USA Today is Gannett’s flagship. But what about the weeklies? Photo (cc) 2008 by Mossmen.

Things are looking up a bit at Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, which controls the vast majority of weekly and daily newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts and environs.

Rick Edmonds of Poynter reports that digital subscriptions are up and debt is down, and that the company’s bottom line will be bolstered if the Local Journalism Sustainability Act becomes law. Frankly, I’d rather see the act written in such a way that it benefits only independent local owners. But in many communities, the Gannett paper is the only choice, so if it helps them do a better job then that’s not entirely a bad thing.

It’s difficult to know exactly what is going on in Massachusetts, where Gannett closed about a half-dozen papers during the summer. Joshua Benton recently observed in Nieman Lab that the Gannett-owned Cambridge Chronicle had lost its only full-time journalist. But I hear that she will be replaced soon, indicating that the company has at least some level of commitment to one of its larger communities.

Likewise, in Medford we went a year and a half without a single full-time staffer at Gannett’s weekly Transcript — until about six months ago. Coverage has improved considerably since then. Of course, communities the size of Cambridge and Medford could benefit from more than just one reporter apiece. But at least fears that Gannett was going to run them as ghost newspapers have eased.

The big question: What does the future hold for Gannett’s weeklies, especially in smaller communities? “In recent months, the company has sold a number of weeklies and closed a few others,” Edmonds writes. “They no longer fit with Gannett’s strategic plans.” The company’s current strategy is to focus on its dailies, with USA Today as its flagship.

If Gannett’s numbers are improving, maybe the company will start putting more resources into its papers. My fear, though, is that it may have driven way so many readers with its parsimonious approach to journalism that it could prove impossible to bring them back.

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