Should Report for America send journalists to chain-owned newspapers?

How much support do newspapers owned by cost-cutting corporate chains deserve? It’s a dilemma. On the one hand, the people who live in communities served by those papers need reliable news and information. On the other hand, subsidizing them with money and resources could be considered a reward for bad behavior.

Last week Report for America, or RFA, announced that it would send 225 journalists to news organizations in 46 states and Puerto Rico during 2020-’21. With local news in crisis even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a welcome piece of good news. Most of the organizations that will host these young journalists are either independent or part of small chains, and they include a sizable number of public broadcasters, nonprofit start-ups, the Associated Press and the like. Locally, The Bay State Banner will be getting a reporter.

But in looking over the list, I also noticed a substantial number of newspapers that are part of corporate chains. By my count, 15 papers are part of McClatchy, which recently declared bankruptcy after staggering under unsupportable debt for many years. Twelve are part of Gannett, recently merged with GateHouse Media; both chains are notorious for slashing their newsrooms, and not just since COVID-19 reared its head. One reporter is even going to Cleveland.com, the website of The Plain Dealer and the scene of a recent union-busting effort on the part of Advance Publications.

As I said, it’s a dilemma. If you attempt to punish chain owners for squeezing out revenues at the expense of newsroom jobs, you wind up hurting communities.

I contacted Report for America co-founders Steven Waldman, who serves as RFA’s president, and Charles Sennott, who’s the chief executive officer and editor of The GroundTruth Project, of which RFA is a part. Their answers have been lightly edited. First Waldman:

My general answer is: Yes, half of our placements are in nonprofit, and others are in locally owned commercial entities. But we do indeed have some placements in newspapers that are owned by chains. Our primary standard is: Will this help the community? So we have on occasion accepted applications from newspapers with the problems you mentioned if we were convinced that they would use the reporter to better serve their readers. If we can be a positive force in helping those newspapers tip more in the direction of great journalism, we view that as a real positive step…. [Ellipses Waldman’s.] In effect, we’re creating hybrid nonprofit/for-profit models that provide even better local journalismBy the way, we have always had newspapers like that in the program, as part of the mix. That’s not new.

Now Sennott:

One of the stronger papers in our original Report for America class of 2018 was the Lexington Herald-Leader, a McClatchy paper in Kentucky. They pitched us on reopening the Pikeville Bureau in the heart of coal country in Eastern Kentucky, a bureau they had been forced to close 10 years earlier. They felt they were not serving well the community there. We placed RFA corps member Will Wright there and he became one of our true stars, breaking a story on a water crisis in which tens of thousands of residents did not have access to clean drinking water. His reporting turned a spotlight on this issue and helped the community force the county officials to repair the work and restore the access to clean drinking water. I went to Pikeville to work alongside Will Wright on this story and saw his incredible impact in that community with my own eyes. That is what we care about, serving the communities in these under-covered corners of America. And that’s why we have always been proud of our work with the Lexington Herald and why we did not rule out McClatchy as a place for us to look for RFA host newsroom partnerships, even if it is a chain that is going through hard economic times.

We did an enterprise project with Will Wright and two other reporters in rural Appalachia. Here is a link to the project, which was also featured on GroundTruth, as home of RFA:

https://thegroundtruthproject.org/projects/stirring-the-waters/

Also, we got news today of a full-page ad was taken out by Republicans and Democrats thanking McClatchy for its service to Kentucky.

And adding a poetic new chapter to the story, Will Wright has been accepted by The New York Times for its very competitive fellowship. And no, we are not leaving them high and dry. In this new class, we will have three journalists (two reporters and one photographer) at the Lexington Herald.

Sending an RFA journalist to a Gannett paper isn’t going to lead directly to a layoff. More public-accountability coverage is in everyone’s interests. And the chains, unfortunately, have a monopoly in many parts of the country, so it’s not like RFA could send someone to another news organization in that community.

Overall, I think RFA is doing the right thing — even if it makes me a bit queasy.

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GateHouse to partner with Google News on digital subscriptions

GateHouse Media will partner with Google News on a digital-subscriptions project, according to this internal email from GateHouse chief executive Kirk Davis, forwarded to me by a trusted source just a few minutes ago. The news follows Tuesday’s announcement that Google News will partner with the McClatchy chain.

The GateHouse experiment will take place at The Columbus Dispatch, followed by “a broad roll-out of our Digital Subscription Lab learnings across the GateHouse network.” GateHouse, as you know, owns more than 100 newspapers in Greater Boston and beyond, including the Providence Journal and the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester.

Certainly I would rather that Google put its efforts (and its money) into helping independent local news projects. But Google wants content, and the corporate chains are in the best position to give them that. Davis’ full email follows.

