By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Howard Owens has left the building

Howard Owens, GateHouse Media‘s director of digital publishing, has left the company, according to an internal memo by GateHouse president Kirk Davis that was obtained by Media Nation.

“Beginning today, Brad Dennison, VP News, will assume the additional responsibilities inherent in overseeing our online news operations and support,” Davis wrote in the memo, dated Friday. “Brad will be incorporating Howard Owens’ duties, as Howard has left the company. Howard did volumes to advance our digital strategy and leaves GateHouse with our deep appreciation.”

As you will see, I am missing point #2 of Davis’ memo. [Not anymore. Added at 11:46 a.m.] If anyone would like to pass it along, I will give you a free lifetime subscription to Media Nation.

GateHouse Media is a national chain that owns nearly 400 community newspapers, including 125 in Eastern Massachusetts. Though most of those papers are weeklies, some are among the best-known dailies in the state, including the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, the Enterprise of Brockton and the Framingham-based MetroWest Daily News.

Within journalism new-media circles, Owens is a highly respected thinker. Before joining GateHouse in September 2006, he helped launch pioneering new-media ventures at the Bakersfield Californian and, before that, the Ventura County Star, according to his LinkedIn profile.

At GateHouse, Owens pushed a strategy of Web-first journalism, exhorting reporters and editors to post breaking news stories on the company’s Wicked Local sites before running them in their print editions. He was also a strong advocate of quick-and-dirty video for the Wicked Local sites. In addition, he’s a co-founder of the Wired Journalists social network.

Owens’ blog, HowardOwens.com, appears to have gone dark, although a “whois” search reveals that he’s still the owner. Worth keeping an eye on, I’d say. He continues posting to Twitter.

Owens possesses one of the more interesting minds I know in new-media journalism, combining vision and practical experience. Yet his blunt, occasionally caustic manner has not played well with many of GateHouse’s reporters and editors, who work long hours for short money.

I interviewed Owens for a feature on GateHouse Media last fall for CommonWealth Magazine, a time when finances for GateHouse were perilous, but before the economy had gone off a cliff. Owens was particularly proud of the Batavian, a Web-only “paper” he had launched for GateHouse in Batavia, N.Y. (not far from GateHouse’s corporate headquarters, in Fairport), which he hoped could serve as something of a model.

“The overall revenue would be less than what you would get from a print newspaper,” he said, but added that by eliminating the cost of printing and distribution, he hoped the project could break even relatively quickly.

But Owens put his foot in his mouth when I asked him about complaints within the company that people didn’t have time to devote much energy to executing the company’s online strategy while also putting out quality print editions.

“There are some incredibly talented hardworking people in New England who are asked to do an incredible amount of work,” he said. “There are also slackers, and at some point you have to hold them accountable.” The “slackers” comment reportedly got him in some hot water with his superiors.

More recently, an internal e-mail Owens wrote became an issue in the legal dispute between GateHouse and the New York Times Co. GateHouse sued over Boston.com’s Your Town sites, charging that Boston.com’s practice of automatically “scraping” Wicked Local sites for headlines and ledes violated its copyright. (The suit was settled before it could go to trial.)

But though it might look as though Owens was endorsing the sort of copying and linking practices that Boston.com was engaged in on its Your Town sites, the issues were different in subtle and important ways. If you’re interested in learning more, here’s an overview I wrote for the Guardian.

What could be motivating Owens’ departure? Perhaps he left entirely on his own. If not, my guess is that Davis and chief executive Michael Reed have decided to run as lean an operation as possible in order to get through the recession.

In any case, Media Nation extends its best wishes to Owens, one of the good guys in the ongoing struggle to reinvent journalism. Davis’ memo follows.

DATE: February 20, 2009
TO: GateHouse Media Publishers
Regional Managers
GateHouse Media News Employees
Online Operations Employees
Fairport Employees

FROM: Kirk Davis
RE: GateHouse News Division

As we adjust to the challenges confronting us, it is critically important that we remain positive and determined to emerge from this economic turmoil stronger than ever. As you know, the decisions we make must balance many needs ranging from controlling costs, maximizing our resources, evolving our print and online strategies and demonstrating to our employees that we’ll move swiftly and communicate often as we navigate this recession.

Today, I’d like to outline some important changes with the aforementioned context in mind.

I’m pleased to announce an expansion of the services provided to you and our employees through the GateHouse News Division. Beginning today, Brad Dennison, VP News, will assume the additional responsibilities inherent in overseeing our online news operations and support. Brad will be incorporating Howard Owens’ duties, as Howard has left the company. Howard did volumes to advance our digital strategy and leaves GateHouse with our deep appreciation.

In his expanded role, Brad will oversee and foster a stronger alignment of our print and online strategy, organizational structure, training and support. In turn, this will enable Bill Blevins to focus more on accelerating our online revenue performance, but more importantly, devote more time to strategic planning, identifying new digital opportunities and developing business models to support them. While there are many other benefits we’ll realize, I’m particularly excited due to:

1) The confidence I have in Brad and Bill, working closely with me, to bring greater clarity, responsiveness, support and service from a “field” perspective.

2) The opportunity we have to bring greater continuity to our overall content strategy and product development on all platforms, with a premium on scalability. This will allow us to make big plays when we want, where we want. In other words, we’ll benefit from simplified implementation of next-generation products en masse.

3) Our company’s ability to step back and appreciate what we’ve all accomplished together, but to welcome a fresh approach by bringing our vast corporate talent in online development and support together with our premiere news division and its contagious enthusiasm and culture.

4) Our company’s increased capacity as a result of these changes to make a greater commitment to long-term and strategic planning so that we can all feel increasingly inspired about where our hard work can lead us. The possibilities are endless.

As Brad and Bill meet with staff and focus on this transition, I’ve asked them to be prepared to share their plans with us within the next month, which will no doubt allow them to take into consideration any suggestions they receive from you, our digital staff and our outside consulting firm (FTI).

Thank you!

Update: Owens writes on Twitter, “For those who asked: It’s not quite true that I’m out of a job. I’m just no longer employed by GHM. Details in a week or two.”

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6 Comments

  1. Will

    His blog was great, and it was a nice surprise seeing him pop up in the Gatehouse-NYT suit. Judging from Twitter, it looks like his blog will be back soon, but on Drupal.

  2. Aaron Read

    Hey Dan – what’s this “QassamCount” thing that suddenly appeared on the left side of your blog? Just curious…

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Aaron: It’s a running tally of missiles shot into Israel.

  4. Aaron Read

    Oh! Duh…I didn’t recognize the spelling.(takes a moment to reflect)At first I thought that maybe I had an opinion on this. But then I decided I didn’t really care one way or the other.In fact, the only thing that concerns me is that my initial instinct was to think that I had to have an opinion about it. I suppose one could argue that’s the problem with any media coverage of the Middle East these days: it’s virtually impossible to have a fact without dragging an opinion into the fray.(shrugs)

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Aaron: Feel free to have an opinion. Like, it’s bad for Hamas and Hizbullah to keep firing rockets into Israel. Far too many people seem to hold the view that it’s not bad.Anyway, the feed is kind of obscure. I should take it down and add it to my Facebook page instead.

  6. Michelle

    I LOVE your blog, Dan, but I think you may have your head in the clouds here. As a business consultant with connections to CNC, Howard never had an idea that wasn’t at least 10 years behind the leading-edge Internet curve.Howard, like many newspaper executives who never met a semicolon they didn’t like, was primarily concerned with his image, and simply had no grasp of journalism, Internet or otherwise.

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