Despite spinning off a few papers, there are no signs that chains are walking away

Nantucket, where The Inquirer & Mirror is once again locally owned. Photo (cc) 2007 by Michael Galvin.

From time to time I’ve taken note of rare instances when Gannett has sold some of its 1,000 or so papers to local ownership. In Massachusetts, for example, The Inquirer & Mirror of Nantucket was acquired last fall by a group headed by the editor and a local businessman.

Kristen Hare of Poynter asked Gannett for some numbers, it turns out that the chain has sold 24 papers to community interests. (Be sure not to miss the correction. As you’ll see, Gannett can’t even keep track of how many papers it owns.)

Not that there’s any benevolent motive at work here. Gannett is going to do what’s best for its bottom line, and a few isolated weeklies don’t fit with its strategy of regional groups, dailies and stories shared across papers regardless of whether they have any local interest.

Just recently, Gannett shut down two weeklies west of Boston — the Marlborough Enterprise and the Hudson Sun. Maybe there weren’t any local buyers available. But those towns are also covered by Gannett’s MetroWest Daily News, so there was an incentive not to empower any possible competitors.

Writing for the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University, Mark Jacob speculates that the hedge fund Alden Global Initiative might sell off some of the nine major-market dailies it acquired when it gobbled up Tribune Publishing earlier this year. I suppose anything is possible, but that seemed to fly out the window when Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum’s efforts to buy Tribune fell short. Bainum planned to break up the chain, starting with The Baltimore Sun, which he wanted to donate to a nonprofit. In the end, though, Alden’s offer prevailed, even though it was loaded with undisclosed debt.

Jacob also profiles The Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, a rare instance of a newspaper that Alden was willing to sell to local interests, and The New Bedford Light, launched despite Gannett’s refusal to sell The Standard-Times.

And then there is this odd observation by Jacob:

In some ways, large chains can be beneficial for local news consumers. They often bring website expertise, technical support and consistent business practices. And they may have a greater ability to recruit talent.

No. Some chains are better than others, but all of them are dedicated to the proposition that newspapers exist mainly so that the owners can squeeze out profits that could otherwise be invested in news and technology. Even in terms of digital publishing, I have rarely encountered an independent news website that is as clunky and intrusive as a typical chain site.

As the old saying goes: Local doesn’t scale.

Become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month!

Why we need federal assistance to help save local news

Photo (cc) 2011 by Oregon Department of Transportation

Can government help solve the local news crisis? The notion sounds absurd, even dangerous. You get what you pay for, and if government officials are funneling money to media outlets, then it’s not unreasonable to expect that they’ll demand sticky-sweet favorable coverage in return.

Read the rest at GBH News.

National media are thriving while locals are dying — yet there’s hope at the grassroots

Photo (cc) 2011 by Wayne Hsieh

Axios has a story on “journalism’s two Americas” — the thriving national media and struggling local news outlets, mainly newspapers. “The disparate fortunes skew what gets covered,” write Sara Fischer and Nicholas Johnston, “elevating big national political stories at the expense of local, community-focused news.”

The data they present isn’t new, but it’s striking nevertheless. Local reporters earn an average annual salary of $49,000, compared to more than $65,000 for national reporters. Of course, many of those national jobs are in the ultra-high-cost New York era, which means the disparity may not be quite as great as those two numbers suggest. Still, the national media are growing and hiring, while local newspapers — most of them owned by corporate chains and hedge funds — continue to eliminate jobs.

Become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month!

Fischer and Johnston note that CNN is hiring 450 people for its new CNN+ streaming service. And Fischer reported just a little while ago that NBC is “adding hundreds of jobs to its digital organization,” mainly for news-oriented positions.

Not all news on the community journalism front is bad, though. The apocalyptic stories about what’s taking place at the grassroots invariably focus on chains owned by the likes of Gannett and Alden Global Capital. By contrast, entrepreneurs are launching for-profit and nonprofit digital startups at a dizzying rate. Chris Krewson, the executive director of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers writes:

Research shows new newsrooms are launching fast, 50 a year for the last five years. They’re for-profit, non-profit, public-benefit corporations, and LLCs; they’re a husband-and-wife team covering a small town; they’re a staff of dozens holding politicians to account at the statewide level….

They’re not replacing the newspaper. They don’t need to. This nascent industry has the potential to grow beyond the limitations of newspapers, to truly reflect and serve communities large and small, rural, urban, Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer… and on and on. We just have to stop thinking about saving the unsaveable and build businesses that serve the needs of communities first. In fact, what these publications are starting to offer is just as good, if not better, than the legacies they’re increasingly supplanting.

