Miller adds suburban Phoenix clusterBack to News

It didn’t take long for the entrepreneurial bug to bite Randy Miller.

In 1977, with a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and a few months under his belt in the Des Moines Register newsroom, he bought a small weekly in northern Missouri. He was living the dream of every newly minted journalist in the post-Watergate era. The dream lasted a couple of years, when he sold the weekly and returned to the corporate world. It would be awhile before the bug returned.

He worked his way through a number of big city dailies, principally in newsroom jobs – Kansas City, St. Louis, Denver and Detroit. He made the transition to the business side in the late 1980s, serving as director of planning and development for the Joint Operating Agency that ran Detroit’s two metro dailies.

In the mid-1990s, Gannett (one of the partners in the Detroit JOA) made him publisher in Battle Creek, Michigan. He later moved to a corporate post as vice president of publishing for Lee Enterprises.

In 2001 it was time once again to leave the relative comfort of the newspaper industry’s corporate world. He bought the Colorado Daily, a free daily in Boulder that had once been a college newspaper. He then sold the Colorado Daily to the owner of the conventional daily in town in 2005, the E.W. Scripps Company, and stayed on to run it for them for two years.

At the end of that run he purchased the Explorer Newspapers serving suburban Tucson and later a free daily in Telluride, Colorado. Recently he added Freedom’s suburban Phoenix newspapers to his portfolio through a new partnership.

Dirks, Van Essen & Murray asked Miller about his growing company and the state of suburban publishing.

After a particularly tough year for newspapers, what makes you want to own more? There are great opportunities in newspapers. It certainly varies by market and the individual properties, but it’s still a great business. I look for a few key factors that, if they’re present, would signal a good opportunity.

Like Phoenix, your other newspaper operations are in markets (Tucson and Telluride, Colorado) that have been hit hard by the real estate meltdown. How did you weather the storm in these areas? They are different. Telluride is a much smaller market with local decision makers. Tucson is much bigger with a lot of national developers. We’ve found much more success when we can maintain local relationships.

Do you see these markets bouncing back soon, and if so, can your newspapers benefit from that? I wouldn’t say bounce back. I’d say they’ve stabilized and we’re expecting a slow recovery. There are segments that are doing well – healthcare for instance – and others that are slower to respond.

Do you think ad revenue will turn the corner in 2010, with year-over-year comparisons becoming positive? Are you seeing any signs of growth in your markets? Fortunately we’re doing well. Tucson is seeing some growth and Telluride is up dramatically thanks simply to a tremendous staff, not a rebound in the economy. I expect that the Phoenix papers will see modest growth except for the East Valley Tribune. That one will be more of a wild ride. Advertising was really damaged when Freedom announced they might shut down the paper. It will take us a few months to recover and then begin to grow again later this year.

Prior to becoming a newspaper owner, you worked for some of the nation’s largest newspaper companies. Knowing what you know now, would you still choose the entrepreneurial path? Absolutely. I learned a tremendous amount working for Gannett and Lee Enterprises. They are both great companies with different cultures and approaches. But I really enjoy what I’m doing now.