Back before GateHouse Media morphed into Gannett in 2019 and assumed its corporate identity, I believed the company was in it for the long haul. Don’t get me wrong — GateHouse was always obsessed with cost-cutting and was a fairly awful steward of the papers it acquired. But its executives seemed to have convinced themselves that ugly was the only way to win, and that winning meant surviving.
No longer. I couldn’t possibly tell you what Gannett is up to anymore other than squeezing its properties for every last drop of revenue. On Thursday, the company released its latest financial results. They were terrible for journalists and the communities they serve. For investors, though, they were pretty good.
Don Seiffert reports in the Boston Business Journal that Gannett slashed the number of journalists at its 200 or so newspapers (including the flagship USA Today) by 20% over the past year — no surprise to those of us who were following those cuts throughout the year. Seiffert paged through the annual report and found that Gannett employed 3,900 journalists at the end of 2022 (3,300 in the U.S. and 600 at a U.K.-based subsidiary), down from 4,846 a year earlier. At the same time, though, the company had achieved profitability, which sent the stock price soaring by 22%
Incredibly, some of those investors think Gannett has been too slow to cut. For instance, Seiffert said on Mastodon that, during Thursday’s earnings call, Leon Cooperman, CEO of the hedge fund Omega Advisors, which is among Gannett’s larger investors, told Gannett chair Michael Reed, the $7.7 million man: “I think it’s fair to say you couldn’t understand the impact of Covid and the recession on the company. Having said that, I think it’s a fair criticism to say we have been too slow in reducing costs.” As Seiffert noted: “This, despite the company reducing total headcount by more than half since 2019.”
So what’s ahead? You will not be surprised to learn that CFO Doug Horne told investors that Gannett’s going big-time into artificial intelligence to perform some of the work that used to be done by journalists. Just feed the audio from the planning board meeting into ChatGPT and see what happens, I suppose.
Over at Poynter Online, Angela Fu reports that Reed is wicked psyched about 2023, writing:
Reed said the company is entering 2023 with “a lot of optimism.” Inflation seems to have peaked, he said, and newsprint and distribution costs have largely stabilized. In response to a shareholder question about a possible recession, Reed said the company had not seen anything in the first quarter to indicate the country was moving in that direction.
Unless it proves otherwise, though, Gannett should be regarded as nothing but a financial play at this point. The best thing it could do is offload its community papers to local owners who actually care about journalism, as it has done with a few weeklies Central Massachusetts as well as the Inquirer and Mirror of Nantucket, which I wrote about recently in an op-ed piece for The Boston Globe. Gannett has sold some of its papers nationally as well.
In many other cases, vibrant startups from The Provincetown Independent to several projects in the Boston suburbs are competing with vestigial Gannett papers, but more are needed. As Steven Waldman, president of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, has proposed, we need tax incentives aimed at persuading Gannett and other chains to get out of town — and to give committed local ownership a chance to revive grassroots news coverage.
By now it is widely understood that local news is in crisis. The United States has lost a fourth of its newspapers since 2005, and the loss has led to such ills as lower voter turnout in local elections, more political corruption, and the rise of ideologically driven “pink slime” websites that are designed to look like legitimate sources of community journalism.
On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen and I talk with Anne Larner, a civic leader in Newton, Massachusetts, a city of nearly 90,000 people on the border of Boston. Anne is on the board of directors of The Newton Beacon, an independent nonprofit news outlet covering Newton.
Anne has a long track record of civic engagement in Newton and in Massachusetts. She moved to Newton in 1973 and has served on the School Committee, the Newton League of Women Voters, and has been a PTO president, among many roles. She also served 15 years at the MBTA Advisory Board, a public watchdog agency.
Newton is a microcosm of what’s happening in local news all over the country. Years ago, Newton had four local newspapers: The Newton Times, the Graphic, the Tribune and the Tab. But Gannett shut down a number of Massachusetts newspapers last year, including the print weekly, the Newton Tab. The Gannett digital site, Wicked Local, is still up and running. But content is regional.
Ellen has a Quick Take on MLK50, the award-winning Memphis newsroom that focuses on poverty, power and justice. They’ve received two major philanthropic grants that allow them to build for the future. And speaking of MLK50, executive editor Adrienne Johnson Martin was here at Northeastern ahead of Martin Luther King Day to give a talk on their work in Memphis. We’ll feature some interviews from that by our colleague Dakotah Kennedy.
