The Telegram & Gazette of Worcester is hardening its paywall. Currently you can access seven stories a month before you are asked to pay. Now the T&G, as well as other Gannett papers, is going to remove “investigative stories, political commentary, sports analysis and other content found only on telegram.com.” More routine stories and public-safety coverage will remain within the seven-story allotment.
Look, I get it. But what I don’t like about this is that there are those of us who might need to download two or three stories a year from various papers around the country. Last year, I actually took out a subscription to an out-of-state paper for a month — and then had to call several times so I could cancel it after the reporting project I was working on was done.
I’ve long thought papers ought to be flexible enough to charge for $1 an article or to sell day passes to people for whom a monthly digital subscription doesn’t make sense. But I’ve been told it’s not cost-effective, as it would be difficult to set up and could take away from subscription sales.
I also hope that whatever extra money the company pulls in will be used for journalism and not to service Gannett’s massive debt.
The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has an interview with Julia Taliesin, the only reporter at Gannett’s Somerville Journal, on what it’s like to work at an under-resourced corporate-owned newspaper. Key quote:
I am acutely aware that it is absolutely impossible for me to do justice to what the city deserves in terms of news. What Somerville deserves is a handful of reporters who watch every city council meeting, or at least 90% of them, because this city council is busy. When I think of what effective news looks like, it’s just that. It’s just enough people to cover the issues. Not the press conferences and the press releases, but the actual work and the legislating that goes on.
I should note that Somerville has more than 80,000 residents. Next door, the Gannett-owned Medford Transcript hasn’t had a full-time staff reporter to cover the city’s 57,000 residents since the fall of 2019.
Not too many years ago, New England was home to a number of medium-size and smaller daily newspapers that did an excellent job of covering their communities. There are a dozen or so that come to mind. But among the largest and the best were The Providence Journal and the Hartford Courant.
The Journal, as we all know, has been decimated by its corporate-chain owner, Gannett, the successor to GateHouse Media. The Hartford Courant, which bills itself as the oldest continuously published paper in the country, has been battered for years under the ownership of a chain now known as Tribune Publishing. The Courant’s printing has been outsourced, and the newsroom was shuttered recently as well. There is no indication that reporters and editors will have a place to work other than their homes even after the COVID pandemic is behind us.
As I’ve written several times recently, the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, whose MediaNews Group is widely regarded as the worst newspaper owner in operation, controls 32% of Tribune — and is seeking a majority share.
The Financial Times recently published a lengthy article on the plight of local news focused on the Courant. There is nothing new in the story — we hear about the widespread closure of community newspapers, the rise of hedge-fund ownership and other familiar themes. Nevertheless, it’s a strong overview for anyone who’s unfamiliar with the tale of what happened to a key part of democratic life.
There are also a few points that deserve to be emphasized. At a time when profits in local news are elusive at best, Alden is living high:
The cost cutting is certainly working. MediaNews Group achieved about 20-25 per cent operating margins in 2019, according to people familiar with the matter, more than double that of peers such as Gannett or even The New York Times. In 2020, although the pandemic shattered advertising and MNG’s revenues fell by 20 per cent, the company was still on track to make a profit.
The Courant itself is doing well from a bottom-line perspective as well, earning a profit of $2 million a year, according to the FT’s reporting.
What this shows is that there is still an inflow of cash into even the most moribund newspapers. Readers buy them despite their ever-decreasing value. Businesses advertise in them. If you’re willing to gut the newspapers you own to keep expenses well below income, and to keep cutting as income continues to fall, well, yes, you can earn a profit. At some point, needless to say, you’ll reach the point at which you can no longer cut. And that’s when you shut your doors. (Oops. Bad analogy. They already have.)
Heath Freeman and other officials at Alden rarely speak for the record. When Freeman cooperated with a Washington Post reporter last year, it, uh, did not go well. So I was interested to see that the FT did manage to get a comment out of a company spokesperson named Chrissy Carvalho. It was a classic:
It’s a lot easier to make snippy anonymous comments than actually undertake the difficult task of making sure news organisations across America are able to serve their communities during a prolonged period of declining revenues.
As the FT notes, there are efforts to try to get Tribune to sell the Courant to local interests. But that’s going to be hard to do given the paper’s continued profitability. The tragedy is that the crisis afflicting local news is only partly related to external factors such as technology, the decline of advertising and the rise of Google and Facebook. Corporate greed is at least as responsible.
