Last Friday I disputed Joshua Benton’s reporting in Nieman Lab on the extent of the decline in paid circulation at USA Today, owned by Gannett. Now Gannett has asked for a correction. I’m sure Gannett would take issue with my reporting as well; as I noted in an update, both Benton and I may have been led astray by the lack of transparency with which Gannett reports its numbers.
In fact, there’s a statement within Gannett’s request for a correction that is just pure gold regarding the circulation figures that it reports to the Alliance for Audited Media: “AAM data is used to help advertisers understand publisher reach in specific markets, not to infer readership or paid circulation.” Huh?
Surely it is news to many of us that terms such as “print readership,” “print and digital readership” and “circulation” ought to be defined by something other than their plain English meaning. In my earlier post, I concluded that it is impossible to know what Gannett’s publicly reported numbers mean. This only confirms it.
Update: Trying to write about Gannett and accurate numbers simply isn’t possible. One reader notes that USA Today didn’t start offering digital subscriptions until 2021 — and yet Gannett was reporting paid (or unpaid?) digital for USA Today to the Alliance for Audited Media starting at least in 2012. So how is that possible? Another reader hints at an answer — if you subscribe to any Gannett paper, or maybe just any Gannett daily, you get a subscription to USA Today included. Or you used to. Maybe that changed after USA Today’s paywall went up.
So it could be that USA Today’s paid circulation was far lower in 2018 than what it reported to AAN — not the 2,632,392 that Joshua Benton used, and not the 1,584,462 that I used. Instead, maybe what we ought to look at is the 631,076 print figure. And since USA Today seemed to be selling an e-paper option as well, that would bring total paid circulation in 2018 to 654,743.
Now let’s go for an apples-to-apples comparison. The 156,453 that Benton reported for USA Today’s current paid circulation is the total of print and replica. That’s a nausea-inducing decline of 76% over the four-year period, but that’s still not nearly as much as the 93% Benton’s numbers showed. It’s also a lot worse than the 33% estimate that I offered.
But wait! USA Today has been selling paid nonreplica digital subscriptions for nearly two years now. How many? As I explained, Gannett stopped reporting that figure a while back, so we don’t know. Surely it’s not the “zero” that Gannett claims on its most recent report to AAN. (It should at least be one; I mean, I bought one.) We simply can’t know how by how much USA Today’s paid circulation has declined without knowing that important figure, or whether subscriptions to other Gannett papers are included. Without access to Gannett’s internal numbers and insight into exactly what they mean, it’s an unsolveable mess.
Earlier: Did USA Today’s paid circulation drop by 93% between 2018 and 2022? The near-certain answer to that is no — yet that’s the astonishing claim that Joshua Benton makes at Nieman Lab. I knew there was a problem with his numbers as soon as I saw them, mainly because I recently put some effort into figuring out how USA Today’s corporate owner, Gannett, compiles its circulation figures. So let’s dive in.
Benton reports that USA Today’s paid circulation in the third quarter of 2018 was 2,632,392 and then fell in the third quarter of 2022 to just 180,381. That’s a staggering loss of 2,452,011, or 93%. But as I’ll show, much of that apparent loss is the result of a change in the way Gannett reports its paid digital circulation to the Alliance for Audited Media.
What I was able to dig up at AAN uses slightly different time periods compared to what Benton found. I’m going to use all of 2018 rather than the third quarter because the latter wasn’t available when I looked. But it should tell the same tale. It shows that the average weekday circulation that year was 2,708,983, which is in the same ballpark as what Benton reported. A lot of that, though, consists of “affiliated publications” such as Local/Life and Sports Weekly. The circulation of the paper alone was 1,584,462. Now, pay attention to the following breakdown, because it will prove important:
Digital replica: 23,667
Digital nonreplica: 929,719
“Digital nonreplica” is the term for digital subscribers who access the website but don’t bother with the e-paper. As you can see, it comprises the vast majority of digital subscriptions — and, at some point, Gannett simply stopped reporting that number.
