A rant for the ages against the corporate media

James Craven

Following the most recent round of layoffs at GateHouse Media, one newly unemployed journalist decided he’d had enough. James Craven, who worked for GateHouse’s Norwich Bulletin in Connecticut, wrote a blog post headlined “Goodbye Norwich” in which he ripped into GateHouse management for deciding “to cannibalize the newspaper.”

You will not be surprised to learn that Craven’s post has been taken down. But thanks to the glories of Google’s cache feature, you can still read it here for what I’m sure will be a limited time. So click while it’s hot. (The Google cache version is now gone, but I’ve posted it as a PDF.)

Among other things, Craven writes that it’s his understanding the Bulletin is profitable, yet GateHouse laid off seven members of the newsroom staff. He continues:

[T]he most recently ordered layoffs will sap The Bulletin of nearly 20 percent of its newsroom staff. That will, of course, allow the president of Gatehouse Media to follow up on his $750,000 bonus to himself with an equally staggering and incongruous gratuity this year. Merry Christmas Mr. President.

Craven is referring to GateHouse chief executive Michael Reed, who did indeed receive a bonus of $750,000 last year. GateHouse president Kirk Davis got “only” $275,000. One other mistake: Craven prematurely offs Philip Meyer, who can now invoke Mark Twain.

Craven also writes:

The thing about reduced community coverage is that you do not notice it while it is happening. It is, if I may be so bold, like a cancer. It works below the surface, until one day when suddenly it becomes all too apparent. There will be referendums that may not be covered as fully. Some school functions — that first grade play that in the past featured your son or daughter — will be bypassed. On holidays, like Veterans Day, decisions will be made to forfeit coverage in some communities because there just is not an extra reporter.

According to Craven’s Twitter feed, he is “an award winning journalist but due to a corporate layoff is now job hunting.”

Craven has written a rant for the ages. And he raises an important point. We all know that the newspaper business (like most businesses) is struggling. What is less well-known is that many of these papers are making money, but are being ravaged by their corporate owners, which are staggering under the debt they took on to build their empires and whose executives remain addicted to paying themselves bonuses.

Craven comes across as a journalist who really cares, and I wish him well. I have no idea if he could make a go of it financially. But how great would it be if he started a Norwich community news site to compete with the Bulletin?

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At GateHouse, as elsewhere, the rich get richer

Kirk Davis

Seems like it’s been ages since I last wrote about GateHouse Media, the financially challenged Fairport, N.Y.-based company that owns about 100 community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts.

Things may be more quiet than they were a year ago, but rumblings of dissension persist. Several anonymous employees sent this along, detailing some mighty nice bonuses top GateHouse officials paid themselves to publish understaffed newspapers run by overworked, low-paid journalists.

Leading the parade is chief executive Michael Reed, who got $500,000. Taking the silver, with $250,000, was president and chief operating officer Kirk Davis, a top GateHouse official in Massachusetts before decamping for upstate New York last year.

It’s an old story. Ordinary people work hard for short money while the folks at the top reward themselves. Reed and Davis are managing a difficult situation, and it may well be that they deserve to be compensated handsomely just for keeping GateHouse alive. Then, too, their situation is hardly unique.

Just a few days ago we learned that Joseph Lodovic IV, president of Dean Singleton’s MediaNews chain, was receiving a $500,000 bonus for the bang-up job he did putting together a structured-bankruptcy plan. That may be the way of the world. But such tidbits can be pretty hard to swallow for those who actually cover late-night meetings and give up their weekends to photograph local events.

In other GateHouse news, here is a weird story involving a reporter for the company’s Dodge City Daily Globe, in Kansas, who was fired in the midst of a legal dispute over whether she should testify about her confidential source in a murder case.

I’m going to have to side with management on this one. The reason: Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, tells the Topeka Capital-Journal that the reporter, Claire O’Brien, refused to show up in court to answer the subpoena she’d received.

“What she did was really stick a thumb in the judge’s eye today,” Dalglish is quoted as saying. “Even if you’re not going to answer questions, you still have to go to court.”

Media Nation Rule No. 57: If Lucy Dalglish doesn’t stand up for you on a freedom-of-the-press issue, then you’re wrong.

Tuesday evening update: Dalglish takes a rather different stance on the RCFP Web site, saying she finds O’Brien’s termination “unusual” and “quite disturbing.” An Associated Press account of what happened is worth reading, too.

The well-compensated Kirk Davis

Randy Turner looks at GateHouse Media’s latest filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission and discovers that Kirk Davis, the just-promoted president and chief operating officer, will be extremely well paid.

According to a Form 8-K filed with the SEC last week, Davis is now earning “a base salary of $461,260.80.” He’s eligible for performance bonuses as well, which sounds a little like a baseball team that signs a free agent for $12 million and then includes an incentive clause for making the All-Star team. Why? Shouldn’t the All-Star team be a given for that kind of money? [Note: I should make it clear that I don’t know what Davis was making as head of GateHouse Media New England. It’s possible that this isn’t actually a raise.]

Turner writes that Davis is making more than double what his predecessor earned as GateHouse’s number-two executive, although considerably less than what’s paid to GateHouse chief executive Mike Reed — $925,000 in 2007 and $6.4 million the year before.

Turner, a journalist-turned-schoolteacher, is witheringly sarcastic in observing that the financially ailing GateHouse is paying its top executives so well at a time when it has eliminated contributions to its employees’ 401(k) plans.

I think Davis is fundamentally a good guy, and that GateHouse can only benefit from having him run its day-to-day operations. But this is terrible symbolism.

Kirk Davis’ latest challenge

It looks like GateHouse Media has done something pretty smart: the community newspaper chain has named Kirk Davis (right) as its president and chief operating officer, the number-two position in the company. Davis, who currently runs GateHouse Media New England, will be replaced by his own number-two, Rick Daniels, a former top executive at the Boston Globe.

GateHouse owns some 400 newspapers nationwide, and more than 100 in Eastern Massachusetts. The company is currently involved in a nasty legal dispute with the New York Times Co. over GateHouse’s and the Globe’s competing online strategies.

I’ve interviewed Davis several times over the years, including, most recently, this past fall for a piece I wrote for CommonWealth Magazine. He is smart, passionate and an inveterate optimist.

I’m not sure anyone is up to the task of saving GateHouse — or, for that matter, the newspaper industry in general. But Davis is not someone I’d bet against. (Thanks to Walter Brooks of Cape Cod Today for blasting out the press release.)

Photo of Davis is from a video on the GateHouse New England Web site, which you can see here.