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New Owners Are Convinced Suburban Newspaper Can Be Successful During Pandemic and Beyond

The Webster-Kirkwood Times is operating from an office on West Lockwood Avenue in Webster Groves.
Wayne Pratt
St. Louis Public Radio
The Webster-Kirkwood Times is operating from an office on West Lockwood Avenue in Webster Groves.

The print edition of the Webster-Kirkwood Times returns Friday.

The suburban St. Louis newspaper suspended print operations in March because of the pandemic. The operation will be leaner with around nine employees, compared to roughly two dozen earlier this year.

The paper returns with new owners, who are convinced there is enough community interest to support a print publication during tough times in the journalism business.

A group of employees purchased it from former publisher Dwight Bitikofer. It includes former IT specialist and Creative Director Randy Drillingas, who is the new publisher.

Jaime Mowers is the new editor-in-chief. She has been in journalism for 16 years, with more than half of that time spent at the paper.

Both recently spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Wayne Pratt about the decision to buy a newspaper during a rough economy.

Wayne Pratt: Buying a newspaper during a pandemic — was there any hesitation?

Randy Drillingas: It was solely monetary, though we didn't know if we could all really afford to do it. That was our biggest hesitation.

We had known for a while. We have heard people saying they want the paper back. We want print back. So we knew that it was something people wanted. And because of that, we knew that it was like a safe gamble to go ahead and do because we knew people really wanted it.

Pratt: With that said, how confident are you, Randy, that you could make this work?

Drillingas: I'm 100% confident because based on the communities that we live in ourselves, they're such good communities and we're just part of that.

Pratt: Jamie, I'd like to get your thoughts on the same question.

Jaime Mowers: We all feel like the community spoke and we listened. Ever since we had to halt our print publication on March 27 because of the pandemic, pretty much the only thing we have been hearing is when are you guys coming back? You know, when are you coming back in print? What can I do to help? You know, how can we support you?

Webster-Kirkwood Times owners (from left to right) Randy Drilingas, Jaime Mowers and Kent Tentschert.  The three purchased the newspaper from former publisher Dwight Bitikofer on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
Ursula Ruhl
Webster-Kirkwood Times
Webster-Kirkwood Times owners (from left to right) Randy Drilingas, Jaime Mowers and Kent Tentschert. The three purchased the newspaper from former publisher Dwight Bitikofer on Sept. 8.

Of course, a lot of people read online now, and that's what made hyperlocal newspapers in danger. But we just feel so strongly in our communities. Our print edition is something that they want.

Pratt: With the challenging times in the industry, do you see newspapers being the heart and fabric of communities being eroded at all?

Drillingas: Well, the more that local newspapers go away, the more that that will happen. And that's the thing. There's actually legislation going on now called the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, and it's focusing on that exact thing. They're noticing that these local newspapers are just going out of business, and they know that that's not good for anybody.

Pratt: The pandemic played a big role in the decision that went down earlier this year. Do either of you feel like you're going to have to do something different in order to be successful and avoid a similar shutdown?

Drillingas: One thing we are doing is we're filling a void in a hole that was created by our website and by the Internet, and we're going to start charging a subscription fee for the website. When people stopped looking at the newspapers, they stop seeing the advertisers, and that's the advertisers in our community, and the businesses are crucial to our survival. With everything online, you lose all of that.

Pratt: Will the print edition still be delivered to houses for free?

Drillingas: Yes, the print edition will be delivered to everybody's house for free, exactly. Everybody wants that, and everybody deserves free news, because it's very important. So we don't want to charge people to get the news that they deserve and need to get.

Pratt: That's been somewhat of a debate in the overall news industry for well over a decade. You feel very strongly that you fall on that side of the fence, right?

Drillingas: I believe it should be free, but I don't believe it should be free to the point it puts everybody out of business, and then you need investors to come in to shore up your company because that's kind of what has been happening for the last 20 years.

That's why the state of news online is kind of as shoddy as it is right now, and there's so many problems with it, and that's a big part of it. When you lose a good staff of workers and you can't afford your bills and then people have to come in and save you. You know, that can cause a lot of trouble.

Pratt: When did you think,”Yeah, maybe I'd like to do this”?

Mowers: You know, we just started talking to each other, and eventually, the right team fell in place, and we were just like: “We can do this. We want to do this. We want to save this newspaper and we want to do it for the communities that we serve."

Wayne is the morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.

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