Newspapers first appeared in the 16th century in roughly the same form we know them today. Aside from technological advances in printing and distribution, newspaper publishing did not change a lot between the 17th and 20th centuries. But then came the internet with its online news sources and social media, and suddenly the landscape changed completely.
With many small-town newspapers—or, for that matter, larger ones—closing, consolidating, or struggling to hang on, fourth-generation newspaperman Cody Sossamon is embracing change and optimistic about the future of the Gaffney Ledger.
In the late 1800s, a young newspaperman named Edward Hope Decamp was offered the opportunity to come to the fledgling town of Gaffney to start a newspaper for a salary of $50 a month and a possibility of future ownership. He came to town with $10 in his pocket and not much else to his name, but by 1897 he owned the paper outright.
During his tenure, he took the paper from a weekly publication to biweekly and then to three times a week, which has remained its publishing model. Upon his retirement in 1927, he sold the business to his son-in-law, Frank Sossamon, who was succeeded by his son Louis Sossamon in 1969.
Cody Sossamon, the current publisher, came on board in 1976, starting as advertising director and working in other capacities before taking over the reins from his father in 1999.
Whether the newspaper will pass on to another family member
when Sossamon, 64, retires, is not a settled question. “My youngest daughter
graduated from USC Upstate in with a degree in communications,” he says. “She
has an interest in journalism, but maybe not in working for her father. If she
doesn’t want to do it, I’m going to try to hold on to it as long as I can and
set it up to keep going after I retire.”
Embracing the Future
The challenge for newspapers of any size is to deliver the news in an age of media saturation and make money doing it. “We’re in the process of refocusing from our legacy of print, which will remain the backbone of all newspapers for years to come,” Sossamon says. “Print newspapers have been losing revenue. You have to find out some way to make up for that loss of revenue or cut expenses, or both.” The Ledger has 18 employees, and so far, they have managed not to cut any jobs.
Sossamon had a shake-up in his thinking about the future of newspaper publishing when one of his employees came back from a conference with the book Saving Community Journalism by Penelope Muse Abernathy. “The first part of the book is scary,” Sossamon says, but he realizes “there are a number of opportunities to not only continue to be a presence in our community, but to be more of a presence.”
The first thing he did when he finished the book was to go out and buy an iPhone. He had been on Twitter since 2009, but hadn’t been active (you can follow him at @codysos), but with his phone he started tweeting links to news stories on the Ledger web site. The newspaper’s Facebook page is very active with news updates, and Sossamon says they’ve been adding free content to the web site, too.
“We’re learning a lot about what it takes to reach out to those who don’t want to read a printed newspaper,” Sossamon says.
The Gaffney Ledger has 7,200 print subscribers now, down from a high of 9,000 in 2008. Current print subscribers can add $12 to their annual subscription to have access to all of the online stories; web-only subscriptions are $56, the same as a print-only subscription. Users who want access to just one article can pay a $2 single-issue fee, but Sossamon says they’ve been working on having more free content, too—things like streaming Friday night football games, stories that didn’t make it into the print editions, and national stories from the AP wire.
“A lot of newspapers are in the same position I’m in,” Sossamon says. “If you want to survive you have to adapt and change. People don’t like change, but the more I do it, the more I like it. I tell my staff to ‘think digital,’ and we’ll be the leader in small paper digital journalism.”
Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.