On April 26, residents of Lake City, Iowa, woke up to the news that their local paper, The Graphic-Advocate, was facing closure after 136 years.
The reason was simple, according to a Facebook post by publisher Matt Grohe. The paper hadn’t made money for years. Last year, it had lost $18,000 and was on track to lose even more this year.
“I wish there were more drama to it that would make a more interesting story, like a fairly (sic) tale with heros (sic), villains, damsels in distress and an epic struggle against a monolithic edifice,” he wrote.
Little did Grohe know, the story was just getting started. His announcement set off a chain of events culminating in an ownership dispute so acrimonious that at one point, there were two versions of The Graphic-Advocate floating around, each produced by a different publisher. Residents remain unsure of who actually owns the paper.
Grohe, who worked as a real estate agent before joining Mid-America Publishing, maintains that he is the owner of The Graphic-Advocate. But Chris Nelson, a former journalist who started his own marketing and media company, says he now owns the paper.
Mid-America Publishing, which owns roughly two dozen papers in Iowa, bought The Graphic-Advocate from a Lake City family in 2007. The company had a good culture, said Tyler Anderson, who joined the paper as its editor in January 2019. But things started to change when Grohe became president last November, Anderson said, and people began to leave the company.
On April 12, Anderson received a text message from Grohe announcing he would close The Graphic-Advocate in less than a month. The news came as a shock to Anderson, who had been trying to hire for open positions at the paper.
“It was over text message,” Anderson said. “I mean, come on, man, just make the two hour drive and sit down with us and say, ‘Hey, look, we’re hurting. We’re losing money.’ … We would probably be like, ‘Well, let’s figure out some solutions. Let’s talk about it.’
“It’s not right to simply just pull the plug.”
Believing that the public had a right to know about the decision, Anderson posted the text message on Facebook. Three days later, Grohe fired him.
When Nelson heard the news, he told Grohe that he wanted to buy The Graphic-Advocate, but the two could not reach a deal. Kendra Breitsprecher — the owner of The Dayton (Iowa) Leader, which was printed by Mid-America Publishing at the time — also expressed interest in purchasing the paper, and on May 26, Grohe agreed to sell her the paper for $1.
Breitsprecher took over the paper’s website and social media accounts, and for the month of June, she produced and distributed four issues of The Graphic-Advocate. That process was not easy. Mid-America Publishing had left the paper in a “mess,” Breitsprecher said. She discovered several weeks’ worth of unanswered mail and email messages. People had submitted obituaries and legal notices that were never published, and several readers’ subscriptions had run out.
Breitsprecher had bought The Graphic-Advocate with the intention of starting her own “media empire.” For several years, she had produced The Dayton Leader with her husband and three children, and she had always wanted to own more than one newspaper. But it quickly became clear that Nelson could provide a better product for the community.
“He was able to hire a managing editor and a staff of five out of Lake City, and I wasn’t able to do that. It was going to be me and maybe one other person,” Breitsprecher said. “They had big ideas, and it just became real obvious that the best thing for Lake City was Nelson Media Company.”
On July 6, Breitsprecher sold the paper to Nelson for an undisclosed amount. That day, Grohe sent cease-and-desist letters to both Breitsprecher and Nelson, demanding them to stop using The Graphic-Advocates trademarks. Grohe said that the sale to Breitsprecher had never closed. She had signed a “servicing addendum” that allowed Mid-America Publishing to print the paper from a proof provided by the Dayton Leader, but she had failed to sign the actual purchase agreement, he said.
“The assumption cannot be made that The Dayton Leader’s failure to sign the agreement was not deliberate in order to avoid legally accepting the liability portions of the agreement,” Grohe told Poynter in an email. “There was a matter of appx $17,000 in subscription liability which was unsettled, as well as any liabilities of The Graphic-Advocate in regards to published works and past use of images and creative content.”
But Breitsprecher disputed this, saying she had signed both the purchase agreement and the servicing addendum, and in doing so, she had assumed control of the paper’s liabilities. She had also consulted her attorney, who affirmed that she had properly bought — and then sold — The Graphic-Advocate.
Both Grohe and Breitsprecher claim to have documentation from the May 26 sale, but they declined to provide Poynter with a copy.
Grohe then called Breitsprecher’s bank to prevent her from cashing roughly $3,000 in checks she had earned while running the paper. Between that, legal fees, and the money she spent on gas to deliver The Graphic-Advocate to newsstands each week, Breitsprecher said she has lost money on the deal.
“I can’t do anything with them (the checks) unless I take him to court, which would cost more than the checks,” Breitsprecher said. “So all the money that I’m getting in from work I did for four weeks — it’s worthless.”
Grohe, who had retained access to The Graphic-Advocate’s website and social media accounts, wrested these pages back under his control, forcing Nelson to create duplicates. At one point, there were two Graphic-Advocate websites and Facebook pages. Grohe also refused to transfer over the newspaper’s postal permit and P.O. Box.
The week of July 11, both Mid-America Publishing and Nelson Media Company printed their own versions of The Graphic-Advocate. Because it did not have a postal permit, Nelson Media Company was unable to distribute its edition.
Meanwhile, Lake City residents flooded The Graphic-Advocate’s original Facebook page, which was now being run by Grohe, with comments urging him to give up the paper. Many were upset that he was now trying to claim control of a paper he had originally intended to shut down. Others found humor in the situation.
“I feel I am in a newspaper twilight zone,” wrote one Rockwell City resident.
Reception towards Nelson Media Company, however, was more positive. Part of that was due to Anderson, who Nelson had hired to run the new Graphic-Advocate as its managing editor. Anderson, who grew up in nearby Dayton, had spent years in Lake City, gaining the trust of the community.
“I have ties with this area, and I would say a lot of the folks here — they mean a lot to me,” Anderson said. “They say, ‘don’t develop attachments.’ But here’s the thing: We’re all human. We’re going to develop attachments to where we’re at. And the people here are just fantastic.”
Nelson Media Company considered pursuing legal action against Mid-America Publishing, but that would be expensive. Furthermore, it would likely take months to resolve the dispute since the pandemic had clogged up local courts. School would be starting up soon, and the community needed a functioning paper as soon as possible.
The ownership dispute had also “tarnished” The Graphic-Advocate’s reputation, Nelson said. Publishing two Graphic-Advocates would just confuse everyone, and Nelson Media company wanted to be the “bigger person” and walk away from the fight.
So Nelson Media Company decided to start a new paper: the Calhoun County Phoenix, named after the mythical bird. The first edition comes out today.
“We wanted to symbolize a rebirth in community journalism here at Calhoun County,” Anderson said. “What matters most is that we take care of people. At the end of the day, good or bad, that’s what we have to do as journalists and members of the community.”
Ditching The Graphic-Advocate name means that Nelson Media Company will not be able to publish legal notices from the city, a significant source of revenue. However, Nelson is counting on the community to rally around the new paper. He also intends for the Calhoun County Phoenix to start working with the marketing side of his company to provide services to local businesses.
Four months after Lake City thought it would lose its only local paper, the city now has two of them.
“The newspaper will find a way to evolve. I don’t believe it’s a dying medium, compared to what a lot of people will say. I think the small town newspapers, they’re going to find a way to live on,” Anderson said. “We want to find at least some way to keep community journalism alive and well for at least 135 years more.”