Future shock for GateHouse as it lays off journalists and merges its smaller papers

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

In his book “The Inevitable,” the technology journalist Kevin Kelly writes, “The future happens very slowly and then all at once.” That seems like as good a description as any of what’s going on at GateHouse Media, the nationwide chain that owns more than 100 newspapers in Greater Boston. After years of gradual contraction, the company is suddenly laying off journalists by the dozens and merging its smaller weeklies. In fact, you might say the future has arrived as quickly as one, two, three:

1. On May 23, word began to trickle out that massive layoffs were taking place at GateHouse papers around the country. A crowdsourced spreadsheet showed that two local dailies, The Providence Journal and Worcester’s Telegram & Gazette, were especially hard hit, losing about six journalists each (the Worcester numbers include Worcester Magazine, another GateHouse title). All told, the newspaper analyst Ken Doctor wrote for Nieman Lab, it looked like about 200 people would lose their jobs, offset slightly by the addition of 30 investigative and regional positions.

2. On May 30, The Wall Street Journal reported that the giant Gannett chain, best known for publishing USA Today, had held merger talks with GateHouse after earlier fending off a hostile acquisition attempt by MNG Enterprises, the hedge fund-owned group formerly known as Digital First Media. As I wrote earlier this year, Gannett is a slightly better steward of local journalism than MNG, although it has decimated properties such as Vermont’s Burlington Free Press.

3. The next day, on May 31, I obtained a confidential memo from GateHouse New England executives informing the troops that 50 of the company’s Greater Boston weeklies would be merged into 18. Although the memo said there would be no reduction in coverage, venerable titles such as the Danvers Herald and the Ipswich Chronicle will pass into history.

In many ways it felt like the end game was at hand, even if no one knows quite what that will look like. Kirk Davis, chief executive officer of GateHouse and chief operating officer of its parent company, New Media Investment Group, expressed optimism when I contacted him, though he noted the seriousness of the situation.

“We remain positive about the future for local media but certainly acknowledge that the business model for community news is under pressure,” he said by email.

The turmoil has reached the upper echelons of GateHouse and New Media. The Boston Business Journal’s Don Seiffert reported two weeks ago that New Media’s shareholders recently rejected a compensation plan that had paid Davis $1.7 million in 2018. Share prices are down, and New Media chairman Wesley Edens has been replaced by Mike Reed, the company’s chief executive.

If the future is murky, the history is clear enough. I’ve been following the devolution of local newspapers into chain ownership for more than 25 years. I also worked briefly in 1990 for North Shore Weeklies, one of GateHouse’s predecessor regional chains. It’s a story of combining more and more newspapers in a desperate attempt to achieve economies of scale sufficient to offset the overall decline of the newspaper business. It hasn’t worked, and there is little evidence that it ever will. But it has not been for lack of trying.

Our tale begins in the 1960s, when enterprising newspaper publishers built about a half-dozen regional chains in Greater Boston. Starting in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Fidelity Capital, an arm of the investment giant, assembled many of these groups into what became Community Newspaper Co. Among the executives who passed through CNC was a young Kirk Davis, who did a stint as president and publisher.

In 2001, Fidelity cashed in by selling CNC for an estimated $150 million to Pat Purcell, then the owner and publisher of the Boston Herald. Purcell, perpetually challenged financially, turned around five years later and sold CNC to the company that would become GateHouse for a reported $225 million. At the same time GateHouse bought The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, The Enterprise of Brockton, and their associated weeklies for another $165 million. Davis had been running those papers, so the acquisition brought him back into the fold.

In 2008 I wrote about GateHouse for CommonWealth Magazine. By then Davis was president and publisher of the New England division. The company was laying off journalists, continuing a trend begun under Fidelity and Purcell. But Davis, ever upbeat, hoped GateHouse could get ahead of the curve.

“We feel that community newspapers have a very viable future and, juxtaposed against the trend overall, are performing very well,” Davis told me at that time. “I believe in it, and I believe it’s going to stay strong.”

