What more can be said about the latest round of Gannett layoffs? This one was telegraphed well in advance, and I wrote about what was coming three times (here, here and here) before the hammer finally came down on Friday.
We don’t know the extent of the damage; The Associated Press reported that the “company declined to provide details about the number of people losing their jobs.” The number 400 has been bandied about, but is that 400 journalists or 400 total employees? In any case, that number has not been verified. We do know that the cuts were broad and deep, from Worcester County, where, according to Grafton Common, the chain’s weekly papers were decimated, to its national flagship, USA Today.
Los Angeles Times reporter Jeong Park has provided one way of looking at what happened. Gannett owns about 250 newspapers and other properties, and, before Friday, it employed about 4,000 reporters, editors and photographers. Our three national papers together also employ about 4,000 journalists — The New York Times (1,700), The Washington Post (1,000) and The Wall Street Journal (1,300). And, unlike Gannett, they’re all growing.
We are now at a point where three biggest newspapers in the country (NYT, WaPo and WSJ) employ more journalists than 250 papers (inc. USA Today) owned by Gannett, which can't be good.
Gannett’s losses in the most recent quarter were so vast that it seems likely management will come back for another bite at the apple in a few months. After all, they’ve been on a rampage in Eastern Massachusetts, closing a number of weeklies in 2021 and 19 earlier this year (the company also merged nine papers into four). They’ve pretty much given up on local coverage, too.
Meanwhile, the company’s top executives pay themselves millions of dollars, and even the part-time board members are getting north of $200,000. And it’s been reported that CEO Michael Reed bought another 500,000 shares of Gannett stock last Tuesday, paying $1.22 million.
This feels like the end game, but it probably isn’t. There are always more papers to close, more people to lay off and more websites to strip of any real journalistic content. My heart goes out to the folks who lost their jobs on Friday. I hope they all land on their feet — and I also hope that many of them will look into the possibility of starting independent news projects in the communities they used to cover. The need and the opportunity are there.
Gannett, the country’s largest local news chain, is in a tailspin. The publisher of some 200 daily papers reported a significant loss in the second quarter — $54 million on revenues of $749 million.
According to Rick Edmonds, who analyzes the media business for Poynter, the company is either down or missing its targets in digital and print advertising as well as print circulation. The sole bright spot: a steady rise in paid digital circulation. Extensive layoffs are on the way. Edmonds quoted a memo from Maribel Perez Wadsworth, head of the media division, in which she said: “In the coming days, we will … be making necessary but painful reductions to staffing, eliminating some open positions and roles that will impact valued colleagues.” It’s hard to see how shrinking an already diminished product is going to help.
Those of us who live in Eastern Massachusetts and environs might wonder where they are going to find any staff members to lay off. Over the past year, the chain has closed many of its community weeklies. Its dailies are still publishing, but with skeleton newsrooms.
The question with Gannett is how many of its problems are simply part of the overall local news crisis and how many are of its own making. Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and the John M. Mutz Chair in Local News at Northwestern’s Medill School, tweeted:
The existential question from this very sobering Gannett earnings report: Is this a bellwether for the entire local news industry, or is it a company issue? The next earnings report from Lee may answer that question. https://t.co/vs4fLRXBHw
As it turned out, Lee did reasonably well, which Chris Krewson, executive director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers noted in a response to Franklin.
I would argue that though the challenges facing community journalism are very real, there are some unique factors at work with the current iteration of Gannett, which lost its way in the cradle back when GateHouse Media was born. GateHouse and Gannett merged a few years ago, but it was essentially a takeover by GateHouse, which has been pillaging its local titles for the past 15 or so years. Gannett’s schemes to overcome the mess in which it finds itself strike me as harebrained. Its plan to pursue sports betting isn’t going well, as Edmonds reports. Then there is its dream of getting into nonfungible tokens (NFTs). Seriously?
Gannett’s flagship is USA Today, which is still a solid paper. If I had to guess, I’d say they’ll leave it pretty much alone so that they can use it as a wire service to fill up their regional and local papers. I mean, even more than they’re already doing.
