Within the past hour I’ve received copies of an email from multiple sources about yet another round of layoffs that our largest newspaper chain is planning. The hammer is scheduled to drop on Dec. 1 and 2, just in time for the holidays.
The email comes from Henry Faure Walker, a Gannett executive who is described on the company’s website as “the Chief Executive Officer of Newsquest Media Group since 2014, managing more than 165 regional brands in the U.K. with an audience of 30 million.” He is also chair of the News Media Association, a British industry group. His operational role at Gannett is not listed in his company bio.
The most recent round of cuts was announced only last month. At that time, the chain imposed unpaid furloughs, a 401(k) freeze, a hiring moratorium and other measures on its beleaguered employees, so this really adds insult to injury. The text of Walker’s email follows:
Dear Gannett News Division:
First and foremost, I want to thank you all for your commitment, hard work and professionalism during these unsettling times.
I have begun working with … the team to address the challenges and opportunities ahead and put the News operation on a sounder footing.
It’s important to provide you with visibility into current conditions and the next steps for our News division, as we are not immune to the economic conditions many industries and companies are facing, particularly in the media sector.
While we have taken several steps already, we must enter the new year in a stronger economic position, and the reality is that our News cost base is currently too high for the revenues it generates. Regretfully, this means we will be implementing further reductions.
I appreciate that this will impact valued colleagues, and we are committed to ensuring they are treated with the utmost respect and courtesy throughout this difficult process. Our goal is to be as transparent as possible. Notifications will occur on Dec. 1 and 2.
Please know that many non-payroll savings have also been targeted, and reducing our workforce is not the preferred course of action. In addition, other similar actions are being taken in other divisions across our organization.
We are going through challenging times, but we will get through this, and build a stronger business that underpins the phenomenal, trusted journalism you do and ensure that we can continue to deliver for our communities for many years to come. Thank you.
You’ve seen plenty of bad news about Gannett here — layoffs, reassigning staff away from local news coverage, closing papers and, more recently, imposing furloughs, pension freezes and buyouts. With more than 200 daily newspapers across the country, what happens at Gannett matters. Its ongoing shrinkage is a significant part of the local news crisis.
So I was interested to see that Gannett chief executive Michael Reed talked — OK, exchanged emails — with Gretchen A. Peck of the trade publication Editor & Publisher. I wanted to see what sort of story he’s telling these days about the path forward for his debt-addled chain, which nevertheless found a way to pay him $7.7 million last year.
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Not surprisingly, it turns out to be a lot of the same old, same old — an emphasis on digital subscriptions despite having little journalism to attract new readers as well as ancillary businesses ranging from events to sports betting. At least he didn’t mention NFTs this time.
One thing I didn’t know was that Gannett’s consumer product website, Reviewed.com, is based in Cambridge, and that it employs more than 100 people, including scientists, product experts, writers and editors. The idea is similar to Wirecutter, founded as an independent site and later acquired by The New York Times. Buy something through Reviewed.com and Gannett gets a cut of the action. Reed told Peck:
If you look across the larger media landscape throughout the last decade, we have seen expansion beyond traditional news into varied product offerings and different types of content. As the traditional revenue streams we largely relied on, such as print advertising and print subscriptions, continue to transition to digital, we are also adapting to new revenue opportunities. These diversifying revenue streams help us to ensure we can support our ongoing news efforts in an increasingly digital world.
Reed added that progress continues to be made in paying down the debt that Gannett took on when it merged with GateHouse Media in 2019. Gannett these days is essentially GateHouse under a different name; Reed himself was the head of GateHouse before the merger.
Despite Reed’s happy talk, the company continues to throw newspapers and staff members overboard. According to Ray Schultz of Publishers Daily, Gannett is selling two papers in New Mexico and has put its Phoenix printing facility on the block for $47.4 million. Urban Milwaukee’s Bruce Murphy reports that six veteran journalists are leaving Gannett’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Local opinion content continues to be slashed as well, writes Mark Pickering in Contrarian Boston.