Five years later, GateHouse went into bankruptcy, only to emerge within a few months. Since that time the company has continued to build its empire while shrinking its reporting corps.

Like many observers, I’ve been harshly critical of GateHouse’s cost-cutting measures, which in many cases have left its newspapers without the resources to meet the information needs of their communities. Newspapers in general are an endangered species. But when a chain takes on debt to keep buying more properties and extracts revenues from its individual papers in order to satisfy shareholders, there is simply less money available for journalism than there would be with independent ownership.

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that there is a difference between GateHouse and, perhaps, Gannett — both of which seem to be intent on developing a long-term survival strategy — and MNG, which by all appearances is squeezing the last few drops of revenue out of its papers before walking away. (In Massachusetts, MNG, which is owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, controls the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell, and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.)

“GateHouse does try — unlike Alden, for instance — to make small investments in some sort of a future,” Ken Doctor wrote recently. “Its digital marketing and events business investments are examples.”

In our recent email exchange, Davis emphasized steps that GateHouse has taken to move toward sustainability, including the outsourcing of design functions to a facility in Austin, “constant engagement and surveys,” newsletters, audio, digital storytelling, data-based investigative reporting, and more.

“In New England,” he said, “we’ve recently added a regional engagement editor and regional newsletter editor. We’re also recruiting a New England investigations editor with a high focus on data.”

Davis also touted the adoption of the Accelerator Team Model, which, in essence, involves trying to do a better job of defining audiences as well as the priorities, teams, and plans needed to serve those audiences.

I asked Davis about GateHouse’s decision to cut The Providence Journal’s newsroom just as The Boston Globe was gearing up with a new Rhode Island initiative. His answer: “While we regret any involuntary staff reductions, the layoffs last month had a small impact on local reporting. My personal view on competitive threats is this: the more any local media can invest in covering our country’s local towns the better, whether we are there or not…. We’ll compete with and celebrate expansive efforts in local news.”

I also asked where he imagines GateHouse will be five years from now. Davis: “My belief is that our industry will be digitally proficient in all aspects of serving our communities. Certainly there will be fewer ‘print-based’ publications. Much is written about the likelihood or necessity of consolidation in our industry. We are one of the larger groups and hopefully our scale and investments can prove beneficial to our industry. Bigger isn’t better though, better is better. That’s where we need to focus — always.”

My own view is that independent, grassroots news organizations are going to show the way. It won’t be easy, and some will fail. But in New England, nonprofits such as the New Haven Independent and VT Digger as well as locally owned for-profit newspapers such as the Berkshire Eagle and the Portland Press Herald are simply doing a better job of covering their communities than GateHouse, Gannett, or MNG.

Nevertheless, it looks like GateHouse or a permutation of it will be with us for some time to come. Given the importance of local journalism to democracy, we can only hope that Davis, Reed, and company figure out a way to stop the endless bleeding and start growing again.

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The Globe’s URL for its Rhode Island vertical offers some intriguing hints

Is taxonomy destiny? Less than two weeks after GateHouse Media’s Providence Journal laid off a reported six journalists, The Boston Globe has unveiled a new online vertical for its expanded Rhode Island coverage. And the URL is intriguing. Rather than going with bostonglobe.com/metro/rhode-island, the address is bostonglobe.com/metro/new-england/rhode-island (emphasis added).

The Globe’s move into Rhode Island has prompted speculation that other regions might be targeted as well. And, as it turns out, there is a New England vertical on the site, although it doesn’t seem to be listed anywhere. You have to type it in. Who knew?

The great irony would be if the Globe made a move into Worcester, where GateHouse just laid off about six journalists at the daily Telegram & Gazette and the weekly Worcester Magazine. In 2014 then-new Globe owner John Henry sold the T&G to a Florida chain after reportedly assuring staff members that he would keep the paper if he couldn’t find a local buyer. Henry later told me he only remembered promising that he wouldn’t sell to GateHouse — which, of course, ended up with the paper anyway.

