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.

Digital circulation is growing, but it needs to be more and faster

Photo (cc) 2005 by rnv123

Will digital subscriptions save the newspaper business? They had better. With advertising in a death spiral, publishers have to hope that readers will pick up the slack. Progress has been slow, but it may finally be picking up.

Marc Tracy reports in The New York Times that several newspaper chains, including Lee Enterprises and Gannett, have experienced significant increases in paid digital circulation. The problem is that these increases are spread over many papers, and the situation at any one of them remains dicey.

For instance, Gannett is up 46% over the past year, to 1.5 million paid digital subscriptions — yet it owns about 250 daily papers, including USA Today. Those numbers need to be exponentially greater if Gannett is going to re-establish itself as a lucrative business and actually start adding rather than cutting journalistic resources.

“There’s a big misperception out there that there’s a big hole in local journalism, and I think that narrative’s been created by people who aren’t sitting in local markets,” Gannett chief executive Mike Reed told Tracy. As a longtime reader of Gannett’s (previously GateHouse Media’s) community weeklies, all I’ve got to say is: You’ve got to be kidding.

In order for paid digital to work, you also have to charge enough. To go back to USA Today, I see that the cost is $9.99 a month after the first-year discount expires. That’s not bad, but it’s well behind The Boston Globe’s $30 a month. And the Globe has managed to sell a reported 235,000 digital subscriptions. Of course, the Globe, like most newspapers, offers a huge discount to new subscribers, which means it then has to figure out a way to keep them.

In order to succeed with digital subscriptions, you need good content and good technology. Many of the papers now trying to succeed in the digital space have been cut substantially. And too many newspaper websites are still clunky mish-mashes with pop-ups, pop-unders and other annoyances.

It’s better to grow than to shrink, so in that sense I guess Tracy’s story is good news. But there’s still a long way to go.

How local news helped Callie Crossley with her research for ‘Eyes on the Prize’

Callie Crossley. Photo via GBH News.

Callie Crossley of GBH News is a multitalented broadcast journalist and producer. She hosts “Under the Radar with Callie Crossley” and shares radio essays each Monday on GBH’s “Morning Edition.” She also hosts “Basic Black,” which covers news events that have an impact on communities of color. Crossley’s work on “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years” won numerous awards.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Ellen and Dan, Crossley shares her views on the thinning out of local news outlets and offers sage advice for next-generation journalists. Callie and Dan were regulars on “Beat the Press,” the award-winning GBH-TV show that featured media commentary, which ended its 22-year run in 2021. In 2019, both of them received the Yankee Quill Award from the New England Society of Newspaper Editors.

In Quick Takes on developments in local news, Dan laments the rise of robot journalism, and Ellen reports on an effort by publisher Lee Enterprises to fight off a takeover bid by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

With Alden on the prowl again, it’s time to stop hedge funds from destroying newspapers

Photo (cc) 2007 by Mike

Previously published at GBH News. It’s rather late in the game to ask whether hedge funds can be stopped from buying up every last one of our local newspapers. After all, about half of us are already stuck with a paper that is owned by, or is in debt to, the likes of Alden Global Capital (Tribune Publishing and MediaNews Group), Apollo Global Management (Gannett) and Chatham Asset Management (McClatchy).

Still, with Alden having now set its sights on Lee Enterprises, a chain that owns 77 daily newspapers in 26 states, we need to take steps aimed at preventing what is already a debacle from devolving into a catastrophe.

So what can be done? Steven Waldman, the co-founder of Report for America, which places young journalists in newsrooms, has some ideas. At the top of his list: redefining antitrust law.

“In general, antitrust law for the past three or four decades has focused on whether mergers would hurt consumers by raising prices or reducing competition,” Waldman wrote recently for the Washington Monthly. “But before that, antitrust regulators looked at mergers more broadly, including whether they would hurt communities. And that’s what needs to happen here.”