Now let’s look at the third quarter of 2022. Paid weekday circulation is reported as 180,381 at the top level at ANN (the figure Benton used) or 156,453, which is the number that pops up at AAN if you click through. That latter number comprises 132,176 for print and 24,277 for digital replica (the 156,453 figure, which I didn’t immediately grasp) — and zero for digital nonreplica. So, yes, print circulation is down by a stunning 79%, which may have more than a little to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. USA Today, after all, was a staple of hotels for many years. But digital replica is up slightly. And digital nonreplica simply isn’t being reported.
I encountered this recently when I was analyzing some numbers for Gannett’s Burlington Free Press in northern Vermont. I discovered that, not only had Gannett stopped reporting digital nonreplica, but that — according to confidential internal reports I had obtained — it was underreporting its total paid digital circulation by about half.
Gannett is trying very hard to sell digital subscriptions for its incredible shrinking news outlets. Keep in mind, too, that people don’t buy subscriptions to the replica edition — they buy digital subscriptions, period, and the papers themselves report how many readers are accessing the e-paper so they can tout that number to advertisers. (AAN recently explained all of this to me. As you’ll see, it’s pretty complicated.) In other word, Gannett is telling AAN how many subscribers are accessing the e-paper, but they’re keeping total digital circulation to themselves.
Now, I’m going to take a leap here and assume that USA Today’s total digital circulation was the same in 2022 as it was in 2018, or maybe even a little higher. I base that on several factors: digital circulation was up at all of Gannett’s New England properties, according to the confidential report I mentioned; USA Today’s digital replica circulation was up slightly; and Gannett has been pushing digital subscriptions hard. I even signed up for one, and it was a great deal — with a little fiddling, I can use it to access every Gannett paper in the country. Of course, there’s little in them.
With all that in mind, I came up with a guesstimate that USA Today’s paid circulation in the third quarter of 2022 was about 1,056,000. I’m building in a nonreplica figure of 900,000, a decline (as I said, unlikely) compared to 2018. Put all that together, and using a 2018 circulation figure of 1,584,462 (that is, not counting “affiliated publications”), and I come up with a drop of 33% between 2018 and 2022. Now, that’s still a lot — but it’s also in line with a lot of non-Gannett papers that Benton used for comparison.
Everything else Benton says about Gannett is right on target. The company has decimated its papers, is closing them and selling them off, and generally appears to be squeezing out the last few drops of revenue they can muster before people like top executive Mike Reed, the $7.7 million man, walk away. It’s an outrage, and we really can’t call attention to it often enough.
But the crazy circulation drop at USA Today and other Gannett dailies is more a function of Gannett’s decision to stop reporting paid digital nonreplica subscriptions than it is an actual measurement of readers fleeing for the exits.
The “Dilbert” cancellation tour is heating up following Scott Adams’ amazingly racist rant in which he called Black people a “hate group” and added that “the best advice I would give to white people is to get the hell away from Black people.”
The once-amusing cartoon is now gone from The Boston Globe’s digital comics section. I haven’t seen a statement yet, but I assume one is forthcoming.* And Gannett actually announced on Friday that it would drop the strip. Gannett is the country’s largest newspaper chain, with some 200 titles — although I don’t know how many will be affected by the move.
Back before GateHouse Media morphed into Gannett in 2019 and assumed its corporate identity, I believed the company was in it for the long haul. Don’t get me wrong — GateHouse was always obsessed with cost-cutting and was a fairly awful steward of the papers it acquired. But its executives seemed to have convinced themselves that ugly was the only way to win, and that winning meant surviving.
No longer. I couldn’t possibly tell you what Gannett is up to anymore other than squeezing its properties for every last drop of revenue. On Thursday, the company released its latest financial results. They were terrible for journalists and the communities they serve. For investors, though, they were pretty good.
Don Seiffert reports in the Boston Business Journal that Gannett slashed the number of journalists at its 200 or so newspapers (including the flagship USA Today) by 20% over the past year — no surprise to those of us who were following those cuts throughout the year. Seiffert paged through the annual report and found that Gannett employed 3,900 journalists at the end of 2022 (3,300 in the U.S. and 600 at a U.K.-based subsidiary), down from 4,846 a year earlier. At the same time, though, the company had achieved profitability, which sent the stock price soaring by 22%
Incredibly, some of those investors think Gannett has been too slow to cut. For instance, Seiffert said on Mastodon that, during Thursday’s earnings call, Leon Cooperman, CEO of the hedge fund Omega Advisors, which is among Gannett’s larger investors, told Gannett chair Michael Reed, the $7.7 million man: “I think it’s fair to say you couldn’t understand the impact of Covid and the recession on the company. Having said that, I think it’s a fair criticism to say we have been too slow in reducing costs.” As Seiffert noted: “This, despite the company reducing total headcount by more than half since 2019.”
