By Tim Unruh

Fledgling newspaper Salina 311 received a substantial revenue boost Tuesday morning when Saline County commissioners voted unanimously to designate it the official county newspaper.

While the potential income is hard to estimate, the resolution could result in a minimum of $37,000 to $84,000 a year from required publications in the county alone, estimated Phillip Smith-Hanes, county administrator.

“It could be higher,” said Matt Moody, who co-founded Salina 311 nearly three years ago with partner Josh Barnhart. Both are Salina natives.

Income from legal notices comes from city, county, the school district, courts and attorneys. Lists of delinquent taxes are among the biggest money makers, said Tom Bell, former Salina Journal editor and publisher.

“It’s significant,” said Moody. “We’re already profitable. We focused on the unit economics to make Salina311 viable. Now this helps us expand and improve.”

He and Barnhart gambled on an idea to start a competing online Salina newspaper in July of 2021, added a weekly printed version in October that year, and earlier this year expanded to a twice-weekly print edition.

They went head-to-head with the 152-year-old Salina Journal, estimated to having served as the Saline County newspaper for well more than a century.

The official county newspaper designation is effective July 1, said Jamie Doss, Saline County clerk.

The impetus to launch Salina 311 came from current events, Moody said.

“My primary driver was seeing the centralization of things, and the power of large tech companies. They monopolize pretty much everything; information in particular,” he said. “When they do it, they extract money from communities. There had to be a way for a local community to present information in a better light, and halt the exportation of dollars.”

The partners learned newspapers were being bought up by hedge funds and private equity groups who shipped profits to places such as Washington, D.C.

Hutchinson-based Harris Enterprises purchased the Salina Journal in 1949, according to Wikipedia, and in November 2016, it was was sold to Gatehouse Media, and five other Harris papers. The Journal has since been sold to Gannett, which sold newspapers in Garden City, Hays, Dodge City, Newton, Ottawa, and Leavenworth to New Jersey-based CherryRoad Media.

“They slowly started to move toward information that wasn’t local, which also kind of precipitated their downfall as they tried to cut costs and build pages with external content,” said Moody, 41. “We wanted to create a local option that keeps money from leaving, and gained interest from a number of local investors. As for the official county newspaper, that responsibility has been squandered for a long time. We aim to fix that, and make it meaningful again.”

Among the Salina 311 investors is Trace Walker, CEO of Blue Beacon Inc. based in Salina. He witnessed the county commissioners’ Tuesday morning vote.

“I invested because I was concerned about where the (Salina) Journal was headed, the lack of reporting on things in Salina,” he said. “I respected the guys who were getting this started, and I thought it was worth the effort. I’m pleased with the progress, what these guys have been able to achieve.”

The designation change piqued Bell’s interest. He worked for the Harris Group from 1980 to 2012, the last 14 years as editor and publisher at the Salina Journal. Harris bought that newspaper in 1949. Bell previously led the Chanute Tribune, and Garden City Telegram, before retiring from the Journal.

“It’s hard to watch the Journal get starved out by its corporate parents, but I am hopeful Salina 311 will take this new revenue and expand local reporting,” Bell said.

Tuesday morning’s developments will further boost Salina 311, Moody said, accelerating plans to hire a local operations manager, five or six more reporters, and expand delivery. There are currently three full-time employees, but adding contract workers, the roster is up to a dozen.

“This establishes the paper. It stamps more credibility onto what we’ve done and really sort of solidifies why we made the investment, turned it profitable, and proved it’s viable,” Moody said. “The community has shown support to help the product get to profitability, and now we have the support of the local government.”

Growing the newspaper is also necessary.

“Very few communities have a watchdog these days, and there is no accountability. Our officials can do whatever they want,” he said. “Now this is official, and I think we not only have the ability to serve as a local watchdog, but the responsibility.”

Efforts to reach Gannett officials were unsuccessful.

