Paxton Media Group extends its influence far beyond its Western Kentucky base

By Laura A. Clemmons
Community Journalism
University of Kentucky
Fall 2005

The Paxton family began its influence on the worlds of business and journalism through a single newspaper in Western Kentucky. More than 100 years later, this influence extends past the borders of the Bluegrass State, throughout the Southeast and Midwest. Although this growth has occurred over the span of a century, it has been concentrated in the past two decades.

In the mid-1800s W.F. Paxton bought a Kentucky Lottery ticket that won him $30,000. This bit of good luck did not last.

Paxton took his $30,000 and invested it in the wholesale grocery business. When an economic depression hit around the 1860s, he lost it all.

W.F. Paxton’s luck had run out. Or had it?

Paxton eventually got back on his feet after taking a job with the government. However, his entrepreneurial desire wasn’t satisfied. Paxton wanted to be his own boss. He tried banking first but settled in the newspaper business – the community newspaper business, to be exact.

In 1896 W.F. Paxton launched The Paducah Evening Sun, which would eventually become The Paducah Sun-Democrat and finally The Paducah Sun. Now in its fourth generation of Paxtons, this venture has undergone many expansions, most of which have been in the past two decades. According to Dun and Bradstreet, today Paxton Media Group LLC has a net worth of over $73 million.

According to Editor and Publisher International Yearbook, today Paxton Media encompasses 29 daily newspapers and 27 weekly newspapers. Paxton is based in Paducah, Ky., but owns newspapers in 10 states in the Southeast and Midwest.

The newspapers of Paxton Media in Kentucky range from dailies such as the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer and The (Madisonville) Messenger to smaller weeklies like the Herald-Ledger in Eddyville and the Benton Tribune-Courier.

The group also includes Sun Publishing and WPSD-TV, an NBC-affiliate television station based in Paducah.

David Paxton, president and CEO of Paxton Media and the great-grandson of W.F. Paxton, said that the entrepreneurial spirit has been in the family for a long time.

“I don’t think he would be surprised to see that the family had continued to expand the family business,” Paxton said of his great-grandfather.

Paxton Media has always been in a pattern of trying to diversify the business, David Paxton said. In the past the company has been involved in a radio station based in Paducah, which was sold in the 1950s. Paxton also owned a cable television system in southern Florida from the late1970s to the early 1980s.

Paxton said that Paxton Media has “found to have the most success reinvesting in their core business,” which is newspapers.

Paxton Media Group has grown rapidly in the past 15 years. Most of the acquisitions were merely opportunities presenting themselves, Paxton said. When David Paxton joined Paxton Media in 1991, the company already had intentions to expand, he said.

However, Paxton joined the family business with a background in investment banking and intentions to expand acquisitions and development of the company. “When I was hired, one assignment I had was to develop … a plan that was already underway,” Paxton said.

During expansions, when executives at Paxton Media found a paper that they thought fit their company, they took advantage of the opportunity to buy.

Part of what makes a newspaper fit the Paxton mold is its geographical position relative to other Paxton papers. With the most recent purchase of The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., Paxton said executives “saw an opportunity for synergy in the long run.” Paxton Media already owned seven papers in North Carolina, so buying The Herald-Sun was an opportunity to share resources, Paxton said.

The Paxton family business has been around for more than 100 years, but its expansion has come in the past two decades. This chart shows the number of daily newspapers bought by Paxton Media over the years. (Link will open in new window.)

David Paxton predicts that the rate of expansion will slow down. He said that this is simply what happens as a company gets larger; it is hard to keep up the fast pace of growth.

Though Paxton said the family is not focused only on newspapers, its television station is the company’s only current venture outside the newspaper business. Paxton said the company could buy other stations, but the right opportunity has not come along yet.

So for now, the Paxtons are sticking to what they know best, and that is the community newspaper business.

The Paxtons feel that they have a “primary job of informing people in the community about the community,” Paxton said.

Paxton Media has a philosophy when it comes to covering the news: Cover the community first, the state second, then national and international news. At The Paducah Sun, the flagship paper of Paxton Media, national and international news is, for the most part, considered to be covered elsewhere. The Paducah Sun, which has a circulation of 25,000, does include important national and international news that may hit close to home, but it is not the paper’s main concern.

