GREENVILLE — When the third-generation owners of what’s today known as Stafford Media Inc. decided to sell the publishing and commercial printing company that had been in their family for 68 years, they went to great lengths to vet potential buyers.
That process led Julie Stafford, who owns the company with her brother, Rob Stafford, to Lapeer-based View Newspaper Group, which is acquiring the Greenville Daily News and commercial printer Stafford Printing in a deal that’s expected to close June 3.
Her talks with View Newspaper President Rick Burrough and Group Publisher Wes Smith ticked all the boxes to carry on the Stafford family legacy in the business, which dates back to her grandfather, Dale Stafford, and her father, John Stafford.
“For me, it’s a feel,” Julie Stafford said of how she knew she had found the right partners to buy the company. “In some of the other conversations I had before meeting Rick and Wes, it just didn’t feel right. When you have an owner who is willing to sit with your team and talk about his philosophy and to meet them and listen to their history with the company, that to me made the difference.”
As well, the buyers also took the time to get to know the family and went the “extra mile” in respecting their legacy.
“My mom and dad obviously were involved and grew up together in this business over the last 68 years. My dad is no longer here, but it was important for me that my mom felt good about this deal,” Stafford said, noting that Burrough and Smith met with Linda Stafford, her mother, before the deal was signed.
“They sat with my mom for a couple of hours and had breakfast, and they got to know her and she got to know them. She just feels really good about that. To me, that was really important — that she feels good about this transition as well — because she’s got a lot of time invested in the newspaper and the printing business.”
Experts in business transitions and M&A say Stafford Media’s prioritization of finding a buyer who fit with its culture and who would be a good steward of the company’s legacy remains a common theme among family-owned businesses in West Michigan and beyond.
“Company legacy and culture is a major consideration for many local business owners looking to sell their business,” said Brandon Finnie, managing director and member of Hungerford Valuation LLC, a Grand Rapids-based independent valuation and advisory firm that was not involved in the Stafford Media deal. “Business owners that have this concern will spend the time to get to know a potential buyer in order to get comfortable that the buyer will be a good fit to carry on the business legacy.”
While transactions with outsiders continue at a high volume, some family business owners also find opportunities to sell their companies to key employees or transition it through the formation of an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), Finnie said.
For View Newspaper Group, the deal for Stafford Media offers it an opportunity to expand into West Michigan. The company, founded in 2003, covers Lapeer, Sanilac, Huron, Saginaw, Shiawassee, Genesee, Oakland and Livingston counties with titles including The County Press, Tri-County Times, Sanilac County News and Brown City Banner.
As well, the deal provides the buyers with added capacity for commercial printing. View Newspaper Group also includes Michigan Web Press, a long-time competitor of Stafford Media’s commercial printing business, which was formerly known as News Web and includes a book of business with more than 160 clients, including MiBiz and Revue West Michigan.
Michigan Web Press, based in Davisburg, serves more than 60 newspaper and publishing companies.
“The Greenville (deal) makes sense because of the acquisition of the printing company and the synergies that that gives us with our printing company,” Smith told MiBiz. “The operations are really complementary — no question about it.”
Terms of the acquisition were undisclosed. The Stafford family worked with Santa Fe, N.M.-based media M&A firm Dirks, Van Essen, Murray & April and was represented in the transaction by Grand Rapids-based Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey PLC.
The deal for Stafford Media will be View Newspaper Group’s second acquisition this year, after acquiring the Tri-County Times in January. The company remains active in seeking out additional opportunities, Smith said.
“We’re actively looking for things that fit. As far as the newspaper side of the business, the things that fit were things that were contiguous to where we were already operating. And that’s how, either through acquisition or through startups, we have grown this newspaper business,” Smith said.
In picking up the Greenville Daily News, View Newspaper Group is making its first foray into a daily print publication.
Smith said when the broker approached the company with word that the Staffords were looking to sell, he and Burrough immediately had “a high level of interest” in the deal. However, their initial concern stemmed from never having worked in or operated a daily publication.
That challenge quickly abated when Julie Stafford agreed to stay on as publisher of the Greenville Daily News, a position she’s held since moving back to Michigan in 2012.
“We think she’s doing a terrific job with that paper in that market,” Smith said. “There are a lot of things that we have in common in terms of the values that we hold dear on what a community newspaper should be to its community.”
Stafford said the sale came about after her brother told her last October that he was ready to move on from the business where he’d spent nearly three decades.
“My brother just put his heart and soul into this family business for 30 years and he just was ready to pursue other options,” she said. “There were a lot of stresses, and you’ve got to be on the floor and really excited about where you’re going.”
