Michael Reed tells E&P that everything is coming up Gannett

Photo (cc) 2008 by Patrickneil

You’ve seen plenty of bad news about Gannett here — layoffs, reassigning staff away from local news coverage, closing papers and, more recently, imposing furloughs, pension freezes and buyouts. With more than 200 daily newspapers across the country, what happens at Gannett matters. Its ongoing shrinkage is a significant part of the local news crisis.

So I was interested to see that Gannett chief executive Michael Reed talked — OK, exchanged emails — with Gretchen A. Peck of the trade publication Editor & Publisher. I wanted to see what sort of story he’s telling these days about the path forward for his debt-addled chain, which nevertheless found a way to pay him $7.7 million last year.

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Not surprisingly, it turns out to be a lot of the same old, same old — an emphasis on digital subscriptions despite having little journalism to attract new readers as well as ancillary businesses ranging from events to sports betting. At least he didn’t mention NFTs this time.

One thing I didn’t know was that Gannett’s consumer product website, Reviewed.com, is based in Cambridge, and that it employs more than 100 people, including scientists, product experts, writers and editors. The idea is similar to Wirecutter, founded as an independent site and later acquired by The New York Times. Buy something through Reviewed.com and Gannett gets a cut of the action. Reed told Peck:

If you look across the larger media landscape throughout the last decade, we have seen expansion beyond traditional news into varied product offerings and different types of content. As the traditional revenue streams we largely relied on, such as print advertising and print subscriptions, continue to transition to digital, we are also adapting to new revenue opportunities. These diversifying revenue streams help us to ensure we can support our ongoing news efforts in an increasingly digital world.

Reed added that progress continues to be made in paying down the debt that Gannett took on when it merged with GateHouse Media in 2019. Gannett these days is essentially GateHouse under a different name; Reed himself was the head of GateHouse before the merger.

Despite Reed’s happy talk, the company continues to throw newspapers and staff members overboard. According to Ray Schultz of Publishers Daily, Gannett is selling two papers in New Mexico and has put its Phoenix printing facility on the block for $47.4 million. Urban Milwaukee’s Bruce Murphy reports that six veteran journalists are leaving Gannett’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Local opinion content continues to be slashed as well, writes Mark Pickering in Contrarian Boston.

Essentially Reed is telling the same story he’s always told: Times are tough, and we have to keep cutting. Eventually, though, digital subscriptions and our non-news investments will begin to pay off and support our journalism. It’s just that “eventually” never seems to come. Still, there’s considerable value in reading about Reed’s assessment of how Gannett can pull out of its downward spiral; Peck and E&P deserve credit for getting him on the record.

Meanwhile, in Eastern Massachusetts and across the country, independent news projects are rising up to fill the gap left by Gannett’s retreat. The latest is The Concord Bridge, a digital-and-print nonprofit competing with Gannett’s Concord Journal, ghosted by the shift from local to regional coverage last spring.

You can access a complete list of independent local news outlets in Massachusetts by clicking here.

While Gannett journalists brace for layoffs, those at the top rake in big bucks

Photo (cc) 2008 by Patrickneil

With Gannett targeting its journalists for yet another round of layoffs, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at the people at the top. A reminder: Gannett is an amalgamation of the old Gannett and GateHouse Media, which was notorious for cost-cutting and which dominates the new Gannett.

There’s a wealth of information — and a lot of wealth generally — in the money-losing newspaper chain’s 2022 proxy statement. It begins with Michael E. Reed, the chairman and chief executive officer, who was paid $7,741,052 in 2021. Of that total, Reed received $900,000 in base salary, $6,074,000 in stock awards and $767,052 in “Non-Equity Incentive Plan Compensation.”

Next up is Douglas E. Horne, the chief financial officer and chief accounting officer, whose payout added up to $1,753,698, of which $600,000 was base salary, $581,318 came in the form of stock awards, $562,380 was for that aforementioned incentive plan and $10,000 was in other income.

Also of interest is Gannett’s nine-member board of directors, eight of whom were paid well in excess of $200,000 to provide advice and counsel on a part-time basis. Now, I have no insight into how much work a Gannett director puts in — although, according to Investopedia, the average corporate board member takes part in just a bit under eight meetings per year. In general, though, serving on a corporate board is an exceedingly light lift. The board chair, as previously noted, is Reed. Here are the other eight directors and their compensation. You can find their company-provided bios (except Hegde, who has left the board) in the proxy report, starting at page 14.

  • Kevin M. Sheehan, $285,000 ($160,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards)
  • Vinayak Hegde, $212,500 ($87,500 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards)
  • Theodore P. Janulis, $251,250 ($120,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards; $6,250 in other compensation)
  • John Jeffry Louis III, $235,000 ($100,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards; $10,000 in other compensation)
  • Maria M. Miller, $225,000 ($100,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards)
  • Debra A. Sandler, $245,000 ($120,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards)
  • Laurence Tarica, $255,000 ($120,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards; $10,000 in other compensation)
  • Barbara W. Wall, $235,000 ($100,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards; $10,000 in other compensation)

For the eight board members other than Reed, that’s an average of $242,969. I can’t offer a judgment as to whether that’s excessive, but I can cite a few data points. First, in 2018, USA Today, Gannett’s flagship newspaper, republished a story from 24/7 Wall Street under the provocative headline “25 companies that pay their board of directors a shocking amount.” The lowest of those 25 was Citigroup, which paid its board members an average of $297,407 — more than Gannett, but not massively more. Second, according to Investopedia, the average corporate board member is paid $42,750, although it was much higher than that at larger firms.