Essentially Reed is telling the same story he’s always told: Times are tough, and we have to keep cutting. Eventually, though, digital subscriptions and our non-news investments will begin to pay off and support our journalism. It’s just that “eventually” never seems to come. Still, there’s considerable value in reading about Reed’s assessment of how Gannett can pull out of its downward spiral; Peck and E&P deserve credit for getting him on the record.
Meanwhile, in Eastern Massachusetts and across the country, independent news projects are rising up to fill the gap left by Gannett’s retreat. The latest is The Concord Bridge, a digital-and-print nonprofit competing with Gannett’s Concord Journal, ghosted by the shift from local to regional coverage last spring.
You can access a complete list of independent local news outlets in Massachusetts by clicking here.
On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, who represents the First District of Rhode Island in Congress. Cicilline, who is a Democrat, is part of a bipartisan group of U.S. representatives and senators sponsoring the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. Co-sponsors include Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota; Republican Sen. John Kennedy from Louisiana; Republican Rep. Ken Buck from Colorado; and Senate and House Judiciary Committee chairs Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat.
The JCPA would remove legal obstacles to news organizations’ ability to negotiate collectively and secure fair terms from gatekeeper platforms that proponents say use news content without paying for it. Critics counter that it’s more complicated than that. The legislation also allows news publishers to demand arbitration if they reach an impasse in those negotiations.
Ellen has a Quick Take on new research being done by the Institute for Nonprofit News. The INN just released 2022 fact sheets on three types of nonprofit newsrooms: local news, state and regional news, and national and global news. While each group shares some similarities, INN found that geography matters in terms of revenue models and audience development.
I take a few more whacks at Gannett because newsrooms are being hit with unpaid furloughs, buyouts, a freeze on their pension benefits and more.
Mike Reed, Gannett’s $7.7 million man, announced another round of truly astonishing cuts earlier today in an all-hands memo shortly after holding a brief town hall meeting. His memo was provided to me by two trusted sources.
Another astonishing round of cuts at Gannett’s incredible shrinking newspapers. Let’s get right to it. Two trusted sources have sent me an all-hands memo from CEO Mike Reed. The gory details: (1/x)
There’s a lot of head-shaking material in here, but perhaps the most clueless line is this, in explaining the company’s decision to suspend company matches for 401(k) accounts: “This decision does not impact employee contributions, just the Company match.” What generosity!
The rest of it is the usual sort of thing — five days of unpaid furlough, a hiring freeze, voluntary severance, voluntary shorter work weeks and, for those who can afford such a thing, unpaid sabbaticals. “Our company is resilient, our people are the best in the industry and my confidence in what we can accomplish as Team Gannett has not wavered,” Reed writes in conclusion.
Gannett is our largest newspaper company, with more than 200 dailies. Despite — or, more likely, because of — round after round of cuts, the debt-addled company’s stock price has slid from a high of $5.99 back in February to $1.40 as I’m posting this. Here is the full text of Reed’s message (note: links are internal and won’t work if you click on them):
These are truly challenging times. The company continues to face headwinds and uncertainty from the deteriorating macroeconomic environment which has led the executive team to take further immediate action.
Before I share the specifics, I want to thank you all for your hard work and commitment. Whether you’re part of the Digital Marketing Solutions team, Gannett Media or USA TODAY Network Ventures, we will navigate this unpredictable climate by working together.
We pledged transparency – and while these actions are tough, I want to be explicit about what we’re doing and why. In order to sustain the mission of our company to empower communities to thrive, sustain local journalism and support small businesses with digital solutions, we need to ensure our balance sheet remains strong.
These are not decisions we made lightly, but they are critical for our long-term success. Here’s what you can expect:
401(k) Match Suspension
Gannett will temporarily suspend the 401(k) match for contributions made on or after October 24, 2022. This decision does not impact employee contributions, just the Company match. Employees may continue their contributions on a pre-tax basis, which reduces taxable income or on an after-tax basis to a Roth 401(k).
