A terrible day for Gannett, to be followed by terrible days for its staff and communities

The late Gannett chairman Al Neuharth, who created USA Today, was no stranger to cost-cutting. But he’d be rolling over in his grave at what’s taking place now. Photo (cc) 2013 by George Kelly.

Gannett, the country’s largest local news chain, is in a tailspin. The publisher of some 200 daily papers reported a significant loss in the second quarter — $54 million on revenues of $749 million.

According to Rick Edmonds, who analyzes the media business for Poynter, the company is either down or missing its targets in digital and print advertising as well as print circulation. The sole bright spot: a steady rise in paid digital circulation. Extensive layoffs are on the way. Edmonds quoted a memo from Maribel Perez Wadsworth, head of the media division, in which she said: “In the coming days, we will … be making necessary but painful reductions to staffing, eliminating some open positions and roles that will impact valued colleagues.” It’s hard to see how shrinking an already diminished product is going to help.

Those of us who live in Eastern Massachusetts and environs might wonder where they are going to find any staff members to lay off. Over the past year, the chain has closed many of its community weeklies. Its dailies are still publishing, but with skeleton newsrooms.

The question with Gannett is how many of its problems are simply part of the overall local news crisis and how many are of its own making. Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and the John M. Mutz Chair in Local News at Northwestern’s Medill School, tweeted:

As it turned out, Lee did reasonably well, which Chris Krewson, executive director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers noted in a response to Franklin.

I would argue that though the challenges facing community journalism are very real, there are some unique factors at work with the current iteration of Gannett, which lost its way in the cradle back when GateHouse Media was born. GateHouse and Gannett merged a few years ago, but it was essentially a takeover by GateHouse, which has been pillaging its local titles for the past 15 or so years. Gannett’s schemes to overcome the mess in which it finds itself strike me as harebrained. Its plan to pursue sports betting isn’t going well, as Edmonds reports. Then there is its dream of getting into nonfungible tokens (NFTs). Seriously?

Gannett’s flagship is USA Today, which is still a solid paper. If I had to guess, I’d say they’ll leave it pretty much alone so that they can use it as a wire service to fill up their regional and local papers. I mean, even more than they’re already doing.

Sadly, Gannett’s journalists have been on a roll, with reporters at the Indianapolis Star and The Columbus Dispatch breaking the story about a pregnant 10-year-old rape victim — and then confirming it when it was questioned by right-wing propagandists and by Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler. The Austin American-Statesman obtained and published video of the police (non)response to the school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, after editing out the children’s screams. This is outstanding journalism, and soon Gannett will have fewer journalists.

Gannett’s greed and incompetence are going to mean fewer jobs for reporters and less coverage for local communities. It’s an ongoing tragedy, but it does open up possibilities for entrepreneurs who are looking to start new projects.

The Post’s recap about the 10-year-old rape victim omits a significant detail

Elahe Izadi has an excellent account (free link) in The Washington Post on how two Gannett papers got the story about a pregnant 10-year-old rape victim right while elements of the national media expressed skepticism — or worse.

One shortcoming, though: The story plays down the role of Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler (who’s not even named) in mainstreaming the right-wing talking point that Dr. Caitlin Bernard might have been passing along a rumor she heard, or even lying. As we later learned, Bernard was the doctor who actually cared for the victim. Right from the start, though, the Indianapolis Star had Bernard on the record, and Kessler didn’t have enough information to call her account into question.

As we also know, the story was confirmed when The Columbus Dispatch reported that an arrest had been made. Overall, as I wrote several weeks ago, it was a fiasco for the media — especially on the right, but in the Post as well.

How the very real story of a 10-year-old rape victim turned into a media fiasco

Experienced media critics know — or should know — that you don’t try to knock down a story based on an on-the-record source unless you’ve got the goods. But that didn’t stop Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler from wading in over an article published on July 1 in the Indianapolis Star by Shari Rudavsky and Rachel Fradette. They reported that patients were traveling to Indiana, where abortion is still legal, following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Kessler’s interest was sparked by the lead anecdote. Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an OB/GYN in Indianapolis, said she’d been contacted by a doctor in Ohio and asked if she could help arrange an abortion for a pregnant 10-year-old rape victim. Noting that Indiana might soon outlaw abortion as well, Bernard was quoted in the article as saying: “It’s hard to imagine that in just a few short weeks we will have no ability to provide that care.”

