Some books that may change the way you think about modern media

Photo (cc) 2020 by R. Miller

Ezra Klein has some great book recommendations for understanding how social media, cable news and technology are rewiring our brains. Marshall McLuhan is nearly impenetrable, but Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows” (2010) and Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (1985) will open your eyes.

To Klein’s list I would add two more: “Communication as Culture” (2008), a collection of essays by the media theorist James W. Carey, and “Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art” (2016), by Virginia Heffernan, which I reviewed for GBH News back in the day.

Gannett’s latest bloodbath is under way

Massive layoffs are taking place across the country today at Gannett’s newspapers, a move that the company announced last week. I’m not going to try to keep up with the latest — we’ll know in a day or two what the total damage looks like.

Fourteen years ago, I wrote a lengthy article for CommonWealth Magazine about Gannett’s predecessor company, GateHouse Media, which even then was notorious for its slash-and-burn approach. It was ugly, but it looked like they might have a path forward. No more.

Geoff Diehl thinks we need to be more like South Dakota

South Dakota is growing! Photo (cc) 2006 by Pete Markham.

The Boston Globe’s Samantha Gross attended a fundraiser for far-right gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl and has written a highly entertaining report. I think we can all agree that we’ve had more than enough of Ernie Boch Jr., who hosted the event. But there’s one piece of Gross’ story that I want to pick up on — the presence of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who wants us to know that her tiny state is growing.

She shook hands, posed for photos, and touted South Dakota’s low unemployment rate and population growth in a speech to attendees inside Boch’s ‘auto salon,’” writes Gross. Later in the story comes this:

“The states aren’t as different as you’d think,” Diehl said, referring to ruby red South Dakota. “The big difference is their state is actually gaining population. I want to make sure we catch up to what they are doing as far as listening to people and deliver for the state of Massachusetts.”

Well, then. According to U.S. Census data, the population of South Dakota grew between 2010 and 2020 from 814,180 to 886,667, an increase of 72,487, or 8.9%. Impressive! But Massachusetts, starting from a far larger base, added 482,342 people over the same time period, growing from 6,547,629 to 7,029,917, or 7.4%. In other words, South Dakota added a Framingham. Massachusetts added more than two and a half Worcesters. (According to Census estimates, we did experience a slight blip downward between 2020 and 2021, but it’s hard to know how seriously to take that given it was in the midst of the pandemic. Even if it’s accurate, our population is still much higher than it was in 2010.)

No big deal (see what I did there?) if Noem doesn’t understand that Massachusetts is growing. But what’s Geoff Diehl’s excuse?

We end our summer podcasts with a round-up of local news items. See you in September!

Rainbow Arch Bridge, Lake City, Iowa, the center of a bizarre newspaper war. Photo (cc) 2014 by David Wilson.

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I dive into our reporter’s notebooks after our scheduled guest had a last-minute medical emergency, catching up with NJ Spotlight News, the emergence of The Lexington Observer, the transition at The Texas Tribune, and the turmoil at The Graphic-Advocate (both of them!) of Lake City, Iowa.

Ellen also has a rave for Emily Rooney’s “Beat the Press” podcast and her recent interview with legendary WCVB-TV news anchor Natalie Jacobson, who’s written a memoir about her life and career.

Like Boston’s Orange Line and Green Line, the “What Works” podcast will be off the intertubes for a few weeks as Ellen and I race to meet the deadline for our book about the future of local news. You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

What the sale of Axios may mean for Boston news consumers

See correction below.

What will the sale of Axios mean for Boston news consumers? It’s too early to tell. But there are a couple of intriguing tidbits that emerged from the news that the digital startup will be acquired by Cox Enterprises for $525 million, a story first reported by Ben Mullin of The New York Times.

First, the sale appears to be good news for Axios Local. According to Rick Edmonds of Poynter Online, Cox isn’t looking to walk away from the local newsletters it’s been building out in order to concentrate on national politics. Instead, Cox wants to accelerate the growth of Axios Local. “Our goal of 100 cities is in reach,” publisher Nick Johnston told Edmonds. “I have a list of 384 metropolitan areas in my office, and we cross them off one by one.”

Second, Cox already owns is a minority owner of WFXT-TV (Channel 25) in Boston, the home of Boston 25 News. Two months ago, Axios launched a Boston newsletter produced by veteran journalists Mike Deehan and Steph Solis. Although I’m in no position to know what the strategy will be moving forward, it’s not difficult to imagine Axios Boston amplifying big stories from Boston 25, or featuring Deehan and Solis on its newscasts.

Of course, you should always follow the money. Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen and John Harris never had an opportunity to cash in after they left The Washington Post to found Politico in 2007. VandeHei and Allen were the marquee names who left Politico in 2016 to start Axios (Harris stayed behind). Monday was their big payday.

By the way, Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Deehan recently on the “What Works” podcast, so please give it a listen.