There’s a difference between rewriting history and making some of it more difficult to find. Which is why I think The Boston Globe is doing the right thing with its “Fresh Start” initiative, more commonly known as the right to be forgotten. The proposal was announced by Globe editor Brian McGrory last July, and is being formally put into effect today. In a Globe story, McGrory says:
It was never our intent to have a short and relatively inconsequential Globe story affect the futures of the ordinary people who might be the subjects. Our sense, given the criminal justice system, is that this has had a disproportionate impact on people of color. The idea behind the program is to start addressing it.
The idea is that the Globe might have reported on some past embarrassment about you — a minor arrest, or an arrest that led to a conviction that was not reported. You can appeal to the Globe to have the story updated or removed from Google search. The story would still exist. It couldn’t be removed from the print edition, obviously, and many libraries still carry newspaper microfilm archives. It wouldn’t even be removed from the Globe’s servers. But no longer would one of your less stellar moments rise to the top of a Google search about you, interfering with employment prospects and other aspects of your life.
In some ways, Fresh Start is similar to Gannett’s move in 2018 to take down mugshot galleries from its newspaper websites, which it extended to the former GateHouse Media sites in 2020 after that chain was merged with Gannett. “Mugshot galleries presented without context may feed into negative stereotypes and, in our editorial judgment, are of limited news value,” the company said in explaining its reasoning.
The Globe’s Fresh Start is a good step because it solves a problem without going too far. It merely restores the situation that prevailed before the internet, when you had to put some work into finding information that had been published about someone. That tended to separate those with a legitimate interest from the voyeurs.
It’s also a better solution than the mandatory right-to-be-forgotten laws in effect in Western Europe, where Google under some circumstances can be ordered to remove information about certain people. The First Amendment would make that impossible in the United States.
Thus it’s up to the media to take voluntary steps. As the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics puts it, “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”
At the dawn of the Trump presidency four years ago, the journalist James Fallows offered a prescription for overcoming the anger and divisiveness that had given rise to Donald Trump’s toxic brand of right-wing populism: a renewed engagement with community life.
“At the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear,” Fallows wrote in The Atlantic, “Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.”
Fallows and his wife, Deborah Fallows, later wrote an entire book on the topic. But their advice was not heeded. President Trump sucked up every bit of oxygen and energy, from the Resistance to impeachment, from COVID and economic collapse to his racist rhetoric, his cruel policies and his sociopathic Twitter feed.
“We need a world in which we talk less about the president,” lamented Cardozo School of Law professor Ekow Yankah last week. “It’s not healthy.” That Yankah was being interviewed on a podcast called “Trumpcast” suggests the depth of the problem. Even now, Trump is dominating the news to a far greater extent than President-elect Joe Biden — and not in a good way. Rather than living locally, we spend all our time thinking nationally. It’s exhausting and leaves us feeling angry and alienated.
Our media in many ways are a reflection of our politics. The Trump years were very good for national news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR and, God help us, cable news, especially Fox. And they were very bad for local media, especially community newspapers.
To renew civic life, you first need to renew local, independently owned newspapers and other media. I’m not talking about major regional newspapers, public radio or local TV newscasts. I’m talking about the hard but rewarding work of keeping tabs on city councils, school committees, zoning, police, development, neighborhoods and racial justice.
“There is a direct correspondence between the closing of newspapers and the polarization of people formerly served by those newspapers,” wrote Marc Ambinder, a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for Communication Leadership and Policy, in a recent essay for MSNBC.com. He added: “If we want a society where we can accurately understand the preferences and behaviors of everyone, we need more local journalism.”
Unfortunately, it has become nearly impossible to pay for such journalism. The causes are familiar, from the collapse of digital advertising for everyone except Google and Facebook to the rise of corporate and hedge-fund ownership that bleeds local newspapers dry.
The COVID pandemic has made the financial situation facing news organizations that much worse. According to CNN reporter Kerry Flynn, two major publicly traded chain newspaper owners, Gannett and Tribune Publishing, are near collapse. Gannett’s ad revenues were down 38% in the second quarter over the previous year and down 23% in the third quarter. Tribune was down 48% in the second quarter and down 38% in the third.
Between them, the two companies own hundreds of local papers that had been hollowed out even before the pandemic. And unlike national papers like the Times, the Post and The Wall Street Journal, these companies have barely gotten started on charging readers for digital access.
So what is to be done? As I’ve written a number of times previously, I think we need a variety of solutions; one approach is not going to work in every community. For-profit, nonprofit, cooperative ownership, even volunteer-driven projects are all doing good work in cities and towns across the country. But they remain the exception, and the overall picture continues to darken.
