In reporting on the newspaper business, there are few matters more obscure or maddening than determining paid digital circulation. My example for this morning is the Burlington Free Press, a Gannett-owned daily that, I wrote recently, will soon be printed in either Auburn, Massachusetts, Worcester or Providence, hours away from its home base in northern Vermont.
The change is the result of the giant newspaper chain’s decision to shut its printing plant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which will affect several other papers as well. Gannett’s standard defense of moves like this is that they’re shifting to digital, so print doesn’t matter that much. But as I observed at the time, the Free Press sells more than twice as many print papers as it does digital subscriptions.
My item prompted someone to send me a “confidential and internal” Gannett circulation report.
From the Department of You’ve Got to Be Kidding: Gannett has announced that it will close its printing plant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and move the work to its presses in Auburn, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. The daily papers that will be affected are the Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily Democrat and — are you ready? — the Burlington Free Press, located not far from the Canadian border.
Word of the switch was published in the Portsmouth Herald on Wednesday. I have not been able to find it in the Free Press, either in print or online (my USA Today digital subscription gives me access to the replica editions of every Gannett daily in the country, which is why I was able to check). But assuming that Gannett’s own story is accurate, that is really a breathtaking move. According to Apple Maps, it’s a three-and-a-half-hour, 240-mile drive from Auburn to Burlington. Providence is even worse — about four hours and nearly 270 miles. And that’s right now, without any traffic to speak of.
The Herald offers this statement from Gannett:
As our business becomes increasingly digital and subscription-focused, newspaper printing partnerships have become standard. We are making strategic decisions to ensure the future of local journalism and continue our outstanding service to the community.
Ah, yes, digital subscriptions, Gannett’s standard answer to everything. Well, let’s look at the Burlington Free Press’ latest filings with the Alliance for Audited Media, shall we? For the six-month period ending last Sept. 30, the average weekday print circulation was 4,000, with another 6,012 on Sundays. Meanwhile, paid digital replica circulation was 1,051 on weekdays and 667 on Sundays. Nothing is listed for straight-up digital subscriptions, but in March 2021 the Free Press reported about 1,400 on weekdays and about 1,200 on Sundays for digital nonreplica. So, roughly, that’s a total of around 2,000 digital replica and nonreplica subscriptions. Not impressive, and clearly the Free Press’ print product is still what its readers are looking for.
Then again, Gannett has long since ceded the Burlington market to a terrific alt-weekly, Seven Days; a leading digital nonprofit, VTDigger; and Vermont Public Radio. I wrote about that in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” We also recently interviewed VTDigger’s founder, Anne Galloway, on the “What Works” podcast.
There is mega-news to report in the world of nonprofit digital journalism. Anne Galloway, the founder of VTDigger, is stepping aside as executive editor, taking on a new role as editor-at-large. She’s staying at Digger and will focus on investigative reporting. Here’s part of the official announcement from the Vermont Journalism Trust, the nonprofit that publishes Digger:
In the 13 years since Galloway launched VTDigger, it has grown from one reporter — Galloway herself — to become the largest newsroom in Vermont, with dozens of employees and more than 550,000 monthly readers. During that time, Galloway not only scaled up the organization while spearheading daily news coverage. She also wrote many investigative pieces that explained complex issues and uncovered corruption, most notably the EB-5 fraud scandal involving developers at Jay Peak. In her new role, Galloway intends to continue following that important story for VTDigger.
In a letter to readers, Galloway writes: “Today, VTDigger is Vermont’s newspaper of record, and the only online nonprofit news organization in the country that has replaced daily print newspapers in a local market. We have developed a sustainable funding model that is the envy of our competitors in print and broadcast.”
In late 2015 I traveled to Vermont to report on the media ecosystem that had grown up to fill gaps left by the Burlington Free Press, which had shrunk considerably under the not-so-tender ministrations of Gannett. This was the original, pre-GateHouse Gannett; but despite having a reputation that was better than the current iteration, the company had taken a chainsaw to Vermont’s paper of record. In response, the alt-weekly Seven Days, Vermont Public Radio and VTDigger had all stepped up. (I wrote about my findings in “The Return of the Moguls.”)
I visited Digger at its offices near the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier. At that time the site had 13 full-time employees, seven of whom were journalists. That has since grown to 32. Galloway told me what it was like when she started the site in 2009 shortly after being laid off by the Rutland Herald.
“I didn’t have money to pay myself for two years, but I basically decided that I had to start a daily,” she said. “I started writing about the legislature. I went into the statehouse and I started covering the state budget in a very serious way. I started covering a few other issues. So it was me every day writing one to two stories.”
Now VTDigger is among the most respected nonprofits in the country covering state politics and policy. Congratulations to Galloway, and best wishes on whatever comes next.
In late 2015 I traveled to Burlington and Montpelier, Vermont, to report on a heartening development: though Gannett had hollowed out the state’s major daily, the Burlington Free Press, several other news organizations had arisen to fill the gap.
VT Digger, a nonprofit website, and Vermont Public Radio were expanding. And towering above all was Seven Days, a thick alt-weekly with a vibrant website. As someone who had worked for many years at The Boston Phoenix, which closed in 2013, I was agog at the size of the staff and the number of ads. Somehow, Seven Days had become the largest news organization in the Burlington area. And it was turning a profit. As Paula Routly, the publisher, co-editor and co-owner told me in an interview for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” the paper had never lost money since its founding in 1995. She explained:
When the recession hit, we invested. That’s when we ramped up in news. And that is when the Free Press visibly diminished. They just made different business decisions. “Let’s make it smaller, let’s lay people off.” That’s where I think they made their mistake.