I’ve got news about the Rebuild Local News Coalition, a new nonprofit organization that’s advocating for solutions to the local news crisis. But wait. It’s not new. And the solutions that it’s proposing aren’t new, either. We talked with the co-founder of the coalition, Steven Waldman, last summer, and our conversation is worth a listen if you missed it earler. Still, this is good news, which I explain.
Well … OK. Except that the organization has been around for a few years. Way back in July 2021 I quoted Steven Waldman and noted that he was the co-founder of the coalition. Its main policy goals — tax credits aimed at boosting subscriptions and advertising as well as giving publishers incentives to hire and retain journalists — are also nothing new. That’s the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, or LJSA, a federal bill that kicked around for several years before dying at the end of the last Congress. With the House now controlled by press-hating right-wing Republicans, we are not likely to see it resurrected anytime soon.
But if the coalition wants to relaunch and call new attention to its work, so be it. According to this announcement, Waldman is taking a more prominent position — he’ll now be the full-time president, and he’s cutting back on his work at Report for America, which he also cofounded. The coalition has also reorganized as an independent nonprofit.
Ellen Clegg and I talked with Waldman about the Rebuild Local News Coalition and the LJSA on the “What Works” podcast in mid-2022. You can listen to it here, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
The $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill that’s making its way through Congress reportedly contains nothing to ease the local news crisis. An emailed news bulletin from the trade publication Editor & Publisher, citing unnamed sources, reported this morning that both the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) and the Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSA) have been excluded from the bill.
For those of you who don’t follow these issues obsessively, let me unpack this a bit.
The JCPA would allow an antitrust exemption for news organizations so that they could bargain collectively with Google and Facebook for a share of their advertising revenues. You often hear news executives complain that the giant platforms are republishing their content without paying for it. That is a serious distortion. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that Google and Facebook, which control about half the digital advertising market, benefit significantly from linking to and sharing news.
The LJSA would create three tax credits that would benefit local news organizations. The first would allow consumers to write off the cost of subscriptions. The second would provide a tax benefit to businesses for buying ads. The third would grant tax write-offs to publishers for hiring and retaining journalists. That last provision was included in President Biden’s Bill Back Better bill, which Senate Republicans, joined by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, killed last year.
The demise of the JCPA is not entirely bad news. I thought it might be worth giving it a try to see what the two sides might come up with. Still, there was a lot of merit to the argument made by critics like Chris Krewson, executive director of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, that most of the revenues would be diverted to large legacy newspaper publishers — including those owned by corporate chain owners and hedge funds — rather than to community-based start-ups.
The LJSA, on the other hand, was more intriguing, even though it would also benefit legacy newspapers. For one thing, the tax credits could provide a real lifeline to small local news projects. For another, the third provision, for publishers, would reward the large chain owners only for good behavior — Gannett and Alden Global Capital could not tap into that credit if they keep laying off journalists.
I’m guessing that this is the end of the road for both proposals given that the Republicans will take over the House in the next few weeks. That’s not entirely a bad thing. As Ellen Clegg and I have found in our research at “What Works,” local news organizations across the country, from for-profit legacy newspapers to nonprofit digital start-ups, are finding innovative ways to continue serving their communities.
The economic challenges facing news organizations is real, but in many cases they can be managed with innovative thinking and committed local ownership.
A bill that could force Google and Facebook to fork over billions of dollars to local news outlets has lurched back to life. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, or JCPA, would allow publishers to negotiate as a bloc with the two giant tech platforms, something that would normally be prohibited because of antitrust concerns. The proposal would exclude the largest publishers and, as Rick Edmonds notes at Poynter Online, would lead to binding arbitration if the two sides can’t reach an agreement.
The legislation’s cosponsors in the Senate are Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Kennedy, R-La.; the House cosponsors are David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Ken Buck, R-Colo. That bipartisan support means the bill might actually be enacted. But is it a good idea?
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The premise on which the legislation is built is that Google and Facebook should pay fair compensation for repurposing the news content that they use. This strikes me as being much more straightforward with Google than with Facebook. Google’s mission is to index all the world’s knowledge, including journalism; Facebook is a social network, many of whose users post links to news stories. Facebook isn’t nearly as dependent on journalism as Google is and, in fact, has down-ranked it on several occasions over the years.