Rick Edmonds of Poynter reported recently that Congress is considering a number of ideas, including tax credits for subscribing to a local news source, tax relief for publishers, advertising subsidies, and an antitrust exemption that would allow the news business to negotiate as one in an attempt to extract some revenues from Google and Facebook.
“Congress has pretty much decided it should come to the aid of local news,” Edmonds wrote. “The question of how remains, together with making the help timely.”
In Massachusetts, a bill that would create a special commission of journalists, academics and legislators to study the extent of the local-news crisis has gotten bogged down in committee, though I’m told that it could pass before the end of the year. (Disclosure: I’ve worked on the measure with state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and would be a member of the commission.)
Needless to say, a commission isn’t going to fix what’s ailing local news. Yet if we’re going to have any chance of revitalizing civic engagement and closing the chasm that has come to separate us, we need to find a way.
In late October, The Inquirer and Mirror of Nantucket announced that the longtime editor and publisher, Marianne Stanton, along with a local businessman named David Worth, were buying the paper back from Gannett, which had owned it for a number of years.
“I think it’s pretty cool that two Nantucketers, both descendants of the early settlers, could work together to pull this off,” said Stanton in the announcement.
I think it’s pretty cool, too. It’s hard to know what, if anything, it will lead to. But it was a step in the right direction as well as very good news for the civic life of one community. Maybe it will be the start of something.
Right on the heels of Gannett’s selling The Inquirer and Mirror of Nantucket and The Pine Bluff Commercial of Arkansas, the giant chain has now announced that it’s offloading its business-to-business subsidiary, BridgeTower Media, to a private-equity firm.
BridgeTower’s local holdings include Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly and Color Magazine, which “highlights topics of interest revolving around professionals of color.” The new owner, Transom Capital Group, is based in Los Angeles. Its self-description is so hilariously awful that it’s worth quoting:
Transom Capital Group is an operations-focused private equity firm in the lower-middle market. Our functional pattern recognition, access to capital, and proven ARMOR℠ Value Creation Process combine with management’s industry expertise to realize improved operational efficiency, significant top-line growth, cultural transformation and overall distinctive outcomes.
It’s too early to hope that the debt-addled Gannett chain, which has a stranglehold on most of the community newspapers in Greater Boston, Rhode Island and southern New Hampshire, is in the midst of a selloff. But if you’re thinking of making an offer on your local Gannett-owned newspaper, it looks like this might be a good time.
I don’t suppose this is the beginning of a trend, but it’s great news nevertheless: The Inquirer and Mirror of Nantucket has been sold to local owners.
According to an announcement on the weekly paper’s website, Gannett (the part that’s formerly GateHouse Media) has agreed to sell the paper to a group put together by editor and publisher Marianne Stanton and a local businessman named David Worth.
“I think it’s pretty cool that two Nantucketers, both descendants of the early settlers, could work together to pull this off,” said Stanton. I think it’s pretty cool, too.
No sooner did I tweet about this than I learned that Gannett had also sold The Pine Bluff Commercial to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which is itself independently owned. So maybe it is a trend. Or a mini-trend.
Gannett essentially gave the Pine Bluff, Arkansas, paper @pbcommercial to the owner of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette a few weeks ago.
Among those of us who follow the business of local news, there is a tendency to lump the two most notorious corporate chain owners together. Gannett Co. and Alden Globe Capital, after all, are both notorious for slashing their newsrooms to the bone. Their newspapers and websites in too many instances fail to meet the information needs of the communities they purportedly serve.
Yet there is a difference. And I was reminded of that difference recently by Rick Edmonds, who analyzes the media business for the Poynter Institute.
After a decade’s worth of cuts, Gannett is planning to bolster its reporting corps in the near future, Gannett chief executive Mike Reed told Edmonds — although he didn’t provide any numbers. Currently, Gannett employs about 5,000 journalists at its properties, which include USA Today, about 260 regional dailies and many other weekly papers and websites, including dozens in Greater Boston.
“We need to get even better,” Reed was quoted as saying. Well, OK. I would replace “even” with “a lot.” Still, such talk would be unimaginable at Alden Global Capital, whose MediaNews Group chain of about 200 papers has sparked newsroom revolts as well as demands from 21 U.S. senators that the company stop its “reckless acquisition and destruction of newspapers,” according to a recent story by Sarah Ellison in The Washington Post.
The difference between how Gannett and MediaNews are perceived may have something to do with their ownership structures.
