Learning by doing: Cruikshank takes over the family newspaper
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
Bruised by the recent elimination of some types of public notice advertising and scooped on news by social media, Brent Cruikshank, publisher of The Fountain Hills Times, is undaunted in his resolve that his newspaper and the local news industry are destined to survive and even thrive.
His hope springs, in part, from hiring a new reporter to cover the education beat.
“Our new journalist is 22, and he loves journalism and he loves newspapers,” Cruikshank said. “There is a future for newspapers. We just have to adapt.”
Cruikshank is following in the footsteps of his father, longtime Publisher Alan Cruikshank, who co-founded the Western States Publishers with Arthur Hewitt in March 1974 and published the first issue of the Fountain Hills Times in June 1974. The elder Cruikshank, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1995, retired last January. He still shares his advice with his son, who often calls him for help when problems arise.
After working for nearly 20 years in advertising sales at the newspaper, Brent Cruikshank admits he had never thought about working in management.
“I have a soft heart, and I never wanted to have to tell people what to do,” he said.
But he has given it a shot, and after about eight months at the helm, he’s still working his way to the crest of his learning curve. One of the hardest things he has faced so far is balancing the newspaper’s news and editorial policies with advertising and business interests, especially when it comes to politics. He’s also worried about residents in his community getting their “news” from social media, and across town, he’s still recognized as “little Brent,” whom people remember as a boy.
“I know everyone in town on a personal level, and it’s hard to step into the publisher’s shoes,” he said. “It’s not as friendly as it used to be.”
Brent Cruikshank grew up in Fountain Hills, a small town in Maricopa County, AZ, just a few miles east of Phoenix. He graduated from high school there in 1994 and followed his sister to New York City, where she was a Broadway dancer. There, he fell in love with the big city hustle and bustle, the bright lights and the restaurant scene.
“I studied at the International Center of Photography with the idea of becoming a sports journalist, but I walked into the restaurant business and loved it,” he said. He eventually made his way back to Arizona and enrolled in college there, but when his father had a position open for an advertising sales representative at the newspaper, he took the job. He graduated from the University of Phoenix in 2013 with bachelor’s degree in business.
Fountain Hills is known for a large man-made fountain, once the largest fountain in the world. It sits in the middle of a 30-acre lake in town and can send water soaring up to 560 feet.
For 10 years, between 1990 and 2000, Fountain Hills was the eighth fastest growing town in Arizona.
Cruikshank recalls that the Fountain Hills population was around 3,000 when he was a child. In 2016, the census reported 24,500 people living there.
Fountain Hills residents have established two popular closed community pages on Facebook. Cruikshank noticed his readers were flocking to those pages instead of the newspaper to read about local happenings. He was worried about losing those readers and advertisers too. Taking advice from the old saying “if you can’t beat them; join them,” he joined the pages and started posting stories from The Fountain Hills Times and driving eyeballs back to the newspaper.
“That has been one positive. I’ve learned posting stories on those pages can work for you,” he said. “It helps brand us as a reliable source for news.”
Readers appreciate it, too. He recalls the day a neighbor approached him on the street, thanked him for publishing stories on those community sites and told him how much she loves seeing them there.
Central Arizona attracts a large flock of snowbirds that make their winter migration to Phoenix and Scottsdale, where daytime temperatures hover around 60 degrees during the winter months. When the snowbirds arrive in town, the newspaper’s circulation soars as high as 4,500. But in the scorching summertime when these residents have returned home to places like Minnesota and Illinois, the circulation drops. In July, circulation was about 3,300, Cruikshank said.
Fountain Hills is also a bedroom community to Phoenix and Scottsdale. Major corporations and industry are scarce. The newspaper’s advertising base is made up of small businesses, restaurants, retail, dentists, doctors and others in the service industry.
Real estate advertising is booming in the community, where the average price for a home is $400,000. Realtors stay out of The Fountain Hills Times’ classified section, and instead, buy ROP ads in the newspaper’s front sections.
