Staying optimistic about local news amid the damage wrought by corporate chains

Providence, R.I. Photo (cc) 2017 by Kenneth C. Zirkel.

My research work on the local news crisis often feels like a race against time. On the one hand, I try to highlight independent community journalism projects that are keeping their heads above water or, in a few cases, are actually thriving. On the other hand, chain owners like Alden Global Capital and Gannett keep hollowing out the hundreds of newspapers they own across the country, not because they’re not making money but because they want to make more.

Last week came the odd news that Gannett is seeking to sell The Providence Journal’s printing plant for $8 million, as well as several other plants that it owns across the country. The story was broken by Alexa Gagosz of The Boston Globe, a former student of mine. What struck me as odd is that the Journal isn’t outsourcing its printing; rather, it intends to lease the plant back for a period of five or 10 years.

No doubt Gannett executives are thinking ahead to the day when the Journal goes all-digital. But the sell-and-leaseback provision seems hard to explain, especially for a paltry amount like $8 million. That doesn’t put a dent in the massive debt that Gannett is struggling with.

Also last week, The Atlantic published an essay about The Hawk Eye, of Burlington, Iowa, the oldest paper in the state, which was acquired several years by GateHouse Media — the predecessor to Gannett — and is now being dismantled. Written by Elaine Godfrey and photographed by KC McGinnis, it is a lovely piece, haunting and elegiac, conjuring a lost way of life as much as a newspaper that’s been hollowed out. But Godfrey has a keen sense of Gannett’s business model as well. This gets right to the heart of it:

Readers noticed the paper’s sloppiness first — how there seemed to be twice as many typos as before, and how sometimes the articles would end mid-sentence instead of continuing after the jump. The newspaper’s remaining reporters are overworked; there are local stories they’d like to tell but don’t have the bandwidth to cover. The Hawk Eye’s current staff is facing the impossible task of keeping a historic newspaper alive while its owner is attempting to squeeze it dry.

None of this was inevitable: At the time of the sale to GateHouse, The Hawk Eye wasn’t struggling financially. Far from it. In the years leading up to the sale, the paper was seeing profit margins ranging from the mid-teens to the high 20s. Gannett has dedicated much of its revenue to servicing and paying off loans associated with the merger, rather than reinvesting in local journalism. Which is to say that southeastern Iowans are losing their community paper not because it was a failing business, but because a massive media-holding company has investors to please and debts to pay.

So what’s lost? Consider the experience of Tom Courtney, a former state senator, who lost his re-election bid after he discovered that his constituents, lacking any reliable local news, were judging him on the basis of national stories instead:

In the absence of local coverage, all news becomes national news: Instead of reading about local policy decisions, people read about the blacklisting of Dr. Seuss books. Instead of learning about their own local candidates, they consume angry takes about Marjorie Taylor Greene. Tom Courtney, a Democrat and four-term former state senator from Burlington, made more than 10,000 phone calls to voters during his 2020 run for office. In those calls, he heard something he never had before: “People that live in small-town rural Iowa [said] they wouldn’t vote for me or any Democrat because I’m in the same party as AOC,” Courtney told me. “Where did they get that? Not local news!”

Also last week, the trade magazine Editor & Publisher ran a story about Gannett papers that have actually been bought back by local owners. Written by Gretchen A. Peck, the story looks in on four people who’ve acquired former Gannett papers and are now reinvesting in news and in their communities.

Still, it hardly looks like a trend. Peck spoke with newspaper broker Sara April, who said Gannett is selling just a few papers here and there. “All the markets are typically smaller. Look at the size of the towns. That has been the charge: To find quality local companies, with high regard for journalism, to take ownership of these newspapers so they can continue to serve their communities,” April was quoted as saying. No doubt the papers don’t fit with Gannett’s current strategy, which seems to be filling up its papers and websites with regional news so it doesn’t have to put too much into local coverage.

The good news — and there’s always good news — is that local independent journalism is thriving in many parts of the country. The bad news is that the corporate chains and the hedge funds continue to strangle news organizations that would otherwise be doing much better.

