Forum Communications' acquisition of three daily newspapers earlier this year, which doubled its total daily circulation, expanded the company's large regional cluster in the Upper Midwest.
But more importantly it solidified what may become a new model for the industry: largely contiguous daily and weekly print publications, television and radio all feeding into a dominant regional online platform.
The size of the footprint is impressive. The geography owned by the Fargo, North Dakota-based company spans four states, with print serving a majority of the counties in the area.
It is supplemented by broadcast television stations in Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck and Minot (all in North Dakota) and an AM talk radio station in Fargo.
Many of the company’s 35 newspapers have been added through acquisitions over the past decade, during which time Forum has doubled revenue.
While Forum’s management views the newspaper acquisitions as good investments in their own rights, they see much of the company’s future organic growth coming from the regional online offerings, which are anchored in the print products.
“The growth of the company has been phenomenal the past 10 years,” said Bill Marcil, Forum’s chairman and chief executive officer. “You either grow a company or you go backwards. These opportunities just fit into our regional strategy for continued growth.”
At the end of June, the 128-year-old, family-owned company bought two regional daily newspapers, a smaller complementary daily and a number of weeklies for $135 million from The McClatchy Company.
The newspapers, which included the 46,000-circulation Duluth (MN) News-Tribune and 31,000-circulation Grand Forks (ND) Herald, were among the publications that McClatchy spun out of its purchase of Knight Ridder.
In addition to its newspapers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, four television stations and an AM talk radio station, Forum owns several commercial printing operations and an interactive media division. The company employs roughly 2,200 workers.
“The company really began to be more aggressive with newspaper expansion in 1979 when we purchased the West Central Tribune in Willmar, Minnesota,” explains Marcil.
“It was then that we decided to grow in the Upper Midwest and have just acted opportunistically to do so. The Duluth and Grand Forks acquisitions fit this plan perfectly.”
The company’s recent growth has come under the watch of Lloyd Case, Forum’s chief operating officer and president. Case joined Forum in 1982 as a controller, was promoted to chief operating officer in 1999 and recently was given the additional title of president.
“The company never had a goal to purchase a specific number of newspapers over time,” says Marcil. “But when these acquisition opportunities came up over the years, we acted aggressively to expand our portfolio.”
The company’s flagship newspaper, the 51,000-circulation Fargo (ND) Forum, was first published on November 17, 1891, and later merged with both the Daily Republican in 1894 and the Moorhead Daily News in 1955. The Forum won a Pulitzer Prize in 1958 for its coverage of a devastating tornado that struck the area.
N.B. Black purchased the Fargo Forum in 1917 from Major A.W. Edwards and Col. H.C. Plumley, the paper’s two founders.
Ownership of the company was consolidated under the Marcil and Lewis families – descendants of N.B. Black – in 1984. The Lewis family’s interest was bought out by the Marcils in 1988.
Two-thirds of the company’s newspapers holdings were purchased during the past 10 years. In 2001 Forum purchased Red Wing Newspapers from Arlin Albrecht, which added one daily and a large weekly group to the company’s burgeoning portfolio.
The company ventured into broadcasting in 1935 when it purchased 49% of WDAY radio in Fargo.
WDAY-TV began broadcasting in 1965 as an NBC affiliate, and the company purchased the remaining 51% ownership in WDAY, Inc. in 1958. Forum now owns four ABC-affiliated television stations in North Dakota, along with two talk radio stations, one of which is in Fargo.
Forum remains one of only a handful of companies that currently own both broadcasting and publishing assets in the same market, the result of being grandfathered after the media cross-ownership restrictions were enacted in the mid-1970s.
What’s in store for the company over the next 10 years? Case envisions the bulk of the company’s growth coming from its web and commercial printing efforts.
“I expect that both our interactive and commercial print divisions will show double-digit growth in the next five years. But we’ll continue to grow through more acquisitions when the opportunities present themselves.”