Waldman would also provide tax incentives for nonprofit organizations seeking to buy newspapers as well as tax credits to make it easier for news organizations to hire or retain journalists. That latter provision is part of the Build Back Better legislation, whose uncertain fate rests in the hands of Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

“This will strengthen local news organizations of all shapes and sizes, making them less vulnerable to vultures,” Waldman argued. “The legislation could be a powerful antidote to the sickness spreading within local communities.” Trouble is, the tax credits would benefit the Aldens and the Gannetts just as much as they would the independently owned news organizations that are struggling for survival. Still, it seems like a step worth trying.

The problem with hedge funds owning newspapers is that such funds exist solely for the purpose of enriching their investors. Newspapers, of course, aren’t exactly lucrative. But they still have advertising and circulation revenues, even if they are much smaller than they were, say, 20 or 30 years ago. Cut expenses to the bone by laying off reporters and selling real estate, and you can squeeze out profits for the enrichment of the owners.

Alden is notorious for being the most avaricious of the bunch. Which is why shock waves ripped throughout the journalistic community last week when Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute reported that Alden — just months after feasting on Tribune’s nine major-market dailies — was making a bid for Lee, whose papers include the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Buffalo News and the Arizona Daily Star. (Julie Reynolds, an investigative reporter who has been dogging Alden for years, recently spoke about the hedge fund with Ellen Clegg and me as part of our podcast, “What Works: The Future of Local News,” at Northeastern University.)

Lee’s papers also include the Omaha World-Herald, and therein lies a sad story. The World-Herald was at one time the flagship of hometown boy Warren Buffett’s newspaper chain, which he began assembling in 2012. But despite Buffett’s self-proclaimed love for newspapers, he failed to invest in their future, cutting them repeatedly and eventually selling out to Lee. Now they face the possibility of a much worse fate.

Or not. Several days after Alden offered to buy Lee in a deal valued at $141 million, the Lee board of directors adopted a poison pill provison. As reported by Benjamin Mullin in The Wall Street Journal, Alden — which currently holds about 6% of Lee stock — would be forbidden for the next year from increasing its share above 10%. If nothing else, the move provides some time for other buyers to emerge. Perhaps the chain will be broken up, with some of Lee’s papers being acquired by local owners.

As Waldman suggests, there is nothing inevitable about local news being destroyed at the hands of venture capital. About two and a half years ago, I wrote about The Salt Lake Tribune, acquired from Alden by local interests and converted into a nonprofit news organization. Now, according to Lauren Gustus, the Tribune’s executive editor, the paper is adding staff and resources. “We celebrate 150 years this year and we are healthy,” she wrote in a message to readers recently. “We are sustainable in 2021, and we have no plans to return to a previously precarious position.”

Alden’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing (not The Salt Lake Tribune; I realize there are a lot of Tribunes to keep track of here) was an avoidable tragedy, made possible by a board that placed greed above the public interest. Since closing the deal, the hedge fund has been hacking away at Tribune newspapers that were already much diminished, including the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and the Hartford Courant.

Yet some good may come out of it, too: Stewart Bainum, a hotel magnate who had competed with Alden for Tribune, is starting a well-funded nonprofit news site, The Baltimore Banner, that will compete with Tribune’s Baltimore Sun. Maybe that will lead to similar efforts in other Tribune cities.

Meanwhile, Lee Enterprises’ newspapers are safe, at least for now. What will happen a year from now is anybody’s guess. But as long as the vulture can be kept outside the cave, there is hope for the millions of readers who depend on a Lee newspaper to stay informed about what’s happening in their community.

Alden’s latest move may be the final act in Warren Buffett’s newspaper misadventure

Warren Buffett. Photo (cc) 2011 by Fortune Live Media.

The final act is about to be consummated in Warren Buffett’s disappointing dalliance with the newspaper business. Despite the legendary investor’s self-professed love for newspapers, he ran the newspapers he acquired starting in 2012 as a hopeless cause rather than investing in them as his fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos did with The Washington Post and John Henry did with The Boston Globe.

Buffett eventually sold his papers — including his hometown Omaha World-Herald — to Lee Enterprises. And on Monday we learned that the predatory hedge fund Alden Global Capital is now attempting to purchase Lee’s 90 daily newspapers, which are located in 26 states. The death watch has begun.