Google’s responsibility isn’t entirely clear, either. Yes, it links to news stories and publishes brief snippets. But it’s not a zero-sum situation — there’s no reason to believe that Google is depriving news publishers of traffic. It’s more likely that Google is pushing users to news sites and, with the rise of paywalls, may even be boosting subscriptions for local news outlets. Still, you could make a philosophical argument that Google ought to pay something because it benefits from having access to journalism, regardless of whether that deprives news outlets of any revenues.
A similar law in Australia has brought in $140 million, Edmonds reports. But critics have complained that the law’s main effect has been to further enrich Rupert Murdoch, still the leading press baron in his native country.
The JCPA should not be confused with the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, or LJSA, which would provide three tax credits for local news outlets — one for subscribers, who would get to write off news subscriptions on their taxes; one for advertisers; and one for publishers for hiring and retaining journalists. As Steve Waldman, chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, recently told us on the “What Works” podcast, this last provision is especially powerful because it would provide an incentive to do the right thing even at bottom-feeding chains owned by Alden Global Capital and Gannett.
Despite bipartisan support, the LJSA ran aground last year when President Biden split off the publishers’ credit and added it to the doomed Build Back Better bill. Perhaps it will be revived.
Is either measure needed in order to revive local news? What Ellen Clegg and I have found in the course of reporting for our book-in-progress, also called “What Works,” is that many independent local and regional news organizations across the country, nonprofit and for-profit alike, are doing reasonably well without government assistance. Since both the JCPA and the LJSA would be time-limited, maybe it’s worth giving them a try to see what the effects will ultimately be. But neither one of them will save local news — nor is it clear that local news needs saving once you remove the dead hand of corporate chain ownership.
On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Steve Waldman, the president and co-founder of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered communities. Steve came up with the concept in 2014 and joined forces with The Ground Truth Project to launch RFA in 2017.
In the projects we’re reporting on for this podcast and for our book, “What Works: The Future of Local News,” we’ve run across a number of RFA corps members. They usually have a couple of years of experience but are relatively new to the business, although there are a few near retirement age, too.
Steve has a deep background in magazine journalism. He was national editor of U.S. News & World Report and a national correspondent for Newsweek. He went on to co-found a multifaith religion website, Beliefnet.com, which won a National Magazine Award. He is also founder and coordinator of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, and he’s crafted some interesting proposals for how government can help revitalize local journalism while preserving editorial independence.
I’ve got a Quick Take on the happy conclusion to a bizarre situation involving a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Last fall, Josh Renaud reported that a flaw in a database maintained by the state of Missouri allowed for public access to thousands of Social Security numbers. Incredibly, the state’s governor, Mike Parson, denounced Renaud as a “hacker” and a criminal investigation was begun. It was absolutely outrageous, and now Renaud has been recognized with a national freedom-of-the-press award.
And Ellen takes it all back about Ogden Newspapers, which purchased The Aspen Times late last year but has supressed coverage and prompted a number of staff resignations.
Original item: You can never take anything for granted. Until recently, though, it seemed like a reasonably good bet that Congress would pass the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would provide tax credits for subscribers, publishers and advertisers for five years. The idea was to bolster the bottom line of community newspapers, radio stations and television outlets while giving them some time to figure out a path to financial sustainability.
Last week, though, the House dropped the $1 billion measure from its version of the reconciliation bill. So now it’s up to the Senate to restore it to the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better legislation, meaning that the fate of local journalism rests in the unsteady hands of Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
Rick Edmonds of Poynter, who has all the details, wrote that the bill now “faces a giant hurdle” — and that was on Tuesday, before the election returns from Virginia panicked the already-jumpy Democrats. You’d like to think that the Republican resurgence would focus the Democrats’ minds on the need to get something done, but it will probably have the opposite effect. And with Manchin and Sinema, who knows?
I’m what you might call a skeptical supporter of the legislation. Although the assistance would be indirect enough not to threaten journalistic integrity, I’m troubled by the prospect of corporate chain owners lining up at the trough. Ideally, federal help should foster independent local news organizations while letting the very owners who helped create this mess figure things out for themselves.