So it was great to see Seven Days get prominent mention by The Daily Beast in a round-up of alt-weeklies that are somehow surviving despite the pandemic and the recession. Sophia June reports in The Daily Beast on four — Seven Days, the Cleveland Scene, The Stranger of Seattle and The Austin Chronicle. According to June, Seven Days was able to reverse the cuts that it had made within six weeks, suggesting that the newspaper apocalypse that seemed to be upon us in the early days of the shutdown didn’t quite come to pass. Here’s a key excerpt:
The paper had to stop hosting events and printing several of their guides, but they reached out to businesses like the Department of Health, a local hospital, and banks to find new advertisers. They pitched new guides, including a travel guide for the Vermont Department of Tourism, encouraging safe travel in the state. They were also able to keep revenue-generators like monthly parenting and real-estate inserts.
Also getting a mention is DigBoston, which has kept the alt-weekly scene alive here in the post-Phoenix era. The Dig stopped publishing its print edition last March but then started up again in June, as Poynter’s Kristen Hare reported at the time. It’s notable that all of the papers I’ve mentioned are for-profit entities, although the Dig shares content with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, a sister organization.
Does this mean that happy days are here again? Of course not. But these stories are yet another sign that independent newspapers unburdened by corporate and hedge-fund ownership can find a way to survive. Once the pandemic is behind us, maybe they’ll even thrive.
In late 2015 I paid a visit to Burlington, Vermont, to survey the damage wrought by Gannett Co., the newspaper chain that owns the Burlington Free Press. Paid weekday print circulation at the state’s largest daily had fallen from about 50,000 to 16,000. The editorial staff, which at one time was close to 60 journalists, had shrunk to around 25.
“Obviously it’s a little tougher and you do have to pick your spots,” the legendary Free Press reporter Michael Donoghue, who had just retired, told me. “We were always thought of as the newspaper of record because everything would be in there. I’m not sure there’s a newspaper of record technically in Vermont anymore.”
To be fair, what happened to the Free Press was not much different from what has happened to newspaper after newspaper across the country. Fortunately other media organizations in Vermont arose to fill the gap — Seven Days, a vibrant alt-weekly; VT Digger, a well-funded statewide nonprofit investigative project; and Vermont Public Radio, which had boosted its local coverage. Still, the Free Press and its corporate overlords at Gannett had failed at their mission of holding government and other institutions to account.
I offer this story because now we are being asked to save Gannett from the ravages of something much worse. And we should. The Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo reported on Sunday that Digital First Media, the Death Star of newspaper chains, is seeking to acquire Gannett, which owns USA Today as well as about 100 other publications. Digital First owns about 50 dailies, including three in Massachusetts: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell, and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
Why should we care when Gannett has been doing such a poor job? Because things can always be worse. Gannett ownership has been awful in the usual way. Digital First, controlled by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, is uniquely awful. Its decimation of the papers it owns sparked what proved to be a futile insurrection last year at its flagship, The Denver Post. Newsrooms have literally been closed, with journalists forced to fend for themselves, from the Fitchburg paper to, most recently, The Record of Troy in upstate New York.
Executives at chains such as Gannett and GateHouse Media, hardly beloved at the local level, nevertheless seem to be trying to figure out a long-term plan. Gannett has remained committed to investigative reporting. GateHouse has set up a business-services and marketing division known as ThriveHive, which, if nothing else, suggests that the company is committed to staying in business. Digital First, by contrast, appears to be engaged in what economists refer to as “harvesting” — that is, taking as much money out of the shrinking newspaper business as possible before closing the doors and turning off the lights.
“The dirty little secret that DFM [Digital First Media] learned is that — at least for now — it can sell longtime readers an inferior (or, to use the technical term, crappier) newspaper and only 10 percent each year will cancel,” writes Philly.com columnist Will Bunch. “Do the math, though, and it’s clear that much of America outside the biggest cities will become news deserts by the early 2020s.”
And to think that at one time Gannett was considered the poster child for greedy corporate newspaper chains. In his classic series of books dating back to the 1980s called “The Media Monopoly,” the late media critic Ben Bagdikian labeled Gannett as “the largest and most aggressive newspaper chain in the United States,” noting that the profit margin at some of its local papers was an “astonishing” 30 percent to 50 percent. Bagdikian also described Gannett as “an outstanding contemporary performer of the ancient rite of creating self-serving myths, of committing acts of greed and exploitation but describing them through its own machinery as heroic epics.”
So here we go again. Gannett, as bad as it has been for the communities it serves, is being held up as an exemplar of local journalism that must be saved. Talk about defining deviancy down. The newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab, reports that Gannett executives may seek to wriggle out of Digital First’s hostile takeover attempt by delivering themselves into the arms of Tribune Publishing, the company formerly known as tronc. Tribune, like Gannett, is known more for its cost-cutting than for its journalism. But anything is better than Digital First.
There is a certain irony in the dilemma now facing Gannett. The company’s model of downsizing newsrooms and driving up profits helped create the crisis that faces the newspaper business today. As newspapers became less comprehensive and less interesting, they lost readers, thus prompting repeated rounds of cuts to keep those profit margins up. Not to push this theory too far — the decimation of advertising-funded news at the hands of digital media is a much larger factor. Still, Gannett-style slash-and-burn management played a role.
Now Gannett is reaping what it sowed. We should all hope that Gannett’s board is successful in fighting off Digital First. But we should also understand that this is strictly a choice between the lesser of two evils. Democracy deserves better.