In any case, it seems that the Globe has built a system that would easily accommodate future expansion.

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Another round of devastating cuts at GateHouse’s community newspapers

Another day, another round of devastating cuts at GateHouse Media, the national chain that owns more than 100 newspapers in the Greater Boston area. Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal is keeping track, and so far he’s counted “at least six journalists at the Providence Journal, another six at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and several more at the New Bedford Standard-Times and the Herald News in Fall River.” Yesterday afternoon brought this instant classic from Worcester Magazine’s Bill Shaner:

According to Seiffert, stockholders on Thursday rejected a proposed $1.7 million compensation package for GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis. The chain is losing money despite cutting its community newspapers ruthlessly, which suggests that there’s going to be more bad news to come.

Benjamin Goggin, writing at Business Insider, noted that this week’s layoffs follow at least 60 earlier this year. Although it’s not clear how many people have lost their jobs nationally in the latest round, Newspaper Guild official Andrew Pantazi tweeted this morning that he’s compiling a spreadsheet and has counted about 80 so far.

Goggin also talked with Michael Reed, CEO of New Investment Media Group, GateHouse’s parent company, who denied rumors that the cuts could reach 200 — and dismissed this week’s downsizing as no big deal. Goggin wrote:

When Business Insider talked to Mike Reed, CEO of GateHouse’s parent company New Media Investment Group, he downplayed the cuts, calling them “immaterial,” without providing a specific number of cuts but denying the 200 number, calling it “a lie.”

“We have 11,000 employees, a lot to me is 2,000,” he said.

Later, though, Reed semi-confirmed the 200 figure with Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, although he said most of them would remain employed and “are moving from non-reporting to reporting jobs.” So let’s just say the head count is unclear.

Goggin also reported that New Media announced Thursday it will continue its $100 million stock-buyback program for another year. Isn’t that special?

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The Wall Street Journal takes on the local news crisis

Wall Street Journal reporters Keach Hagey, Lukas I. Alpert and Yaryna Serkez weigh in today with a comprehensive overview of the crisis threatening local newspapers — a crisis that contrasts with the relative good health of the three national papers, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Journal.

It’s well worth reading, even if there’s nothing especially new. Two quick observations:

1. Although the story pays lip service to the harmful effects of chain ownership, it doesn’t quite get at the fundamental problems: the debt amassed to build the chain, the lack of investment in technology, and the drain created by having to export a good chunk of revenues to some distant corporate headquarters.

2. The Journal also calls The Boston Globe a “notable outlier” among regional papers for its relative success in building digital subscriptions and maintaining a decent-size newsroom. The obvious if unmade argument is that other papers could do the same with committed local owners.

Globe owner John Henry is not perfect, but MediaNews Group (the new name for Digital First Media), Gannett or GateHouse would likely have cut the newsroom of roughly 220 people by another 100 or so.

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The Globe gets ready to sail its Arc into Rhode Island

Big changes are coming for Boston Globe digital subscribers, not to mention staff members. Over the next few weeks, visitors to BostonGlobe.com will be driven to Arc, the paper’s new content-management system, according to an email to the staff from senior product manager Eric Westby. The email was passed along by a trusted source who asked to remain anonymous.

The Globe is licensing Arc from The Washington Post, where the CMS was developed.  As a Globe subscriber, I’m hoping for a consistent user experience across all platforms, web, tablet and phone, as is the case with washingtonpost.com and its “classic” (black) apps. The Globe unveiled an Arc-based mobile app last fall, but it remains underdeveloped. Among other things, you still can’t swipe horizontally through articles on the iOS version. (I’m told that you can if you’re an Android user.)

The final steps toward adopting Arc come at the same time that the Globe is making a digital push into Rhode Island, hiring three veteran reporters (so far) at a time when The Providence Journal is being decimated by GateHouse Media, its corporate chain owner. Improved digital platforms should help with that push — but only if the Globe really commits to getting Arc right.

The full text of Westby’s email follows.

