There was a time not too many years ago when Digital First Media — the all-but-certain next owner of the Boston Herald — was the toast of the newspaper business. The chain was led by a brash, profane chief executive named John Paton, who espoused an aggressive post-print strategy built around free, advertiser-supported websites, community engagement, and high-profile initiatives such as Project Thunderdome, a national news and innovation center.
It all fell apart quickly. Alden Capital, the hedge fund that controls Digital First, grew impatient with Paton’s grandiosity. Project Thunderdome was dismantled in 2014. Paton left in 2015. And the chain embarked on a relentless strategy of cutting costs to the bone. “If you work for a company owned by a hedge fund, it’s like walking through a minefield,” Jim Brady, Digital First’s former editor-in-chief, told me in 2016. “Any step can be the one where you hit the mine. Any day it could end, and you know that.”
Brady has since turned entrepreneur, founding mobile-friendly local news sites in Philadelphia (Billy Penn) and Pittsburgh (The Incline). And the post-Paton Digital First has earned a reputation for brutal cost-cutting — which raises serious concerns about what its executives have in mind for the Herald.
Whoa. Former Boston Herald (and Boston Phoenix) columnist Peter Lucas absolutely torches Herald owner Pat Purcell, who has taken the tabloid into bankruptcy with the intention of selling it to GateHouse Media. Lucas, now a columnist for the Lowell Sun and the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise, begins:
Not everybody is leaving the Boston Herald broke, just the workers.
The owner, Pat Purcell, will make out just fine.
In fact, after announcing bankruptcy and the sale of his paper, he will walk away from the business a rich man.
“He built a real estate empire on the backs of Herald workers, and now the workers are being thrown out on the street,” said one veteran Herald reporter, who fears for his pension.
On Saturday I received an email from Christine Hochkeppel, a photographer who had just resigned from the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, part of the GateHouse Media chain. I asked her if it was all right if I sought comment from a T&G executive and then ran her letter of resignation along with the newspaper’s response. She granted permission.
This is, of course, a data point of one. But I think it’s worth sharing because it speaks to the frustrations of working in community journalism in general and for GateHouse in particular. GateHouse, as I’m sure you know, is a national chain based in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, that owns more than 100 daily and weekly papers in Eastern Massachusetts, Southern New Hampshire and Rhode Island. The company is also likely to become the next owner of the Boston Herald.
In a business known for penny-pinching, GateHouse stands out. “It has been incredibly frustrating to have worked the majority of my career for a company that has never given me a raise, despite my excellent work ethic and accolades,” Hochkeppel wrote in her letter of resignation to executive editor Karen Webber. “I cannot dedicate anymore of my professional time to a company that will not invest in my future success or any of my talented colleagues.”
I emailed Webber seeking comment and received the following reply from Paul Provost, the T&G’s publisher:
Thank you for the opportunity to comment however we do not comment on individual personnel matters. It has been reported publicly that we have struck an agreement with the national Guild. That agreement has been ratified in Worcester and is in the process of being ratified in several other newsrooms across the company.
Provost is referring to a recent agreement GateHouse reached with the Newspaper Guild that, according to Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal, “would ensure a 2.75 percent raise over two years for 750 employees at newspapers across the country, including five in New England.” The T&G is among those papers.
I am writing to notify you of my intention to resign as staff photographer at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. My last day of employment will be Saturday, December 30, 2017.
I appreciate the opportunities I have received during my 3 years here. I have grown and improved as a photojournalist. I appreciate your support and guidance. However, I continue to have deep concerns about the direction GateHouse Media is taking the T&G. It has been incredibly frustrating to have worked the majority of my career for a company that has never given me a raise, despite my excellent work ethic and accolades. I cannot dedicate anymore of my professional time to a company that will not invest in my future success or any of my talented colleagues. After all of the hard work I have done for this company, I am forced to give up a career that I am passionate about so that I can make a better future for myself. GateHouse has been taking advantage of passionate journalists and dismantling quality community journalism with continued staff reductions and lackluster outsourced design. Their solution continues to befuddle us all with its hypocrisy: cut expenses and jobs but acquire more properties and continue to award handsome bonuses to the top executives. These reckless practices underscore the apparent indifference GateHouse feels toward the hard-working people they already employ. It’s disheartening that when our political and economic climate needs journalists so desperately, that this company has turned so many excellent people away from the industry.
Thank you again for the opportunity to share visual stories with the Worcester County community. It has been a gratifying experience sharing pictures and stories with our readers, despite the morale challenges. I am grateful for all the positive interactions and earned experience.