I wrote about Buffett’s track record as a newspaper owner in my book “The Return of the Moguls.” Here’s an excerpt.

***

When Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment company purchased 63 newspapers from the Media General chain in 2012 for $142 million, the news was greeted with the hope that the legendary octogenarian might be just the person to show the way forward. Buffett bolstered his new holdings by extending loans to those papers totaling $445 million. It was a generous gesture with which Aaron Kushner and his investors, who also wanted the papers, could not compete. A year earlier Buffett had bought his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, along with six other papers for $200 million. He already owned The Buffalo News. And in those pre-Bezos days, he held a substantial number of shares in The Washington Post Co. “Does Warren E. Buffett want to be a media mogul?” asked The New York Times.

Certainly Buffett had the right pedigree. Not only was he a brilliant financial thinker, but he had long loved newspapers and had been a close adviser to the Graham family at The Washington Post for many years. He even had a hand in winning a Pulitzer Prize: in 1973, when he was the owner of the Omaha Sun, he helped his reporters investigate a local charity by finding documents, providing financial analysis, and even assisting with the writing. Katharine Graham praised Buffett fulsomely in her autobiography, saying that he became a trusted confidant after he invested in the Washington Post Co. “By the spring of 1974,” she wrote, “Warren was sending me a constant flow of helpful memos with advice, and occasionally alerting me to problems of which I was unaware.”

Yet Buffett, astute financier that he is, expressed skepticism about prospects for the newspaper business after it entered its long decline. In 2009, for instance, he said he had no interest in purchasing papers, because their financial outlook was so grim. “For most newspapers in the United States, we would not buy them at any price,” he said. “They have the possibility of going to just unending losses.” And though he later reversed himself, his acquisition strategy gravitated toward papers of the type that still do reasonably well: those in medium-sized markets where the local paper is the principal source of regional and community news and where competition from the internet is less a factor than it is in large cities. Buffett’s papers carry little debt and are profitable. In the spring of 2016, though, he admitted that the picture was continuing to darken for the newspaper business and that he was no closer to finding a way out than anyone else.

“We haven’t cracked the code yet,” he told USA Today. “Circulation continues to decline at a significant pace, advertising at an even faster pace. The easy cutting has taken place. There’s no indication that anyone besides the national papers has found a way.” He added that even though all of his papers were making money (at that time he was up to 32 dailies and 47 weeklies), that might not be the case in future years. “If you have a problem in five years, you have a problem now,” he said. Buffett doubled down on those remarks in early 2017, telling CNBC that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and possibly The Washington Post were the only newspapers he believed had an “assured future,” explaining, “They have developed an online presence that people will pay for.”

Less than two months later, the hammer came down at BH Media, the company Buffett had set up to manage his newspapers. BH Media announced the termination of 289 positions throughout the chain, including the elimination of 108 vacant jobs. The BH Media president and chief executive officer, Terry Kroeger, told the Omaha World-Herald that Buffett had been informed of the reductions but that “his opinion was not sought or offered,” in keeping with Buffett’s hands-off investment philosophy. Kroeger blamed the papers’ declining revenue on changes in retail advertising, and especially on the move to online shopping — an irony given how the most successful of the new breed of newspaper owners, Jeff Bezos, made his money. Buffett’s World-Herald did not suffer any cuts at that time. But then, in May, BH Media reduced the size of the Omaha paper and eliminated three jobs, according to a memo to the staff from the executive editor, Melissa Matczak.

For a self-confessed newspaper fan whose net worth was roughly the same as that of Bezos (more than $60 billion apiece in mid-2016), Buffett’s role in helping to figure out the future of journalism might be considered disappointingly modest. Perhaps it would be too much to expect someone in his mid-80s to dedicate himself to figuring out the future of the newspapers he had acquired. But he was ideally positioned to bring in the sorts of minds who might apply themselves to the task of saving smaller papers in much the same way that Bezos and Henry were attempting to reinvent their much larger properties. Surely Buffett understands as much as anyone that readers and advertisers will put up with an ever-diminishing paper for only so long before an irreversible downward spiral sets in.

Become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month!