“They like advertising in the news section,” Cruikshank said. “They want to be where people read the news because that’s where they get their listings.”
The Fountain Hills Times is flush with loyal advertisers, but Cruikshank and his team have to work for them.
“Back in the day, we’d sell people a six-month contract, and they’d just keep the same ad in the paper every week,” he said. “In today’s world, it’s tough to establish new relationships with advertisers because they have other options online, like social media.”
He is looking to explore video marketing and social media services to appeal to advertisers, offering to shoot commercials for posting online.
Last year, The Fountain Hills Times and other Arizona newspapers took a public notice hit when the legislature eliminated requirements for publishing corporate filings in newspapers, instead relying on the Arizona Corporation Commission to post these documents to an online database. The law pertains to both profit and non-profit organizations.
The Arizona Newspaper Association has called this action the single most significant legislative development affecting the publication of public notices in newspapers in recent years.
Circulation and Classified Advertising Manager Tammy Ott said this measure wiped out three fourths of the newspaper’s public notices. Cruikshank estimates the financial hit is around $40,000 a year.
In this year’s National Newspaper Association Better Newspaper Advertising Contest, The Fountain Hills Times won third place for public notice advertising.
“The amount of large public notices in this section is nice to see. The information is carefully placed and it is easy to read,” the judge commented.
Despite the elimination of a large public notice advertising sector and encroachment of social media, the newspaper still enjoys a high level of reader engagement, if you go by the volume of letters to the editor.
Normally the newspaper runs 18 to 20 letters per issue, but at times, the letters have filled up three or four pages, according to Cruikshank.
“One week we had so many, we had to turn down some of them,” he said.
In addition to the newspaper, Western States Publishers puts out an annual homes magazine, an annual dining guide and an annual community guide, all in magazine format. They also publish a digest-sized worship publication and a variety of special sections.
The loss of public notice advertising, proliferation of social media and the threat of newsprint tariffs has Cruikshank worried, but he is not letting it get him down.
“People who are not in the newspaper business see us as a dying industry,” he said. Although he believes there is some chance newspapers could still be printing on newsprint in 10 years, he is ready to adapt to a new reality if they go out of print.
“If we go online in 10 years, that won’t be so bad. We’d just get up and send an email blast out to our subscribers that says ‘your Fountain Hills Times is now online,’” he said. “I think there is a future for newspapers, but just like any other business, we just have to learn to adapt to changes.”
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Fountain Hills Times.
How old is the Fountain Hills Times?
What is the parent company?
Western States Publishers.
How long has it been in your family?
45 years. My father, Alan Cruikshank, founded the paper along with Arthur Hewitt.
How long have you worked there and when did you become publisher?
I joined the paper in 1997 and was an advertising representative for the company before becoming publisher when my father retired in January 2018.
Have you ever worked anywhere else?
Served in a few restaurants in the area.
What is the paper’s circulation?
Circulation is between 3,500 and 4,300 depending on the time of the year.
What is the paper’s publication schedule?
Does your newspaper have a mission statement or a motto?
Provide the facts and always be a reliable news source.
How many people are employed at the Fountain Hills Times?
We have 18 employees.
What do you see as your newspaper’s role in your community?
Providing accurate news and events being held in the community.
What is the most rewarding aspect of publishing a community newspaper?
Respect from the locals as a reliable news source.
What is your biggest challenge?
What are your top goals for the next year?
Work more on the video marketing side and use social media to our advantage.
What advice would you give to other family owned newspapers that are striving to survive and thrive in an ever-changing media landscape?
To really learn more about social media and use it to the company’s advantage. Social media will not go anywhere, but it is a great tool to use to brand the company. Example is that we have a community Facebook page in Fountain Hills called the Fountain Hills Connection with 10,500 members around and in our community. I have shared news stories on this page and have been approached by locals thanking me because they know when I post a story it is accurate. This is a great way to brand your newspaper.