Farewell to The Challenger

In the old days, an important obituary carried a black border in print. Sort of like The Enquirer's apology to Chiquita. It's time to break out the black again. The Sunday Challenger, a free, indep

Feb 22, 2006 at 2:06 pm

In the old days, an important obituary carried a black border in print. Sort of like The Enquirer's apology to Chiquita.

It's time to break out the black again. The Sunday Challenger, a free, independent "Voice for Northern Kentucky" started in mid-2004, folded with this week's edition.

Page 1 announced the closure "due to economic reasons." Bringing out The Sunday Challenger was gutsy. Whether it was a reasonable business venture is another question.

The Sunday Challenger was born into a time of constricting print advertising, generally stagnant or declining newspaper readership and growing Internet appeal. It then faced an increasingly tough market as Gannett, owner of The Cincinnati and Kentucky Enquirers and The Louisville Courier-Journal, bought the Boone, Kenton and Campbell County Recorder weeklies plus Community Press weeklies in Ohio.

The Sunday Challenger never was fat with ads.

That deficiency killed the paper as surely as declining revenues forced so many American papers to cease publishing. That developer Bill Butler and publisher Donald J. Then decided to cut their losses doesn't detract from what they hoped to do.

As Corporex President Butler, The Sunday Challenger's major backer, said in a farewell column, "We achieved a level of advertising income sufficient to cover only 40 percent of the operating expenses. ... Given increased competition and consolidation of The Community Recorders with The Enquirer, there is no way to believe that advertising rates will support the costs of 'A Voice for Northern Kentucky' in the foreseeable future."

As were publisher Then and Editor Tom Mitsoff, developer Butler was gracious in departure: "The challenge we put forth was accepted by the competition. Since we began, The Enquirer has ... made a big investment in our community of late and the results and benefits are commendable. The Enquirer's coverage is greatly increased, it is more in-depth and community-focused."

Editor Mitsoff added a final challenge, urging other news media "to continue to improve their coverage of Northern Kentucky. Tell good stories, tell bad stories that need to be told and provide perspective on events. ... Continue your improvement, for the sake of our entire region."

Breaking even would have been good enough, Butler said. It wasn't to be.

Shutting down a newspaper is more than lost jobs. A newspaper is a member of its community, a living thing; and when it closes, something dies. I know. Three of the four dailies I worked for no longer exist; I turned off the lights at one myself. It's ghastly.

My former Enquirer colleagues Lew Moores and Larry Nager worked at The Sunday Challenger. So did a former NKU student and Northerner editor, Amanda VanBenschoten, who moved to the Recorder papers late last year. They and their Sunday Challenger colleagues did good work. As Publisher Then said, "We've won 47 awards, twice running first place General Excellence in our classification among Kentucky newspapers."

It wasn't enough. Moores put it best.

"Hey, it was hell of a brief but what a fucking joyful ride," he says.

I rejoiced when The Sunday Challenger began publishing, not out of any animus toward The Sunday or Kentucky Enquirer but because a newspaper was opening.

The Sunday Challenger focused on underserved Northern Kentucky. The Kentucky Post — which for decades owned Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties — was heading for probable oblivion as Scripps' joint operating agreement with Gannett and The Enquirer winds down at the end of 2007. When The Sunday Challenger came out, The Kentucky Enquirer remained an uncertain suitor after decades of an on-again, off-again affair with Kentucky sources and readers.

Not so now. Enquirer commitment is tangible, its Kentucky ads sales increasingly aggressive and its Kentucky coverage ever smarter. How the Recorder papers fit into this remains to be seen.

Tough times for traditional news media apart, readers continue to value the information found in ads and news stories, whether on paper or the Web. More than ever, it falls to Gannett to demonstrate that imminent monopoly journalism need not leave readers bereft.

Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University.