The current Gannett is the result of a merger late last year between Gannett and GateHouse Media. Despite keeping the Gannett name, it was clearly GateHouse that got the better of the deal: Reed was the chief executive at GateHouse before assuming the same position at Gannett. The new Gannett immediately embarked on an estimated $400 million in cuts in order to pay down the debt it had taken on in financing the merger, according to the media-business analyst (and newly minted entrepreneur) Ken Doctor at Nieman Lab.
Gannett is a publicly traded corporation, which means that Reed’s ultimate goal is long-term growth and sustainability — albeit with as little journalism as the company can get away with. Reed hopes to do that by leveraging Gannett’s media holdings with digital marketing subsidiaries the company owns as well as an events business, which is obviously on hold during the COVID pandemic.
If everything works out over time, it is possible to imagine Gannett’s local news outlets staffing up and providing better, more comprehensive coverage than they have in recent years. As good as what would be offered by independent newspapers and websites? Almost certainly not. But any improvements would be welcome.
Alden Global Capital, on the other hand, is a hedge fund. And as best as anyone can tell, the company has no strategy for MediaNews Group beyond extracting as much money as it can for as long as it can. Its Massachusetts papers, the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Enterprise & Sentinel of Fitchburg, operate on a shoestring. The Fitchburg office was closed several years ago. The Herald’s office in Braintree was recently shut down as well, although it’s unclear whether that was a temporary, COVID-related move or something permanent.
In Ellison’s Washington Post article, Alden managing director Heath Freeman tried to portray himself as a savior of journalism. “I would love our team to be remembered as the team that saved the newspaper business,” he was quoted as saying. Ellison, though, ran through a list of MediaNews papers across the country that have been so gutted that they have virtually no one to cover the news.
“Don’t buy the idea that Alden is trying to save newspapers. I don’t think any idiot would buy that,” said Dean Singleton, the owner of an earlier iteration of MediaNews Group whose own reputation as a cost-cutter looks benign by today’s standards. Freeman’s retort: “We’ve saved the very newspapers that Dean Singleton ran into bankruptcy, so take his recriminations with a grain of salt.”
Stop me if you’ve heard me say this before, but quality local news can be a key to reviving civic engagement, which in turn could help us overcome the hyperpolarization that defines our culture nationally. According to a recent survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, 70% of Americans believe the news media play a “critical” (30%) or “very important” (42%) role “in making residents feel connected to their local community.”
“While national press was perceived by residents of all political backgrounds as distant, privileged, and dismissive of local culture,” she wrote, “it was not uncommon for residents to have first- or secondhand interactions with local reporters. So while participants could identify shortcomings, there was a base-level familiarity and trust.”
Those interactions are important — but they are becoming increasingly rare at the local news organizations being run by Gannett and MediaNews Group. At least there’s some reason to hope that the situation might improve at Gannett. As for MediaNews, a former reporter for the chain, Julie Reynolds, put it this way in The Nation several years ago: “Don’t just blame the Internet for journalism’s decline. Old-fashioned capitalist greed also strangles newspapers.”
Last fall I asked the lone full-time reporter for the Medford Transcript if he would take part in the mayoral debate I was helping to organize for the Medford Chamber of Commerce. He told me that he would have liked to, but that he couldn’t because he’d be covering it. A reasonable answer, although it also spoke to the Transcript’s lack of resources.
Not long after, he left the paper. The debate was covered by a part-time stringer. And today, more than a year and a half later, that full-time position still hasn’t been filled.
The Transcript does assign stringers to cover a few stories. They do a good job, and nothing I write here should be taken as denigrating their work. But in a city of nearly 58,000 people, we have enough news for a staff of two full-time reporters. Or four. Even when we had one, the young journalists who filled that position managed to write some important stories before moving on to bigger and better jobs. Zero, though, is just untenable.
Today Medford is very close to being a news desert, joining hundreds if not thousands of communities across the country that have so little coverage that they lack the reliable news and information they need to participate in local affairs in a meaningful way. Instead, we rely on Facebook, Nextdoor, Patch (which does have a little bit of original reporting), email lists, messages from the mayor, texts from the police department and reports by citizens who have the time and the inclination to sit through public meetings on Zoom and write them up. (Update: Since publishing this essay, I’ve learned about a free paper called the Medford News Weekly. Despite its name, there’s a lot of Somerville news in it, and the content is mostly press releases. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on.)
As a longtime journalist and academic who studies the business of news, I want to share some thoughts on what might be done to solve the problem. Over the past few years, I’ve had several conversations with people in Medford about how to fill the gap created by the hollowing-out of our local newspaper. But solving the problem is a daunting task and, frankly, those conversations didn’t lead anywhere. First, though, a bit on how we got here.Continue reading “Together, we can do something about local news coverage in Medford”→