Still, it’s worth giving it a try on a temporary basis. As Steven Waldman, chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, puts it, “The cost is miniscule compared to the rest of the Build Back Better package — less than 0.1% of its total. But this provision is the only thing in the bill that would help save democracy.”
The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby devoted his Sunday column to laying out his case against the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which is aimed at easing the community news crisis through a series of federal tax credits. Jacoby’s opposition was no surprise, but I think it’s worth taking a look at his two major objections. One of them ought to be taken seriously; the other is grounded solely in his own boutique political philosophy.
The act would become law if it is included in the final reconciliation bill now being considered by Congress, assuming that Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will allow it be dragged at long last across the finish line. Here is a good overview of the bill by Steve Waldman, a founder of the Rebuild Local News Coalition. It would provide three tax credits for a five-year period, giving local news organizations some runway as they figure out how to transition to the confounding economic realities of the digital era:
News consumers would be able to write off $250 a year that they spend on subscriptions or on donations to nonprofit news organizations.
News organizations would receive tax benefits for hiring or retaining journalists.
Local small businesses would receive tax credits for advertising in local newspapers and news websites and on television and radio stations.
Jacoby’s argument is that tax credits amount to government subsidies, and even though these would be indirect, they could still be wielded by government officials to reward their friends and punish their enemies. “Government subsidies, almost by definition, are antithetical to the spirit of an independent press and the First Amendment,” Jacoby writes. “A newspaper that takes money from the government is apt to pull its punches when it covers that government — especially if it grows addicted to tax breaks that will have to be renewed every few years.”
There’s no question that could be a problem. The optimistic view is that the tax subsidies will end after five years, so there’s not much incentive for news organizations to soft-pedal their coverage. But I can easily envision a lobbying effort to extend those tax breaks, and then you end up in exactly the situation that Jacoby warns against.
There’s also the possibility that news organizations, especially those owned by corporate chains and hedge funds, will not use the five years wisely by making the kinds of investments that might move them toward financial sustainability, like customer-focused digital products, seamless payment systems and newsrooms robust enough to be produce journalism that people will be willing to pay for. (All steps, by the way, that Jacoby’s employer has taken to good effect.) Instead, they’ll just pocket the savings and ask for more. These are real concerns.
Here Jacoby has identified what many of us would regard as the flaw in his argument, because the tax credits envisioned in the Local Journalism Sustainability Act are not materially different from those granted to nonprofit news organizations in general. From PBS to nonprofit hyperlocal websites, nonprofit status enables donations to be tax-deductible and enables the news organizations themselves to avoid paying taxes.
Jacoby appears to be taking a more extreme position now than he has in the past. In his current column, he writes that he opposes tax credits for public broadcasting, which seems to go a step beyond his previous position: In 2011 he called for an end to direct government payments to public broadcasting, arguing that the system would do fine without such payments. There is nothing in that column to suggest he opposes the indirect government benefits that public media receive as a consequence of their nonprofit status.
As I’ve written before, I think it’s worth taking a chance on the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Although there are some hazards, a few of which Jacoby has identified, overall it strikes me as a worthwhile response to the decline of community journalism.
Can government help solve the local news crisis? The notion sounds absurd, even dangerous. You get what you pay for, and if government officials are funneling money to media outlets, then it’s not unreasonable to expect that they’ll demand sticky-sweet favorable coverage in return.
Yet the situation is so dire that once-unthinkable ideas need to be on the table. Since 2004, some 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving about 1,800 communities across the country bereft of coverage. About 30,000 newsroom jobs disappeared between 2008 and 2020. The consequences range from the potential for increased corruption to a decline in voter turnout for local elections.
Now federal legislation long in the making may finally be ready to move ahead. Believe it or not, the bill is bipartisan. It also manages to avoid the entangling alliances that would endanger journalistic independence. That’s because the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, introduced in the Senate last week and in the House a month earlier, relies on tax credits rather than direct government assistance.
“This clever, bipartisan bill would provide more help for local news than any time in about a century, yet it’s done in a very First-Amendment-friendly way,” writes Steven Waldman, the co-founder of the Rebuild Local News Coalition as well as the co-founder and president of Report for America. (Disclosure: Report for America, which places young reporters at news organizations around the country, is part of the GroundTruth Project, affiliated with GBH in Boston.)