December Mandatory Leave
Employees must take 5 days of unpaid leave during the month of December. The mandatory leave will occur over a two-week period from December 19-30 (the holiday observance of Christmas will be paid). Teams will work with their managers to determine scheduling to ensure staffing and coverage as appropriate. HR will provide specific guidance to ensure FLSA compliance.
Voluntary Severance Offer (VSO)*
We are offering to pay severance to an employee in exchange for their voluntary resignation and execution of a separation and release agreement. This program provides flexibility for those who may wish to transition. Employees interested in the VSO must express interest by October 18 and work through November 4, 2022. *In accordance with Gannett’s 2022 severance program.
Gannett will cease overall hiring with the exception of key revenue and operating roles as well as positions deemed critical.
The following options are also available to employees who wish to reduce their work hours or take an extended break to meet their personal needs.
Adjusted Work Week
Employees may request an adjusted work schedule with fewer hours, commensurate with a 20% reduction in compensation, and maintain full-time employment status. Please note this is not a compressed work week where employees work their normal schedulein fewer days.
Employees may request an unpaid sabbatical from 1 month to 6 months in duration. As an approved personal leave, employees may continue health benefits coverage by paying their portion of premiums directly to Fidelity.
This is a lot to process. This mix of temporary and permanent actions allows us the near-term flexibility we need to drive improvement while preserving our ability to quickly pivot as we see the economy and areas of our business progress.
I recognize that these decisions take a financial and emotional toll but mitigating these economic pressures now will benefit Gannett’s future. The days and weeks ahead will require close partnership with managers and our human resources team to support you as we implement these measures.
Our company is resilient, our people are the best in the industry and my confidence in what we can accomplish as Team Gannett has not wavered. If you missed the Town Hall where I address these actions, you can watch the replay [at internal link]. You may find additional information at [internal link].
My sincere gratitude for all you do,
Please note that this information may or may not apply to you if you are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, represented by a union or work for an entity that is part of a Joint Operating Agreement.
The Bedford Citizen, one of the first and most successful hyperlocal websites in the Boston suburbs, has hired its second managing editor. Wayne Braverman, a veteran journalist who most recently worked for Gannett, will succeed Julie McCay Turner, who announced her retirement earlier this year.
Turner and two other women founded the Citizen 10 years ago. Originally an all-volunteer project, the outlet slowly morphed into a professional operation that was able to pay Turner and a part-time staff reporter, Mike Rosenberg. The nonprofit continues to be run by a volunteer board of directors. Braverman’s hiring marks the first time that the Citizen will be run by someone who wasn’t one of the founders and thus represents a rather momentous transition. Turner will remain involved in the Citizen as well.
According to Braverman’s LinkedIn profile, he was editor of Gannett’s Boston Homes publication until about two weeks ago, when Gannett closed the publication. He worked as the internship coordinator for GateHouse Media, Gannett’s predecessor company, from 2002-’16 and has also worked as a radio host and public-speaking instructor. He earned a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University and a bachelor’s degree in political science from UMass Lowell.
The Citizen is among the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are writing about in “What Works,” our book-in-progress about the future of local news.
What follows is a press release from Teri Morrow, the Citizen’s executive director:
I want you to be among the first to know: Wayne Braverman — award-winning journalist and Bedford resident — joins The Bedford Citizenas Managing Editor this week.
Wayne brings both reporting and editorial experience as well as considerable enthusiasm for Bedford to the role.
During his career, Wayne has served as a reporter, senior editor, and managing editor in the Boston area. He’s worked for print and online publications. And he has experience expanding the scope of local news.
As you’ll read this week, Wayne says The Bedford Citizen is “considered by many professional journalists to be the model of how people can come together to create a new media outlet to provide residents with effective coverage of their community.”
I hope you are patting yourself on the back! That’s because you are one of the reasons journalists like Wayne consider The Citizen as a model of local journalism! Thank you for standing up for local news.
Throughout the interview process, Wayne shared that he is “ready to carry on the … mission of The Bedford Citizen.” And that he will “work with our staff and the people of Bedford to take [The Citizen] to its next evolutionary level.”