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By the time Kessler decided to weigh in, the story had gone viral, cited by President Biden and criticized in anti-abortion circles for its lack of verifying details. Kessler wrote:

The only source cited for the anecdote was Bernard. She’s on the record, but there is no indication that the newspaper made other attempts to confirm her account. The story’s lead reporter, Shari Rudavsky, did not respond to a query asking whether additional sourcing was obtained. A Gannett spokeswoman provided a comment from Bro Krift, the newspaper’s executive editor: “The facts and sourcing about people crossing state lines into Indiana, including the 10-year-old girl, for abortions are clear. We have no additional comment at this time.”

Kessler also reported that Bernard declined to provide any additional details when he contacted her by email, and that he could find no evidence that a criminal investigation might be under way. Here is Kessler’s conclusion:

This is a very difficult story to check. Bernard is on the record, but obtaining documents or other confirmation is all but impossible without details that would identify the locality where the rape occurred.

With news reports around the globe and now a presidential imprimatur, however, the story has acquired the status of a “fact” no matter its provenance. If a rapist is ever charged, the fact finally would have more solid grounding.

I tweeted at Kessler last Saturday:Glenn, you say you asked Dr. Bernard for the name of her colleague and the city where they’re located, and she declined to answer. But did you press her on her conversation with her colleague and what convinced her that the anecdote is real?

Kessler did not respond. I later found out that Kessler doesn’t reply to tweets but will respond to DMs or emails. It’s in his Twitter bio, but I hadn’t looked. Why would I? I know who he is.

I’m trying to be as clinical as I can here and give Kessler his due for leaving himself open to the possibility that the story might be proven true. But keep in mind that the Star had Bernard on the record telling them that she had been contacted directly by another doctor who wanted to know if she could help with the 10-year-old rape victim. Bernard was not passing along a rumor she’d heard. She had direct knowledge. The story was a little thin since the Star didn’t (and probably couldn’t) verify this horrifying anecdote. But we see thinner stories than this on a regular basis, including in The Washington Post.

Well, you probably know what happened next. On Wednesday, The Columbus Dispatch reported that “a Columbus man has been charged with impregnating a 10-year-old Ohio girl,” thus vindicating both Dr. Bernard and the Star, a sister newspaper. Kessler tweeted:The last line of this fact check was: ‘If a rapist is ever charged, the fact finally would have more solid grounding.’ Now, a rapist has been charged and the story has been updated. Getting lots of angry emails but journalism is an accumulation of facts.

Yes, journalism is an accumulation of facts. The problem here is that Kessler lacked sufficient facts to go with his original story, to which an update has been appended. A fair reading of his original piece was that he thought there was a good chance that Bernard’s story wasn’t true, and that the Star reporters were being credulous for passing it along. He wasn’t able to prove it, so he should have just let it go, regardless of what lingering suspicions he might have had.

I’ll repeat — yes, it was a little thin, but we see worse every day. Also: We have no way of knowing whether Bernard might have provided the Star with some confirming details on an off-the-record basis. The Bottom Line, to borrow Kessler’s rubric: He shouldn’t have gone there without convincing evidence that the story wasn’t true.

Now, I’ve gone on at some length about Kessler’s misjudgment while saying nothing about the outrageous rhetoric that played out on the right. That’s because Kessler is a respected journalist working for a careful, highly regarded news organization. It’s fair to hold Kessler and the Post to a higher standard than propaganda outlets — but we also need to acknowledge their toxic, corrosive effect.

Among the worst was the opinion section of The Wall Street Journal, which published an editorial headlined “An Abortion Story Too Good to Confirm.” The subhead is a howler: “Biden told a tale of a 10-year-old rape victim that no one can identify,” blowing past the reality that the media don’t identify rape victims, let alone those who are 10.

“The tale is a potent post-Roe tale of woe for those who want to make abortion a voting issue this fall,” the Journal wrote. “One problem: There’s no evidence the girl exists.” The shameful editorial, which actually cited the far-right website PJ Media as an authority, has since acquired an editor’s note, and the paper has published a separate, defensive never-mind editorial.

Finally, Laura Hazard Owen of Nieman Lab has written an exceptionally good overview of the whole sorry episode. The headline: “Unimaginable abortion stories will become more common. Is American journalism ready?” The early evidence is not encouraging.

A better way of covering the Indiana discrimination story

It's all about the cake.
It’s all about the cake.

In a frustratingly inconclusive Washington Post column today on Indiana’s religious-freedom law, Kathleen Parker writes, “Without diving into the weeds, the law aims to protect religious freedom against government action that abridges deeply held convictions.”