So what’s ahead? You will not be surprised to learn that CFO Doug Horne told investors that Gannett’s going big-time into artificial intelligence to perform some of the work that used to be done by journalists. Just feed the audio from the planning board meeting into ChatGPT and see what happens, I suppose.
Over at Poynter Online, Angela Fu reports that Reed is wicked psyched about 2023, writing:
Reed said the company is entering 2023 with “a lot of optimism.” Inflation seems to have peaked, he said, and newsprint and distribution costs have largely stabilized. In response to a shareholder question about a possible recession, Reed said the company had not seen anything in the first quarter to indicate the country was moving in that direction.
Unless it proves otherwise, though, Gannett should be regarded as nothing but a financial play at this point. The best thing it could do is offload its community papers to local owners who actually care about journalism, as it has done with a few weeklies Central Massachusetts as well as the Inquirer and Mirror of Nantucket, which I wrote about recently in an op-ed piece for The Boston Globe. Gannett has sold some of its papers nationally as well.
In many other cases, vibrant startups from The Provincetown Independent to several projects in the Boston suburbs are competing with vestigial Gannett papers, but more are needed. As Steven Waldman, president of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, has proposed, we need tax incentives aimed at persuading Gannett and other chains to get out of town — and to give committed local ownership a chance to revive grassroots news coverage.
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.
For years, the city of Worcester withheld public records about police misconduct that had been sought by the local daily newspaper, the Telegram & Gazette. It’s already cost the hapless taxpayers big-time: Nearly a year ago, an outraged judge ruled against the city and awarded the T&G $101,000 to cover about half the cost of the newspaper’s legal fees. She also assessed the city $5,000 in punitive damages.
That outrageous misconduct, overseen by former city manager Edward Augustus, was the subject of a 2022 New England Muzzle Award, published by GBH News.
Now a three-judge panel of the state Appeals Court is asking a logical question: If the T&G was in the right and the city was in the wrong, why shouldn’t the newspaper be compensated for all or most of its legal fees rather than just half? This week that panel overturned the lower-court ruling and ordered Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker to consider increasing the legal fees she awarded, according to a report by the T&G’s Brad Petrishen, who first began seeking the records in 2018.
Petrishen quoted Associate Justice John Englander as saying: “At 10,000 feet, what happened here is the newspaper wanted to write about something and it took them three years to get the documents they wanted to write about.”
The proceedings have been followed closely by Andrew Quemere, a journalist who writes a newsletter on public records called The Mass Dump. Quemere published a detailed account this week that includes some particularly entertaining quotes from an exchange Justice Englander had with the city’s lawyer, Wendy Quinn, at oral arguments in December:
“What did the plaintiffs request or push for that they were wrong about?” Englander asked.
Quinn paused for about six seconds before asking Englander to clarify his question.
“What the heck did you spend three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting over if they should have gotten [the records]?” Englander asked. “If you had a defense, I’d like to understand what the defense was.”
As Quemere notes, Judge Kenton-Walker has consistently taken the position that the city not only erred and acted in bad faith, ordering that the city turn over the documents that the T&G had sought in June 2021 and then awarding $101,000 in legal fees in February 2022.
Even so, the newspaper appealed, seeking the full $217,000 it had paid — and, as the Appeals Court panel has now ruled, it may very well be entitled to that money. Jeffrey Pyle, a Boston-based First Amendment lawyer who represented the T&G, put it this way at the oral arguments: “To cut [the fees] by 54% sends a message to public records requesters: Don’t bother suing, you’re not going to be made whole even if you win and show that the other side acted in bad faith.”
