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Correction to This Article
The column referred to East Carolina University as East Carolina State University

The Squire's Son, Bullish on Print

John Kent Cooke and stepdaughter Rachel Martin walk through a vineyard at the Boxwood Winery in Middleburg, Va., another of Cooke's varied domains.
John Kent Cooke and stepdaughter Rachel Martin walk through a vineyard at the Boxwood Winery in Middleburg, Va., another of Cooke's varied domains. (By John McDonnell -- The Washington Post)
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Sunday, July 26, 2009


Someone who does not think my industry is a dinosaur headed for extinction.

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John Kent Cooke, former president of the Washington Redskins and son of the legendary entrepreneur Jack Kent Cooke, has followed his late father into the newspaper business.

Last week, Cooke bought three daily newspapers and 10 weeklies in North Carolina for an undisclosed sum from Cox Enterprises, the century-old Atlanta-based media conglomerate. The acquisition is a major expansion of Cooke Communications LLC, where he is chairman of the board. It already owns the Key West Citizen daily newspaper, a string of Florida weeklies and a Web site for travelers to the Keys.

When I saw the news release last week from Cox, I thought to myself: What is Cooke thinking?

The parties wouldn't disclose the price, but I estimate through industry metrics that the three North Carolina dailies -- in Greenville, Rocky Mount and Elizabeth City -- alone cost $25 million to $30 million. The weeklies, which have a total circulation of 37,382, probably cost an additional $5 million or so.

Cooke's only comment when I asked what he paid is that his company is private.

Most of the newspaper industry has been whacked by a loss of advertising due to the Internet (Craigslist, Google) and the recession. Some have closed papers, others have gone to online-only publication, and the rest are taking their lumps, including The Washington Post.

"We are contrary," said Cooke, 68, a gentleman farmer (his father was nicknamed "The Squire") who lives on a farm in Middleburg, Va. "These are very attractive markets. They are isolated. They are not too close to Washington, D.C., or New York City or Los Angeles. Therefore, the news in those small cities [comes from] the local newspapers. What I realized is that these papers will thrive on local news. The key to the whole thing is content."

Because there are no local TV stations, Cooke has the turf to himself. He said his 425 employees, including reporters and editors, can outhustle the radio stations and anyone else trying to muscle in.

"They all make money and have very diversified advertising . . . mainly supporting things like banks, restaurants, the Lowe's and Home Depots."

His father once owned the Los Angeles Daily News, and John Kent Cooke said he still sees a place for news in print form: "Print will continue to stay alive, but advertising and revenue support will come increasingly more from subscription online and advertising online."

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