I hope you are as excited as I am to see what happens in the coming months and years with Wayne in the Managing Editor role. Should you see him around town, please share your thoughts and ideas about The Citizen.
Should one of the world’s most influential billionaires own one of our most influential news organizations? That’s the question Dan Froomkin asks in the Columbia Journalism Review about Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Post. It’s an important article, and you should read it. But I have some reservations, which I detail below.
Headlined “The Washington Post Has a Bezos Problem,” Froomkin’s piece argues that the situation has changed since the early years of Bezos’ ownership, when the Post’s news and editorial pages were edited by Graham-era holdovers (Marty Baron and Fred Hiatt, respectively) and the paper returned to glory with deep investigative reporting on Donald Trump, both before and after the 2016 election.
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Now, Froomkin writes, Bezos tweets critically about President Biden’s economic policies while the Post’s news coverage, whether coincidentally or not, appears to track with those tweets. Bezos also had a hand in hiring Baron’s successor as executive editor, former Associated Press executive editor Sally Buzbee, and editorial page editor David Shipley, a Bloomberg journalist who was hired following Hiatt’s sudden death. Froomkin writes:
Throughout history, newspapers have frequently been owned by moguls — and readers were at times appropriately apprehensive. In this era, Rupert Murdoch has created a powerful media empire, which includes Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, and his influence has been considerable.
But Bezos is in a different league even from Murdoch. The world has never seen wealth like this before, and it has never been so interconnected.
As I said, Froomkin makes some good points. We ought to be concerned about that kind of power concentrated in one of our leading news outlets. He quotes Edward Wasserman, a media ethicist at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley, as saying that Bezo’s dual role as a master of the universe and as the Post’s owner as being “not compatible with the kind of independence we normally associate with independent news organizations.”
But I think we have to dig a little deeper. When I was reporting on the Post for my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” I could find no evidence that Bezos interfered with the paper’s news coverage or even its opinion operations. (The latter would be perfectly acceptable for an owner, and in fact John and Linda Henry are known to have their say in the opinion pages of The Boston Globe.) Nor did Froomkin find any evidence to the contrary.
What I have found as a reader of the Post is that though the paper will offer tough coverage of Amazon when warranted, it hasn’t gone out of its way to do any in-depth enterprise reporting on Amazon, as The New York Times has. As I told Froomkin, “I suppose nothing would answer the question more thoroughly than if they suddenly unveiled a real ass-kicking story about Amazon — a real in-depth piece of enterprise reporting that reflected pretty harshly on their owner.”
But every newspaper owner has conflicts of interest. Before Bezos bought the Post and took it private, it was a publicly traded company owner by the Graham family, who also owned the Kaplan testing company. The Grahams were often criticized for the Post’s soft coverage of the education testing industry. Of course, John Henry is the principal owner of the Red Sox. Glen Taylor, who revived the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, is a sports owner as well. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who owns the Los Angeles Times, is a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. And on and on.
All of these billionaires have improved their papers at a time when corporate chain owners and hedge funds like Gannett and Alden Global Capital are hollowing out their newspapers by the hundreds. Soon-Shiong’s ownership of the LA Times has been controversial, but he’s invested in the paper and he hired a fine newsroom leader, Kevin Merida, the most prominent Black editor in the country now that Dean Baquet has retired from the NY Times. Needless to say, none of these billionaires wields the sort of clout that Bezos does. But you have to ask: What is the alternative? Who is Dan Froomkin’s ideal owner?
In fact, I asked Froomkin that on Twitter. His answer: “A local foundation or a local philanthropist or a civic-minded billionaire or a union. Anything but the (near) richest guy in the world. This broken system is working for him just great.”
Thanks, Dan. Answer: A local foundation or a local philanthropist or a civic-minded billionaire or a union. Anything but the (near) richest guy in the world. This broken system is working for him just great.
Hmmm. Certainly the Henrys, Taylor and Soon-Shiong qualify as civic-minded billionaires — maybe even as local philanthropists. Presumably the only thing that rules out Bezos is scale. I’m not familiar with any unions that own newspapers, although it’s a great idea and there are some historical examples.