Dear Colleagues,

A quick update on the upcoming Arc CMS launch. We’re happy to report that our Arc beta test has been a success, and we’ll be ending the test and moving BostonGlobe.com visitors to an Arc-driven site beginning April 22. Our plan is to transition the bulk of our traffic from Méthode to Arc gradually over the course of that week. Visitors will be randomly assigned to the Arc group in stages, with all traffic driven to Arc by Friday, April 26. Two things to note:

    • The plan is for the redesigned Globe.com homepage and the sports section front to follow one week later, in order to mitigate any potential workflow or technical issues at launch. Our current plan is to move these two critical pages from Méthode to Arc on or about May 1.
    • With this launch, we will have effectively moved BostonGlobe.com to a sleeker, more modern, and more flexible design, one that’s built for our future and run with the best system in its class. You’ll still notice an odd page here and there in the old site layout: Today’s Paper, Crosswords, Author pages, etc. We will be transitioning these pages one at a time in the weeks ahead, both to account for variables with the coding and to ensure our readers don’t lose any functionality during this important transition.

Articles will continue to be written and edited in Méthode for now, with the move to Ellipsis (Arc’s article authoring tool) soon to follow. This rollout will be a phased approach that will require training and careful planning. You’ll be receiving more information on the Ellipsis rollout soon.

There will no doubt be bugs to squash, but this launch will mark a major milestone in our Arc rollout.

All the best,

Eric Westby
Senior Product Manager, BostonGlobe.com

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GateHouse to partner with Google News on digital subscriptions

GateHouse Media will partner with Google News on a digital-subscriptions project, according to this internal email from GateHouse chief executive Kirk Davis, forwarded to me by a trusted source just a few minutes ago. The news follows Tuesday’s announcement that Google News will partner with the McClatchy chain.

The GateHouse experiment will take place at The Columbus Dispatch, followed by “a broad roll-out of our Digital Subscription Lab learnings across the GateHouse network.” GateHouse, as you know, owns more than 100 newspapers in Greater Boston and beyond, including the Providence Journal and the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester.

Certainly I would rather that Google put its efforts (and its money) into helping independent local news projects. But Google wants content, and the corporate chains are in the best position to give them that. Davis’ full email follows.

To: All GateHouse Media employees
From: Kirk Davis, CEO, GateHouse Media
Re: Google News Initiative Digital Subscriptions Lab
Date: March 27, 2019

Developing a sustainable digital subscription model to showcase the amazing work being done by our journalists across the United States is essential to preserving the vitality and viability of our local journalism. Which is why I’m thrilled to announce that GateHouse has been selected, as one of eight publishers, to participate in the Digital Subscriptions Lab, a partnership between the Google News Initiative, the Local Media Association and FTI Consulting.

This intensive six-month program will address every step of the digital subscription process from discovery to conversion to retention. Participants will receive dedicated 1:1 support from each of the three partners, as they leverage their respective capabilities in research, product, technology and analytics. Several in-person meetings over the course of the program will enable participating publishers to share strategies, insights and best practices.

We have selected The Columbus Dispatch to be the focus for our engagement; with 13,000 digital subs, The Dispatch is among our largest, paid digital subscription products. We anticipate a broad roll-out of our Digital Subscription Lab learnings across the GateHouse network. Our participation in this elite program is exciting; it reflects our very strong commitment to the future of community journalism!

Kirk

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There are no good guys in the battle between Gannett and Digital First Media

Ben Bagdikian had Gannett’s number (1976 photo via Wikipedia)

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

In late 2015 I paid a visit to Burlington, Vermont, to survey the damage wrought by Gannett Co., the newspaper chain that owns the Burlington Free Press. Paid weekday print circulation at the state’s largest daily had fallen from about 50,000 to 16,000. The editorial staff, which at one time was close to 60 journalists, had shrunk to around 25.