Salina Mayor Mike Hoppock was unsure Tuesday evening how the City Commission will react to the news, or respond.

City Manager Mike Schrage did not return calls Tuesday.

If the issue came to a vote, Hoppock said it’s too early to know what his decision might be, and was noncommittal.

“It’s hard for me to answer. I don’t know the pros or cons. I would be open to looking at it if it was beneficial to the city as far as getting notices out,” he said. “There are things I would have to know to make that decision.”

The designation change has been in the works for a couple of months after the suggestion from County Treasurer Jim DuBois “based on price, and the commissioners said ‘no, let’s go through a process to give everybody an opportunity’ ” said County Administrator Smith-Hanes. “We did a request for proposals and both (the Journal and 311) responded.”

Statutes read that a designated county newspaper must be published in the same county, he said, and if there is none in the county, one in the state can be chosen.

“There was a time when 311 was being published in Valley Center, but switched to Salina and the Journal is published outside of Saline County, I believe in Hutchinson,” Smith-Hanes said.

The decision, said County Commission Chairman Bob Vidricksen, was based on cost. Choosing Salina 311 would cut the county legal advertising costs in half.

“It went out for bid, and Salina311 was lower,” he said.

That wasn’t the first time in Vidricksen’s tenure to seek savings.

“I pushed the button about six years ago, when The Spotlight was coming into view, a community paper in Gypsum,” he said, “but it didn’t meet the criteria, and I let it die.”

Despite potential savings, both county officials were melancholy, given the generations that the Salina Journal was the official publication.

“It’s a sad day for us, just too bad,” Vidricksen said, remembering many friends who worked there.

“I would think it would be a significant boost to 311 and probably a significant loss to the Journal,” Smith-Hanes said, “but we’re also trying to A, comply with state law, and B, look out for the taxpayers.”

The birth of Salina 311 is not unusual, said Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association.

“We’ve had new publications start since the pandemic. Innovation is nothing new, but at the end of the day, there is going to be a need for good quality journalism,” she said. “That’s what’s so exciting about this new startup. We need more people out there, covering the news.”

Part of the KPA’s mission is to keep public notices in print publications, Bradbury said, and not on government websites.

“There needs to be an independent third party that publishes these notices and keeps them in front of the public,” she said. “Kansas is dead last in broadband coverage. People want to move that online. We fully believe that where they’re at is where they should stay.”

SIDEBAR: It’s happened before in these parts

ELLSWORTH — Two longtime and well known journalists — Linda Denning and Sharon Montague, left the Salina Journal in the early spring of 1999 and moved west.

They started a weekly newspaper, the Ellsworth County Independent, competing for news and advertising with the already-established Ellsworth Reporter.

The Independent’s first issue was in April of 1999. Roughly a year later, the Independent applied and was designated at Ellsworth County’s official newspaper.

The papers merged in 2001, creating the Ellsworth County Independent Reporter.

Montague eventually returned to the Salina Journal where she rose to executive editor. She left the Journal in 2018.

Denning retired from the Ellsworth newspaper in 2022, but has continued to write part-time and contribute to The Magazine, a quarterly publication with the same ownership

She provided this statement regarding Tuesday afternoon’s developments in Salina:

"This is a watershed moment in many ways There is the financial aspect, which I suspect is significant. But this goes far beyond dollars and cents. Being the official newspaper for Saline County adds another layer of credibility to the relatively-young Salina 311. In many ways this is a passing of the torch from a newspaper that for more than a century has provided north-central and northwest Kansas with its daily serving of news to a newer newspaper that focuses almost solely on Salina and Saline County. With this passing comes a great deal of responsibility. Public notices are exactly that - a venue to keep the public informed of government actions that affect their daily lives. That's the part we should never forget.”

Editor’s note: Reporter Tim Unruh was hired to write this story for Salina 311. He was employed at the Salina Journal for 19 years, and followed by writing a number of stories for the Journal as a freelance journalist.

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