“We want to cover stories that aren’t [covered elsewhere],” Paxton said of news that is covered by national papers, television and the Internet.

Paxton Media Group practices more control over The Paducah Sun than any of its other newspapers simply because Paxton family members are directly involved in the production of the paper. James F. Paxton Jr., David Paxton’s brother, is the editor of the paper. Noting that there is a journalism side and a business side to every newspaper, David Paxton said, there is a bit of a crossover in Paducah of these two sides since the family is involved in both.

However, Paxton said that Paxton Media thinks it is “very important” that the journalism side of a newspaper be managed locally. “There is no influence from Paducah in other newsrooms,” Paxton said.

Bobbie Foust is a well-respected Western Kentucky journalist who has worked for both The Paducah Sun and the Herald Ledger. Foust said that she didn’t see any interference with the journalism side of the news from Paxton Media executives.

However, the executives at Paxton Media are involved with their newspapers on the business end of things from the Paducah headquarters. Ideas that work well in the home base of Paducah are frequently implemented in branches elsewhere. These ideas may include accounting or other managerial aspects of running a newspaper.

The most recent purchase by Paxton Media Group, and its largest ever, was The Herald-Sun, a 50,000 plus-circulation newspaper. Before this purchase in January 2005, the largest paper owned by Paxton was the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, with a circulation just under 30,000.

A rule of thumb in the industry is that a newsroom ought to have about 1.1 employee for every 1,000 circulation. Paxton said that this figure is on the low end of the scale and that some say the ratio should be slightly higher for every 1,000 circulation.

The newspaper in Durham had 87 people in the newsroom and a circulation of 50,379. This was well over the number of employees needed to run the paper successfully by industry standards. Seventeen employees were removed from the newsroom at The Herald-Sun. Paxton said that when Paxton Media bought The Herald-Sun the newspaper was spending too much money and had too many people in all departments.

“They were forced to sell the paper,” Paxton said. “No business can survive if it loses money.”

“After the layoffs, the newsroom is very well staffed,” Paxton said.

There were worries in Durham that layoffs in the newsroom would affect the ability of the newspaper to cover the news. Robert Ashley, editor of The Herald-Sun, said that the newspaper has been successful in providing a “strong dose” of news in a competitive market since the Paxton takeover. Ashley was employed by Paxton Media at the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer at the time of The Herald-Sun purchase. Paxton executives relocated him to Durham to help run the paper.

Ashley made it clear that Paxton Media does not want to exercise control through journalism in its newsrooms. Local autonomy has “always been deeply ingrained” in Paxton, Ashley said. “The editor determines the editorial content.” At The Herald-Sun Ashley said contact with executives at Paxton Media is mostly informal.

Ashley said the paper has “really become more local” since its purchase from a local family by Paxton Media. The Herald-Sun has increased the presence of local news on the front page, Ashley said. The paper has also received a lot of positive feedback, Ashley said, from the African-American community with the coverage of local issues.

Diversity is an important issue in Durham. According to the United States Census Bureau the city of Durham is 43.8 percent African American. Progress has been made in diversifying the newsroom, but The Herald-Sun is still behind its peers, according to a newsroom diversity report by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which ranks newsrooms by a “diversity index.” – the non-white percentage of the newsroom divided by the non-white percentage of the circulation area.

The report showed that the 2005 diversity index of The Herald-Sun was 28. This is a significant increase from the 2004 index of 15, but still well below the peer group for The Herald-Sun, which has a diversity index of 50. The Herald-Sun’s index of 28 ranks 69th out of 90 papers in that peer group, newspapers with circulations 50,001 to 100,000.

Meanwhile, back at The Sun…

Over the last 15 to 20 years, the editorial policy of The Paducah Sun has turned conservative, adding to the voice of Republicans in Western Kentucky. David Paxton recalls that when E.J. Paxton Jr. was editor, the paper had a more liberal voice and when E.J. “Jack” Paxton III took his place in the editor’s chair his more conservative personal philosophies were reflected in the paper.

