Financial prospects keep sliding as Gannett prepares to shift away from local

Photo (cc) 2009 by Kevin Walsh

Gannett’s recent move away from local news is not taking place in a vacuum. Financial prospects for the country’s largest newspaper chain continue to deteriorate — and the company’s insistence on degrading its journalism rather than building it up is going to make it that much harder to attract new readers.

As I reported last week, the chain is reassigning staff reporters at most of its Massachusetts weeklies to cover regional beats rather than local news. Although Gannett officials have not commented, I’m told that the three exceptions will be the Cambridge Chronicle, the Old Colony Memorial in Plymouth and the Provincetown Banner. I’m also told that a few weekly reporters will be reassigned to Gannett’s dailies rather than to regional coverage of issues such as climate change and racial justice.

What we still don’t know is what, if any, coverage the Gannett weeklies will provide of such basics as governmental meetings and elections. Maybe part-timers will be used. Maybe they’ll just skip it. There were already a number of Gannett weeklies without any real local coverage, so that’s nothing new.

Meanwhile, the chain’s business continues to slide at its 100 or so daily newspapers and 1,000 weeklies and other properties, according to Poynter business analyst Rick Edmonds. Revenue for the fourth quarter was $827 million, a decline of 5.5%, as its much-ballyhooed increase in digital subscriptions appears to be driven by steep introductory discounts.

Edmonds writes that “as Gannett targets reaching 2 to 2.2 million digital subscriptions by the end of 2022, it faces the double challenge of holding the introductory subscribers as they move up to higher rates while also continuing to quickly add new subscribers.” And rather than invest in journalism, Gannett is putting money into sports gambling and marketing services.

And NFTs.

It’s an ugly tale. For Massachusetts readers, it’s a tale that extends back to the early 1990s, when Fidelity began rolling up community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts. From Fidelity to the Boston Herald to GateHouse Media, which morphed into Gannett, it’s been 30 years of cuts, with very little in the way of good news.

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How The Boston Globe could help offset the local news vacuum

Could The Boston Globe, profitable and growing, help make up for the local news vacuum in Eastern Massachusetts? The shortage of reliable community journalism became much more acute last week when Gannett told reporters at most of its weekly papers that they would be reassigned to regional beats or to one of the chain’s dailies.

The Globe could conceivably step in by reviving an idea that was perhaps before its time. Under New York Times Co. ownership, the Globe published web pages known as YourTown, one for each suburban community as well as a few of Boston’s neighborhoods. They relied heavily on aggregation — too heavily, as the Times Co. found out in court — and they competed with papers owned by GateHouse Media (now Gannett) that weren’t nearly as hollowed-out as they are today. What’s more, YourTown was part of the Globe’s free Boston.com site (this was before BostonGlobe.com), and the hyperlocal advertising that was supposed to support YourTown never materialized. John Henry shut down YourTown not long after he bought the Globe in 2013.

So what would a revived YourTown look like? Advertising isn’t nearly as important as it used to be, but the Globe has been successful in selling paid digital subscriptions. So imagine a YourTown with one full-time reporter in each community. If the Globe signed up 500 new subscribers in a community, that could bring in as much as $120,000 a year. I’m basing that on an average subscription costing $20 a month (the full cost is $30, but many people would be paying discounts).

No doubt this would work better in some places than in others. I live in Medford, a city of about 58,000 residents that, as of now, doesn’t have a single full-time reporter covering the community. Selling an extra 500 subscriptions — or more — ought to be doable.

But right next door, in Arlington (population: 43,000), there’s a good-quality nonprofit news website, Your Arlington, which would make a Globe-branded YourTown less attractive. Or consider a small town like Bedford — not only are there just 13,000 residents, but it’s the home of a well-established nonprofit news site, The Bedford Citizen.

Still, I think a revived YourTown would work well enough in a few communities that it’s worth trying. I doubt it would be a money-maker for the Globe, but it might be a break-even proposition. And the paper would be filling a real need.

