A rant for the ages against the corporate media

James Craven

Following the most recent round of layoffs at GateHouse Media, one newly unemployed journalist decided he’d had enough. James Craven, who worked for GateHouse’s Norwich Bulletin in Connecticut, wrote a blog post headlined “Goodbye Norwich” in which he ripped into GateHouse management for deciding “to cannibalize the newspaper.”

You will not be surprised to learn that Craven’s post has been taken down. But thanks to the glories of Google’s cache feature, you can still read it here for what I’m sure will be a limited time. So click while it’s hot. (The Google cache version is now gone, but I’ve posted it as a PDF.)

Among other things, Craven writes that it’s his understanding the Bulletin is profitable, yet GateHouse laid off seven members of the newsroom staff. He continues:

[T]he most recently ordered layoffs will sap The Bulletin of nearly 20 percent of its newsroom staff. That will, of course, allow the president of Gatehouse Media to follow up on his $750,000 bonus to himself with an equally staggering and incongruous gratuity this year. Merry Christmas Mr. President.

Craven is referring to GateHouse chief executive Michael Reed, who did indeed receive a bonus of $750,000 last year. GateHouse president Kirk Davis got “only” $275,000. One other mistake: Craven prematurely offs Philip Meyer, who can now invoke Mark Twain.

Craven also writes:

The thing about reduced community coverage is that you do not notice it while it is happening. It is, if I may be so bold, like a cancer. It works below the surface, until one day when suddenly it becomes all too apparent. There will be referendums that may not be covered as fully. Some school functions — that first grade play that in the past featured your son or daughter — will be bypassed. On holidays, like Veterans Day, decisions will be made to forfeit coverage in some communities because there just is not an extra reporter.

According to Craven’s Twitter feed, he is “an award winning journalist but due to a corporate layoff is now job hunting.”

Craven has written a rant for the ages. And he raises an important point. We all know that the newspaper business (like most businesses) is struggling. What is less well-known is that many of these papers are making money, but are being ravaged by their corporate owners, which are staggering under the debt they took on to build their empires and whose executives remain addicted to paying themselves bonuses.

Craven comes across as a journalist who really cares, and I wish him well. I have no idea if he could make a go of it financially. But how great would it be if he started a Norwich community news site to compete with the Bulletin?

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26 thoughts on “A rant for the ages against the corporate media

  1. Vin Crosbie

    Although I’ve a family connection with the neighboring (and back then competing) daily in Willimantic, my first newsroom job with was the Norwich Bulletin in 1973. Owned by the Oat and the Noyes families for generations, it well served Norwich and had a weekday circulation of more than 40,000.

    Those families sold to paper to Gannett in the early 1980s and within ten years that public corporation (the model on which Gatehouse operates) had cut the Bulletin’s newsroom enough to effect circulation. The 1993 Editor & Publisher yearbook reported weekday circulation had shrunk to 33,639. Gannett later sold the Bulletin to Gatehouse, and the Audit Bureau of Circulation currently reports the paper’s weekday circulation as 17,023.

    All U.S. newspapers have had a tough time during the past ten years, but the Willimantic Chronicle — run privately more to help the community and not for Wall Street profits or fat bonuses; run the way the Oats and Noyes used to run the Bulletin — has lost only 15% of its weekday circulation during the past three decades, compared to the Bulletin’s loss of more than 50% of its comparable circulation under Gannett and Gatehouse during that time.

    The people of Norwich are clearly abandoning the Bulletin due to its management, and Craven’s farewell tells why.

  2. Peter Sullivan

    So if I am reading and doing the math correctly, The Norwich Bulletin a paper with a weekday circ of 17,000 had 35 reporters??? Seven people lost their jobs, or 20% That seems like a fat newsroom these days for a paper in Norwich Ct.

  3. Vin Crosbie

    Indeed, last I knew, the Bulletin covered approximately 24 Connecticut townships, each of which has its own government, and was the sole local daily a dozen of those towns.

  4. Adam Riglian

    To quote from Taxi Driver, “Here is a man who would not take it anymore.”

    Despite the treatment of journalists by large newspaper chains (layoffs, salary freezes, furloughs, pay cuts, more-with-less, cookie-cutter formats, etc.), journalists by and large keep coming back for more.

    Does the fact that these companies have no problem finding replacements for those who get fed up and leave ultimately hurt journalism as a profession and keep the situation impossibly bad?

    I realize it’s hard not to take a job now in a free-fall economy, but does the point hold in general?

  5. Aaron Read

    Vin, I grew up in nearby Mystic, reading the New London Day in the early 1990’s. I didn’t have a basis for comparison, and I don’t know if the Day was a sister paper to the Bulletin at that point, but, well…let’s put it like this: When I went to BU in 1994, I suddenly did have a basis of comparison. And even comparing to the Daily Free Press (nevermind the Globe or Herald) the Day did not compare favorably. And this was long before “the dark times” for newspapers.