Correction/clarification. Axios has been acquired by Cox Enterprises, which spun off its television and radio stations to the hedge fund Apollo Global Management a couple of years ago. Those stations now do business as Cox Media Group. But wait: Cox Enterprises continues to hold an ownership stake in Cox Media Group, including Boston 25. Earlier this year, it was announced that Cox Media would sell Boston 25, but it’s unclear whether Cox Enterprises would keep its minority stake. So what I said above could still happen, but it’s a lot more complicated than I had realized.

While Gannett journalists brace for layoffs, those at the top rake in big bucks

Photo (cc) 2008 by Patrickneil

With Gannett targeting its journalists for yet another round of layoffs, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at the people at the top. A reminder: Gannett is an amalgamation of the old Gannett and GateHouse Media, which was notorious for cost-cutting and which dominates the new Gannett.

There’s a wealth of information — and a lot of wealth generally — in the money-losing newspaper chain’s 2022 proxy statement. It begins with Michael E. Reed, the chairman and chief executive officer, who was paid $7,741,052 in 2021. Of that total, Reed received $900,000 in base salary, $6,074,000 in stock awards and $767,052 in “Non-Equity Incentive Plan Compensation.”

Next up is Douglas E. Horne, the chief financial officer and chief accounting officer, whose payout added up to $1,753,698, of which $600,000 was base salary, $581,318 came in the form of stock awards, $562,380 was for that aforementioned incentive plan and $10,000 was in other income.

Also of interest is Gannett’s nine-member board of directors, eight of whom were paid well in excess of $200,000 to provide advice and counsel on a part-time basis. Now, I have no insight into how much work a Gannett director puts in — although, according to Investopedia, the average corporate board member takes part in just a bit under eight meetings per year. In general, though, serving on a corporate board is an exceedingly light lift. The board chair, as previously noted, is Reed. Here are the other eight directors and their compensation. You can find their company-provided bios (except Hegde, who has left the board) in the proxy report, starting at page 14.

  • Kevin M. Sheehan, $285,000 ($160,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards)
  • Vinayak Hegde, $212,500 ($87,500 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards)
  • Theodore P. Janulis, $251,250 ($120,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards; $6,250 in other compensation)
  • John Jeffry Louis III, $235,000 ($100,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards; $10,000 in other compensation)
  • Maria M. Miller, $225,000 ($100,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards)
  • Debra A. Sandler, $245,000 ($120,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards)
  • Laurence Tarica, $255,000 ($120,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards; $10,000 in other compensation)
  • Barbara W. Wall, $235,000 ($100,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards; $10,000 in other compensation)

For the eight board members other than Reed, that’s an average of $242,969. I can’t offer a judgment as to whether that’s excessive, but I can cite a few data points. First, in 2018, USA Today, Gannett’s flagship newspaper, republished a story from 24/7 Wall Street under the provocative headline “25 companies that pay their board of directors a shocking amount.” The lowest of those 25 was Citigroup, which paid its board members an average of $297,407 — more than Gannett, but not massively more. Second, according to Investopedia, the average corporate board member is paid $42,750, although it was much higher than that at larger firms.

You also have to ask what, exactly, Gannett’s executives and board members are being rewarded for. Last week’s bad news was only the latest for a company that seemingly can’t find a way forward. Its stock price closed at $2.36 on Friday, down from a 52-week high of $7.05 last Sept. 17. Yes, we are in the midst of a local news crisis. But Lee Enterprises, another publicly traded newspaper chain, is doing reasonably well, as are independent local news sources across the country, from larger newspapers like The Boston Globe and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis to hundreds of hyperlocal projects. Gannett needs to demonstrate that it can provide communities with the news and information they need, and they’re failing miserably at that.

Meanwhile, the people doing the actual work make peanuts. According to a study in the fall of 2020 by the NewsGuild-CWA, Gannett journalists at 14 unionized daily newspapers were earning a median salary of $52,000, and those with fewer than 10 years of experience were making $43,000 to $44,000. Those at non-union papers are almost certainly making substantially less. And now they are bracing for yet another round of layoffs, while the people presiding over this fiasco are paid hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.

Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party’s devolution into white supremacy

Newt Gingrich. Photo (cc) 2010 by Gage Skidmore.

The Washington Post today has an excerpt from Dana Milbank’s new book, “The Deconstructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crackup of the Republican Party.” Here’s a free link so you can read the whole thing. Milbank offers some pretty bracing stuff. For instance:

Admittedly, I’m partisan — not for Democrats but for democrats. Republicans have become an authoritarian faction fighting democracy — and there’s a perfectly logical reason for this: Democracy is working against Republicans.

Milbank traces the degeneration of the Republican Party into an antidemocratic force animated by white supremacy to the rise of Newt Gingrich in the early ’90s. I’d go back further than that, but there’s no question that Gingrich represented something new and terrible, or that it reached its full flowering in the form of Donald Trump.

Baker’s had seven years to fix the T. It’s worse than ever.