An earlier version of this post was part of last week’s Media Nation Member Newsletter. To become a member for just $5 a week, please click here.

The Globe adds a R.I. podcast; the union pleads its case in a full-page ad

A couple of yin and yang notes about The Boston Globe this morning.

First, the paper has expanded its Rhode Island coverage by adding a podcast, “Rhode Island Report.” The guest for the debut is former Gov. Gina Raimondo, now the U.S. secretary of commerce.

It’s good to see the Globe doubling down on Rhode Island, which has really been underserved by Gannett’s Providence Journal. But I’ve been noticing more and more Rhode Island coverage making its way into the Globe’s print edition. I thought the idea was to leverage digital. If this continues, I hope there will be some consideration given to replating so that there are separate print editions for Greater Boston and Rhode Island.

I also hope John and Linda Henry are giving some consideration to expanding in Worcester, which is a virtual news desert these days. You may recall that employees at the city’s daily, the Telegram & Gazette, said John Henry promised to sell it to local interests or keep the paper after he acquired it from the New York Times Co. as part of the Globe deal. Instead, he sold it to a Florida chain, and it eventually was passed off to GateHouse Media, now Gannett. (When I asked Henry about it several years ago, he told me he believed he had only promised not to sell to GateHouse.)

Second, the Greater Boston Labor Council, the Greater Boston Building Trades Union and the Communication Workers of America have purchased a full-page ad in today’s Globe in support of the Boston Newspaper Guild’s long quest for a new contract. You can see the ad here.

The FT offers a close-up look at how Alden is destroying the Hartford Courant

The state capitol in Hartford, Connecticut. Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.

Not too many years ago, New England was home to a number of medium-size and smaller daily newspapers that did an excellent job of covering their communities. There are a dozen or so that come to mind. But among the largest and the best were The Providence Journal and the Hartford Courant.

The Journal, as we all know, has been decimated by its corporate-chain owner, Gannett, the successor to GateHouse Media. The Hartford Courant, which bills itself as the oldest continuously published paper in the country, has been battered for years under the ownership of a chain now known as Tribune Publishing. The Courant’s printing has been outsourced, and the newsroom was shuttered recently as well. There is no indication that reporters and editors will have a place to work other than their homes even after the COVID pandemic is behind us.

As I’ve written several times recently, the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, whose MediaNews Group is widely regarded as the worst newspaper owner in operation, controls 32% of Tribune — and is seeking a majority share.

The Financial Times recently published a lengthy article on the plight of local news focused on the Courant. There is nothing new in the story — we hear about the widespread closure of community newspapers, the rise of hedge-fund ownership and other familiar themes. Nevertheless, it’s a strong overview for anyone who’s unfamiliar with the tale of what happened to a key part of democratic life.

There are also a few points that deserve to be emphasized. At a time when profits in local news are elusive at best, Alden is living high:

The cost cutting is certainly working. MediaNews Group achieved about 20-25 per cent operating margins in 2019, according to people familiar with the matter, more than double that of peers such as Gannett or even The New York Times. In 2020, although the pandemic shattered advertising and MNG’s revenues fell by 20 per cent, the company was still on track to make a profit.

The Courant itself is doing well from a bottom-line perspective as well, earning a profit of $2 million a year, according to the FT’s reporting.

What this shows is that there is still an inflow of cash into even the most moribund newspapers. Readers buy them despite their ever-decreasing value. Businesses advertise in them. If you’re willing to gut the newspapers you own to keep expenses well below income, and to keep cutting as income continues to fall, well, yes, you can earn a profit. At some point, needless to say, you’ll reach the point at which you can no longer cut. And that’s when you shut your doors. (Oops. Bad analogy. They already have.)

Heath Freeman and other officials at Alden rarely speak for the record. When Freeman cooperated with a Washington Post reporter last year, it, uh, did not go well. So I was interested to see that the FT did manage to get a comment out of a company spokesperson named Chrissy Carvalho. It was a classic:

It’s a lot easier to make snippy anonymous comments than actually undertake the difficult task of making sure news organisations across America are able to serve their communities during a prolonged period of declining revenues.