While the publishing division was “in the black,” it contributed only about 9 percent of revenues at Stafford Media. “That, however, wasn’t enough to balance out the increased expense of the pressures on our commercial print side” in the last two years, Stafford said in a follow-up email.
The commercial printing business struggled as customers cut their print runs, with one major customer shifting entirely to an online-only format, she said. The operation also grappled with staffing and turnover challenges, all of which were exacerbated by a volatile price environment created as the Trump administration imposed steep tariffs on Canadian newsprint.
While the tariffs resulted in more than $100,000 in additional costs for the company, paper companies maintained tariff-level pricing even after the tax was lifted, and customers cut their page counts to balance out their own expenses, posing further challenges for Stafford Media.
Still, Stafford said she wanted to stay on with the company, citing her continued excitement about being a publisher and working at a community newspaper.
“I love everything about it: I love the community and I love the publishing business. On the newspaper side, I’ve been rocking and rolling and blowing it out of the park,” she said. “I’m just starting, so I really wasn’t ready to be done.
“When I came and stepped into this role in 2012, we were not in a pretty place. We were hurting. I think it took fresh eyes to come in and look at every single line. We’ve done a huge analysis and we’ve made a lot of changes.”
Nationwide, daily print newspapers, particularly those in major metropolitan markets, have struggled to adapt to an evolving highly competitive media market. According to the Pew Research Center, weekday and Sunday print newspaper circulation fell by 11 percent and 10 percent, respectively, in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available.
At the same time, overall revenues also declined 10 percent, even as revenue from circulation was estimated to have increased in the low single digits, according to Pew findings.
While a growing percentage of revenues for daily newspapers is coming from digital operations — 31 percent in 2017 compared to 17 percent in 2011, Pew reports — companies like the New York Times that are focusing on digital subscription revenues appear to be finding more sustainable growth compared to companies relying solely on digital advertising.
Still, publishers need to face the fact that “digital advertising won’t be the money-printing strategy that it was for much of the 20th century, when most newspapers and magazines made the bulk of their money by selling advertisements,” according to a February report in New York magazine.
At the Greenville Daily News, circulation has stabilized in recent years at around 4,500, Stafford said. Per federal filings, that’s approximately half of the publication’s print circulation in 2000. Under Stafford’s leadership, the company also had to adjust the staffing levels in its newsroom, which currently is “really lean” at eight editors and reporters.
Still, she remains upbeat about the role that newspapers play and is convinced they’re a sustainable and necessary part of their communities. “Newspapers are not dead,” she said, even though they have changed and will continue to evolve their business models in the years to come. Under the deal with View Newspaper Group, “my newsroom, my team stays intact.”
“Yep, we look different than we did back in my dad’s day. We have to be a little more creative to find revenue and we cover larger footprints with smaller editorial teams than they did back then. But it’s all about connecting with our communities and listening to what folks are talking about and adjusting to what our advertisers need,” she said in a follow-up email. “At the end of the day, we are here to stay.”
For its part, the Greenville Daily News has added new sources of revenue — beyond just digital subscriptions — that focus on ways of helping clients market and grow their businesses.
“There’s not much that we say ‘no’ to,” Stafford said.
Smith from View Newspaper Group said it’s time for community newspapers to reclaim their roles as “the marketing and advertising experts in their communities.”
“We have the most horsepower and knowledge for this sort of thing of anybody in our town or our county. We need to go out and act like that. We need to show our business partners how we can help them grow their businesses,” he said.
Smith did not respond to follow-up questions about View Newspaper Group’s approach to growing or investing in Stafford Media’s commercial printing business, nor would he confirm that the company issued some layoffs in the division as part of the transaction.
Making a difference
Despite the inherent challenges in the newspaper business, Stafford remains positive about the future of the industry, and the publication she and her brother are selling — and where she will soon become an employee.
“It’s old news how we are all writing our own obituary in the newspaper business,” she said. “We keep on talking about how we’re dying, (but) that is not my method. I don’t believe that. We’re a key part of this community and we’re the go-to for information for people, whether it’s online or in print.
“My writers, my sales folks, we’re out in the community and we’re a part of it and we’re telling our story. I think just letting people know what we do and showing them that we’ve put our money where our mouth is, it makes a difference.”
While she will no longer have the weight of ownership in the family-owned business constantly on her mind, she said she takes pride in the work of her team and in knowing that she’s a part of the family publishing legacy in Greenville.
“I think a lot about my dad,” she said. “I didn’t get the chance to work side-by-side with my dad; I wasn’t old enough to know my grandfather. But what I’m told is that they were very entrepreneurial and their timing was right. I’d like to think that we followed in their footsteps in making this move.”