Thelma Barrios started work at a group of weekly newspapers based in San Fernando 28 years ago. Since then, she's been a clerk, reporter and editor. Now she's the owner.
Her company, Independent Community Newspapers, bought the four papers lock, stock and barrel in October from Hearst Corp., which abandoned its idea of using a network of community papers throughout Los Angeles County to offer advertisers greater market penetration than through the Los Angeles Herald Examiner alone.
Whether the new owner can make any money with its acquisition remains to be seen. Several people who have worked with the papers said they were almost certainly losing money when Hearst sold them.
The papers, which Thelma's son Rick says are delivered free to every home in their circulation areas, are:
- The Sun Independent, circulating 42,000 copies in San Fernando, Sylmar, Lakeview Terrace and Pacoima.
- The Valley View Independent, circulating 42,000 copies in Mission Hills, Granada Hills and Northridge.
- The Record-Ledger Independent, distributing 17,500 copies in Sunland-Tujunga.
- The Sun Valley Scene, distributing 18,000 copies in the Sun Valley area.
The Barrioses have already made some changes. Thelma has taken the helm as publisher, and Rick, who has no official title but apparently concentrates on the business end of things, said circulation has been increased to 119,500, up from an audited 109,000 in September.
They also have begun including the Spanish-language supplement of the Sun in the Sun Valley Scene. Both papers serve areas with many Latinos.
After the first of the year, Rick Barrios said, the company plans to open several satellite editorial and advertising offices in communities that the papers serve. The company now operates entirely out of rented quarters in San Fernando.
Independent Community Newspapers will not disclose financial details of the business, including revenue or advertising lineage, but Rick Barrios said ad rates have remained unchanged from the days of Hearst ownership.
He would not say whether the papers were making money when Hearst sold them or whether they are profitable now. But knowledgeable outsiders said the papers have had their troubles.
"I'm sure they were not making money," said Michael Flannery, the owner of Valley Printers in Sylmar. Flannery's company prints the papers, and his family once owned them.
"The whole chain was losing money," Bob Lauffer, former executive editor of Hearst Community Newspapers, said of the Hearst weeklies in the Southland. He said he believes that the Valley papers were losing money as well.
Several people who have worked for the papers said they were reasonably profitable until Hearst took them over, increased expenditures, made many personnel changes and then found revenue insufficient to cover costs.
"They bought this very expensive computer system. They poured money into presses and computers in Southgate," said Charles Ferrell, a former managing editor of the Valley weeklies. Ferrell is now with Champion Publications in Chino. "Hearst was always changing direction in mid-stream."
He said the Valley papers might still have been profitable when the Barrios family bought them. "If they treat it like a community newspaper, they've got a chance," he said of the new owners.
That is certainly something that Thelma Barrios intends to do. She has spent her career in community journalism in the northern San Fernando Valley, and when she left the weeklies in April she started a competing paper called the Independent, which has been merged with the former Hearst properties.
The 66-year-old publisher claimed that the papers would increase their emphasis on community news--of schools, local politics, local sports and so on--in the lower- and middle-income communities they serve.
"At one time the papers were tremendously successful," she said, adding that their problems occurred largely because the former owners "were not really tuned in to community newspapers."
Independent Community Newspapers hopes to succeed by luring more advertisers with higher circulation and virtually total market penetration, said Rick Barrios.
No one is saying what the papers sold for, but it probably was not a fortune. The weeklies own no presses or production plant and have about 44 employees. The papers are produced on the company's computerized typesetting equipment.
"Weeklies today are typically going for one time (annual) revenue, maybe 1 1/2 times," said Peter Kent, president of Henry Ansbacher Inc., a New York investment banker specializing in media properties. "If they don't have presses, it would bring that price down. It could be below one time revenue."