For decades, The Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia has exposed corruption, greed and incompetence with a tenacity that was rewarded last year with journalism’s highest honor, a Pulitzer Prize. But the newspaper now faces a painful reality: No matter how strong its journalism, no publication is immune to the economic pressure on the industry.
On Monday, its publisher, Susan Chilton Shumate, told her staff that the paper had filed for bankruptcy ahead of a sale, ending her family’s century-long role in shepherding its journalism. A prospective buyer is lined up, but the move raises questions about the future both of a relentless local watchdog and its more than 200 employees, including Eric Eyre, who accepted the Pulitzer last year for his reporting on the state’s opioid crisis.
“Never in a million years would I think that eight months later we would be in bankruptcy and I’d be reapplying for my job,” said Mr. Eyre, who plans to remain in West Virginia no matter what the outcome. “But I guess life is full of highs and lows, and obviously now we’re at a low.”
The announcement came at the end of a tumultuous period for the publication, which had weathered drawn-out legal battles stemming from a 2004 merger of the left-leaning Charleston Gazette and the right-leaning Charleston Daily Mail. The newspaper — which has about 32,000 daily subscribers, according to a court filing — has also suffered circulation and advertising losses over the past decade that Ms. Chilton Shumate described in a letter to staff as “devastating to the bottom line.”
The Gazette-Mail is not alone. The day after Ms. Shumate announced the sale and bankruptcy to staff, The East Bay Times, which won the Pulitzer last year for breaking news coverage of a warehouse fire that killed 36 people in Oakland, Calif., reported that about a quarter of its small staff had taken buyouts, with layoffs pending.
The industry as a whole has undergone tremendous downsizing and consolidation in recent years. That trend has hit publications in West Virginia, too, though they have been somewhat buffeted by a hunger for local news.
“There has been a decline of advertising revenues and not necessarily something to come along to replace that, but because so much of the state is covered by small community newspapers, I think the economic impacts haven’t been as severe,” said Maryanne Reed, dean of the West Virginia University Reed College of Media.
The Gazette-Mail has long stood out among them, developing a reputation for critical coverage of politicians and industry alike, fueled by an unofficial mantra of “sustained outrage,” a favored phrase of its liberal former publisher William E. “Ned” Chilton III.
The paper exposed corruption under multiple governors, one of whom, Arch A. Moore Jr., refused to call it by its name, addressing the publication only as “the morning sick call.” (Governor Moore, a Republican, later spent time in prison after admitting to accepting illegal campaign contributions.)
The paper also has a long history of rigorously reporting on the coal industry.
After the recent death of Paul Nyden, a longtime investigative reporter who had exposed dangerous and dishonest practices in the industry, Senator Joe Manchin III, of West Virginia, was unequivocal about his impact.
“West Virginia is safer for our coal miners and healthier for our communities because of Paul’s work,” he said in a statement.
That penetrating reporting has continued under Ken Ward, Jr., considered by some to be among the nation’s best coal reporters. His impact was on display this week at a coal conference when a lawyer joked about his absence, holding up a pink piece of paper with Mr. Ward’s name on it to laughter from the crowd, according to a reporter in attendance.
“That was kind of his icebreaker,” said the reporter, Taylor Kuykendall, who covers the coal industry for S&P Global Market Intelligence and has closely followed Mr. Ward’s work out of necessity.
The newspaper’s doggedness was recognized last year with the Pulitzer Mr. Eyre won for exposing drug companies that had flooded West Virginia with painkillers while flouting state law. His reporting about a small-town pharmacy that received nearly nine million hydrocodone pills over two years was cited by several members of Congress last year when the House Energy and Commerce Committee opened an investigation into the practice.
Despite its successes, the financial strains on the newspaper have long been in plain view, even to outsiders.
“When you see one person who used to have one beat that’s stretched into three or four, you realize that the sun’s not going to shine for long,” said Mayor Danny Jones of Charleston, who expressed concern about what the sale might mean for the crucial local institution.
Even though he has spent much of his life as a Republican, Mr. Jones, now an independent, was first encouraged to run for office years ago by the liberal Mr. Chilton, he said. But that never stopped the newspaper from holding him to account.
“They’ve been on me,” he said. “That’s just the way it works.”
The Gazette acquired its rival, the conservative Daily Mail, in 2004, maintaining separate newsrooms. But the Justice Department sued in 2007, arguing that the transaction violated federal antitrust law. The combined company settled in 2010, but its legal troubles continued. In August, it was ordered to pay the former owner of The Daily Mail nearly $4 million, a decision upheld by a federal judge less than two weeks before its bankruptcy filing.
Ogden Newspapers Inc., a national newspaper chain with roots in West Virginia, is in line to purchase the paper, though there is still time for other bidders to emerge.
“The Gazette-Mail is an important institution to Charleston and all of West Virginia,” Robert Nutting, president and chief executive of the company, told one of the chain’s newspapers. “I believe that it can, and must, have a bright future.”
Still, the newspaper’s staff isn’t sure what to make of the sale or what it will mean for their jobs, Mr. Eyre said. But that hasn’t stopped them from doing what they know best.
“The news goes on, and we’re there to cover it,” he said.