As the FT notes, there are efforts to try to get Tribune to sell the Courant to local interests. But that’s going to be hard to do given the paper’s continued profitability. The tragedy is that the crisis afflicting local news is only partly related to external factors such as technology, the decline of advertising and the rise of Google and Facebook. Corporate greed is at least as responsible.

Previous coverage:

The Globe partners with ProPublica and public radio in its push into Rhode Island

The Boston Globe’s Rhode Island vertical today features an investigative report from ProPublica and The Public’s Radio (formerly Rhode Island Public Radio) on “whether failures in Rhode Island’s 911 system are costing lives.” ProPublica stories are licensed under Creative Commons, which means that anyone can republish them for free as long as they give credit. (It’s a little more complicated than that, but not much.)

But if you go to the ProPublica version of the story, you’ll see a note that it was “co-published” with the Globe, which suggests some sort of exclusive arrangement — or at least a head’s-up. (The Public’s Radio version is here.) I asked Globe editor Brian McGrory to explain. His emailed answer:

We’ve got a good relationship with ProPublica. Its editors were kind enough to see if we had interest in co-publishing this story, an important look at a flawed system. We were delighted to do it. and it’s getting significant readership. We’ll keep looking for other opportunities to collaborate in Rhode Island, adding to the work of the three excellent reporters that we have on the ground.

Smart move by the Globe, as it was an easy way to get access to an important investigative story as well as to give a boost to its Rhode Island initiative. There is nothing to stop The Providence Journal or other news organizations from publishing the story, but it doesn’t seem likely given that the Globe, ProPublica and The Public’s Radio have already run it.

I also asked McGrory if he could say what region the Globe might target next as part of what looks very much like an effort to expand its digital footprint in various underserved parts of New England. Not surprisingly, he demurred — and, of course, it’s possible that no decisions have been made.

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The Globe’s URL for its Rhode Island vertical offers some intriguing hints

Is taxonomy destiny? Less than two weeks after GateHouse Media’s Providence Journal laid off a reported six journalists, The Boston Globe has unveiled a new online vertical for its expanded Rhode Island coverage. And the URL is intriguing. Rather than going with bostonglobe.com/metro/rhode-island, the address is bostonglobe.com/metro/new-england/rhode-island (emphasis added).

The Globe’s move into Rhode Island has prompted speculation that other regions might be targeted as well. And, as it turns out, there is a New England vertical on the site, although it doesn’t seem to be listed anywhere. You have to type it in. Who knew?

The great irony would be if the Globe made a move into Worcester, where GateHouse just laid off about six journalists at the daily Telegram & Gazette and the weekly Worcester Magazine. In 2014 then-new Globe owner John Henry sold the T&G to a Florida chain after reportedly assuring staff members that he would keep the paper if he couldn’t find a local buyer. Henry later told me he only remembered promising that he wouldn’t sell to GateHouse — which, of course, ended up with the paper anyway.

In any case, it seems that the Globe has built a system that would easily accommodate future expansion.

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The Globe gets ready to sail its Arc into Rhode Island

Big changes are coming for Boston Globe digital subscribers, not to mention staff members. Over the next few weeks, visitors to BostonGlobe.com will be driven to Arc, the paper’s new content-management system, according to an email to the staff from senior product manager Eric Westby. The email was passed along by a trusted source who asked to remain anonymous.

The Globe is licensing Arc from The Washington Post, where the CMS was developed.  As a Globe subscriber, I’m hoping for a consistent user experience across all platforms, web, tablet and phone, as is the case with washingtonpost.com and its “classic” (black) apps. The Globe unveiled an Arc-based mobile app last fall, but it remains underdeveloped. Among other things, you still can’t swipe horizontally through articles on the iOS version. (I’m told that you can if you’re an Android user.)

The final steps toward adopting Arc come at the same time that the Globe is making a digital push into Rhode Island, hiring three veteran reporters (so far) at a time when The Providence Journal is being decimated by GateHouse Media, its corporate chain owner. Improved digital platforms should help with that push — but only if the Globe really commits to getting Arc right.