So how would the bill work? Essentially, it would provide three tax credits that would expire after five years, giving media outlets some runway to move toward long-term sustainability. I am oversimplying, but here is the rough outline:
• News consumers would be able to write off $250 a year that they spend on subscriptions or on donations to nonprofit news organizations.
• News organizations would receive tax benefits for hiring or retaining journalists.
• Local small businesses would receive tax credits for advertising in local newspapers and news websites and on television and radio stations.
The benefits would be restricted to small news organizations, defined as those with 750 employees or fewer in the House bill or fewer than 1,000 in the Senate bill.
At a time when Congress seems incapable of doing anything, some version of the bill appears to stand a good chance of passing. After all, elected officials, regardless of party or ideology, like to be covered by the hometown press, and the bill would help ensure that there will continue to bea press. As of Tuesday, there were 32 co-sponsors in the House — 25 Democrats and 7 Republicans. Because the Senate version was just introduced, the only co-sponsors so far are the three Democrats who introduced it — Maria Cantwell of Washington state, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Kelly of Arizona.
Among the all-Democratic Massachusetts delegation, Sen. Ed Markey will support the bill and has asked to be a co-sponsor, says Markey spokeswoman Giselle Barry. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is studying the legislation and has not yet stated a position, according to Warren spokeswoman Nora Keefe. On the House side, Reps. Jim McGovern and Seth Moulton are co-sponsors, and Mary Rose Tarpey, a spokeswoman for Rep. Stephen Lynch, says that Lynch will also be a co-sponsor, as he was during the previous session.
Government assistance for news is not new. During the early days of the republic, postal subsidies were the foundation upon which the distribution system for newspapers and magazines was built. Today, nonprofit news organizations ranging from hyperlocal websites to public broadcasters benefit from tax incentives that allow their donors to write off the money they give and that exempts the media outlets themselves from having to pay taxes.
Given the catastrophic state in which journalism finds itself, some activists and scholars are calling for more direct funding of news. For instance, Victor Pickard, a scholar at Penn’s Annenberg School, advocates much higher government spending on public media. Longtime media reformer Robert McChesney has talked about giving as much as $35 billion over five years to elected citizens councils that would fund local news and underwrite startups.
But there are dangers in such approaches. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the Republican-dominated legislature cut off $750,000 to the state’s seven public radio and television stations after one of them, WITF Radio of Harrisburg, began calling out any elected official who continued to challenge the validity of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch, while conceding there was no evidence of a direct cause-and-effect over what was admittedly a small amount of funding, wrote in his weekly newsletter that the action “shows the enormous peril of government dollars for journalism, even as a partial solution. In an era when a growing number of elected officials are waging war on the truth, from election results to coronavirus vaccines, would journalists be forced to choose between an important story or their survival?”
By contrast, the federal bill under consideration avoids those problems by putting as much distance as possible between elected officials and the aid that news organizations would receive.
My one reservation about the bill is that chain-owned newspapers would benefit along with independent projects. That said, the Rebuild Local News Coalition, whose members represent more than 3,000 newsrooms, includes some of the most public-spirited organizations that are working on these problems, such as LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, the Lenfest Institute and the Solutions Journalism Network.
Perhaps the problem of chain ownership could be addressed, as Waldman proposes, by giving tax breaks to the likes of Gannett and Alden Global Capital if they sell their papers to local nonprofits and public benefit corporations. I would also suggest tax penalties if they decline to do so. Corporate ownership is killing local news just as surely as technological change and the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, and we need to get the publicly traded corporations and hedge funds out.
At a time when political and cultural polarization at the national level is tearing us apart, local news can help encourage the kind of civic engagement we need to rebuild community. But that can’t happen if the newspaper has gone out of business or is on life support, and if nothing else has come along to take its place.
Fundamentally, what’s at issue is that the advertising model that paid for journalism until recent years has collapsed. Publishers need to find a way forward, whether through reader revenue, nonprofit funding, paid events or even starting a bar and wedding venue next to the newsroom, as The Big Bend Sentinel in West Texas did.
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act will help sustain local news while we search for a workable model that doesn’t rely on advertising. After 15 years of declining revenues and dying newspapers, it may be our last chance to get it right.