“Obviously it’s a little tougher and you do have to pick your spots,” the legendary Free Press reporter Michael Donoghue, who had just retired, told me. “We were always thought of as the newspaper of record because everything would be in there. I’m not sure there’s a newspaper of record technically in Vermont anymore.”

To be fair, what happened to the Free Press was not much different from what has happened to newspaper after newspaper across the country. Fortunately other media organizations in Vermont arose to fill the gap — Seven Days, a vibrant alt-weekly; VT Digger, a well-funded statewide nonprofit investigative project; and Vermont Public Radio, which had boosted its local coverage. Still, the Free Press and its corporate overlords at Gannett had failed at their mission of holding government and other institutions to account.

I offer this story because now we are being asked to save Gannett from the ravages of something much worse. And we should. The Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo reported on Sunday that Digital First Media, the Death Star of newspaper chains, is seeking to acquire Gannett, which owns USA Today as well as about 100 other publications. Digital First owns about 50 dailies, including three in Massachusetts: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell, and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

Why should we care when Gannett has been doing such a poor job? Because things can always be worse. Gannett ownership has been awful in the usual way. Digital First, controlled by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, is uniquely awful. Its decimation of the papers it owns sparked what proved to be a futile insurrection last year at its flagship, The Denver Post. Newsrooms have literally been closed, with journalists forced to fend for themselves, from the Fitchburg paper to, most recently, The Record of Troy in upstate New York.

Executives at chains such as Gannett and GateHouse Media, hardly beloved at the local level, nevertheless seem to be trying to figure out a long-term plan. Gannett has remained committed to investigative reporting. GateHouse has set up a business-services and marketing division known as ThriveHive, which, if nothing else, suggests that the company is committed to staying in business. Digital First, by contrast, appears to be engaged in what economists refer to as “harvesting” — that is, taking as much money out of the shrinking newspaper business as possible before closing the doors and turning off the lights.

“The dirty little secret that DFM [Digital First Media] learned is that — at least for now — it can sell longtime readers an inferior (or, to use the technical term, crappier) newspaper and only 10 percent each year will cancel,” writes Philly.com columnist Will Bunch. “Do the math, though, and it’s clear that much of America outside the biggest cities will become news deserts by the early 2020s.”

And to think that at one time Gannett was considered the poster child for greedy corporate newspaper chains. In his classic series of books dating back to the 1980s called “The Media Monopoly,” the late media critic Ben Bagdikian labeled Gannett as “the largest and most aggressive newspaper chain in the United States,” noting that the profit margin at some of its local papers was an “astonishing” 30 percent to 50 percent. Bagdikian also described Gannett as “an outstanding contemporary performer of the ancient rite of creating self-serving myths, of committing acts of greed and exploitation but describing them through its own machinery as heroic epics.”

So here we go again. Gannett, as bad as it has been for the communities it serves, is being held up as an exemplar of local journalism that must be saved. Talk about defining deviancy down. The newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab, reports that Gannett executives may seek to wriggle out of Digital First’s hostile takeover attempt by delivering themselves into the arms of Tribune Publishing, the company formerly known as tronc. Tribune, like Gannett, is known more for its cost-cutting than for its journalism. But anything is better than Digital First.

There is a certain irony in the dilemma now facing Gannett. The company’s model of downsizing newsrooms and driving up profits helped create the crisis that faces the newspaper business today. As newspapers became less comprehensive and less interesting, they lost readers, thus prompting repeated rounds of cuts to keep those profit margins up. Not to push this theory too far — the decimation of advertising-funded news at the hands of digital media is a much larger factor. Still, Gannett-style slash-and-burn management played a role.

Now Gannett is reaping what it sowed. We should all hope that Gannett’s board is successful in fighting off Digital First. But we should also understand that this is strictly a choice between the lesser of two evils. Democracy deserves better.

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Digital First wants to buy Gannett, endangering local newspapers across the U.S.

It’s hard to imagine worse news for the beleaguered business of local journalism. The Wall Street Journal reported (sub. req.) on Sunday that Digital First Media, the hedge-fund-owned chain notorious for squeezing out the last drop of blood from its newspapers, is trying to buy Gannett. Brian Stelter has posted an update at CNN.com.