I’ve been tracking such projects since the late ’00s. From New Haven to San Diego, from Burlington, Vermont, to Batavia, New York, community journalists step up when there’s a market failure on the part of the local legacy newspaper. Ellen Clegg and I are following similar projects across the country.

There’s no question that these are tough times for local news. But there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic as well.

Gannett closes two weekly newspapers in Boston’s exurbs

1878 map via the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center

Two weekly papers in Boston’s exurbs are being shut down by Gannett, their corporate owner. The Hudson Sun and the Marlborough Enterprise have ceased publication, according to the Community Advocate.

The towns will continue to be covered by the MetroWest Daily News, which is also a Gannett publication. The Advocate appears to be a decent source of news for the two communities; its offerings include a Marlborough/Hudson newsletter.

Advocate managing editor Dakota Antelman includes an interesting historical overview of newspapers in Marlborough and Hudson, and she notes that reporters for the two communities were moved to the MetroWest Daily News offices in Framingham back in 1995, long before GateHouse Media/Gannett came on the scene.

USA Today takes a cautious step into digital subscriptions

USA Today’s TV-like news boxes were once ubiquitous. Can a paywall take their place? Photo (cc) 2011 by JoeInSouthernCA.

USA Today is dipping its toe into the paid-content waters. Our last free national digital newspaper has announced that it’s going to start charging for certain types of premium content:

Much of the content on USA TODAY will still be free. But you’ll find a selection of stories each day marked “subscriber only.” These will be exclusive investigations, sophisticated visual explainers, thought-provoking takes on the news and immersive storytelling.

According to The New York Times, a digital subscription to USA Today will cost $10 a month after an initial discount, or $13 if you want an ad-free version.

It will be interesting to see if it works. USA Today is a perfectly fine paper, but it’s not quite in the class of the Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. Its principal attraction has been that it’s free, making it a quality source of national news that can easily be cited. When I link to a story in USA Today, I do so knowing that my readers will be able to access it.

On the other hand, we know that free news supported entirely by ads doesn’t work for digital newspapers, as Craigslist, Google and Facebook have destroyed the value of online advertising. I can understand why Gannett, USA Today’s corporate owner, decided it was time to get on board. I’m just not sure why someone would choose USA Today over one of the other national papers.

Then, too, USA Today’s traditional distribution routes no longer work, either. I haven’t seen any of the paper’s once-ubiquitous news boxes in years. The paper was also something generally offered free by hotels, but it could be a long time before business travel recovers from the COVID pandemic.

Gannett, as we know, is a debt-addled chain that has been slashing the newsrooms of its 100 or so daily newspapers and 1,000 weeklies, most of which already have paywalls. The USA Today announcement says that the paper has unique value because it can draw on the resources, such as they are, of the USA Today Network. But those of us who read a Gannett community paper know the journalism flows in both directions, with out-of-town news from other Gannett papers filling up space that ought to be devoted to local coverage.

My skepticism aside, I wish USA Today the best. I know that it produces good journalism, and perhaps it appeals to those who don’t like the Times’ snark, the Post’s breathlessness or the Journal’s focus on business coverage. We’ll see whether it works.

S.C. newspaper is being transferred from Gannett to local ownership

The weekly newspaper in Barnwell, South Carolina, is being acquired from Gannett by a local owner. The People-Sentinel reports:

Barnwell native Jonathan Vickery, who is currently the newspaper’s editor, has entered into an agreement with the current owner, a subsidiary of Gannett Media Corp., to take over ownership on July 1. The newspaper was last locally owned by the late Bob and Kathy Harris who sold the newspaper in 1983 to Community Communications Spartanburg and retired.

We need more of this. And check out the funky website.

How a group of Denver area newspapers were saved from corporate ownership

Photo (cc) 2008 by Alyson Hurt

Just before Thanksgiving last year, Melissa Milios Davis was contacted by Jerry Healey, the co-owner — along with his wife, Ann Healey — of Colorado Community Media, which publishes 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in the Denver suburbs.

The Healeys were approaching retirement and looking to sell, and they were hoping to avoid turning over their life’s work to a corporate chain owner or a hedge fund. Milios Davis, vice president for strategic communications and informed communities at the Gates Family Foundation, serves on the executive committee of the Colorado Media Project, which has been seeking ways forward for local news since 2018.

That encounter, Milios Davis said at a recent webinar (you can watch it here; background information here), led to the sale last month of the Healeys’ newspapers to a new entity whose majority owner will be The Colorado Sun, a startup digital news operation that’s run as a public benefit corporation. That means the 24 papers, like the Sun, will not be organized to enrich its owners; any profits they earn will be rolled back into news coverage and other operations.