The Cambridge Chronicle lives. But the city still needs a lot more coverage.

News coverage in Cambridge — or the lack thereof — got a lot of attention recently when Joshua Benton wrote in Nieman Lab about the departure of Amy Saltzman as editor of the Cambridge Chronicle-Tab.

What drew national notice was Benton’s warning that maybe Saltzman wouldn’t be replaced and that Gannett would allow it to sink into the ranks of ghost newspapers. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, although Gannett has gone on a spree of shutting down print editions recently. Saltzman’s successor, Will Dowd, introduced himself this week. But Benton’s larger point still holds. Cambridge, a well-educated, affluent city of about 118,000, is covered by just one full-time paid journalist.

Saltzman edited the Chronicle for nine years, which is about 150 years in Corporate Chain Journalism Time. In her farewell column, she writes that she had more resources at her disposal back when she started — in addition to herself, there were one and a half reporting positions, an editorial assistant, a freelance budget, several photographers and an office in nearby Somerville. Four years later, she found herself alone. Yet she adds:

So as I leave my post, I have one plea: Support local journalism. Subscribe to the Chronicle. The paper’s survival as the oldest continuously run weekly newspaper in the country continues to be against all odds and should be lauded.

Well, now. Should Cantabrigians support the Chronicle? My answer would be yes if they’re getting value from it. But I don’t think anyone should feel obliged to support a paper that’s been hollowed out by Gannett and its predecessor company, GateHouse Media, especially when it could almost certainly be run profitably with a bigger staff and a more imaginative approach to the business of journalism. At this point, the closest thing the city has to a news source of record is the Cambridge Day, a mostly volunteer project. It would be nice to see some resources put into the Day, or perhaps into a nonprofit start-up.

Then again, news coverage in Cambridge has always been a puzzle. According to legend, at one time it was the largest city in the country without a daily newspaper, a fact that was usually attributed to its proximity to Boston. Yet neither the Globe nor the Herald ever gave more than cursory coverage to Cambridge. The alt-weeklies — The Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper — actually devoted quite a few resources to Cambridge coverage since that’s where a lot of their readers lived. I remember covering a few Cambridge political stories myself. But those papers are all gone.

When I was a senior in college, a friend of mine who lived in Cambridge and I made serious plans to launch a weekly after we graduated that would compete with the Chronicle, then owned by the Dole family. As we immersed ourselves in the details, though, we discovered that the Chronicle was actually selling its ads at prices well below those listed on its rate card. Realizing we’d be undercut, we got about the business of finding jobs, and that was that.

Later on, Russel Pergament launched the Cambridge Tab, a free paper that was part of a chain of Tab papers in the western suburbs. Pergament sold out to Community Newspaper Co. in 1996, when it was owned by Fidelity Capital. The Chronicle and the Tab were eventually merged.

Which brings us back to the present. Saltzman enjoyed a solid reputation, and I know that Dowd was respected for his work at Gannett’s North Shore papers. But one person can’t cover a city of nearly 120,000 people. It’s long past time for someone to step in and provide Cambridge with the news and information it needs.

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Gannett closes two weekly newspapers in Boston’s exurbs

1878 map via the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center

Two weekly papers in Boston’s exurbs are being shut down by Gannett, their corporate owner. The Hudson Sun and the Marlborough Enterprise have ceased publication, according to the Community Advocate.

The towns will continue to be covered by the MetroWest Daily News, which is also a Gannett publication. The Advocate appears to be a decent source of news for the two communities; its offerings include a Marlborough/Hudson newsletter.

Advocate managing editor Dakota Antelman includes an interesting historical overview of newspapers in Marlborough and Hudson, and notes that reporters for the two communities were moved to the MetroWest Daily News offices in Framingham back in 1995, long before GateHouse Media/Gannett came on the scene.

Gannett needs to invest if it wants to meet its digital subscription goal

The Gannett newspaper chain, like nearly all publishers, is staking its future on reader revenue. Which raises a question: What is the company prepared to do to make that happen?