Gannett is best known for publishing USA Today — which, though it’s a perfectly fine paper, it’s mainly something to look at when you’re in a hotel. The real story is its vast chain of local newspapers, which are listed here. New England is a nearly Gannett-free zone, with the Burlington Free Press of Vermont being its only holding. By contrast, New Jersey, with eight Gannett local news properties, would be devastated. Digital First owns three papers in Massachusetts: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

According to USA Today, Gannett had not received an offer from Digital First as of Sunday night. But it’s for real, as Jeff Sonderman of the American Press Institute tweeted:

Not to praise Gannett too much. Back when the newspaper business was considerably healthier than it is today, media critics like the late Ben Badgikian reported that Gannett insisted on profit margins of 30 percent, 40 percent or more, cutting considerably into their public service mission. In recent years, Gannett has cut the Burlington Free Press to the bone. In “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote about an alternative media ecosystem in Burlington that had grown in response to the decline of the Free Press. It’s only gotten worse at the Free Press since I did my reporting in late 2015.

But Gannett, a publicly traded company, and GateHouse Media, another hedge-fund-owned chain, at least seem to be in the business of trying to chart a path to the future. Digital First and its owner, Alden Global Capital, by contrast, appear to be in what economists refer to as “harvesting” mode, taking the last few dollars out of their shrinking newspapers before shutting them down or selling them off.

I’ve written about Digital First several times. Most recently, I wrote for WGBHNews.org about a report from the University of North Carolina called “The Expanding News Desert,” which was highly critical of Digital First and GateHouse. In 2014, I tracked the history of Digital First in New Haven for The Huffington Post — from bankruptcy to a fascinating experiment under the visionary leadership of John Paton and then back to bottom-line-oriented cost-cutting.

Let’s just hope the Gannett board decides to fight rather than give in.

Update: Ken Doctor writes at the Nieman Journalism Lab that Gannett may try to escape Digital First’s clutches by running into the arms of Tribune Publishing, known until recently as tronc.

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Four dailies north of Boston sold to Alabama retirement fund

The CNHI newspapers have been sold to Retirement Systems of Alabama. CNHI’s holdings in Massachusetts include four daily newspapers — The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times — as well as several non-daily publications.

This is good news, with reservations. CNHI’s ownership has long been complicated; the Alabama buyer has been involved for years, so this doesn’t seem like much of a change. CNHI has run the papers on the cheap, but the quality remains good. I know that staff members were concerned that the papers might be sold to Digital First Media or GateHouse Media, hedge-fund-owned chains that slash their properties to the bone. So it could have been worse.

Earlier: “Eagle-Tribune and affiliated papers north of Boston put up for sale” (June 25, 2018).

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Local newspapers are dying. And hedge funds are making it worse.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The state of local journalism is grim — and the hedge funds that have scooped up hundreds of newspapers over the past decade have made things even worse than they otherwise might be.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from the University of North Carolina. Titled “The Expanding News Desert,” the study finds that corporate chains controlled by private equity and hedge funds cut more deeply, shut down more papers, and demonstrate less regard for journalism’s civic mission than was the case with “the historic practices of traditional print newspaper companies.” Here’s how the report’s author, Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC, describes the strategies pursued by what she calls these “new media barons”:

The standard operating formula often included aggressive cost-cutting, the adoption of advertiser-friendly policies, the sale or shuttering of under-performing newspapers, and financial restructuring, including bankruptcy. At the most extreme, their strategies have led to the closure of hundreds of local papers and diminished the important civic role of newspapers in providing reliable news and information that helps residents of a community make important decisions about governance and quality of life issues.

This has enormous implications for Greater Boston, where two leading hedge-fund-owned chains, GateHouse Media and Digital First Media, already control most of the local papers, and where a third, CNHI, has put its four dailies in the Merrimack Valley and on the North Shore up for sale. Those papers — The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News, and the Gloucester Daily Times — are at risk of falling into the hands of either GateHouse or Digital First, which are likely to double down on the deep cuts that have already been made.

