Staying optimistic about local news amid the damage wrought by corporate chains

Providence, R.I. Photo (cc) 2017 by Kenneth C. Zirkel.

My research work on the local news crisis often feels like a race against time. On the one hand, I try to highlight independent community journalism projects that are keeping their heads above water or, in a few cases, are actually thriving. On the other hand, chain owners like Alden Global Capital and Gannett keep hollowing out the hundreds of newspapers they own across the country, not because they’re not making money but because they want to make more.

Last week came the odd news that Gannett is seeking to sell The Providence Journal’s printing plant for $8 million, as well as several other plants that it owns across the country. The story was broken by Alexa Gagosz of The Boston Globe, a former student of mine. What struck me as odd is that the Journal isn’t outsourcing its printing; rather, it intends to lease the plant back for a period of five or 10 years.

No doubt Gannett executives are thinking ahead to the day when the Journal goes all-digital. But the sell-and-leaseback provision seems hard to explain, especially for a paltry amount like $8 million. That doesn’t put a dent in the massive debt that Gannett is struggling with.

Also last week, The Atlantic published an essay about The Hawk Eye, of Burlington, Iowa, the oldest paper in the state, which was acquired several years by GateHouse Media — the predecessor to Gannett — and is now being dismantled. Written by Elaine Godfrey and photographed by KC McGinnis, it is a lovely piece, haunting and elegiac, conjuring a lost way of life as much as a newspaper that’s been hollowed out. But Godfrey has a keen sense of Gannett’s business model as well. This gets right to the heart of it:

Readers noticed the paper’s sloppiness first — how there seemed to be twice as many typos as before, and how sometimes the articles would end mid-sentence instead of continuing after the jump. The newspaper’s remaining reporters are overworked; there are local stories they’d like to tell but don’t have the bandwidth to cover. The Hawk Eye’s current staff is facing the impossible task of keeping a historic newspaper alive while its owner is attempting to squeeze it dry.

None of this was inevitable: At the time of the sale to GateHouse, The Hawk Eye wasn’t struggling financially. Far from it. In the years leading up to the sale, the paper was seeing profit margins ranging from the mid-teens to the high 20s. Gannett has dedicated much of its revenue to servicing and paying off loans associated with the merger, rather than reinvesting in local journalism. Which is to say that southeastern Iowans are losing their community paper not because it was a failing business, but because a massive media-holding company has investors to please and debts to pay.

So what’s lost? Consider the experience of Tom Courtney, a former state senator, who lost his re-election bid after he discovered that his constituents, lacking any reliable local news, were judging him on the basis of national stories instead:

In the absence of local coverage, all news becomes national news: Instead of reading about local policy decisions, people read about the blacklisting of Dr. Seuss books. Instead of learning about their own local candidates, they consume angry takes about Marjorie Taylor Greene. Tom Courtney, a Democrat and four-term former state senator from Burlington, made more than 10,000 phone calls to voters during his 2020 run for office. In those calls, he heard something he never had before: “People that live in small-town rural Iowa [said] they wouldn’t vote for me or any Democrat because I’m in the same party as AOC,” Courtney told me. “Where did they get that? Not local news!”

Also last week, the trade magazine Editor & Publisher ran a story about Gannett papers that have actually been bought back by local owners. Written by Gretchen A. Peck, the story looks in on four people who’ve acquired former Gannett papers and are now reinvesting in news and in their communities.

Still, it hardly looks like a trend. Peck spoke with newspaper broker Sara April, who said Gannett is selling just a few papers here and there. “All the markets are typically smaller. Look at the size of the towns. That has been the charge: To find quality local companies, with high regard for journalism, to take ownership of these newspapers so they can continue to serve their communities,” April was quoted as saying. No doubt the papers don’t fit with Gannett’s current strategy, which seems to be filling up its papers and websites with regional news so it doesn’t have to put too much into local coverage.

The good news — and there’s always good news — is that local independent journalism is thriving in many parts of the country. The bad news is that the corporate chains and the hedge funds continue to strangle news organizations that would otherwise be doing much better.

An earlier version of this post was part of last week’s Media Nation Member Newsletter. To become a member for just $5 a week, please click here.