After 70 years (and counting) Larry Hiatt is not ready to give up on newspapers

Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers' Auxiliary

May 1, 2021

Larry and Sharon Hiatt own the Columbus (Kansas) News-Report.

Larry Hiatt is a recovering retiree. Coming back from multiple retirements is a habit he can’t break, and nearing 80, he’s back in the publishing saddle after his fourth or fifth retirement … but who’s counting?

“I’m just not very good at retiring,” he admits. Hiatt owns the Columbus (Kansas) News-Report, which recently merged with the nearby Cherokee County News-Advocate.

Hiatt is also not adept at slowing down. His latest venture was purchasing the Cherokee County News-Advocate in Baxter Springs, Kansas, a newspaper he and his wife, Sharon, started in 1998 under the banner of Baxter Springs News. The couple ran the paper for five years before selling it to American Consolidated Newspapers and retiring in 2003. Then they came out of retirement and moved to Texas where they operated the Fort Stockton Pioneer.

By the time they returned to Cherokee County in 2010, their Baxter Springs News was owned by Gannett (formerly GateHouse), and had been merged into another newspaper to form the Cherokee County News-Advocate, still published in Baxter Springs.

The Hiatts started the Columbus News-Report, also in Cherokee County, about 15 miles from Baxter. In March 2021, they purchased the News-Advocate from Gannett and combined it with the News-Report. The newspapers cover both Baxter and Columbus and Cherokee County in its entirety.

“We’re just now putting it all back together,” Hiatt said in a phone interview from his office in Columbus. He says it was easy for him to return to his hometown and start another newspaper. Even though he moved around a lot during his long career, he still has friends there. His biggest fear was that eventually the town where he grew up might end up without a newspaper at all.

Columbus and Baxter have a combined population of about 7,000. And thanks to Hiatt, today both towns have a newspaper office. The News-Report’s main headquarters is in Columbus, and it has a satellite office at the Baxter Springs Chamber of Commerce.

“I’ve been a member of the Baxter Springs Chamber for several months, and I noticed the chamber did not have anybody answering the phones,” Hiatt explained. “They were asking members to take one day a month and volunteer, so I decided to hire someone to sit in that office there, and in lieu of paying rent to have a newspaper office in Baxter Springs, we made a deal to help the Chamber, and that is serving both of us well.”

Hiatt’s long and winding career started when he was a 13-year-old printer’s devil at a community newspaper in Tonganoxie, Kansas. He went on to publish his first newspaper in Oklahoma as he embarked on a career that has spanned nearly 70 years and included numerous stops at newspapers across the country, from the west coast to the heartland.

He’s home now, and although the idea of a final retirement stays top of mind, he’s not slowing down.

“This county has been my home my whole life, and one of the things we built this paper on is the fact that we are covering the entire county. I’ve been going to county commissioners’ meetings every Monday for almost 20 years,” he said. “People here know me, and I believe that’s what has helped us make it.”

Cherokee County is home to several small towns, and Hiatt strives to cover all of them. With five school districts where boards meet on the same night, it’s impossible to cover them all in person, but he and his staff manage to attend the three largest ones and rely on minutes and interviews to cover the rest.

The News-Report, a 12-page broadsheet, comes out three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Its circulation is 1,700, and it has seven employees. Hiatt wears many hats — running the business side of the newspaper, selling ads and covering local government. Sharon Hiatt handles the obituaries.

“When we started this paper here, 11 years ago, it was right at the peak of time that newspapers were going out of business,” he said.

So he and his wife sat down in their living room and built a business plan on the concept of having zero advertising — not even selling obituaries.

They first determined how much revenue they needed to get the newspaper out and created a calculation based on acquiring 1,000 subscribers.

“We figured we would need to raise about $800 per issue and to publish three issues a week,” he said.

He calculated a single copy sale price of $1.50 and a subscription rate of $135 per year.

“When we reached 1,000 subscribers, we were almost right on target. And as it turned out, we have been able to get advertising, which has allowed us to grow,” he said.

Hiatt prints the News-Report at the Joplin (Missouri) Globe and is proud of the fact he has never missed his 9 p.m. press deadline. When the Globe stopped publishing its Monday newspaper, it continued to maintain Hiatt’s print schedule and protected his press time, which comes as a relief.

Even as daily papers scale back their printing, Hiatt is determined to keep growing.

“My philosophy is if you only print one day a week, the only thing you are saving is the cost of the press and the postage, and the more times you publish, the more revenue you can take in.” Hiatt added that he can price his paper to cover his costs because his readers recognize its value.

The Columbus News-Report circulates primarily through the U.S. Postal Service. Rather than news racks, single copies are distributed through convenience stores.

In addition to loyal readers and subscribers, Hiatt banks on a healthy ad base, relying on special sections, including his graduation sections, veterans’ editions, Christmas greetings and kids’ letters to Santa.

“All those editions run between 32 and 36 pages, and we don’t have to increase staff,” he said.

In April, his staff was busy writing articles about graduating students from all five county high schools.

“We have a questionnaire that we take over to the high schools, and the kids fill it in and we publish those,” he said. “And we run a color graduation photo of every kid with their interview.”

He features the valedictorians and salutatorians on the front page. That section causes circulation to swell by as many as 1,000 extra papers.

“You know, no matter what is going on in the newspaper business, everybody still loves to have their name and picture in the local paper,” he said.

Hiatt, who has seen many ups and downs in the newspaper industry, he believes community newspapers are on the upswing.

“A few years ago, we were at a low, and today, in the small towns, at least, I think we are right on the verge of reestablishing ourselves,” he said. But we need people who want to be in our business — young people who have an interest in really doing newspaper work.”

After a career spanning seven decades and too many retirements to keep track of, Hiatt maintains a youthful excitement about newspapers and can’t imagine why anyone would not want a career in journalism.

“Anybody that has been in a newspaper very long says they have never had a better job because there’s always something new going on, and every day is a new day,” he said.

Teri Saylor is a writer in Raleigh, North Carolina. Connect with her at