Digital First, controlled by Alden Global Capital, currently owns three papers in Massachusetts — the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg, The Sun of Lowell, and its most recent acquisition, the Boston Herald. Although I’ve written about Digital First on several occasions previously (for instance, see this), I was struck in reading the UNC report by just how bad things are.

Digital First’s profit margin in 2017 was 17 percent, far higher than that of other newspaper companies, including GateHouse. And it achieved that margin by destroying newsrooms — in some cases literally. The newsroom at the Fitchburg paper was shut down last year, with the paper’s journalists being told to work out of their homes. In the suburbs of Philadelphia, reporters at two Digital First papers “must work remotely,” Abernathy writes, “because the Pottstown Mercury’s mold-infested newspaper building has been condemned.”

The top-line numbers at Digital First are breathtaking. Between 2012 and ’17, employment at 12 Digital First papers decreased by 52 percent, from 1,766 to 849, according to a survey conducted by the NewsGuild. Yet as bad as that period was for the newspaper business as a whole, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that total newspaper employment dropped by about one-fourth from 2012 to 2016 — only about half the rate of journalistic job destruction at Digital First.

GateHouse, meanwhile, has expanded massively in recent years — from 379 newspapers with a total circulation of 3.1 million in 2014 to 451 papers and 4.3 million in circulation today. The company controls well over 100 community weeklies in Greater Boston and environs as well as dailies such as the Providence Journal, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, and The Patriot Ledger of Quincy. According to the UNC findings, GateHouse’s decimation of the ProJo, which it purchased in 2014, has been especially brutal:

By July 2018, newsroom employment had been cut by 75 percent, bringing the staffing levels below 100. According to the NewsGuild-CWA, there were fewer than 20 reporters and columnists responsible for covering both state and city government.

GateHouse has also embarked on a strategy of selling business and marketing services to advertisers through subsidiaries of its hedge-fund owner, Fortress Investment Group — “raising questions,” as the report puts it, “about the role of a local newspaper’s sales department in supporting local businesses.” Readers are fleeing GateHouse’s shriveled papers. Revenues, profits, and share prices are all down. All of that calls into question, Abernathy writes, whether GateHouse’s aggressive acquisition strategy is sustainable.

The depredations of Digital First and GateHouse are taking place amid the cratering of local journalism nationwide. Among the UNC report’s findings:

  • About 60 daily newspapers and 1,700 weeklies have closed since 2004, an overall decline of about 25 percent.
  • Nearly 200 of the 3,143 counties in the United States no longer have a newspaper. More than 2,000 counties have no daily paper.
  • Residents in these “news deserts” — that is, areas without newspapers — “are generally poorer, older and less educated than the average American.”

What can be done about the decline of local journalism and the rise of predatory hedge-fund newspaper chains? There is no one answer. The report notes that LION Publishers (Local Independent Online News) counts about 525 local digital news operations, both for-profit and nonprofit. Some, such as the New Haven Independent, The Batavian of Batavia, New York, and VT Digger, a statewide project based in Montpelier, Vermont, do an outstanding job of covering local and regional news. Yet many such operations are tiny and, as the report notes, a 2015 survey found that one in four failed. Although you could argue that three in four surviving is actually a pretty good track record, that’s not nearly enough to water the news deserts that are spreading across the countryside.

“There is a compelling need,” Abernathy writes, “for philanthropic foundations, community activists, local government, concerned citizens and potential founders of nonprofit news organizations to work together from the beginning to identify communities most lacking coverage and the funding needed to sustain a start-up news organization in those communities.”

That would be a good start, as would programs to boost civic and media literacy, another recommendation of the report. Without quality local news, it’s hard for people to participate in their communities in a meaningful way — or even to understand why they should. Corruption runs amok. Apathy reigns. And the underpinnings of democracy rot away.

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