The investment bank that owns GateHouse Media has been sold to the Japanese

Fortress Investment Group, the investment bank that owns the GateHouse Media chain of community newspapers, has been sold to a Japanese bank, SoftBank Group Corp., for $3.3 billion, the Worcester Business Journal reports.

GateHouse, based in suburban Rochester, New York, owns well over a hundred local weeklies in Eastern Massachusetts as well as dailies such as the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham. The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, The Standard-Times of New Bedford and the Cape Cod Times.

Strange days indeed.

Update: OMG, there is a Trump angle. (Thanks to Saul Tannenbaum, who posted a link to this in the Facebook comments.)

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Daily papers in Medford and Malden, long in extremis, finally give up the ghost

The Malden Evening News. Photo via Wicked Local, from the News' now-defunct Twitter account.
The Malden Evening News. Photo via Wicked Local, from the News’ now-defunct Twitter account.

Two venerable Greater Boston daily newspapers, the Malden Evening News and the Medford Daily Mercury, have ceased publication, according to Wicked Local. In recent years there was little news in either one. But they were good papers under the ownership of the late David Brickman, who bought the Mercury in 1947 and eventually owned both papers as well as a third, the Melrose Evening News.

According to an obituary of Brickman that appeared in The Boston Globe in 1992, he was a driving force behind the state’s open-meeting law and served on the state’s Ethics Commission. He also served in various political capacities under governors Leverett Saltonstall, Christian Herter, John Volpe, Endicott Peabody, Foster Furcolo and Ed King, all while continuing to publish his newspapers. That’s not exactly what we would consider ethical journalism today, but it wasn’t that unusual at the time.

In the early 1980s my wife, Barbara Kennedy, was a freelance photographer for Brickman’s papers. We lived in Medford back then, and the five-days-a-week Mercury was a respectable source of goings-on around the city. Even then, though, there were signs that Brickman was having financial difficulties (freelancers are always the first to know), and he sold his papers in 1989.

According to this well-sourced Wikipedia article, in 1990 Brickman’s successor, Warren Jackson, combined all three papers, as well as an Everett edition of the Malden paper, into one entity known as the Daily News-Mercury. In 1996 the paper was acquired by its last owners, the Horgan family, who revived the separate Malden and Medford nameplates.

When Barbara and I returned to Medford in 2014 after 30 years on the North Shore, we discovered that the Mercury had fallen on hard times, as its contents consisted almost entirely of press releases from Malden. We began reading GateHouse’s Medford Transcript, a Wicked Local weekly, which does a respectable job with its extremely limited staffing.

As sad as it is to see any newspaper go under, perhaps the not-unexpected demise of the Malden and Medford dailies will open up an opportunity for someone to start an independent journalism project to give GateHouse some competition, either in print or online. Medford is already the home to several vibrant online communities and to a website called Top 10 Things to Know in Medford Right Now, which suggests that the demand is there.

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GateHouse New England shrinks, prepares for reorg

Photo (cc) 2012 by Dyana. Some rights reserved.
Photo (cc) 2012 by Dyana. Some rights reserved.

Update: I have been told that the new term for “reporter” will be “multimedia journalist.” That’s a perfectly respectable title, so I withdraw the anticipatory snark you’ll find below.

GateHouse Media New England, which owns more than 100 daily and weekly newspapers in Greater Boston and its environs, is shedding about 40 positions through buyouts and layoffs, according to Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal.

The full picture is not entirely clear. Seiffert reports that the buyout was offered to GateHouse’s non-union employees. But Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio recently wrote that employees at GateHouse”s Providence Journal, a union paper, were also offered a buyout.

GateHouse, headquartered in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, owns more than 600 newspapers and other media properties nationwide. Its New England holdings include many dozens of community weeklies, as well as high-profile dailies such as the Journal, the Quincy Patriot Ledger, the MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and the Cape Cod Times.

GateHouse papers have shrunk so much that concerns have been raised over whether they are going to have to pursue a fundamentally different way of doing things that would involve covering less and less community news. Further cuts could also give rise to more independent local news projects in GateHouse communities, such as the Bedford Citizen and the Worcester Sun, which I wrote about for the Nieman Journal Lab last fall. (Disclosure: I was recently asked to serve as an unpaid adviser to the Sun.)