The full text of Westby’s email follows.

Dear Colleagues,

A quick update on the upcoming Arc CMS launch. We’re happy to report that our Arc beta test has been a success, and we’ll be ending the test and moving BostonGlobe.com visitors to an Arc-driven site beginning April 22. Our plan is to transition the bulk of our traffic from Méthode to Arc gradually over the course of that week. Visitors will be randomly assigned to the Arc group in stages, with all traffic driven to Arc by Friday, April 26. Two things to note:

    • The plan is for the redesigned Globe.com homepage and the sports section front to follow one week later, in order to mitigate any potential workflow or technical issues at launch. Our current plan is to move these two critical pages from Méthode to Arc on or about May 1.
    • With this launch, we will have effectively moved BostonGlobe.com to a sleeker, more modern, and more flexible design, one that’s built for our future and run with the best system in its class. You’ll still notice an odd page here and there in the old site layout: Today’s Paper, Crosswords, Author pages, etc. We will be transitioning these pages one at a time in the weeks ahead, both to account for variables with the coding and to ensure our readers don’t lose any functionality during this important transition.

Articles will continue to be written and edited in Méthode for now, with the move to Ellipsis (Arc’s article authoring tool) soon to follow. This rollout will be a phased approach that will require training and careful planning. You’ll be receiving more information on the Ellipsis rollout soon.

There will no doubt be bugs to squash, but this launch will mark a major milestone in our Arc rollout.

All the best,

Eric Westby
Senior Product Manager, BostonGlobe.com

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Digital First to move Herald printing to GateHouse’s Providence Journal

When printing the Herald was not a problem. 1881 photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A key part of The Boston Globe’s strategy to reposition itself as a sustainable business has been to establish its printing operation as a regional hub for a variety of publications, including The New York Times and USA Today. That strategy has come under question since last summer, when its new Taunton printing plant got off to an exceedingly rocky start.

Now the Globe has suffered a significant blow, as Digital First Media, the incoming owner of the Boston Herald, will take the tabloid’s printing business to the Providence Journal, owned by GateHouse Media — ironically, one of the losers in the recent bidding to buy the Herald out of bankruptcy. Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal has the details.

The Globe’s business relationship with the Herald has been strained last September, when then-Herald owner Pat Purcell published a hotly worded statement in his paper blaming the Globe for the Herald’s printing woes. “We talk with the Globe on a regular basis but unfortunately the remedies they put forth to solve the production problems have failed miserably,” the Herald said at that time.

Although the Globe’s printing woes have by most accounts eased considerably (even if they have not been entirely solved), Digital First clearly wasn’t going to stick around. The Providence facility is well-regarded, and it was widely believed that GateHouse would move the Herald’s printing there if it won the bidding. Ironically, GateHouse will end up making money from the Herald even though its bid fell short. In a statement to the BBJ, Globe president Vinay Mehra said:

At present, we are unable to offer a competitive bid for that business. What this move affords us is the opportunity to continue to bring our production costs and efficiencies in line, take advantage of added capabilities for The Globe product, and deliver to our readers the best quality news product in the market.

I’m hearing reports from inside the Herald that the switch will require deadlines so early that evening sports stories may not make the print edition. Mehra, meanwhile, sounds like he’s just as happy to be rid of the Herald — something that would surely not be the case if everything was running smoothly.

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GateHouse agrees to settle class-action suit over charges for ‘premium’ publications

Notice posted on GateHouse websites.

GateHouse Media, which owns more than 100 daily and weekly community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts, has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit brought over the company’s practice of charging for “premium” publications that subscribers hadn’t asked for. The legal documents in the case are posted here.

The money was extracted by shortening the length of customers’ subscriptions. Most prominent among those premium publications was Lens, an advertising vehicle published several times a year that was delivered along with GateHouse papers. Lens carried a cover price of $3.95, though subscribers to the papers were assessed $2. A year ago I wrote about the Lens ploy here and here.

