OPINION: Atlanta man happy to buy newspaper company? Must be fake joy

Keith Pepper, a Sandy Springs native, recently bought the Reporter Newspapers. Courtesy of Keith Pepper
Keith Pepper, a Sandy Springs native, recently bought the Reporter Newspapers. Courtesy of Keith Pepper

Credit: courtesy of Keith Pepper

Credit: courtesy of Keith Pepper

I called Keith Pepper this week out of morbid curiosity: I wanted to see what kind of nut would buy a newspaper business these days.

The woes of the printed page have been well documented for 15 years — readership has been falling, as have revenues and advertising. Among those keeping track of the carnage is a University of North Carolina professor, who figures 1,800 papers have closed in the U.S. since 2004, about 1,700 of those community weeklies. And the pandemic has accelerated this grim process.

Pepper, a Sandy Springs native, recently purchased Reporter Newspapers and its parent company, Springs Publishing.

“If you want your friends to look at you like you have two heads, tell them you’re buying a newspaper,” said Pepper. “I told friends, ‘Talk me out of this.’ No one did.”

So now Pepper has six newspapers to look after. There are four freebie Reporter Newspapers in affluent north metro communities — Sandy Springs, Buckhead, Dunwoody and Brookhaven, as well as Intown Atlanta and another aimed at seniors. He’s not saying how much he paid for the lot.

“The macro headwinds are terrifying,” Pepper admitted in an interview, adding, “The industry is bonkers right now.”

So, again, what the heck, buddy?

Newspapers are an emotional, even tactile attachment to many people, although the 49-year-old Pepper might be on the young side of the demographic that still likes the printed product. Pepper said his company is still focused on printing 100,000 papers each month and mailing out most of them.

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Credit: Reporter Newspaper

Pepper, who is back from a two-decade stint in New York working with digital tech companies — and who used to work for the AJC in advertising — talked about the allure of print, likening it to vinyl records, of which he, too, is a fan.

“It’s about quality print products getting into people’s homes and being passed around,” he said, referring to the quaint notion known as “pass-along readership,” which says for every newspaper printed, 2.5 people will get ink on their hands.

He said he will redesign and beef up Reporter Newspapers’ online presence, adding that print remains vital. It’s still where the overwhelming amount of the revenue is created and where ads are sold. Online has been the future of newspapers for decades, but try as they might, not many have found a way to monetize it.

”Today we’re inundated” with information, said Pepper, who believes people still want to slow down with the paper and absorb what is happening in their neighborhood. “I’m betting there’s still a desire for that.”

His bet is on a company founded 14 years ago by Steve Levene, an old Wall Street Journal exec who came to Atlanta to be publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times and then created Reporter Newspapers out of a long-simmering entrepreneurial itch.

In 2005, Sandy Springs incorporated as a new city and Levene figured a local newspaper was needed to tell that community’s stories — and, of course, to sell ads to merchants in that growing area. A recent perusal of ads in his papers indicated dermatologists and dental implanters thrive in the northern ‘burbs.

When Levene was creating his plan, a newspaper industry veteran persuaded him to establish an edition in Buckhead.

Levene figured he was getting in on the ground floor as the right guy at the right place and right time. Of course, an economic tsunami was gathering in the form of the Great Recession.

“At the time (2006) that I was putting it together, the newspaper industry seemed healthy,” Levene said. “It was probably a good thing that I didn’t know what was coming.”

He survived the downturn and was able to keep profitability through a lean staff, lean salaries and low overhead. He said his papers have long been profitable, even during 2020, a year that saw advertising plummet throughout the industry.

As his papers took root, Dunwoody and Brookhaven had their own cityhood movements and Levene expanded to create newspapers for those new towns.

Sandy Springs Councilman Andy Bauman is glad to see writers from the Reporter cover their meetings, especially the ones that grind through mundane local issues. It’s what small newspapers do.

”People like to read about themselves and about their neighbors,” Bauman said. “It’s kind of a grown-up version of the college paper.”

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But not everyone was happy. In Dunwoody, former Atlanta Journal columnist Dick Williams owned the Crier newspaper and took the Reporter Newspapers incursion personally.

“Dick would be very nice to us and then he told people not to talk to us,” said Joe Earle, a retired Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer who worked as Reporter Newspapers’ managing editor at the time. “It was an old-fashioned newspaper war. We had to prove to people that we belonged there.”

Levene had his carrier throw extra copies of the Reporter on Williams’ driveway to remind him they were there.

In 2014, the Brookhaven City Council (Williams’ late wife Rebecca was a council member) worked hard to close the Pink Pony nude dancing club and the Reporter ran ads from the business.

Steve Levene founded Reporter Newspapers in 2006 after Sandy Springs became a city. Photo courtesy of Steve Levene
Steve Levene founded Reporter Newspapers in 2006 after Sandy Springs became a city. Photo courtesy of Steve Levene

Credit: Steve Levene

Credit: Steve Levene

The acerbic Williams contends Levene moved into Dunwoody and later Brookhaven “just to screw with me.” He called the Reporter newspaper crew “carpetbaggers” in an editorial.

Williams couldn’t fathom why Levene expanded like he did, considering he was already making a nice living in Sandy Springs and Buckhead. Why take on the extra cost and bother of going into areas where there was an established media presence?

“I can’t say how many times my sales manager and I wondered how they stayed in business,” Williams said.

But they did, and kept nicking away at the more established Crier.

“They hired some good people,” Williams said. “I sent an email to (AJC editor) Kevin Riley asking him to hire some of their reporters because I wanted to get them out of my hair.”

Ultimately, falling ad revenue and health issues led Williams to sell the Crier last year to a small newspaper company from the north suburbs, Appen Media Group.

In 2019, Levene decided to stop throwing his Reporter and Atlanta Intown newspapers on residents’ driveways twice a month and, instead, mail them out to homes. It cost more, but he figured it classed up his product up a bit.

“Advertisers love it when we tell them it’s a direct mail product,” said Levene, who at age 70 decided it was time to sell.

Now, new owner Keith Pepper is in Levene’s old office, determined to prove to the world that he’s not crazy.

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