“These are still profit-making enterprises. It’s a business,” said Milios Davis, adding it would have been a “huge loss” if the papers had fallen into the wrong hands.

Also speaking at the webinar, organized by the Media Enterprise Design Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, were Lillian Ruiz, co-founder and managing director of the National Trust for Local News, and Larry Ryckman, editor and co-founder of the Sun. The moderator was Nathan Schneider, an assistant professor of media studies at the university.

According a recent article about the deal by Corey Hutchins of Colorado College, the papers will be owned by the newly formed Colorado News Conservancy, which in turn is co-owned by the National Trust for Local News and the Sun. Hutchins reported that the 40 employees who worked for the Healeys, about half of them journalists, would keep their jobs.

The conservancy is currently seeking a publisher, Ruiz said at the webinar, and has invested a considerable amount of attention in the process. “We didn’t want to create just a replication of who have we had some handshakes with over a highball,” she said.

The Sun itself, which was founded after the meltdown of The Denver Post under the ownership of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, is continuing to grow, said Ryckman — from a staff of about 10 when I wrote about the Sun for the Nieman Journalism Lab last fall to 15 today, with more on the way. He described the chance to save the community newspapers as something that was too important to pass up.

“At least on the Sun side, this came together pretty quickly,” he said. “This absolutely was a cause that was near and dear to our hearts…. We know who’s first in line when it comes to buying newspapers these days, and no one wants to see that happen.”

What helped jump-start the deal, said Milios Davis, was a study that the Colorado Media Project conducted several years ago in partnership with the Colorado Press Association. Among the findings: the number of journalists covering local news had been cut in half over the previous decade, in line with what was taking place nationally; and that of 151 newspapers they could identify, 93 were still locally owned.

“We saw on the horizon that a lot of these were … older owners” who lacked a succession plan, she said, explaining that there were 44 in that category. “We were looking at this as a tidal wave that would slowly crash on the shores,” which led to conversations about how to help them transition to new local ownership.

And then the Healeys came along.

One of the most important takeaways from what is happening in Colorado is that local news can still be run on a sustainable basis, and that corporate control and the gutting of newsrooms are not inevitable. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I would love to see the Colorado story replicated across the country. Ruiz said the exact model being used in Colorado might be unique to that area. But she added that her organization is looking at what might work in other parts of the country — especially in communities of color.

So how do we wrest control of local news away from chain owners? Report for America co-founder Steven Waldman, who’s been everywhere lately (it also turns out that he’s a co-founder of Ruiz’s organization), wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times calling for tax breaks for newspaper owners who sell to nonprofits or public benefit corporations.

That would provide an incentive for the likes of Alden and Gannett to take their money and go home. I would add another incentive: tax penalties to be imposed on for-profit owners of newspaper chains of a certain size that are not owned locally.

Communities deserve a chance to take charge of their news and information. Three years after Alden all but destroyed The Denver Post, we’re starting to see a renaissance fueled by a new media venture and an old one that’s been given new life.

Become a member of Media Nation today.

It’s time for the feds to stop hassling and spying on the press

FBI headquarters. Photo (cc) 2008 by zaimoku_woodpile.

Previously published at GBH News.

It was a move reminiscent of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which allowed federal investigators to spy on the reading habits of library and bookstore customers in the name of fighting terrorism.

Last week we learned that the FBI had subpoenaed USA Today in pursuit of Internet Protocol addresses and other data. The goal was to help the agency figure out the identities of people who had read a story last February about a Florida shootout in which two FBI agents were killed and three were wounded. The subpoena specifically cited a 35-minute time frame on the day that the shootings took place.

Fortunately, USA Today’s corporate owner, Gannett Co., the nation’s largest newspaper chain, took a principled stand and fought the subpoena. On Saturday, the FBI backed down. There’s already little enough privacy on the internet without having to worry about the possibility that government officials will be looking over our shoulders as we’re reading.

We are in the midst of a systematic assault on the media’s role in holding the powerful to account. And it’s long past time for our elected officials to do something about it by passing legislation rather than relying on assurances by President Joe Biden that he’s ending these abuses. After all, Biden’s assurances can be undone by the next president with the flick of a pen. We need something stronger and more stable.

Barely a month ago I wrote about the revelation that the Trump Justice Department had spied on three Washington Post reporters’ phone records. I observed that Trump’s actions were in line with a long string of presidential attacks on the media, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush to Barack Obama.

