We need to convince people why it is important for them to spend their hard-earned money and time on their local newspaper
April 2, 2015
Wayne Knuckles finds paradise at the Palatka Daily News
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
For Wayne Knuckles, the newspaper business is not just a job—it is an adventure. And it is a calling, that he answered many years ago.
When Knuckles landed as publisher of the 120-year-old Palatka (FL) Daily News in 2013, he believed he had discovered his own little piece of heaven right there in Putnam County.
“It is jaw-dropping beautiful here in Palatka,” Knuckles said in a phone conversation. He marvels over the winding hiking and biking trails along the scenic 310-mile St. Johns River, one of the laziest rivers in the country, dropping just one inch per mile as it slowly flows northward into the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville.
“You can see the sun rise over the water in the mornings, and we have all kinds of wildlife here, even manatees,” he said.
In an economically depressed area, the St. Johns River was considered a lifeline at the turn of the 20th Century, when ships used the river for commerce before the railroad came through, and later, Interstate 95.
Even though the St. Johns is no longer a commercial thoroughfare, Knuckles believes the river will continue to be an economic boon for the future, drawing tourists to the area, along with new residents who want to sample their own little slice of heaven, too.
Growing up in southeast Kentucky, Knuckles loved sports and played football and basketball and ran track in high school. He landed a job as a part-time sports writer at his local weekly newspaper, the Pineville Sun, and after he graduated from high school, he decided to delay college for a year to keep his newspaper job. That year has stretched into 40, and Knuckles is still a newspaperman.
“Working at the newspaper was free training for me,” he said. “You can say it was the graduate school of hard knocks.”
Knuckles stayed in sports even as he transitioned into newsroom management at a variety of small newspapers. He worked for a while as assistant city editor for the Pacific Daily News of Guam before returning home and joining Jack Fishman’s team at the Citizen-Tribune in Morristown, TN.
“Jack took me under his wing and taught me the business end of newspapers,” Knuckles said. “It was great working for him, and I learned so much.”
Knuckles took his first publisher’s job with the weekly Hampton County (SC) Guardian, which was, at the time, one of Community Newspaper Inc.’s family of publications. In 2006, Morris Communications bought the Guardian, and Knuckles kept working there until he had another chance to join the CNI group.
He went on to spend six years as publisher of the Dahlonega Nugget, a small, Georgia weekly.
“A little over a year ago, the longtime publisher at Palatka retired,” Knuckles said. “I threw my hat into the ring because I wanted a chance to be the publisher of a daily newspaper.”
He loves that the newspaper has many resources, including 30 full-time employees and a carrier force to deliver the newspaper, which is published five days a week.
“I feel like a conductor in an orchestra,” he said.
The newspaper’s circulation is 9,600, including paid print subscriptions, single-copy sales and paid subscriptions to the electronic edition—which numbers at about 300.
His biggest challenge is figuring out how to remain relevant to people’s lives in this fast-paced world, and he feels the heat of competition for readers’ attention.
“We need to convince people why it is important for them to spend their hard-earned money and time on their local newspaper,” he said. “They are not going to spend that time and money unless it is meaningful and relevant to their lives.”
One way Knuckles keeps the Daily News relevant is to thoroughly cover Putnam County and Palatka, the county seat. He writes editorials and publishes letters to the editor. He solicits opposing views from all sides in op-ed pieces and columns.
The St. Johns River is host to the Rodman Reservoir, created when the river’s Ocklawaha tributary was dammed 50 years ago as part of a project to link the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico with a shipping channel. The project fell through, and over the years, the reservoir has grown its own special ecosystem. It has become home to some of the best bass fishing in the country. It is also a haven for wildlife, including manatees. Now there is a movement to dredge the Port of Jacksonville to accommodate larger ships, which would require breaching the dam and draining the reservoir. A battle is raging among the business community and the environmentalists.
Knuckles solicited editorials and guest columns from the Jacksonville business community, the river keepers, the sportsmen and the environmental groups to give all sides a chance to make their case in the newspaper.
Putnam County is one of the poorest counties in Florida. Its population is 74,364, and the unemployment rate is more than 7 percent. The sports and recreation community makes a major impact on the local economy.
Even in an economically depressed area, the Palatka Daily News has loyal advertisers.
“Our car dealers are wonderful business partners,” Knuckles said. “There are plenty of mom and pop businesses in our community, too. We want their business, so we make it affordable for them.”