A local foundation? There are a few. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times are for-profit newspapers owned by nonprofit foundations — the Lenfest Institute and the Poynter Institute, respectively. But that came about because the billionaires who owned those papers donated them. The Salt Lake Tribune is a nonprofit that was donated by yet another billionaire.
Frankly, I think the biggest worry about the Post is that Bezos might be losing interest, which — if you read between the lines of a recent NY Times story — is a real concern. If that’s the case, would Bezos donate the Post to a foundation, as Gerry Lenfest did in Philadelphia and Nelson Poynter did in Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg? I’d like to think he wouldn’t preside over the revival of The Washington Post only to turn around and deliver it into the arms of Alden Global Capital. But who knows?
It could well be that the only thing worse than the Post under Bezos is the Post under a different owner.
I don’t do this very often, but there are a number of important stories in local journalism that are flying by, and I want to put down a marker. No need to go into detail — just click on the links to find out more.
California sets aside $25 million in government money to support local journalism.
The move follows the creation of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, which this year will distribute $3 million for specific projects such as a plan to expand news coverage across Jersey City; an online radio program in Creole for the Haitian community; and an oral history on efforts to clean up drinking water in Newark.
Unlike New Jersey, the California initiative will be used to pay reporting fellows from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism to cover under-represented communities.
The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would set aside antitrust law to allow news organizations to bargain collectively with Google and Facebook for compensation, was dealt a huge setback.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, succeeded in adding an amendment that would make it more difficult for news organizations to moderate comments. The lead sponsor of the bill, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., responded by withdrawing the legislation but said she’ll be back.
LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers and a number of organizations came out in opposition to the proposal, calling it “ill-advised” and “enormously problematic.” A similar law in Australia has been criticized for lining the pockets of large publishers — mainly Rupert Murdoch — while doing little for smaller players.
Google News Showcase, touted as a source of revenue for news outlets whose content would be featured, has been stalled because the giant platform has been unable to reach agreements with several key publishers.
Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, was offered $6 million a year to feature journalism from its flagship USA Today as well as its local papers, according to The Wall Street Journal. Gannett’s reported counter-demand: $300 million.
Speaking of Gannett, a nauseating development has surfaced in a sexual-abuse lawsuit against the company’s Democrat & Chronicle newspaper in Rochester, New York.
According to the independent Rochester Beacon, the company is arguing that seven former newspaper carriers who say they were molested by a supervisor should have filed for workers’ compensation at the time the alleged abuse took place.
The carriers were 11 and 12 years old at the time of the alleged incidents.
Some really good news for Central Massachusetts: a small but growing newspaper chain based in New Jersey is buying four weeklies from Gannett. The sale of The Millbury-Sutton Chronicle, The Grafton News, The Landmark of Holden and the Leominster Champion to CherryRoad Media gives all four of them a new lease on life — literally in the case of The Landmark, which had been scheduled to shut down Sept. 15, David Dore reports in the Chronicle.
According to the CherryRoad website, the company “is focused on using technology to strengthen communities through their local newspapers. We believe the newspaper is an essential resource for developing strong communities. By using technology, we can supplement the printed newspaper with enhanced digital capabilities.”
“Very welcome journalism news in a place in need of it,” tweeted Mark Henderson, whose aggregation project The 016 tracks local media in the Worcester area.
Very welcome journalism news in a place in need of it.
In her recent “State of Local News” report, Northwestern University journalism professor Penny Abernathy identified the rise of regional chains such as CherryRoad as being among the trends to watch as money-losing Gannett unloads newspapers. “Two-thirds of the 82 papers Gannett sold in the past two years were snapped up by two regional chains, CherryRoad Media and Paxton,” she wrote. “Six of the 10 largest owners in 2022 are regional chains, with between 50 and 142 papers in their growing empire.”