One thing is for sure: The turmoil hasn’t ended. On Tuesday, Lisa Strattan, who is in charge of GateHouse Media New England’s recently redesigned Wicked Local websites, announced a relaunch that will be unveiled around mid-September. In a memo I obtained, she wrote:

We plan to reorganize into several teams, some serving the whole of Wicked Local and some focused along already established unit lines, to better leverage talent across our entire footprint.

Our centralized teams include a Print Production team, a Special Sections team, a Photo team and a Digital Specialists team. During a later phase of our reorg, we hope to organize our Sports personnel into a Wicked Local Sports team. Our West, Central, North and South units will also divide journalists into teams within each unit, covering given geographic areas.

She added: “Accompanying our reorg will be new job titles (and descriptions!) that better describe the role of a multimedia journalist or editor in 2016. For instance, reporters use a burgeoning bag of tools to create multi-layered multimedia stories. Although ‘reporter’ is tried and true, it’s important to signal our dramatic shift in newsgathering, both to our internal and external audiences.” Let me say that I cannot wait to see what new title GateHouse comes up with for “reporter.” (You can read the full memo here.)

Given that Strattan specifically includes print under her bailiwick, it sounds to me like the papers may be moving away from their traditional community-by-community orientation, with journalists assigned to stories within regions as needed. If that’s what she intends, then I’d be shocked if it doesn’t translate into less local coverage.

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GateHouse Media New England announces buyouts

Who needs journalists?

GateHouse loses its top content and development veep

David Arkin, a top official with GateHouse Media, is leaving the company for a position in Texas. The following is a memo to employees from GateHouse chief executive Kirk Davis.

Dear Colleagues,

It is with very mixed feelings that I write to tell you that David Arkin, our Senior Vice President for Content and Product Development will be leaving GateHouse to become Chief Content Officer for Community Impact, a group of 21 award winning, hyper-local newspapers serving communities in the Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston markets. The free newspapers have a total circulation of 1.6 million.

I have worked with David for nearly 10 years and watched him develop from a lot of raw talent, to a truly great leader of our news and digital operations. I’m sad to lose that. However, for David, this new role means getting back into community journalism and a lot less travel (and more time with his family, including his three young children). I know he’s excited about that and I’m excited for him.

David has accomplished an enormous amount over the last several years. He launched our Center for News & Design in May of 2014 which today provides editing and design services for 220 GateHouse newspapers and is also home to More Content Now, our niche content business, and Community Content, which processes briefs and events for our papers. Reflecting the quality of its work, the Center has recently begun to take on significant commercial clients.

David used our centralized content services platform to develop innovative programs focused on quality journalism. For example, Pinnacle, our national enterprise reporting mentorship program, continues to produce great work like the recent piece examining the impact of substitute teachers in America.

Finally, David has led the transition of our newsroom culture from print to digital to mobile first. He initiated large-scale programs like reporter-produced video, social media engagement and digital journalism training, and focused our newsrooms on new, organizational structures and the use of digital analytics. And, most recently,

David led the development of the new, Garcia-designed responsive sites that we are currently rolling out.

David has accomplished all this with the support of a terrific team, including Tom Clifford, recently hired as VP of the Center for News and Design. We are confident that this team will continue to do a great job supporting our GateHouse operations. We will begin the process of identifying David’s replacement immediately.

In our discussions about what was a difficult decision, David shared how proud he is of his team and the digital transformation work happening across GateHouse newsrooms today. David also spoke to how much he values the relationships he has developed over the past decade with hundreds of GateHouse journalists.

David’s last day will be July 7th. Please join me in wishing David all the best!

Kirk

GateHouse officials: Quincy bid was not a conflict of interest

Two of GateHouse Media’s top executives have sent a memo to the company’s publishers and editors—marked “CONFIDENTIAL”—arguing that a bid to provide services to the city of Quincy through its Propel Marketing subsidiary would not have represented a conflict of interest for GateHouse’s Quincy-based daily newspaper, the Patriot Ledger. I obtained a copy of the memo last night.

“There was never a plan to ask the newsroom for favorable coverage, reflecting a clear separation of church and state,” says the memo from GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis and senior vice president David Arkin. “Just as a politician can buy an ad and have no expectation for favorable coverage, Propel sells marketing services with absolutely no expectation for involvement by our newsrooms.”

