its $83 million budget for 2020. A newspaper reporter was the only one to show up.

Last year, the county school board was hit with accusations that it had rigged the bid for new turf at three high school football stadiums. This spring, an investigation declared the charges baseless.

Oh, and the city of Newnan may be about to get its very own Varsity. (One yellow dog and a bag of rags, coming up.)

I know all this because I've been reading The Newnan Times-Herald, a newspaper with a 154-year-old legacy in Coweta County. It has been the only news outlet giving consistent coverage to a special state House race that has become a test of opposition to House Speaker David Ralston within his own Republican party.

What they’ve reported, I’ve needed to know.

But today, the Times-Herald shifts to twice-a-week print publication — Wednesdays and Saturdays only. The move, according to the Sunday announcement, was necessary “to keep the doors open.”

Small-town journalism is on the ropes, fighting to hang onto its role as the thing that binds communities together. Last month, in neighboring Fayette County, The Citizen, which saw print once a week, went digital-only. (A rival weekly, The Fayette County News, remains available in print.)

Larger publications in larger towns are cutting back, too. In November, The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer will cease Saturday print publication.

In all of these cases, readers are being assured that the same product will be available online. But the internet can be a disconcerting place, especially in the way it serves out rumor and fact in equally convincing doses. Until they disappear from street corners, you don’t realize that newspaper boxes have been — in their own way — real, tangible sentinels keeping watch.

“We’re showing up to these meetings. We’re there. We’re witnessing it. We’re reporting it. We’re transcribing direct quotes. Nobody here appreciates that they’ve got somebody here, constantly watching that,” Beth Neely said Monday.

She and her husband Clay are co-publishers of the newspaper, which is housed in a two-story brick building in downtown Newnan. She is 39. He is 42. They sit facing each other in a massive partners desk once occupied by Beth’s great-grandfather and grandfather.

The hard calls have always been made at that tandem desk. There was the decision to print seven days a week in 1998, a move so profitable that an additional row of reporters’ desks was needed. Wire services could barely provide the words needed to fill the white space around the ads.

Then came the Great Recession of 2008.

At first, there was no impact. The newspaper floated on a boost in classified legal advertising – which turned out to be a glut of foreclosure notices. “The foreclosures stopped. The economy started rebounding. We didn’t join in with everyone else,” Clay Neely said.

Seven-day publication became six days, then five, then four. And now two. A staff of 50 is now 20. Newspaper boxes aren’t the only thing disappearing. So is break-of-dawn delivery by newspaper carriers tossing their product out car windows as they drive by.

As of Oct. 2, the Times-Herald will shift to postal delivery – a move that many small newspapers are taking. “With unemployment where it is – throwing newspapers has never been a glamorous job,” Beth Neely said.

Some things will remain sacred. Sunday comics and the crossword puzzle, for instance.

Lowe’s, Home Depot and Walmart are keeping the Times-Herald afloat with their advertising. They all have something in common. Big box stores and newspapers all face existential threats from the likes of “They’re dwindling. They’re on borrowed time,” Clay Neely said of the monster brick-and-mortar retailers.

And newspapers? Amazon’s need for corrugated cardboard boxes is pushing the price of newsprint out of reach.

A real deadline looms for the Times-Herald – but just where it is, the Neelys don’t know.

“If you didn’t love doing this, you’d run screaming to anything else,” Clay Neely said. “By doing the shift [to two days a week], this gives us a little more time. And that’s all I want – more time to see if we can find a sustainable model. The name of the game these days is buying time. And putting out a good product. But you’ve got to have that time.”

All newspapers are troubled in their own way. I asked Beth Neely to diagnose her paper’s ailment.

"I hate to say it, but the present administration has not been kind to journalism. People are so quick to associate any media with the media," she began.

But ideology was not her point. She quickly explained that a disconnected community has found it easier to embrace that cliché.

Coweta County is some 35 miles southwest of Atlanta. For decades, the distance made Newnan an insular, self-contained community. That’s no longer the case.

“A lot of these people, they come here just to sleep. There’s no real civic tie to the community,” Clay Neely said – and then pointed east, toward I-85. “A lot of people on the other side of the interstate don’t know the city of Newnan exists.”

This almost drew a chuckle from me, because if Coweta County is a bedroom community, it is a most resentful one.

Earlier, I mentioned that special election for state House District 71. The first round of campaigning, which ended on Sept. 3, turned on the spurious assertion that MARTA was about to send its heavy-rail tentacles into Coweta County.

A runoff will be held Oct. 1 between Phillip Singleton and Marcy Sakrison, both Republicans. Last week, the Times-Herald reported that Singleton might have been helped by a last-minute spate of robocalls that accused Sakrison of being a secretive agent for MARTA.

Clay Neely had picked up the news at a local Rotary meeting. Because he was there to hear it.

Singleton, by the way, denied involvement. Sakrison isn’t buying, the newspaper also reported.