In its most recent quarterly report, the country’s largest newspaper chain said that its total number of digital subscribers is now 1.2 million — an increase of 37% over the previous year, but not especially impressive for a company that owns about 250 daily papers, including USA Today, and hundreds more weeklies. Gannett CEO Mike Reed said he’s aiming for 10 million in five years.

At least the subscription total is heading in the right direction. Overall, the company lost $142 million, largely due to pandemic-related declines in print and digital advertising.

The focus on digital subscriptions isn’t smart so much as it is the only option available. Newspaper advertising has been tanking for years as ad spending has moved to Craigslist, Google and Facebook. National papers and a few big regionals, including The Boston Globe, have succeeded in making the shift to reader revenue. But if Gannett wants to emulate them, it’s going to have to overcome its reluctance to invest in journalism and technology.

For years, Gannett and the chain that essentially took it over, GateHouse Media, have been decimating their newsrooms in order to squeeze out enough revenues to keep their creditors at bay. (Reed claims a recently completed loan restructuring should help.) As I’ve written before, our local Gannett weekly, serving a city of nearly 60,000 people, hasn’t had a full-time staff reporter since the pre-pandemic days of late 2019. Yet it is also the only print paper I subscribe to because reading it online is such a dismal experience.

Lately I’ve noticed an increase in stories from something called “the USA Today Network,” which is to say they’re not local. Some are from one or two towns over. Some are from afar. They are nothing but space-fillers.

Gannett announced several other moves as well, including a paywall for USA Today, sports betting and even an attempt to sell non-fungible tokens (NFTs). I’ve been trying to grasp exactly what that last means, but I’m still confused even after reading this New York Times story.

Gannett owns nearly all of the community papers in Eastern Massachusetts and environs, and in very few cases are they meeting the information needs of their communities. If the company is determined to offer a better product, with more local coverage and a better user experience, then it will deserve to sell more digital subscriptions.

But I can’t imagine that the chain will be able to build its digital subscriber base significantly with what it’s offering now.

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Love Live Local offers a useful guide to independent media on Cape Cod

Photo (cc) 2013 by Arek Olek

A nonprofit organization called Love Live Local has published a useful guide to independent local news organizations on Cape Cod.

Included in its roundup is The Enterprise of Falmouth, Mashpee, Bourne and Sandwich; The Cape Cod Chronicle, which covers Chatham, Harwich and Orleans; Cape Cod Broadcasting, which includes four FM radio stations that provide local news; and The Provincetown Independent, whose coverage area comprises Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet and Eastham. I recently wrote about the Independent.

As Love Live Local points out, the Cape’s legacy newspapers are now owned by Gannett, which, along with its predecessor company, GateHouse Media, has cut them repeatedly over the years. If residents really want to be informed about what’s going on in their communities, they need to seek out independent sources of news.

So what is Love Live Local? Here is what the About page says:

When Love Live Local started in 2013, how it would evolve was a bit of an unknown. The intention was to highlight positive stories, Cape Cod happenings and connect local businesses with customers and supporters. As the founders began to appreciate not only how important small business was to the region, but also how much they were struggling, the messaging evolved, and they began to advocate much more strongly on behalf of small, local businesses — the backbone of this community.

Locally owned media and other types of businesses are all part of the same ecosystem that makes for a vibrant community. It’s good to see that there’s an organization on the Cape dedicated to helping them thrive.

The start of a trend? Gannett sells Nantucket paper to local owners

Nantucket. Photo (cc) 2013 by Si B.

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.

Meanwhile, the perpetually downsizing Gannett continues to struggle. Chief executive Mike Reed announced last week that the chain would embark on another round of voluntary buyouts.

So if you’d like to acquire the Gannett paper in your community, it sounds like it might be a good time to make an offer.

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As Gannett seeks to hire journalists, Alden continues to ‘strangle’ them

Photo via the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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.”

Moreover, Andrea Wenzel of Temple University, in her new book “Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust,” found that people trust local news outlets more than they do national media.

“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.”