GateHouse, according to the proposed settlement, “denies any wrongdoing on its part” but agreed to the settlement based on “the risks and potential cost of the litigation” and “the benefits of the proposed Settlement.” Kirk Davis, GateHouse’s chief executive officer, declined to comment.

Under the agreement, subscribers may receive a refund or have their subscriptions extended if the proposed settlement is approved in Superior Court. According to court documents, the settlement is scheduled to be finalized on Aug. 1. The lawsuit, brought on behalf of two GateHouse newspaper subscribers by Kurtzman Carson Consultants, claimed that GateHouse violated Massachusetts law by failing to disclose its subscription policies adequately.

Although GateHouse, based in Pittsford, New York, has agreed to stop labeling Lens as a premium publication for which subscribers must pay extra, it would continue that practice with other publications, which would cost about $2 in the form of shortened subscriptions. GateHouse would also continue to charge a $4.95 “activation fee” for new subscribers. Disclosure would be clearer and more prominent than it had been previously.

If you visit many GateHouse papers online right now,* you’ll see a “Legal Notice” linking to the settlement documents, which include instructions on how to file a claim. The not-very-helpful text of the notice: “To learn more about the proposed class action settlement in the Steven Keenholtz, M.D., et al. v. GateHouse Media, LLC, et al. action, pleaes click here.” Keenholtz, of Marblehead, and Dorothy Guillicksen, of Hanover, are the plaintiffs named in the class-action suit.

Let’s be clear: This is a very, very small matter. From the time I learned about it, I was astounded that GateHouse would go to the trouble of hitting subscribers with an “activation” fee and charging them for publications they hadn’t asked for and didn’t want. Why not just raise the subscription price?

Meanwhile, David Harris recently reported in the Boston Business Journal that GateHouse was laying off 49 people at its Framingham facility as it consolidated print operations. And Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio writes that GateHouse continues to hack away at The Providence Journal, and that layoffs may be coming.

*Update: I have learned that the proposed settlement pertains to most but not all GateHouse Media papers in Eastern Massachusetts. The settlement is restricted to papers that carried Lens, and are concentrated in Greater Boston.

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Drip, drip, drip: The third person’s name is leaking out

Who is the Rhode Island person being questioned by authorities in the alleged terrorist plot that ended in the shooting death of a Boston man on Tuesday? So far, at least, most of the local media aren’t saying. But already a Rhode Island television station has breached the wall of silence, so you can be sure we’ll all know soon enough.

According to The Associated Press and numerous other news reports, police confronted Usaama Rahim on Tuesday as Rahim was preparing to carry out a plot to behead a police officer. Rahim was killed by police after he reportedly refused to drop a military-style knife. Rahim, a relative named David Wright and the Rhode Island man met recently on a beach in that state, according to news accounts.

On Wednesday’s 10 p.m. news on WBZ-TV (the Channel 38 version), we were told that the station would not identify the man unless he is charged with a crime. The Boston Globe takes the same stance this morning: “The Globe is not naming the third person Rahim and Wright allegedly met with because he has not been charged. But after Rahim’s shooting, officials searched his Warwick, R.I., home on Aspinet Drive.”

The Boston Herald refers to the man only as “a third unidentified person.” WFXT-TV (Channel 25) informs us, “His name was being withheld by authorities.”

The Providence Journal takes us one step closer, publishing not just the street he lives on but his exact address. The Journal also quotes a neighbor who calls the person of interest “a nice young man” who has cerebral palsy, walks with a limp and works at a gas station.

Using a reverse address directory, I found the name of a man whose age bracket (18-24) made him seem likely. So I Googled his name and discovered that, in fact, WJAR-TV (Channel 10) of Providence had already identified him as the person of interest. The story includes this: “At one point, according to a neighbor, he was the area paperboy. Within the last few years, though, neighbors claim he changed his appearance. He grew a long beard, wore robes, and prayed often outside.”

A search for the man’s name on Google News suggests that WJAR is the only news organization so far that has identified the man, though I can’t be sure. I will not identify him, nor will I link to the WJAR story.

