124-year-old paper bought by upstart in Kansas

Thursday, December 9, 2010 | 6:22 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — A 124-year-old newspaper in the small southwest Kansas town of Liberal was absorbed Thursday by an upstart rival whose two-year battle for readers captivated the newspaper industry.

Publisher Earl Watt and 15 other employees of The Southwest Times walked off their jobs in 2008, after out-of-town owners scaled the daily newspaper back to three days a week, raised fees and cut staff and content. Then Watt and his cadre of co-workers bought a $150,000 printing press and started a daily newspaper, the High Plains Daily Leader, in May 2008.

The battle, which included a federal lawsuit against the new paper, came to an end when Seward County Publishing Co., the parent company of the High Plains Daily Leader, purchased The Southwest Times from Liberal Publishing Co. The sale took effect early Thursday after papers were signed Wednesday night. Both papers will be combined and operate as the Leader & Times, the paper reported Thursday in its first issue.

The terms of the sale were undisclosed.

"It's absolutely historical for this community," said Larry Phillips, managing editor of the Daily Leader and now the Leader & Times. "Everyone told us we were insane. We did everything for the right reasons, and now it's paid off."

Charles Lancaster, owner of Gadsden, Ala.-based Lancaster Management Inc., which owns Liberal Publishing, didn't immediately return a phone call from the AP seeking comment.

In the midst of the sparring, The Southwest Times' parent company sued the new newspaper's publishing company, owned by Watt, his wife and four other former employees. The lawsuit accused the former employees of computer fraud, deceit, defamation and interfering with business relations, among other things.

Watt denied all the allegations at the time and called the lawsuit a last-ditch effort to force his new paper out of business. The suit was settled in August 2009, but no details were released.

As news of the new paper's efforts spread, Watt found himself the subject of blogs and fielded phone calls from journalists across the country who wanted to know how he and his staff started a paper in the town of about 20,000. There even were offers for speaking engagements, which Watt turned down. He insisted he was a "small town guy" and wanted to focus on the paper.

Still, he said Thursday, all the attention has been "humbling."

"We knew that it was going to be perceived as, 'How are these guys going to pull this thing off,'" Watt said. "At the same time we believed in it. We believed that newspapers still have a future. We believed that daily news service is still important, especially in communities like ours.

"A newspaper is a community institution. It binds people together. Some people like to say that we are chronicling the history and we just don't believe that. We believe that we provide a road map to the future."

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Louis Schneebaum December 10, 2010 | 3:38 p.m.

Wow, that's a stupid name for the newspaper.

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