    Anyways, I admire Craven’s courage to write what he feels but I have to think he’s now doomed any chance of ever getting gainful employment in the media industry. It’s a small world, and getting smaller every day. I think Dan’s idea may be the only way he’ll have another reporter job. :-(

  6. Vin Crosbie

    Aaron: I know the market. my family’s been at Groton Long Point since the ’50s and I lived in Mystic during the early ’80s. The Day has never been a sister paper of the Bulletin. The two papers are arch-competitors.

    My 1993 Editor & Publisher Yearbook listed The Day‘s week circulation as 39,990 that year; the Audit Bureau of Circulation today lists it as 17,023. Those number probably counter the point I earlier made and what Craven wrote. The family that owned The Day died off in the ’80s, leaving the newspaper run as a non-for-profit corporation. The Day was never been owned by a newspaper chain, and it’s (if anything until recently) always had an overstaffed–the opposite situation from the Bulletin. Yet its circulation decline parallels that at the Bulletin.

    Adam: It’s not the same journalists who keep coming back for more. Their replacements aren’t are people right out of college. The experienced journalists who get unemployed tend to leave the industry, taking public relations or other jobs outsides of journalism where the money and security is much better.

    I nowadays work for a journalism school. The incoming freshmen have no idea what the job situation is in the newspaper industry. If they did, perhaps they wouldn’t enroll. But enrollment in J-schools nationwide is booming, right when the journalism job situation is the worst it’s been in the recorded history of the Western hemisphere. Go figure?

  7. Tony Schinella

    I think, if I read correctly, he is 58 or something, so I’m sure he’s not too worried about having a future in journalism. That said, it’s always best to try and leave things on a high note because, as I’ve proven more than once, you may someday go back to a job you leave. Ideally, the ability to eat and do what you love is sometimes more important than venting. Sometimes, it isn’t. :-) I would bet at his age too, he wasn’t really interested in moving to another GateHouse town to work, which is always an option. Before taking a job with Patch in June, my wife and I had discussed whether or not it would be worth considering moving. In the end, we didn’t. But that was an option for me and I was grateful that some folks were willing to put in a good word for me. Of course, not everyone can upend their lives for a job. But, our kids are young and it was worth thinking about.

    @Adam raises a good point here because no matter what the turnover, there are always a new crop of kids coming out of J-schools wanting their first gig. That is one of the things most newspaper companies know. The Concord Monitor, the beloved and bemoaned daily in my hometown knows this well. They manage to pluck Ivy Leage students for almost nothing. Some settle in and love New Hampshire; others move onto other things. One of the things I loved about working at CNC/GateHouse as an editor was throwing a fresh face into a complicated town like Belmont or Winchester to see what they could do with it all. The drag was that after getting used to the town, they would move onto bigger and better things. But clearly, the fact that there will always been a new crop of willing workers looking for a first or second gig in the business, this is probably going to be the norm. I don’t know what the answers are. This is a problem everywhere. But I loved working in the CNC/GateHouse towns I worked in.

    I’ve seen copies of The Day in the past and it’s not a bad daily for the size considering. Each year, it wins a slew of NEPA – now NENPA awards. @Aaron, you can’t really compare it to the Globe or the Herald. New London isn’t a big city. It’s what, a bit bigger than Belmont? Hardly a fair comparison.

  8. Adam Riglian

    I agree with part of what you said Vin, I was one of those people that came out of journalism school and went into a newsroom (although I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into). I disagree with the fallacy that people in journalism are leaving in droves to work in PR. Frankly, that industry pays as bad as newspapers do at this point.

    I’d encourage you, as someone who works at a journalism school, to be as frank as possible with your students. I didn’t feel like my professors were as frank as they could have been with my graduating class (not a shot at you Prof. Kennedy, I never actually had class with you). I’d also hope that in the future journalism schools would include a class or two seriously approaching the business end of the media. If it’s our future to run the Batavians of the world, give the students the business knowledge to do it.

  9. Aaron Read

    Vin: Huh – I never knew that. I kinda left Mystic and never looked back, y’know? Fascinating stuff – thanks for sharing it! :)

  10. Aaron Read

    @Aaron, you can’t really compare it to the Globe or the Herald. New London isn’t a big city. It’s what, a bit bigger than Belmont? Hardly a fair comparison.

    New London alone? Yeah, it’s about 27,000 people. Although I’d argue the Day serves an area closer to New London County (especially more of the population is along the coast, where the Day’s territory is) and that’s about 270,000 people.

    One thing worth pointing out: there used to be a lot more people stationed at the US Naval Submarine Base in adjacent Groton back in the 1980’s. IIRC the base can house over 20,000 uniformed personnel. The defense cutbacks in the 90’s hit Groton very hard; the base very close to being shuttered at one point…I doubt there’s quite 20,000 sailors stationed there anymore…but there’s still over a dozen subs home-ported there, so I’d imagine the real population totals are somewhat higher than the census thinks.

    Also worth pointing out: size of the town is no excuse for lousy journalism. All of Genesee County (where Batavia, NY is) is only 60,000 people and The Batavian is pretty darn good.