The question is whether this is ethical journalism. I say it’s not, and it’s clear that other news organizations saw no problem with holding back on naming him in these early, confusing days of the investigation. What you gain by being first with his name is minuscule; what you lose if he turns out to be uninvolved could be considerable depending on the circumstances.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

Three tales of woe from GateHouseLand

Steve DeCosta (via Twitter)
Steve DeCosta (via Twitter)

The nice thing about missing out on bad news from GateHouse Media* is that you only have to wait a few days for fresh material. Thus we learn today that The Standard-Times of New Bedford is getting rid of three newsroom jobs. Here’s the internal email from editor Beth Perdue:

Colleagues,

Today we eliminated three editorial positions in an effort to align our staffing levels to expected revenues in 2015 and levels at similar sized media companies.

These are always tough decisions and my heart goes out to those who departed. Their loss will be felt by all of us.

Please know that these changes represent the full extent of planned reductions in the newsroom.  While changes like this are very difficult, we can now focus fully on pursuing a variety of opportunities that will help us move forward.

— Beth

I hear that among those departing is veteran reporter Steve DeCosta, a respected figure in the newsroom since  the late 1970s. I also understand that Simón Rios is leaving the paper for WBUR Radio (90.9 FM). The cuts, I’m told, will shrink the reporting staff to five, compared to nine just two years ago. (I’m asking for details on the third job that’s been eliminated and will update if I hear anything.)

You may recall that Perdue’s predecessor as editor, Bob Unger, resigned in December rather than implement GateHouse-ordered cuts. Boston Globe reporter (and GateHouse alumnus) Jon Chesto wrote at the time that Unger was “hoping his sacrifice will save two or three lower-paying jobs.” If you scroll to the bottom of Chesto’s story, you’ll see what I told him: Don’t count on it.

• T&G reporter quits over shrinking pay. In a departure that has gotten national buzz, Thomas Caywood, an investigative reporter for the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, quit after management refused to give him a 3 percent raise — which, he said, would have offset only a fraction of the reduction in income he’s been subjected to over the years. Here is part of what Caywood wrote to T&G publisher James Normandin:

For your background, I have been a reporter at the Telegram & Gazette since September 2007, during which time I have had one small pay raise. The cumulative impact of inflation over the last seven years of my employment has been to reduce the value of my annual earnings by nearly 14 percent. My vacation allotment was reduced from three weeks a year to two weeks by Halifax Media Group. Meanwhile, our benefits cost more and cover less than before the Halifax acquisition….

All I require is a 3 percent raise and restoration of my previous three-weeks-a-year vacation allotment. The meager raise would barely be noticeable to my finances, but it’s vital to me that I see some tangible evidence of this commitment to quality journalism of which you and GateHouse speak.

Caywood told Jim Romenesko: “I didn’t leave the Telegram & Gazette with any hard feelings and my departure was not intended as some kind of provocative ‘fuck you’ gesture…. But I just couldn’t avoid any longer the unwelcome truth that I valued the job more highly than the company valued me.”

If you’re having a hard time following the bouncing chains, Globe owner John Henry sold the T&G to Halifax Media Group of Florida in 2014. Halifax turned around a few months later and sold out in its entirety to GateHouse, which is based in suburban Rochester, New York. Here is the analysis I wrote for WGBHNews.org in November.

• Cape Cod Times to close printing plant. The Cape Cod Times and its affiliated weeklies will shut down their printing press in Hyannis and move production to the Providence Journal.

This move, at least, makes sense, and has been anticipated from the time that GateHouse acquired the Journal last summer. But “an undisclosed number of jobs” will be eliminated, writes Times reporter Bryan Lantz. And here’s more from Jon Chesto.

*For the sake of simplicity, I am referring to the corporate owner of all these papers as GateHouse Media. The chain’s acquisition branch is known as New Media Investment Group.

Update. I’m now hearing that DeCosta and two other newsroom people were let go at The Standard-Times — not counting Rios, who’ll begin his new job at WBUR soon.