The memo follows a report from Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine that the city rejected the bid in part because Mayor Thomas Koch “was concerned about ethical conflicts if the owner of the city’s major newspaper went to work promoting the image of the municipality.” The GateHouse bid proposal cited the company’s “expertise” at “delivering measurable results for our partners in traditional media, digital media, and digital services as well as having considerable content generation serving The City of Quincy tourism, news, and business.” (Note: I’m quoted in Sullivan’s article.)

If Davis and Arkin are sincere, then they should make sure bid language such as that used in the Quincy bid proposal is not repeated. It would also help if the Patriot Ledger would follow up on its earlier story about the bid by noting that it has since been rejected.

The full text of Davis and Arkin’s memo follows:

DATE: 04/15/16

FROM: Kirk Davis, CEO of GateHouse and David Arkin, Senior Vice President of Content & Product Development

TO: Publishers and Editors

RE: Propel Marketing Campaign

Coming off the heels of this week’s Editors Conference and the release of our News Transparency guidelines, we wanted to be very clear about an issue in New England this week. The city of Quincy, MA, issued a request for proposal to market the redevelopment of the Quincy Center, a retail area. The RFP specified three primary services in its scope:

  1. Amplify Quincy’s story: Develop and implement a marketing campaign that projects Quincy’s image in print, broadcast, digital and social media
  2. Cultivate Positive Media: Leverage and develop relationships that result in positive media about Quincy development opportunities and current hospitality opportunities
  3. Hospitality Business Development: Cultivate chefs and restauranteurs to locate and invest in Quincy’s downtown.

Propel Marketing (owned by GateHouse Media) and the GateHouse Media New England group responded to only the first of the three services in the RFP scope, amplifying Quincy’s story with a marketing campaign. Propel had no intent of cultivating positive media, nor did they intend to cultivate chefs and restauranteurs, as the former is inappropriate and the latter not their expertise.

Propel Marketing created and submitted a proposal for an advertising and marketing campaign. The proposal included digital marketing services, print ads in local GateHouse newspapers and online display ads on WickedLocal.com.  The proposal did not include any form of native advertising, sponsored content or branded content.  Nor did it include any mention of blogs, blog posts or articles.

The proposal was submitted from GateHouse Media, rather than from Propel Marketing, because it included both Propel services and GateHouse newspaper ads, in print and online.

Neither the Propel sales rep, nor the GateHouse sales rep, had conversations with editorial staff about Quincy Center coverage. There was never a plan to ask the newsroom for favorable coverage, reflecting a clear separation of church and state. Just as a politician can buy an ad and have no expectation for favorable coverage, Propel sells marketing services with absolutely no expectation for involvement by our newsrooms.

We take the independence of our news coverage incredibly seriously and are committed to ensuring that our standards are upheld in every area of our business.

GateHouse creates a dilemma for its Quincy journalists

Quincy City Hall. Photo via Wikipedia.
Quincy City Hall. Photo via Wikipedia.

At CommonWealth Magazine, Jack Sullivan offers a good overview of a massive conflict of interest in Quincy, where GateHouse Media’s marketing subsidiary is bidding for a city contract in the shadow of GateHouse’s Patriot Ledger, headquartered in Quincy.

The GateHouse subsidiary, Propel Marketing, has already done work for Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch.

We’ve already been talking about this at Facebook, so feel free to chime in.

My insta-analysis is that newspaper owners always create conflicts of interest. Washington Post reporters have to cover Amazon, whose founder and chief executive is the Post‘s owner, Jeff Bezos. To extend that a little further, Amazon does business with the CIA, a major beat for the Post. The Boston Globe, owned by John Henry, covers the Red Sox, and Henry is the principal owner. And newspaper publishers have always held roles in the community that journalists shouldn’t, such as chairing the local chamber of commerce.

What matters is whether those conflicts are handled in a way that’s transparent, ethical, and arm’s-length. Given GateHouse’s recent misadventures involving casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, I’d say the Quincy situation needs to be watched very closely.

Jay Rosen has been indispensable in understanding the Las Vegas mess. Here’s what I wrote for WGBHNews.org about how one independent Connecticut journalist exposed part of the story. And here’s how the Patriot Ledger itself covered the Quincy story recently. It’s thorough in just the way you’d want it to be, so kudos.

Correction: In the first version of this post I wrote that the Patriot Ledger‘s headquarters are in Braintree. In fact, the Ledger is located in an office park on the Quincy side of the Quincy-Braintree line.