Sadly, Gannett’s journalists have been on a roll, with reporters at the Indianapolis Star and The Columbus Dispatch breaking the story about a pregnant 10-year-old rape victim — and then confirming it when it was questioned by right-wing propagandists and by Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler. The Austin American-Statesman obtained and published video of the police (non)response to the school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, after editing out the children’s screams. This is outstanding journalism, and soon Gannett will have fewer journalists.
Gannett’s greed and incompetence are going to mean fewer jobs for reporters and less coverage for local communities. It’s an ongoing tragedy, but it does open up possibilities for entrepreneurs who are looking to start new projects.
I’ve been trying to find out how widespread this is, but to no avail. Recently I learned that The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, a Gannett daily and, back in the misty past, one of the best medium-size papers in the country, is going to end home delivery and switch to the postal service instead.
What this means for print customers is unclear. You’d think there’s no way they will receive that day’s paper until the next day, or possibly the day after, although, as you’ll see in the message below, the Ledger is promising same-day mail delivery. Of course, this comes on top of the pending closure of 19 Gannett weeklies in Massachusetts, the end of Saturday print editions at many of the dailies, and numerous other cuts — including at the Ledger itself, which will switch from a print paper to an e-edition on Mondays.
As best as I can tell, the move to the USPS is being rolled out slowly at a few Gannett dailies here and there. It doesn’t seem like an all-at-once sort of thing. For instance, when I plugged some of the language from the Ledger announcement into Google, I discovered that Gannett switched to mail delivery at The Ithaca Journal of New York and The Banner-Press of Brenham, Texas, in December. I’m not coming up with others, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there.
The message to Patriot Ledger subscribers, from a post office box in August, Georgia, was provided to me by a customer who lives in Quincy. It’s hard to see much good in here given that Gannett continues to cut its newsrooms and its coverage. It’s also very bad news for the paper’s loyal newspaper carriers; I reproduce a message from one of them below.
I have to say, though, that there are a few things in here that sound interesting. Ledger subscribers will be able to access any Gannett e-edition in the country, including the flagship USA Today. I might just get a digital subscription to USA Today if it means I can access other Gannett papers. Here’s most of the message:
The Patriot Ledger has been a vital part of the fabric of our community since its inception, bringing readers the reliable, local and passionate journalism you know and expect. While our commitment remains steadfast, we want to inform you of changes to your subscription.
Labor shortages have impacted newspaper deliveries across the country including the area and we want to make sure that your paper delivery is consistent. Beginning May 3, 2022, we will no longer provide home delivery of The Patriot Ledger. Delivery of your newspaper will continue and be provided via the U.S. Postal Service. The last day of home delivery will be May 2, 2022. You can expect delivery of your newspaper at the same time as your daily mail service. There will be no change to your current subscription rate.
Additionally, with more of our readers engaging with our content online, we are announcing a bold step towards our digital future. Beginning May 9, 2022, The Patriot Ledger will transition from delivering the Monday print edition to providing you a full Monday electronic edition (e-Edition), a digital version of our newspaper, available to you early morning. With the exception of Monday, you will continue to receive the print edition via USPS according to your delivery schedule.
As a loyal subscriber, we understand this change will impact you, which is why we are taking every step to ensure you have easy access to the news, sports, events and information you value most.
While a printed newspaper once was the sole means of accessing news and information, we offer many ways to connect with The Patriot Ledger. Your subscription includes unlimited digital access to patriotledger.com, where our team of journalists post updates and breaking news throughout the day, as well as our mobile apps, video, newsletters and the e-Edition….
Your local e-Edition also includes bonus magzines on various topics of interest and the full edition of USA TODAY. For quick tips on how to navigate the e-Edition visit patriotledger.com/eeditiontips.
As we make this transition, we are adding additional benefits to your subscription!
• Ad-free, 24/7 access to our USA TODAY Crossword puzzle! You can enjoy daily games by visiting puzzles.usatoday.com or through the USA TODAY Crossword app available on your iPhone or Android device.
