GateHouse, Digital First union employees to stage ‘day of action’ over contract talks

Union employees at newspapers owned by Digital First Media and GateHouse Media will celebrate World Press Freedom Day by “a joint day of action … as part of a national campaign to protest the corporate-led assault on quality journalism.” A statement from the NewsGuild (below) charges that Digital First and GateHouse are responsible for “draconian cuts in their newsrooms and other departments.”

GateHouse owns more than 100 weekly and daily newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Among the union papers taking part in the action are the Providence Journal, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, The Herald News of Fall River, The Enterprise of Brockton and The Patriot Ledger of Quincy.

None of Digital First’s Massachusetts papers is listed as taking part, but the company owns The Sun of Lowell, the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg and several smaller publications.

“Workers at GateHouse and Digital First Media have endured some of the most vicious staff reductions in the news business,” according to the union statement. The “day of action” — which “will include the display of pro-journalism literature at desks and other work stations, and appeals for public support in local communities and online” — is timed to coincide with contract negotiations. The full statement follows.

GUILD WORKERS AT DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA AND GATEHOUSE MEDIA STAND TOGETHER AGAINST PROFITEERING OWNERS ON WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY MAY 3

WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 28, 2017) — A broad coalition of 1,500 unionized news workers will conduct a joint day of action on May 3 — World Press Freedom Day — as part of a national campaign to protest the corporate-led assault on quality journalism.

The coordinated effort by NewsGuild members will span 29 newspapers owned by GateHouse Media and Digital First Media.  It will support the fight for quality journalism at those papers and highlight the damage wrought by draconian cuts in their newsrooms and other departments.

Now, union leaders say the focus on profits threatens journalism at a critical time of politicized attacks on the news media.

“Reliable information is the foundation of our democracy,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of The NewsGuild-CWA, based in Washington, D.C. “Corporate owners have a duty to invest in the essential work done by newspaper workers and not to simply strip-mine newspapers for profits.”

The joint effort by GateHouse and Digital First Media workers marks an unprecedented NewsGuild campaign to demand that corporate owners invest in quality jobs and fair contracts after years of layoffs, furloughs, pay freezes and benefit cuts. Contract negotiations are under way or expected to resume soon at both companies, but managements have shown little interest in changing course.

Workers at GateHouse and Digital First Media have endured some of the most vicious staff reductions in the news business.

Alden Global Capital, a secretive New York hedge fund, owns DFM and has slashed staffing levels by more than twice the national average during the past five years, while pocketing millions by selling off the company’s real estate assets.

GateHouse owns and/or manages 564 community print publications, including more than 130 daily newspapers, under the New Media Investment Group umbrella. New Media is a publicly traded company, externally managed by Fortress Investment Group.

Under New Media’s business model, the company buys newspapers, strips them down to maximize cash flow, and uses that money to pay dividends, pay bonuses to corporate officers and fund more acquisitions.

As the company gets bigger, Fortress collects larger management fees — roughly $54 million the previous two years alone.

The 13 Digital First bargaining units represent workers at 12 newspapers, including the Denver Post, San Jose Mercury News, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and suburban publications in the Bay Area, Philadelphia, and Detroit markets. Last week, DFM announced that it would lay off more than 20 percent of the Guild-covered newsroom staff at the East Bay Times, just one week after it was awarded journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, for breaking news coverage of the deadly “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire in December.

The 15 GateHouse bargaining units represent 580 workers at 17 newspapers, including the Providence (RI) Journal, Worcester (MA) Telegram and Gazette, Erie (PA) Times-News, Peoria (IL) Journal Star, Springfield (IL) State Journal-Register, Rockford (IL) Register Star, Utica (NY) Observer Dispatch, The Herald News (Fall River, MA), The Enterprise (Brockton, MA), The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA), Lakeland (FL) Ledger, and the Sarasota (FL) Herald-Tribune. The staff of the Herald-Tribune, a newly organized Guild unit, shared the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting with the Tampa Bay Times for their five-part series “Insane. Invisible. In Danger.” That collaborative project detailed horrific conditions in Florida’s mental hospitals.

In the new campaign, the Guild is pushing back nationwide before media profiteers cause further wreckage to the communities they are supposed to serve.

The May 3 World Press Freedom Day action will include the display of pro-journalism literature at desks and other work stations, and appeals for public support in local communities and online. The theme: “Democracy Depends on Journalism” and “Invest in Us.”

The action will mark the first coordinated effort by news workers at the two companies to demonstrate solidarity in the workplace and remind the public that quality journalism matters.

NewsGuild members are reaching out to allies, including journalists working for other employers — both union and non-union — as well as community advocates concerned about the corporate gutting of newsrooms across the United States.

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GateHouse agrees to settle class-action suit over charges for ‘premium’ publications

Notice posted on GateHouse websites.

GateHouse Media, which owns more than 100 daily and weekly community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts, has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit brought over the company’s practice of charging for “premium” publications that subscribers hadn’t asked for. The legal documents in the case are posted here.

The money was extracted by shortening the length of customers’ subscriptions. Most prominent among those premium publications was Lens, an advertising vehicle published several times a year that was delivered along with GateHouse papers. Lens carried a cover price of $3.95, though subscribers to the papers were assessed $2. A year ago I wrote about the Lens ploy here and here.

GateHouse, according to the proposed settlement, “denies any wrongdoing on its part” but agreed to the settlement based on “the risks and potential cost of the litigation” and “the benefits of the proposed Settlement.” Kirk Davis, GateHouse’s chief executive officer, declined to comment.

Under the agreement, subscribers may receive a refund or have their subscriptions extended if the proposed settlement is approved in Superior Court. According to court documents, the settlement is scheduled to be finalized on Aug. 1. The lawsuit, brought on behalf of two GateHouse newspaper subscribers by Kurtzman Carson Consultants, claimed that GateHouse violated Massachusetts law by failing to disclose its subscription policies adequately.

Although GateHouse, based in Pittsford, New York, has agreed to stop labeling Lens as a premium publication for which subscribers must pay extra, it would continue that practice with other publications, which would cost about $2 in the form of shortened subscriptions. GateHouse would also continue to charge a $4.95 “activation fee” for new subscribers. Disclosure would be clearer and more prominent than it had been previously.

If you visit many GateHouse papers online right now,* you’ll see a “Legal Notice” linking to the settlement documents, which include instructions on how to file a claim. The not-very-helpful text of the notice: “To learn more about the proposed class action settlement in the Steven Keenholtz, M.D., et al. v. GateHouse Media, LLC, et al. action, pleaes click here.” Keenholtz, of Marblehead, and Dorothy Guillicksen, of Hanover, are the plaintiffs named in the class-action suit.

Let’s be clear: This is a very, very small matter. From the time I learned about it, I was astounded that GateHouse would go to the trouble of hitting subscribers with an “activation” fee and charging them for publications they hadn’t asked for and didn’t want. Why not just raise the subscription price?

Meanwhile, David Harris recently reported in the Boston Business Journal that GateHouse was laying off 49 people at its Framingham facility as it consolidated print operations. And Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio writes that GateHouse continues to hack away at The Providence Journal, and that layoffs may be coming.

*Update: I have learned that the proposed settlement pertains to most but not all GateHouse Media papers in Eastern Massachusetts. The settlement is restricted to papers that carried Lens, and are concentrated in Greater Boston.

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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