The Gannett newspaper chain, like nearly all publishers, is staking its future on reader revenue. Which raises a question: What is the company prepared to do to make that happen?
In its most recent quarterly report, the country’s largest newspaper chain said that its total number of digital subscribers is now 1.2 million — an increase of 37% over the previous year, but not especially impressive for a company that owns about 250 daily papers, including USA Today, and hundreds more weeklies. Gannett CEO Mike Reed said he’s aiming for 10 million in five years.
At least the subscription total is heading in the right direction. Overall, the company lost $142 million, largely due to pandemic-related declines in print and digital advertising.
The focus on digital subscriptions isn’t smart so much as it is the only option available. Newspaper advertising has been tanking for years as ad spending has moved to Craigslist, Google and Facebook. National papers and a few big regionals, including The Boston Globe, have succeeded in making the shift to reader revenue. But if Gannett wants to emulate them, it’s going to have to overcome its reluctance to invest in journalism and technology.
For years, Gannett and the chain that essentially took it over, GateHouse Media, have been decimating their newsrooms in order to squeeze out enough revenues to keep their creditors at bay. (Reed claims a recently completed loan restructuring should help.) As I’ve written before, our local Gannett weekly, serving a city of nearly 60,000 people, hasn’t had a full-time staff reporter since the pre-pandemic days of late 2019. Yet it is also the only print paper I subscribe to because reading it online is such a dismal experience.
Lately I’ve noticed an increase in stories from something called “the USA Today Network,” which is to say they’re not local. Some are from one or two towns over. Some are from afar. They are nothing but space-fillers.
Gannett announced several other moves as well, including a paywall for USA Today, sports betting and even an attempt to sell non-fungible tokens (NFTs). I’ve been trying to grasp exactly what that last means, but I’m still confused even after reading this New York Times story.
Gannett owns nearly all of the community papers in Eastern Massachusetts and environs, and in very few cases are they meeting the information needs of their communities. If the company is determined to offer a better product, with more local coverage and a better user experience, then it will deserve to sell more digital subscriptions.
But I can’t imagine that the chain will be able to build its digital subscriber base significantly with what it’s offering now.