Now, though, it appears that CherryRoad can no longer be regarded as a regional chain. Most of its 71 papers (including three it acquired in Michigan just last week) are in the central part of the country, from Minnesota to Texas. The Massachusetts papers are its first on the East Coast. There are plenty of other communities in Massachusetts that need reliable local news coverage, so I hope we see more. There’s no substitute for local ownership, but a chain that’s actually committed to local journalism is surely the next best thing.
When Gannett imposed devastating cuts last month, we had no way of knowing how devastating. It was clear that journalists had been laid off and papers closed across the country, but our largest newspaper chain kept the details to itself.
Now we know. Angela Fu, writing for Poynter Online, reports that Gannett laid off 400 employees and won’t fill another 400 open positions. Altogether, that’s about 6% of the money-losing company’s workforce, although Fu noted that the company did not provide details on how many of those cuts were on the news side and how many on the business side.
There’s also this nugget, referring to remarks by Gannett Media president Maribel Perez Wadsworth:
Asked if Gannett was committed to its small and medium-sized publications, Wadsworth said at Wednesday’s meeting that local journalism has never been more important and that in order to have strong journalism, the company also had to have a strong business, according to two attendees.
Yes, local journalism is so important to Gannett that the company keeps cutting it, over and over again. Here in Eastern Massachusetts, where Gannett closed or merged a couple of dozen weekly papers over the past year and all but abandoned local news, we’re seeing a flowering of independent projects to fill the gap. The opportunity is there, but Gannett just isn’t interested in it anymore.
A bill that could force Google and Facebook to fork over billions of dollars to local news outlets has lurched back to life. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, or JCPA, would allow publishers to negotiate as a bloc with the two giant tech platforms, something that would normally be prohibited because of antitrust concerns. The proposal would exclude the largest publishers and, as Rick Edmonds notes at Poynter Online, would lead to binding arbitration if the two sides can’t reach an agreement.
The legislation’s cosponsors in the Senate are Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Kennedy, R-La.; the House cosponsors are David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Ken Buck, R-Colo. That bipartisan support means the bill might actually be enacted. But is it a good idea?
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The premise on which the legislation is built is that Google and Facebook should pay fair compensation for repurposing the news content that they use. This strikes me as being much more straightforward with Google than with Facebook. Google’s mission is to index all the world’s knowledge, including journalism; Facebook is a social network, many of whose users post links to news stories. Facebook isn’t nearly as dependent on journalism as Google is and, in fact, has down-ranked it on several occasions over the years.
Google’s responsibility isn’t entirely clear, either. Yes, it links to news stories and publishes brief snippets. But it’s not a zero-sum situation — there’s no reason to believe that Google is depriving news publishers of traffic. It’s more likely that Google is pushing users to news sites and, with the rise of paywalls, may even be boosting subscriptions for local news outlets. Still, you could make a philosophical argument that Google ought to pay something because it benefits from having access to journalism, regardless of whether that deprives news outlets of any revenues.
A similar law in Australia has brought in $140 million, Edmonds reports. But critics have complained that the law’s main effect has been to further enrich Rupert Murdoch, still the leading press baron in his native country.
The JCPA should not be confused with the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, or LJSA, which would provide three tax credits for local news outlets — one for subscribers, who would get to write off news subscriptions on their taxes; one for advertisers; and one for publishers for hiring and retaining journalists. As Steve Waldman, chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, recently told us on the “What Works” podcast, this last provision is especially powerful because it would provide an incentive to do the right thing even at bottom-feeding chains owned by Alden Global Capital and Gannett.
Despite bipartisan support, the LJSA ran aground last year when President Biden split off the publishers’ credit and added it to the doomed Build Back Better bill. Perhaps it will be revived.
Is either measure needed in order to revive local news? What Ellen Clegg and I have found in the course of reporting for our book-in-progress, also called “What Works,” is that many independent local and regional news organizations across the country, nonprofit and for-profit alike, are doing reasonably well without government assistance. Since both the JCPA and the LJSA would be time-limited, maybe it’s worth giving them a try to see what the effects will ultimately be. But neither one of them will save local news — nor is it clear that local news needs saving once you remove the dead hand of corporate chain ownership.