You also have to ask what, exactly, Gannett’s executives and board members are being rewarded for. Last week’s bad news was only the latest for a company that seemingly can’t find a way forward. Its stock price closed at $2.36 on Friday, down from a 52-week high of $7.05 last Sept. 17. Yes, we are in the midst of a local news crisis. But Lee Enterprises, another publicly traded newspaper chain, is doing reasonably well, as are independent local news sources across the country, from larger newspapers like The Boston Globe and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis to hundreds of hyperlocal projects. Gannett needs to demonstrate that it can provide communities with the news and information they need, and they’re failing miserably at that.

Meanwhile, the people doing the actual work make peanuts. According to a study in the fall of 2020 by the NewsGuild-CWA, Gannett journalists at 14 unionized daily newspapers were earning a median salary of $52,000, and those with fewer than 10 years of experience were making $43,000 to $44,000. Those at non-union papers are almost certainly making substantially less. And now they are bracing for yet another round of layoffs, while the people presiding over this fiasco are paid hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.

Another round of devastating cuts at GateHouse’s community newspapers

Another day, another round of devastating cuts at GateHouse Media, the national chain that owns more than 100 newspapers in the Greater Boston area. Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal is keeping track, and so far he’s counted “at least six journalists at the Providence Journal, another six at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and several more at the New Bedford Standard-Times and the Herald News in Fall River.” Yesterday afternoon brought this instant classic from Worcester Magazine’s Bill Shaner:

According to Seiffert, stockholders on Thursday rejected a proposed $1.7 million compensation package for GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis. The chain is losing money despite cutting its community newspapers ruthlessly, which suggests that there’s going to be more bad news to come.

Benjamin Goggin, writing at Business Insider, noted that this week’s layoffs follow at least 60 earlier this year. Although it’s not clear how many people have lost their jobs nationally in the latest round, Newspaper Guild official Andrew Pantazi tweeted this morning that he’s compiling a spreadsheet and has counted about 80 so far.

Goggin also talked with Michael Reed, CEO of New Investment Media Group, GateHouse’s parent company, who denied rumors that the cuts could reach 200 — and dismissed this week’s downsizing as no big deal. Goggin wrote:

When Business Insider talked to Mike Reed, CEO of GateHouse’s parent company New Media Investment Group, he downplayed the cuts, calling them “immaterial,” without providing a specific number of cuts but denying the 200 number, calling it “a lie.”

“We have 11,000 employees, a lot to me is 2,000,” he said.

Later, though, Reed semi-confirmed the 200 figure with Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, although he said most of them would remain employed and “are moving from non-reporting to reporting jobs.” So let’s just say the head count is unclear.

Goggin also reported that New Media announced Thursday it will continue its $100 million stock-buyback program for another year. Isn’t that special?

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The news from Las Vegas gets weirder and weirder

Huge, huge news from Las Vegas:

Just over a month before Sheldon Adelson’s family was revealed as the new owner of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, three reporters at the newspaper received an unusual assignment passed down from the newspaper’s corporate management: Drop everything and spend two weeks monitoring all activity of three Clark County judges.

Read the whole thing. And try to wrap your mind around the utter contempt for journalism demonstrated by GateHouse Media chief executive Michael Reed, who has run the newspaper company for years. GateHouse will continue to manage the Review-Journal under Adelson’s ownership.

“I don’t know why you’re trying to create a story where there isn’t one,” Reed is quoted as telling his own employee. “I would be focusing on the positive, not the negative.”

My earlier posts are here and here.

Murdoch sells local papers to GateHouse investor

MA_CCTRupert Murdoch is selling The Middleboro Gazette, the weekly that covers the Southeastern Massachusetts town where I grew up. I’m not sure Murdoch ever knew he owned it in the first place. It’s just something that was thrown in when his News Corporation bought The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones in 2007.

Earlier today, Dow Jones’ chain of local newspapers — formerly the Ottaway group — was acquired by an affiliate of Fortress Investments, the majority owner of GateHouse Media, which will manage the papers. I’m not sure why GateHouse itself isn’t buying the papers, but perhaps we’ll learn more in the days ahead. Jim Romenesko has more.

Dow Jones’ regional properties include some high-quality, well-known dailies such as The Standard-Times of New Bedford, the Cape Cod Times and the Portsmouth Herald of New Hampshire.

Two questions spring to mind:

  • In general, the Ottaway papers have been spared some of the cuts that the financially struggling GateHouse chain has implemented. Will downsizing now commence? Or will the Ottaway papers’ odd status as non-GateHouse papers spare them?
  • What happens to Boston Herald owner Pat Purcell, who’s been running the Ottaway papers for Murdoch since 2008? Will he content himself with running the Herald? Or will Murdoch come up with a new assignment for him?

The deal includes 33 publications, eight of them daily papers. Romenesko reports that financial terms were not disclosed. But given that The Boston Globe recently went for $70 million — not much more than the value of its land — I can’t imagine that a significant amount of money is changing hands.

Update: From Wednesday’s New York Times:

The details of the transaction were not released, but the money involved was evidently relatively small, because if it had been bigger (or, in financial terms, material to the company) News Corporation would have had to disclose more financial information.

Ouch.

Update II: Shows you what I know. Fortress paid $87 million for the Dow Jones papers, which may be a fraction of what they were worth a few years ago, but is more than I had imagined.

According to Tiffany Kary of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, an enormously complicated reorganization is now under way. The long-in-the-making bankruptcy of GateHouse Media is now a reality, and the company will be absorbed into a new company to be created by Fortress called New Media.

Update III: Jon Chesto of the Boston Business Journal has posted a must-read analysis of what’s going on. Talk about failing up. GateHouse is going bankrupt and will become part of something bigger. And it looks like GateHouse chief executive Mike Reed isn’t going anywhere.

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?

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.