When Jack Paxton, a former NBC reporter, returned home to Paducah to become editor of the paper, he changed the name from The Paducah Sun-Democrat to The Paducah Sun. However, Paxton said that family editors with a conservative voice would simply consider themselves products of growing up in Western Kentucky and the socially conservative environment to which they were exposed.

Richard Noss, former Republican chair for McCracken County, which is where The Paducah Sun is based, said that The Sun has a fair but conservative editorial policy. He said he believes The Sun’s editorial pages are “the most conservative in the state.”

“They were the only major newspaper in the state that agreed with the impeachment of President Clinton,” Noss said as an example of a past editorial opinion at The Sun. He also said that lately the Sun has been particularly critical of the investigation by Kentucky Attorney General Greg Stumbo of the Fletcher administration. “The Sun is one of the few papers to do so,” Noss said.

In the past, Noss has disagreed with the position taken by some editorials at The Sun. He said the Sun has published editorials critical of appearances of Republican personalities in Western Kentucky. “They did that without really knowing the facts under the surface,” he said. However, for the most part Noss said the editorials by the Sun are “not off the wall.”

“Good editorial pages take forceful positions on various issues,” said Mac Thrower, editorial editor of the Sun. Thrower said the editorial philosophy of The Sun represents the paper as an institution.

The Sun has a definite influence in the immediate readership area, Paxton said. However, the Paxtons realize that around the state the Lexington Herald-Leader and Louisville’s Courier-Journal have more influence. The Herald-Leader has a daily circulation of 115,833 and serves 74 counties in Central and Eastern Kentucky. The Courier-Journal’s circulation of 207,665 covers counties in Kentucky and Indiana.

“We are at least noticed in Frankfort,” Paxton said.

The notice that the Sun gets in the state capital may be due to its conservative voice, Paxton said. This distinguishes the newspaper from its larger competitors. Due to the more liberal views of the larger Kentucky newspapers, the Sun offers an outlet for a more conservative voice, especially in sometimes-forgotten far Western Kentucky.

“We don’t set out to be an alternative voice, but clearly we are,” said Thrower of The Sun’s position in relation to The Courier-Journal and the Herald-Leader.

Paxton said gaining more political “clout” is not a motive for the company or its editorials. Paxton said his family thinks that community papers are important, “and we consider ourselves good stewards of community papers.”

“I think it is fair and accurate to say that we represent the conservative population,” Paxton said.

Frank Rasche, a Democratic state representative for McCracken County, characterized The Paducah Sun as being “very straightforward” in its news coverage.

“The editorial page is a whole different story,” Rasche said. Rasche said he has been complimented on the editorial pages of The Sun. “But I’ve also been damned,” he said with a laugh.

Rasche has had problems with generalizations made by the editorial pages of the Sun. They wants to portray that the nature of the legislature is to raise taxes, he said. “I have a problem with broad statements like that,” Rasche said.

Rasche said that those involved with the editorial page at The Sun are “very hard to please.”

“The general policy is anti-tax,” Rasche said. “It’s not a matter of Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal.”

This conservative tradition has continued today with editor James F. Paxton Jr. He became editor after the death of Jack Paxton, who died in a plane crash shortly after his return to the Sun. “It is largely up to the individual who is in the editor’s chair,” David Paxton said.

Paxton Media Group realizes that it plays a critical role in the community. That role is informing the people, Paxton said.

Paxton Media has always been a good supporter of the community, Rasche said. “They do not fully realize the effect on the outside world,” Rasche said of the Sun’s editorials. Continually forcing opinions on readers through editorials at the Sun sometimes gets in the way of progress in the community, he said. Rasche said broad statements degrading the state legislature, which are not necessarily true, negatively affect the public’s view of how their state is being run.

Paxton said that the people are not well informed about the government, elected officials and other areas of the news. When informing the community about things that are affecting them directly, “It is easy to feel good about what you do everyday,” Paxton said.

The Paxtons have been informing their community for the past century. Their influence has become more pronounced through expansions in recent years. This has helped the once small family business grow into a regionally influential company.

“We are in the newspaper business because we like the newspaper business,” Paxton said.


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
College of Communications & Information Studies

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879

Al Cross, director , al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated:
February 16, 2006