If I had a nickel for every time someone predicted the death of the Boston Herald over the past 25 years, I would have — well, many nickels. So I see last week’s announcement by Herald owner Pat Purcell that he plans to sell his paper to GateHouse Media as just one more bump in what has been an exceedingly bumpy road.
GateHouse, a national chain that owns more than 100 community weeklies and dailies in Eastern Massachusetts and environs, has given little indication of what it intends to do with the city’s number two paper. First the Herald has to go through bankruptcy, and though it’s likely GateHouse will end up with the tabloid, there is no guarantee.
What we do know is that a GateHouse-owned Herald will be smaller. Preliminary reports suggest that the staff will be cut from 240 to 175 across all departments. That is going to have a huge impact on the Herald’s newsgathering capacity, as the newsroom accounts for about half of that 240. On the other hand, a daily newspaper with 175 employees should still be able to do good work and provide at least some competition to The Boston Globe.
Twelve years ago, as The Boston Phoenix’s media columnist, I offered five suggestions for how the Herald could improve and build a more sustainable business. With the Herald changing ownership for the first time since 1994, when Purcell bought it from his mentor Rupert Murdoch, I thought I’d take a look at what I had to say in 2005 and see whether any of it is relevant today.
1. Get smart. This is probably the single most important step that GateHouse could take in trying to appeal to new readers. More than 20 years ago, a journalist who had left the paper told me something he’d once said to Purcell. It went approximately like this: You’ve already got all the stupid readers, Pat. You need to find a few smart ones as well.
Unfortunately, Purcell never really took that advice. From the mid-1990s until the early 2000s, the Herald thrived on the strength of strong local news coverage, an aggressive business section, an excellent sports section, and good photography. But as the economics of newspapering began to crater, the Herald embraced a flash-and-trash approach while continuing to get smaller.
In recent years, under editor Joe Sciacca, the sensationalism has been toned down considerably, and the daily report is solid if shrunken. But the goal seemed to be to hang onto the paper’s shrinking pool of existing readers rather than try to cultivate, say, the young workers in Boston’s growing innovation economy — many of whom may not be as liberal on economic issues as the Globe thinks they are and who would thus be open to an alternative.
2. Upgrade the look. Twelve years ago I wrote: “Newcomers to Boston no doubt are perplexed when they hear old-timers refer to the Herald as ‘the Record.’ That’s a reference to the Record American, a Hearst-owned tabloid from a bygone era that, along with several other papers, eventually morphed into the modern Herald. Trouble is, the Herald really does look like the Record, if the Record could be exhumed, updated a bit, and printed in color.”
Unfortunately, nothing has changed. Today, as I did then, I would recommend a makeover along the lines of (for instance) the Boston Business Journal, an attractive tabloid that takes a more restrained approach. The old urban tab look is perfect if you’re looking for something to fold up and take with you to Suffolk Downs — provided you’re going to the horse races. Now the city hopes the Suffolk Downs property will become Amazon’s second headquarters. GateHouse ought to be thinking about how to design a Herald that will appeal to the sort of young, highly educated folks who would work there — a sizable group even if Amazon ultimately picks another city.
3. Turn right. Despite the Herald’s reputation as a bastion of right-wing Trumpery, the paper’s editorial pages have long been rather staid and moderate. The right-wing reputation comes from a few of its news columnists, especially Howie Carr, who’s long since slid into self-parody; Joe Fitzgerald, a former sportswriter who traffics in snoozy social conservatism; and Adriana Cohen, who recycles seemingly every talking point from Fox News, including the network’s outrageous attacks on the FBI.
The opinion pages, on the other hand, carry respectable syndicated conservatives like Jonah Goldberg, George Will, and Michael Gerson, as well as local voices like freelancer Jim Sullivan, who rarely writes about politics. What would help is if editorial-page editor Shelly Cohen recruited some young, smart, conservative local columnists. Surely there’s some recent college graduate out there who wants to be the next Ben Shapiro or Tomi Lahren who’d be willing to work for a low salary and a shot at Twitter immortality. Unfortunately for the Herald, now as then, the best conservative columnist in Boston is Jeff Jacoby — a Herald alumnus who left the paper for the Globe many years ago.
4. Dump the website. I first made this recommendation on the grounds that the Herald simply didn’t translate well online — it was a quick read that people flip through on the subway or at Dunkin’ Donuts just before they go to work. Today’s smaller Herald is an even quicker read. Besides, the Herald’s website is not exactly a joy to navigate, though its mobile app is decent.
