Gannett’s Mass. weeklies to replace much of their local news with regional coverage

A slidedeck explaining the new regional beats for Gannett’s local reporters. Click here or on image to view the deck in its entirety.

Gannett is poised to take a major step back from its coverage of Massachusetts communities as it prepares to replace local news in its weekly papers with regional stories about topics such as public safety, education, racial justice and the environment.

This post is based on communications I had with several sources who insisted on anonymity as well as internal documents that were provided to me. There are a number of details I don’t know. For instance: Is this part of a nationwide initiative? Will the dailies be affected? Will there be any coverage of such important matters as city council, select board and school committee meetings? How will local elections be handled?

Also, I hear that several — perhaps three — Massachusetts weeklies will not be affected by the move, including the Cambridge Chronicle. I don’t know which of the other papers will be left more or less alone.

Emails to Gannett corporate headquarters in McLean, Virginia, and to Gannett New England went unanswered. The company is the largest newspaper chain in the U.S., with more than 100 dailies and around 1,000 other media properties.

The Massachusetts papers are known collectively as Wicked Local. The changes will take effect within the next week or two. According to a message to employees from Len LaCara, content strategy analyst at Gannett’s USA Today Network, the change is being made in an attempt to bolster paid digital circulation and offset shrinking print readership. According to a screen shot of his message that was sent to me, he wrote:

There is ample evidence that people will not subscribe to read a lot of the content currently being produced for the newspapers. We see this in the low subscription numbers and the lack of traffic to the stories. But we have seen in community after community that the topics Lisa outlines for you are valued by your potential audience. [This is a reference to Lisa Strattan, vice president of news for Gannett New England.] They can and do generate loyal digital readers who will return to your site and renew their subscriptions.

Well, I want to know what’s going on at City Hall, and if my local Gannett weekly isn’t going to tell me, I’m stuck. In our community we have a Gannett weekly with a capable full-time reporter, who is apparently going to be reassigned to cover regional news. Other than that, we have Patch, Facebook and Nextdoor. Big opportunity for Patch, but I can’t imagine they’re going to staff up.

I’m told that Gannett journalists have been asked to apply for new regional jobs covering their preferred beats. Click on the slidedeck above for more details. Although Gannett has closed a number of weekly papers over the past year and has gone through round after round of job cuts, I hear that no one is losing their jobs as a result of this reorganization.

As for the appeal of regional news — isn’t that why we have The Boston Globe, public radio and television, and TV newscasts? I want local news from my local paper. I understand that circulation at Gannett’s weeklies is shrinking, but I think it’s more likely because there isn’t enough local news rather than too much. This does not strike me as a smart move, to say the least.

Update: I’m hearing that a few of the weekly reporters will be assigned to Gannett’s dailies rather than to one of the new regional beats.

GateHouse New England shrinks, prepares for reorg

Photo (cc) 2012 by Dyana. Some rights reserved.
Photo (cc) 2012 by Dyana. Some rights reserved.

Update: I have been told that the new term for “reporter” will be “multimedia journalist.” That’s a perfectly respectable title, so I withdraw the anticipatory snark you’ll find below.

GateHouse Media New England, which owns more than 100 daily and weekly newspapers in Greater Boston and its environs, is shedding about 40 positions through buyouts and layoffs, according to Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal.

The full picture is not entirely clear. Seiffert reports that the buyout was offered to GateHouse’s non-union employees. But Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio recently wrote that employees at GateHouse”s Providence Journal, a union paper, were also offered a buyout.

GateHouse, headquartered in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, owns more than 600 newspapers and other media properties nationwide. Its New England holdings include many dozens of community weeklies, as well as high-profile dailies such as the Journal, the Quincy Patriot Ledger, the MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and the Cape Cod Times.

GateHouse papers have shrunk so much that concerns have been raised over whether they are going to have to pursue a fundamentally different way of doing things that would involve covering less and less community news. Further cuts could also give rise to more independent local news projects in GateHouse communities, such as the Bedford Citizen and the Worcester Sun, which I wrote about for the Nieman Journal Lab last fall. (Disclosure: I was recently asked to serve as an unpaid adviser to the Sun.)

One thing is for sure: The turmoil hasn’t ended. On Tuesday, Lisa Strattan, who is in charge of GateHouse Media New England’s recently redesigned Wicked Local websites, announced a relaunch that will be unveiled around mid-September. In a memo I obtained, she wrote:

We plan to reorganize into several teams, some serving the whole of Wicked Local and some focused along already established unit lines, to better leverage talent across our entire footprint.

Our centralized teams include a Print Production team, a Special Sections team, a Photo team and a Digital Specialists team. During a later phase of our reorg, we hope to organize our Sports personnel into a Wicked Local Sports team. Our West, Central, North and South units will also divide journalists into teams within each unit, covering given geographic areas.

She added: “Accompanying our reorg will be new job titles (and descriptions!) that better describe the role of a multimedia journalist or editor in 2016. For instance, reporters use a burgeoning bag of tools to create multi-layered multimedia stories. Although ‘reporter’ is tried and true, it’s important to signal our dramatic shift in newsgathering, both to our internal and external audiences.” Let me say that I cannot wait to see what new title GateHouse comes up with for “reporter.” (You can read the full memo here.)

Given that Strattan specifically includes print under her bailiwick, it sounds to me like the papers may be moving away from their traditional community-by-community orientation, with journalists assigned to stories within regions as needed. If that’s what she intends, then I’d be shocked if it doesn’t translate into less local coverage.

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