Photo (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy

A Twitter thread on the decline and fall of the MBTA under Gov. Charlie Baker:

More than seven years ago, after Snowmaggedon brought the #MBTA to its knees, Gov. Baker was given unprecedented authority to fix it. We now know he didn’t use that opportunity wisely or well. (1/x)

If there was an assessment made of what work needed to be done, it was obviously inadequate. We’ve seen one issue after another come up during the past year, and especially the past few months. (2/x)

With proper planning, much of the work could have been done during the pandemic shutdown. Instead, we’re now dealing with Orange and Green Line closures just as employers are trying to entice their workers into returning to the office. (3/x)

It’s not all Baker’s fault. The last governor to take issues involving the T seriously was Michael Dukakis. There’s no political gain in fixing the T because the benefits are invisible. (4/x)

Baker does deserve credit for saving the GLX after Deval Patrick nearly gold-plated it into oblivion. Overall, though, Baker failed, and his term is ending with the T in a state of collapse. (5/x)

Notably silent: Maura Healey, who’s as sure a bet to be elected governor as you get in politics. This is not a time for caution. What is her vision for the T? If she remains silent, then she won’t have a mandate to carry it out. (6/x)

Like many, I depend on the MBTA to get to work and elsewhere. I use commuter rail, subways and buses. I really have no good alternatives, so I’m being patient. What choice do I have? But all of this is incredibly dispiriting. (7/7)

A terrible day for Gannett, to be followed by terrible days for its staff and communities

The late Gannett chairman Al Neuharth, who created USA Today, was no stranger to cost-cutting. But he’d be rolling over in his grave at what’s taking place now. Photo (cc) 2013 by George Kelly.

Gannett, the country’s largest local news chain, is in a tailspin. The publisher of some 200 daily papers reported a significant loss in the second quarter — $54 million on revenues of $749 million.

According to Rick Edmonds, who analyzes the media business for Poynter, the company is either down or missing its targets in digital and print advertising as well as print circulation. The sole bright spot: a steady rise in paid digital circulation. Extensive layoffs are on the way. Edmonds quoted a memo from Maribel Perez Wadsworth, head of the media division, in which she said: “In the coming days, we will … be making necessary but painful reductions to staffing, eliminating some open positions and roles that will impact valued colleagues.” It’s hard to see how shrinking an already diminished product is going to help.

Those of us who live in Eastern Massachusetts and environs might wonder where they are going to find any staff members to lay off. Over the past year, the chain has closed many of its community weeklies. Its dailies are still publishing, but with skeleton newsrooms.

The question with Gannett is how many of its problems are simply part of the overall local news crisis and how many are of its own making. Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and the John M. Mutz Chair in Local News at Northwestern’s Medill School, tweeted:

As it turned out, Lee did reasonably well, which Chris Krewson, executive director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers noted in a response to Franklin.

I would argue that though the challenges facing community journalism are very real, there are some unique factors at work with the current iteration of Gannett, which lost its way in the cradle back when GateHouse Media was born. GateHouse and Gannett merged a few years ago, but it was essentially a takeover by GateHouse, which has been pillaging its local titles for the past 15 or so years. Gannett’s schemes to overcome the mess in which it finds itself strike me as harebrained. Its plan to pursue sports betting isn’t going well, as Edmonds reports. Then there is its dream of getting into nonfungible tokens (NFTs). Seriously?

Gannett’s flagship is USA Today, which is still a solid paper. If I had to guess, I’d say they’ll leave it pretty much alone so that they can use it as a wire service to fill up their regional and local papers. I mean, even more than they’re already doing.

Sadly, Gannett’s journalists have been on a roll, with reporters at the Indianapolis Star and The Columbus Dispatch breaking the story about a pregnant 10-year-old rape victim — and then confirming it when it was questioned by right-wing propagandists and by Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler. The Austin American-Statesman obtained and published video of the police (non)response to the school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, after editing out the children’s screams. This is outstanding journalism, and soon Gannett will have fewer journalists.

Gannett’s greed and incompetence are going to mean fewer jobs for reporters and less coverage for local communities. It’s an ongoing tragedy, but it does open up possibilities for entrepreneurs who are looking to start new projects.

Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro on her national campaign to invest in local news

Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, CEO and co-founder of the National Trust for Local News. She is also a senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School in New York. At the Tow Center, Dr. Hansen Shapiro’s work focuses on the future of local journalism and the policies needed to assure that future. Her research involves audience engagement and revenue strategies, as well as the relationship between news and social platforms. She holds a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Harvard Business School.

The National Trust for Local News is a nonprofit that is dedicated to “keeping local news in local hands.” The Trust works with local news publishers, philanthropists and socially conscious investors, and, as I’ve reported, worked with other collaborators to buy 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado, perhaps saving them from hedge fund ownership.

I’ve got a Quick Take on a recent newsletter by past “What Works” guest Kristen Hare of Poynter, who reported on local media people who are starting to fight back against the abuse they’re receiving from some of the more sociopathic members of their audience.

Ellen weighs in on the death of Tim Giago, the founder of the first independently owned Native American newspaper in the United States, and dives back into the Dumpster fire in the newsroom of The Aspen Times in Colorado.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.