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Together, we can do something about local news coverage in Medford

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”

Should Report for America send journalists to chain-owned newspapers?

How much support do newspapers owned by cost-cutting corporate chains deserve? It’s a dilemma. On the one hand, the people who live in communities served by those papers need reliable news and information. On the other hand, subsidizing them with money and resources could be considered a reward for bad behavior.

Last week Report for America, or RFA, announced that it would send 225 journalists to news organizations in 46 states and Puerto Rico during 2020-’21. With local news in crisis even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a welcome piece of good news. Most of the organizations that will host these young journalists are either independent or part of small chains, and they include a sizable number of public broadcasters, nonprofit start-ups, the Associated Press and the like. Locally, The Bay State Banner will be getting a reporter.

But in looking over the list, I also noticed a substantial number of newspapers that are part of corporate chains. By my count, 15 papers are part of McClatchy, which recently declared bankruptcy after staggering under unsupportable debt for many years. Twelve are part of Gannett, recently merged with GateHouse Media; both chains are notorious for slashing their newsrooms, and not just since COVID-19 reared its head. One reporter is even going to Cleveland.com, the website of The Plain Dealer and the scene of a recent union-busting effort on the part of Advance Publications.

As I said, it’s a dilemma. If you attempt to punish chain owners for squeezing out revenues at the expense of newsroom jobs, you wind up hurting communities.

I contacted Report for America co-founders Steven Waldman, who serves as RFA’s president, and Charles Sennott, who’s the chief executive officer and editor of The GroundTruth Project, of which RFA is a part. Their answers have been lightly edited. First Waldman:

My general answer is: Yes, half of our placements are in nonprofit, and others are in locally owned commercial entities. But we do indeed have some placements in newspapers that are owned by chains. Our primary standard is: Will this help the community? So we have on occasion accepted applications from newspapers with the problems you mentioned if we were convinced that they would use the reporter to better serve their readers. If we can be a positive force in helping those newspapers tip more in the direction of great journalism, we view that as a real positive step…. [Ellipses Waldman’s.] In effect, we’re creating hybrid nonprofit/for-profit models that provide even better local journalismBy the way, we have always had newspapers like that in the program, as part of the mix. That’s not new.

Now Sennott:

One of the stronger papers in our original Report for America class of 2018 was the Lexington Herald-Leader, a McClatchy paper in Kentucky. They pitched us on reopening the Pikeville Bureau in the heart of coal country in Eastern Kentucky, a bureau they had been forced to close 10 years earlier. They felt they were not serving well the community there. We placed RFA corps member Will Wright there and he became one of our true stars, breaking a story on a water crisis in which tens of thousands of residents did not have access to clean drinking water. His reporting turned a spotlight on this issue and helped the community force the county officials to repair the work and restore the access to clean drinking water. I went to Pikeville to work alongside Will Wright on this story and saw his incredible impact in that community with my own eyes. That is what we care about, serving the communities in these under-covered corners of America. And that’s why we have always been proud of our work with the Lexington Herald and why we did not rule out McClatchy as a place for us to look for RFA host newsroom partnerships, even if it is a chain that is going through hard economic times.

We did an enterprise project with Will Wright and two other reporters in rural Appalachia. Here is a link to the project, which was also featured on GroundTruth, as home of RFA:

https://thegroundtruthproject.org/projects/stirring-the-waters/

Also, we got news today of a full-page ad was taken out by Republicans and Democrats thanking McClatchy for its service to Kentucky.

And adding a poetic new chapter to the story, Will Wright has been accepted by The New York Times for its very competitive fellowship. And no, we are not leaving them high and dry. In this new class, we will have three journalists (two reporters and one photographer) at the Lexington Herald.

Sending an RFA journalist to a Gannett paper isn’t going to lead directly to a layoff. More public-accountability coverage is in everyone’s interests. And the chains, unfortunately, have a monopoly in many parts of the country, so it’s not like RFA could send someone to another news organization in that community.

Overall, I think RFA is doing the right thing — even if it makes me a bit queasy.

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