What I hadn’t anticipated 12 years ago was that the Herald would launch an internet radio station that has become an integral part of the paper’s identity. The problem is that it is essentially an old-fashioned conservative talk station, and people listen to talk radio in their cars, most of which are not especially well suited to streaming audio. But it has been a worthwhile experiment, and GateHouse should continue with it.
5. Live free or die? Purcell never wanted to take this step, though there was some buzz that he might when the free commuter tab Metro first came to Boston. I thought a free Herald could make sense; certainly it’s a better read than the Metro. Moreover, the Herald relies on point-of-purchase sales, and there are simply fewer places to buy newspapers than there used to be.
The trend in newspapers these days is to charge as much as the market will bear, either in print or online. Persuading readers to pay for journalism is essential given the collapse of digital advertising (for anyone other than Facebook and Google) and the ongoing decline of print advertising. But what little advertising value remains in newspapers is all on the print side. And if GateHouse can cut expenses enough (probably the one thing the compay is really, really good at), it might be able to turn a profit with a free Herald.
Last week’s announcement that the Herald would be sold was good news in the sense that Boston will continue to have two daily papers. But it’s sad, too, because a lot of people will be losing their jobs, and the likelihood is that the Herald is going to offer less. “More newspapers mean more coverage,” wrote Herald sports columnist Steve Buckley over the weekend. “More newspapers mean more opinions. And listen up, Globe: More newspapers mean more hustle. If we lose the Herald, the Globe will lose something as well.”
There is so much local media news breaking today that it’s hard to keep it all straight. Late this afternoon came the huge announcement that Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell, who bought the tabloid from his mentor Rupert Murdoch in 1994, was taking the paper into bankruptcy with the intention of selling it to GateHouse Media.
At this point, we all have far more questions than answers. A friend suggested something to me a little while ago that is worth pondering: Can we be sure that GateHouse will end up with the Herald? Once a business goes into bankruptcy, it’s up for grabs. As I note in my forthcoming book, “The Return of the Moguls,” the executives who were running California’s Orange County Register took that paper into bankruptcy several years ago with the goal of buying it themselves. They lost out, and today the Register is part of the Digital First Media empire.
Other questions: Although cuts have already been announced, will the diminished Herald be its old recognizable blend of local news, good photography and sports coverage, and feisty tabloidism? Or will it be something else entirely? Will GateHouse keep Herald Radio up and running? Will it honor its printing contract with the Globe, or will it move operations to a GateHouse facility? We’ll learn the answers to all these questions in the weeks and months to come.
Interestingly, for a few years Purcell owned around 100 community papers in Eastern Massachusetts in addition to the Herald, selling all but the Herald to GateHouse about 15 years ago. Now things have come full circle.
No one wants to see hard-working journalists lose their jobs. We all hope GateHouse will keep the pain to a minimum, and that the Herald will be with us for many years to come.
New England’s second-largest city is about to get a new print newspaper. A little more than two years ago, the Worcester Sun debuted as a for-profit, online-only news organization. Founded by two GateHouse Media refugees, the site has been behind a hard paywall from the beginning, with subscribers paying $2 a week.
Now Mark Henderson and his business partner (and cousin), Fred Hurlbrink Jr., are ready to take the next step: repurposing their journalism in a Saturday print edition that will be mailed free to paid digital subscribers who live in the Worcester area. If you’re not a subscriber, you’ll be able to buy a copy for $2 at various locations in Central Massachusetts.
Print has been part of Henderson and Hurlbrink’s thinking right from the start. Just after the Sun went live, I wrote about the project for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Though the Sun is clearly a digital-first operation, its founders wanted to capture the value that still exists in print advertising as a way of developing a second revenue stream.
“If you’re going to start something new, monetizing digital is tough,” Henderson told me at the time. “And you can’t look at print as a medium without understanding that there is a ton of money still to be made there.”
Worcester’s daily paper, the Telegram & Gazette, has shrunk dramatically in recent years. Sold by Boston Globe owner John Henry to a Florida-based chain under disputed circumstances, it later ended up in the hands of GateHouse, of Pittsford, New York, which owns more than 100 daily and weekly papers in Eastern Massachusetts. Henderson is the T&G’s former online director; Hurlbrink worked as a copy editor and in production for GateHouse’s MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and for a design facility in Framingham that later closed, with the jobs being outsourced to Austin, Texas.
Henderson and Hurlbrink have a tough road ahead of them. But they’re still here after two years, and they have the advantage of being local owners who are part of their community. The best-case scenario is that the Sun will be a success and that GateHouse will respond by bolstering the ranks of the T&G. Best of luck to Mark and Fred.
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.
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.
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.)
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.