To make matters worse for city officials, the Department of Justice last November announced that it had launched an investigation to determine whether the police department had used excessive force or engaged in discrimination on the basis of race or gender, although it is not clear whether DOJ was motivated by the T&G’s reporting.
I hope the T&G gets every last dime that it spent on this case. But I should add that the newspaper’s corporate chain owner, Gannett, deserves credit for pursuing this without any guarantee that it would ever be compensated. I criticize Gannett’s cost-cutting frequently in this space, but the company and its predecessor, GateHouse Media, have always been dedicated to fighting for open government, even if it means going to court. They could have told the T&G’s editors to forget about it, but they didn’t.
Finally, a disclosure: David Nordman, who was the T&G’s editor until this past summer, is now a colleague of mine at Northeastern. We work on opposite sides of the campus, literally and figuratively: he’s the executive editor of Northeastern Global News, part of the university’s communications operation, and I’m a faculty member at the School of Journalism.
Gannett continues to walk away from its weekly newspapers. Writing in Axios Columbus, Tyler Buchanan reports that the country’s largest newspaper chain is closing ThisWeek Community News, a group of weeklies that covers about 16 communities in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. The company said it will concentrate instead on its daily in that region, The Columbus Dispatch, adding:
The decision is part of a broader digital transformation that will allow the company to harness its resources and focus more on its cutting-edge digital news and information efforts and exemplary enterprise reporting on Columbus and Franklin County, including the communities served by ThisWeek.
Gannett owns about 200 daily papers across the country, the largest of which is USA Today. The money-losing chain has been slashing all of its properties, including its dailies, by imposing layoffs, furloughs, retirement freezes and other measures. But it also appears to be getting out of the weekly business altogether.
Gannett has closed a number of weeklies in Eastern Massachusetts over the past several years, and in 2022 took two giant steps toward oblivion by replacing local coverage with regional stories at nearly all of its weeklies and then by closing 19 weeklies and merging another nine into four.
People are starting to notice the local news renaissance in Eastern Massachusetts that’s been inspired by the Gannett newspaper chain’s never-ending cuts.
Dana Gerber reported in The Boston Globe on Tuesday about “The Great Marblehead Newspaper War,” where three independent start-ups have been launched in response to Gannett’s evisceration of the Marblehead Reporter last year. These days Marblehead is served by a for-profit digital project, the Marblehead Beacon; a well-funded digital and print nonprofit, the Marblehead Current; and the Marblehead Weekly News, a for-profit print newspaper started by The Daily Item of Lynn, which is itself independently owned.
Just a few days ago, Mariya Manzhos reported for Poynter Online about The Concord Bridge, another well-funded nonprofit start-up. And there are a number of others, including The Bedford Citizen, which at this point has to be considered venerable: the nonprofit digital site was started a decade ago by three volunteers in response to cuts by Gannett’s predecessor company, GateHouse Media, at the weekly Bedford Minuteman. Now the Citizen has a small paid staff and is the only news source in town, the Minuteman having been shut down last year. (The Citizen is one of the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are profiling in our book-in-progress, “What Works in Community News,” to be published in early 2024 by Beacon Press.)
But there is an ongoing problem, and it’s one I spoke with Gerber about when she interviewed me: these startups are highly concentrated in affluent, mostly white suburbs like, well, Marblehead, Concord and Bedford. Yes, there is The New Bedford Light, an extraordinarily well-funded nonprofit that’s gotten national attention, but that’s the exception. Most local outlets that serve more diverse communities, such as The Bay State Banner and the Dorchester Reporter, tend to be for-profit publications that have been around for a while; we’re seeing little in the way of new ventures to cover such places. And many have little or nothing. Cambridge Day does a good job, but it’s essentially a one-person shop. Why is Marblehead, with a population of under 20,000, getting more comprehensive coverage than a city of 117,000 people? (I should note that the Cambridge Chronicle is one of just three Gannett weeklies in Eastern Massachusetts that purportedly still covers some local news, although you wouldn’t know it from its website.)
As Manzhos notes, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has provided some assistance to local news outlets. What we need, though, are news outlets that provide ongoing accountability journalism in each of the state’s 351 communities — city council, select board, school committee, police, development and the like. I hope that will happen.