Trouble is, the weeds are exactly where we need to be. The public perception is that the law would discriminate against the LGBT community. Yet Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who supports the legislation (though he now wants to add clarifying language), has insisted that it would not discriminate. For instance, Tony Cook and Tim Evans quote Pence in today’s Indianapolis Star as saying that the law “does not give anyone a license to deny services to gay and lesbian couples.”

For someone trying to follow this story, the problem appears to be two-fold. First, the law itself is vaguely worded and could be interpreted in a variety of different ways. Second, the media for the most part have covered this as a political story, more interested in traditional narratives about winners and losers than in what effect the law might actually have on people.

Bits of background emerge here and there. For instance, we’re regularly told that the Indiana law is similar (though not identical) to the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, signed by Bill Clinton in 1993, and that 19 other states already have such laws on the books. We know that Arkansas is on the brink of joining those states. For the most part, though, coverage is framed in terms of pure politics.

My frustration spilled over this morning in reading the latest from The New York Times and The Washington Post. I don’t mean to single them out. It’s just that I’ve been thinking about this in recent days, and today’s coverage crystallized my sense that the public is not being as well-served by journalism as it could be.

The Times story, by Campbell Robertson and Richard Pérez-Peña, and the Post story, by Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, are mainly about politics. You learn a lot from both of them. The Post strikes me as particularly insightful, as Rucker and Costa observe in their lede that the controversy over the Indiana law “has drawn the entire field of Republican presidential contenders into the divisive culture wars, which badly damaged Mitt Romney in 2012 and which GOP leaders eagerly sought to avoid in the 2016 race.” The Post also notes that Pence may harbor presidential ambitions of his own.

But if you want to know what, exactly, the law would do, you’re out of luck, unless you want to latch onto Gov. Pence’s assurances that it won’t do much of anything (then why pass it?) or the warnings of civil-rights groups that it would legalize discrimination against sexual minorities.

Here is how I’d define what we need to know.

Does the Indiana law merely (for instance) prohibit the government from requiring a member of the clergy to perform same-sex marriages? No; the wording of the law makes it pretty clear that the door is open to actions that would go well beyond that. In any case, the clergy is already protected by the First Amendment.

So where does the law draw the line? What it comes down to, as Kathleen Parker and others have pointed out, is cake. Would the law allow a bakery to refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple? And here is where the coverage has tended to devolve into a one-side-says-this/the-other-side-says-that morass.

Maybe the Indiana law is just too vague to provide a clear answer to that question. Nevertheless, I think German Lopez of Vox deserves a lot of credit for trying. In a lengthy article published on Tuesday, Lopez pulls together all known facts — the background, the threatened boycotts — and points out that, historically, laws such as Indiana’s have not been used to engage in the sort of discrimination LGBT advocates are worried about. (My favorite example involves the Amish, who were exempted from a law requiring them to put fluorescent lights on their buggies.)

Nevertheless, Lopez notes that supporters of the Indiana law have celebrated the idea that “Christian bakers, florists and photographers” would not have to “participate in a homosexual marriage!” So the intent to discriminate is clearly there. Countering that, though, is University of Illinois law professor Robin Wilson, who tells Lopez that it is unlikely the courts would uphold such discrimination. And yet, as Lopez observes, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision raises the specter that Wilson’s sanguinity might prove unwarranted.

Of course, Vox’s self-styled mission is to explain. But I would argue that even a daily update in a developing story like this ought to explain as clearly as possible what the law is about, or at least link to such an explanation.

In his book “Informing the News,” Thomas E. Patterson writes that journalists need to add a third tool — knowledge — to their traditional tools of direct observation and interviews. In the case of Indiana, telling us what the religious-freedom law would actually do is at least as important as telling us what people are saying about it.

Note: If you find any particularly good explainers about the Indiana law, let me know and I’ll post links to them here. And here we go:

• This article, by Stephanie Wang of the Indianapolis Star, is quite good. (Thanks to Mike Stucka.)

• Here’s an explainer in Q&A form that’s in today’s Times. (Thanks to Kris Olson.)

• In the comments, Steve Stein flags this article by Kristine Guerra and Tim Evans of the Indy Star that explains the differences between federal and state law.

On Twitter, I got recommendations for several worthwhile pieces — one from the liberal website ThinkProgress and two from more conservative sources, The Weekly Standard and Commonweal:

This commentary was also published at WGBHNews.org.

Photo (cc) by D&K and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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