Since then, the revelations have come at a dizzying pace. In addition to the USA Today subpoena, which strikes me as especially egregious since it targets readers rather than journalists, there have been at least two other noteworthy instances of abuse:

• In late May, CNN reported that the Trump administration had secretly obtained 2017 email and phone records of Barbara Starr, a longtime reporter for the network. The period in question was June 1 to July 31, 2017.

• In a particularly noxious abuse of the government’s power, The New York Times reported several days ago that the Justice Department had subpoenaed Google for the email records of four Times reporters — and that, though the inquiry had begun under former President Donald Trump, it continued under Biden. As recently as March, the Justice Department obtained a gag order prohibiting Google from informing the Times. That order was later amended so that a few top officials at the Times could be told, but not executive editor Dean Baquet.

“It is urgent that we hear from the attorney general about all three Trump-era records seizures, including the purported reasoning behind them and the rationale for not notifying the journalists in advance,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a statement released last week. “The goal must be to ensure that such abuses never occur again.”

Compounding the problem is the widely misunderstood belief that government officials are violating the First Amendment. For instance, on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” this past Sunday, Adam Goldman, one of the four Times reporters targeted in the Google probe, said, “The U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. has a history of trampling on the First Amendment, so that’s why I wasn’t surprised. They treat the media, they treat newspapers like drug gangs.”

In fact, over the past century the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment in such a way that the protections for news gathering are exceedingly weak.

Protections for publication and broadcast are strong, which is why the press has been able to report on secret stolen documents — from the Pentagon Papers to the Snowden files — with few concerns about facing prosecution.

But the court has ruled that journalists have no constitutional right to protect their anonymous sources. And with regard to the current string of spying revelations, the court has held repeatedly that journalists enjoy no special rights that would not be available to ordinary citizens.

President Biden recently pledged to end the practice of seizing reporters’ records, saying the practice is “simply, simply wrong.” Some observers questioned whether he actually meant it, since he’d be breaking not just with Trump’s abuses but with longstanding practice. That, in turn, led press secretary Jen Psaki to assure journalists that Biden planned to follow through on his pledge.

But what a president does, a future president can undo. To guarantee that the press will be able to perform its watchdog role, we need a federal shield law so that reporters won’t be compelled to reveal their confidential sources. Such protections — either by law or by court decision — are already in place in 49 states, with the sole exception being Wyoming.

We also need legislation that prevents the government from secretly spying on journalists’ online activities — and on readers’ activities as well.

No doubt opponents will insist that the government needs to be able to spy in order to keep us safe. But the Post, CNN and Times cases appear to involve the Trump administration’s politically motivated attempts to learn more about the origins of the Russia probe, including the activities of former FBI Director James Comey. The USA Today case did involve a much more serious matter. But after dropping its demands, the FBI told the BBC that “intervening investigative developments” made the information unnecessary.

Which is nearly always the case. Rarely does the government’s desire to interfere with the press’ role involve a situation that’s literally a matter of life or death. And the law can accommodate those rare instances.

In general, though, the government should go about its business without compromising the independence or freedom of the press.

(Not) the Weekly World News

At the same time that Gannett is taking a principled stand by refusing to turn over IP data to the FBI, its executives are also making fools of themselves. I tend to be fairly relaxed about front-page ads on the grounds that the money’s got to come from somewhere. But get a load of this:

The Globe adds a R.I. podcast; the union pleads its case in a full-page ad

A couple of yin and yang notes about The Boston Globe this morning.

First, the paper has expanded its Rhode Island coverage by adding a podcast, “Rhode Island Report.” The guest for the debut is former Gov. Gina Raimondo, now the U.S. secretary of commerce.

It’s good to see the Globe doubling down on Rhode Island, which has really been underserved by Gannett’s Providence Journal. But I’ve been noticing more and more Rhode Island coverage making its way into the Globe’s print edition. I thought the idea was to leverage digital. If this continues, I hope there will be some consideration given to replating so that there are separate print editions for Greater Boston and Rhode Island.

I also hope John and Linda Henry are giving some consideration to expanding in Worcester, which is a virtual news desert these days. You may recall that employees at the city’s daily, the Telegram & Gazette, said John Henry promised to sell it to local interests or keep the paper after he acquired it from the New York Times Co. as part of the Globe deal. Instead, he sold it to a Florida chain, and it eventually was passed off to GateHouse Media, now Gannett. (When I asked Henry about it several years ago, he told me he believed he had only promised not to sell to GateHouse.)

Second, the Greater Boston Labor Council, the Greater Boston Building Trades Union and the Communication Workers of America have purchased a full-page ad in today’s Globe in support of the Boston Newspaper Guild’s long quest for a new contract. You can see the ad here.