We’re also closer than you might think. If you haven’t seen it before, here is a spreadsheet I maintain of every independent local news outlet in the state. Obviously some are better than others, but some of these are excellent.
I thought the final days of 2022 would be a good time to take stock of the state of Media Nation. I’ve put more of an effort into it since giving up my weekly column at GBH News last spring. Even though I stopped writing for GBH so that I could concentrate on writing the book that Ellen Clegg and I are co-authoring on local news, I’ve also tried to put more of an effort into the blog. It seems to have paid off.
According to the data, Media Nation received more page views in 2022 (243,489) than it had since 2014 (258,982). More visitors (160,548) dropped by than in any year for which I have data — the numbers only go back to 2013, and I’ve been blogging independently since 2005. I also published 329 posts in 2022, which is more than any year except 2021, when I published 530. I really don’t know what that was all about; it seems to me that I’ve been blogging more this year than last.
As you may know, this is the age of newsletters, and blogs are considered passé in many circles. So I’m pleased that 2,156 people have signed up for free email delivery of new posts to Media Nation, which makes this place a newsletter as much as it is a blog. I also have a small but hardy band of members who pay $5 a month to keep the blog going. If you’d like to join them, you can sign up here.
What follows are my top 10 posts for 2022. The most trafficked post was about revelations that the late William Loeb, the notorious right-wing publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, was a child molester. Five of the top 10 pertain to the Gannett newspaper chain, which went on a downsizing crusade in 2022 that made its previous efforts look almost benevolent. And away we go.
3. While Gannett journalists brace for layoffs, those at the top rake in big bucks, Aug. 8. (6,273 views). Chair and CEO Michael Reed’s compensation has been an issue for years, but it seemed especially relevant at a time when his underpaid journalists were losing their jobs by the hundreds. According to company documents, Reed was paid more than $7.7 million in salary and other benefits in 2021. Compensation for other executives and for part-time board members was eye-popping as well. Who says the newspaper business doesn’t pay?
4. Gannett’s Mass. weeklies to replace much of their local news with regional coverage, Feb. 16. (5,120 views). To my mind, this was worse than shutting down and merging many of the weeklies. With the exception of just three papers (the Cambridge Chronicle, the Old Colony Memorial of Plymouth and the Provincetown Banner), Gannett eliminated virtually all local coverage, replacing it with regional beats such as climate change, the criminal justice system and food. Those are not unworthy topics, but who’s going to keep an eye on town hall? Fortunately, the year was also defined by the rise of new local news outlets in Marblehead, Concord, Newton and elsewhere — a trend I expect will continue in 2023.
6. “A Civil Action”: The real story, Dec. 18, 1998 (4,738 views). Now this one is a real mystery. I wrote the piece for The Boston Phoenix just before the movie version premiered, reporting on what actually happened to the Woburn families who sued three industrial polluters after their children became sick with leukemia; two of the children died. Since Northeastern University now owns the rights to the Phoenix archives, I posted it on Media Nation in 2015 in order to make it more accessible. But I have no idea why it got so many views in 2022. All I can think of is that someone assigned it for a course.
8. A Long Island weekly had the goods on Santos several weeks before Election Day, Dec. 23 (4,152 views). This one is still resonating and may move up in the rankings before the year draws to a close. Following up on reporting by Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, I found that The North Shore Leader had exposed some of the details about serial liar George Santos several weeks before Election Day — raising questions about why larger news organizations such as The New York Times and Newsday didn’t take notice.
10. Bob Garfield revisits his firing from ‘On the Media’ and brings his podcast to a close, June 21 (2,484 views). The public radio program “On the Media” has been one of my must-listens for many years, although I’m not happy that the program is less and less about the media. (There have been some recent signs of a return to form.) The chemistry between co-hosts Garfield and Brooke Gladstone was one of the things that made it special, even though we now know they hated each other’s guts. Garfield was fired in 2021 and accused of abusive behavior in the workplace, an accusation he more or less admitted to but defended anyway. And by the way, my post on Gladstone’s taking to the airwaves to say that Garfield got what he deserved was my most viewed (9,172 times) of 2021. The break-up of Gladstone and Garfield’s professional partnership obviously meant a lot to many people.