The newspaper offers shared pages and numerous special sections covering a variety of topics such as Veteran Salutes, Top 50 Scholars, the Azalea Festival, bass tournaments, a medical directory, sports sections, holiday gift guides and visitor guides.
The newspaper also has a TMC product delivered weekly on Wednesdays.
One of the newspaper’s most popular publications, Explore, is an annual glossy magazine, full of history about Putnam County.
This past season, the local high school basketball team made it to the semifinals in the state championships for the first time in the school’s history, and that was big news.
The newspaper’s bread and butter coverage is not unusual—cops and courts, local government and sports, and Knuckles would like to do more investigative and enterprise reporting.
“We cover the community as a whole, including the bad news,” he said. “The bad news makes its way into the newspaper without a lot of effort through phone tips, e-mails, public meetings and police blotters, but we work hard to find good and positive things to say about our community to provide a balanced photo of the way our community really is.”
Knuckles maintains a strict paywall around his online news product. He uses Facebook to drive readers to the print product and to publish breaking news. And although he believes digital publishing is growing in popularity, he’s not ready to give up on ink and newsprint.
“The future is bright,” he said. “The role of the CNI family and our mission is to be a strong newspaper and help build a strong community.”
To Knuckles, newspapers are the best cheerleaders for the communities they serve.
“Newspapers play a leadership role in their communities,” he said. “They are leaders in the public discussion. They are the public town square.”
firstname.lastname@example.org or @terisaylor
Name of Newspaper: Palatka Daily News.
Name of Publisher: Wayne Knuckles.
How many years have you been with The Palatka Daily News? I became the publisher of the Palatka Daily News in December 2013.
What is the circulation? Our total paid distribution is 9,881.
What is the newspaper’s publication schedule? We publish five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday.
Do you print the paper at your own plant or do you contract it out? We have our own press plant and mail room.
Do you have a mission statement or motto? If so, what is it? The mission statement of Community Newspapers Inc. is: “We believe that strong newspapers build strong communities. Newspapers get things done. Our primary goal is to publish distinguished and profitable community-oriented newspapers. This mission will be accomplished through the teamwork of professionals dedicated to truth, integrity, loyalty, quality and hard work.”
How many people are employed at The Palatka Daily News? How many in the newsroom? We have approximately 30 full-time employees, along with 27 contract carriers. We employ eight full-time people in the newsroom, along with a part-time news clerk and several stringers/correspondents.
What is the most rewarding aspect of publishing a community newspaper? The ability to help get things done for the betterment of our community. We report the news, but we also help identify community challenges, and through our opinion columns and editorials, we share our thoughts on possible solutions. We also print the opinions of others who may not agree. Helping foster public discourse, knowing we are providing a valuable service to the community and sometimes even seeing the community reap the benefits of the hard work the newspaper staff puts in every day, that’s just about the best feeling in the world.
What are your biggest challenges? Remaining relevant to the lives of our readers. As our company chairman, Tom Wood, often says, newspapers will always be around as long as we remain relevant. With the frantic pace of modern society, that sometimes seems like trying to hit a moving target, but it is a problem we have to tackle and solve to keep our future bright.
What are your biggest rewards? For me personally, it is interacting with people, both inside and outside our building. It is so rewarding to have such a great group of talented individuals who are driven to succeed as part of our newspaper team. And every day, our readers give us feedback, both positive and negative, on the job we are doing and what they would like to see us print more of or less. When all is said and done, it’s all about building good relationships, and I find that to be the most satisfying part of the job.
What are your top goals for 2015? We plan to redesign our paper to make it easier to access and more visually appealing. We also plan to find new advertising dollars outside our primary market and grow revenue for our digital products.
What are your newspaper’s most distinguishing characteristics? I believe the most distinguishing characteristic of the Palatka Daily News is that our roots run so deep in this community we have served for more than 125 years. A large percentage of our staff was born and raised in this community. A surprising number of people in the community point with pride to the fact they were once employed here in some capacity or another, often as newspaper carriers in their younger days. We have a vested interest in doing our jobs right, we know our friends and neighbors count on us, and we take that responsibility seriously.
How do you view your newspaper’s role in the community it serves? We provide important local information through our news and advertising columns that our readers simply cannot get anywhere else. We are both cheerleader and occasional critic for our community. We fight for open records and open government, constantly. And we present the widest possible range of views on important local topics through our editorial pages.
What is one thing you will never change? I never get tired of hearing comments on something I have written in the newspaper. Whether they are critical or complimentary, it’s still an honor to me that anyone would take the time to read something I have written.