To: All GateHouse Media employees
From: Kirk Davis, CEO, GateHouse Media
Re: Google News Initiative Digital Subscriptions Lab
Date: March 27, 2019

Developing a sustainable digital subscription model to showcase the amazing work being done by our journalists across the United States is essential to preserving the vitality and viability of our local journalism. Which is why I’m thrilled to announce that GateHouse has been selected, as one of eight publishers, to participate in the Digital Subscriptions Lab, a partnership between the Google News Initiative, the Local Media Association and FTI Consulting.

This intensive six-month program will address every step of the digital subscription process from discovery to conversion to retention. Participants will receive dedicated 1:1 support from each of the three partners, as they leverage their respective capabilities in research, product, technology and analytics. Several in-person meetings over the course of the program will enable participating publishers to share strategies, insights and best practices.

We have selected The Columbus Dispatch to be the focus for our engagement; with 13,000 digital subs, The Dispatch is among our largest, paid digital subscription products. We anticipate a broad roll-out of our Digital Subscription Lab learnings across the GateHouse network. Our participation in this elite program is exciting; it reflects our very strong commitment to the future of community journalism!

Kirk

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Good jobs at good wages

Context is everything. Yesterday, I wrote about the compensation packages of GateHouse Media’s top two officials, chief executive Michael Reed and the just-promoted president and chief operating officer, Kirk Davis.

What I wrote was accurate, but I failed to consider what top executives might be making at other newspaper companies. As it turns out, there’s nothing special about Reed’s salary ($925,000 in 2007) or Davis’ (about $461,000). Reed’s 2006 compensation, $6.4 million, included a lot of stock, the value of which has presumably all but disappeared.

With 2007 revenues of $589 million, GateHouse is on the smaller end of the publicly traded newspaper companies I looked at this morning. But its challenges are as great or greater than those of much larger companies — it’s staggering under a debt load of $1.2 billion, and its stock price has fallen so much that it was delisted this fall by the New York Stock Exchange.

Anyway, here’s a quick cruise around a few other newspaper companies and what they paid their top managers in 2007, ranked by 2007 revenues.

Gannett Co. ($7.4 billion)

  • Craig Dubow, chairman, president and chief executive officer: salary, $1.2 million; total compensation, $7,546,710
  • Gracia Martore, chief financial officer, executive vice president: salary, $700,000; total compensation, $3,026,985
  • Susan Clark-Johnson, chairwoman of U.S. community publishing: salary, $735,000; total compensation, $3,145,339
  • Not-so-fun fact: Employees have been told to take a one-week unpaid furlough during the first quarter of 2009
  • Financials from WSJ.com

New York Times Co. ($3.2 billion)

  • Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman: salary, $1,087,000; total compensation, $3,439,280
  • Janet Robinson, chief executive officer: salary, $1 million; total compensation, $4,142,410
  • Michael Golden, vice chairman: salary, $1 million; total compensation, $1,706,579
  • James Follo, chief financial officer and senior vice president: salary, $480,000; total compensation, $859,273
  • Not-so-fun fact: A recent, widely disputed essay in the Atlantic speculates that the flagshap New York Times could cease publishing as early as this May
  • Financials from WSJ.com

McClatchy Co. ($2.3 billion)

  • Gary Pruitt, chairman and CEO: salary, $1.1 million; total compensation, $4,635,355
  • Patrick Talamantes, chief financial officer and vice president for finance: salary, $500,000; total compensation, $938,970
  • Three vice presidents of operations are paid salaries in the range of $500,000 to $600,000; total compensation is around $1.1 million apiece
  • Not-so-fun fact: The debt-burdened chain is trying to sell the Miami Herald, but can’t find any takers
  • Financials from WSJ.com

Journal Register Co. ($463 million)

  • James Hall, chairman and chief executive officer: salary, $394,750; total compensation, 411,233
  • Scott Wright, president and chief operating officer: salary, $201,923; total compensation, $231,040
  • Julie Beck, executive vice president and chief financial officer: salary, $337,500; total compensation, $431,510
  • Robert Jelenic, former chairman and chief executive officer: salary, $945,396; total compensation, $6,318,394 (Jelenic died last month)
  • Not-so-fun fact: The deeply troubled company is closing some of its papers and selling off others
  • Financials from the company’s 2008 proxy statement (PDF)

What’s the takeaway? Top executives at newspaper companies, like top executives everywhere, make a lot of money. We tend not to notice when times are good. But with the newspaper business under siege, such lavish compensation packages seem out of sync, both symbolically and substantively.

On the other hand, if any of these well-paid folks can find a way out of the current morass, they will be worth every cent.