  11. Karla Hailer

    As someone who got the call a few years ago from her Gatehouse paper, I understand Mr. Craven’s frustration and anger. I was a columnist and the call I received was my editor telling me that they loved my work, they hoped I would continue to write for them; however, they weren’t going to pay me anymore. People would write for the paper for free, so they would have plenty of content in spite of my absence.

    My reaction was: if I told the electric company I love electricity but I wasn’t going to pay my bill anymore what would they say? They’d turn off my power, so I was turning off my column. My cohort on the op-ed page wrote for a year for free (and still does for a different publication).

    I admire people who turn their anger, frustration and energy into creating on-line or other news services to keep local reporting alive… I’m not one of them. I chose to go back into teaching and work with elementary kids now. I remember when I used to read several papers a day and now I usually read the Sunday papers only. The Boston Globe is more like the New York Times lite, the Herald’s local reporting is declining into a spiral of local ranting and my local Gatehouse paper gets a skim when it shows up in my bushes, hostia or wherever it happens to land Wednesday mornings. The only things I have written for them in the past few years have been to raise awareness of local issues/responses to things that I feel really need to be said.

    It’s a shame really but like the old song says, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

  12. Nina Lentini

    ME at the Bulletin in the late ’90s and a Norwich resident ever since. Lot of rural territory to cover, not enough people, certainly not enough talented people = poor coverage. Rotten business all around, corporate greed over community.

  13. David Donaldson

    Mr. Craven’s rant is purely self-serving. Journalists get themselves into a high dudgeon when they get canned, as if they are somehow immune to market forces or should be granted a pardon from the laws of economics.

    I wonder if Mr. Craven can link to the column he wrote when the 2nd shift press crew got laid off or the ad sales force was reduced? At best, there may have been a one paragraph announcement on the third page of the Business section.

    Get real, Mr. Craven. Your sense of entitlement is showing.

  14. Tony Schinella

    @Aaron: I don’t read The Day on a regular basis and I can feel and relate to your frustration over coverage you deem to be inferior. I think we all can make these cases all the time, which is where innovation comes in. The Day may also cover a larger, regional base. However, when compared to other dailies in New England that compete for NENPAs, The Day is one of the top dailies in the region when measured by the quality of their content. They win scads of awards, each and every year and have for years. They are used as an example of journalistic excellence. Now, maybe they are a standout because they lack a lot of competition. That might be true. But for their size and what they do, they are considered to be a quality newspaper by those of us in the business.

  15. Aaron Read

    Fair enough, Tony.

    One question, though: were they winning awards back in the early 1990’s? I haven’t really read the Day since 1994, and didn’t start until 1990 or so. I rememeber that four-year stretch as being pretty mediocre but I was also in high school and thus, by definition, I was an idiot. :)

  16. Martin Callaghan

    As a person who represents the production side of the business, it is painful to see the job cuts continue.

    In our local, we have seen Gatehouse (Brockton Enterprise, Patriot Ledger, Fall River) and other companies (Boston Herald, Lynn Item, Salem News) close printing plants. This is happening across the county. Consolidation of printing and distribution is the name of the game in the newspaper industry.

    As Karla points out, it is a shame to see what is left for content in some of these newspapers. It appears to me that continued cuts like these can only hasten the demise of newspapers. So are owners such as Gatehouse giving up on the traditional model and preparing for what they perceive as the inevitable move to all-digital format or are they simply going to milk these papers for all they can before they kill them for good?

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  18. John Hall

    Dan,

    Over in Beverly, where we have the daily Salem News, and the weekly Beverly Citizen (but no Patch), we have seen a dramatic dropoff in news coverage, especially of the schools. Craven’s statement that “After work, you will have to head for those civic meetings where decisions are made that might change your life, because, if you do not go – who will?” is certainly coming true here.

    I write a blog that follows our public school system, and where once I curated and analyzed press reports, and advocated for issues from the community’s point of view, recently I have found that I need to at times report and break news, because the newspapers just aren’t covering things the way they once did.

    A recent issue highlighting this void in coverage saw a pretty major restructuring plan by the district nearly get voted on before virtually anyone in the city knew about it. The plan had been in the works for several months but not once mentioned in the press. The school committee’s response to my blog’s challenging of them on the lack of public awareness was that “we invite the newspapers to our meetings, but they don’t come any more.” They also seemed to blame the community itself for not paying close enough attention, even though the district itself had never publicly released the plan, or its supporting research.

    Here’s a post that I wrote about the media angle of all this. Craven’s “rant” made for timely background on our local issue.

    http://www.savebeverlyschools.org/2011/11/media-drops-ball-on-school-coverage.html

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  21. Michael Corcoran

    It is stories like these that remind me of the 2009 book by Robert McChesney and John Nichols which advocated for some public funding for journalism. It may be the only way to save it. I get the obvious drawbacks, but having newspapers beholdened to corporate interests, via ownership and advertising, is not any better. PBS, for instance, for all its flaws, is WAY better than CNN. So is the BBS.

    Why is this never on the table? Why are people so worried about the media being too beholden to the govt, but not too beholden to shareholders, advertisers. At this rate, there will be no professional journalists in most communities, soon.

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