• Universal access to all e-Editions throughout the USA TODAY Network in cities across the country, accessible via your own e-Edition. To access other newspapers, once inside the e-Edition, simply click on the icon titled Universal on the right-side navigation bar….
Thank you for your continued loyalty and support of our community-focused journalism.
So, is Gannett really making this move because of problems with its home-delivery network? Perhaps. But another Ledger customer sent me a message he received recently from a carrier who’s now out of work. Here it is:
Hello; I am writing to inform you that as of May 2, 2022, I will no longer be delivering your Patriot Ledger. The Parent company of the Patriot Ledger is the Gannett Company, they decided in their ultimate wisdom to get rid of all the Patriot Ledger Paper Carriers.
The Gannett Company has decided that they would rather pay more to have their paper delivered by the United States Postal Service. The average pay for a Patriot Ledger carrier is around $1.20 for 6 days papers (that is for all 6 days deliver $1.20). The USPS will be charging far more than this rate.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I was told that I was essential worker, and I delivered the Patriot Ledger throughout Covid every day. And now that things are getting a little better, for some reason that is beyond me, my job has been eliminated. I have enjoyed all your friendships all along the way. I feel fortunate for having the opportunity to meet you all. And hope that I also helped you by delivering your paper on time and where you wanted it.
The Patriot Ledger is also going to a 5-day newspaper, Tuesday Thru Saturday. They are stopping Monday deliveries. Gannett has continued to cut services and they are now saying to their customers you will no longer have your weekday Patriot Ledger at the time you have been receiving it and you will NEVER have your Saturday paper by 8:00am.
Many of the Patriot Ledger Carriers have been with the Patriot Ledger for many years, some for well over 20 years. We had our legally signed contracts with the Gannett Company voided because the contract has always been written in favor of the Company.
I have met the nicest guys that are also doing routes husbands, fathers, grandfathers, and ladies that have delivered the Patriot Ledger longer than most of the men. I have met the nicest customers because of this route too. Have enjoyed your friendships and your many kindnesses and gifts.
I want to say it has been a pleasure delivering your Patriot Ledger, and I will miss the friends I have made over these many years. For a while both our kids were in the Military and they also were deployed to the Middle East at the same time. This very route helped me to keep my mind off everythig too. They are both thankfully home.
Your Patriot Ledger Carrier.
Do you know of other daily newspapers that are dropping home delivery in favor of mailing it out? Please let me know in the comments.
Will digital subscriptions save the newspaper business? They had better. With advertising in a death spiral, publishers have to hope that readers will pick up the slack. Progress has been slow, but it may finally be picking up.
Marc Tracy reports in The New York Times that several newspaper chains, including Lee Enterprises and Gannett, have experienced significant increases in paid digital circulation. The problem is that these increases are spread over many papers, and the situation at any one of them remains dicey.
Even as the local newspaper industry, broadly speaking, has declined, there is still a *lot* of money to be made, and for many papers there is even cause for optimism. I took a look in my final article on the media beat, out today. https://t.co/DApHvltk2l
For instance, Gannett is up 46% over the past year, to 1.5 million paid digital subscriptions — yet it owns about 250 daily papers, including USA Today. Those numbers need to be exponentially greater if Gannett is going to re-establish itself as a lucrative business and actually start adding rather than cutting journalistic resources.
“There’s a big misperception out there that there’s a big hole in local journalism, and I think that narrative’s been created by people who aren’t sitting in local markets,” Gannett chief executive Mike Reed told Tracy. As a longtime reader of Gannett’s (previously GateHouse Media’s) community weeklies, all I’ve got to say is: You’ve got to be kidding.
In order for paid digital to work, you also have to charge enough. To go back to USA Today, I see that the cost is $9.99 a month after the first-year discount expires. That’s not bad, but it’s well behind The Boston Globe’s $30 a month. And the Globe has managed to sell a reported 235,000 digital subscriptions. Of course, the Globe, like most newspapers, offers a huge discount to new subscribers, which means it then has to figure out a way to keep them.
In order to succeed with digital subscriptions, you need good content and good technology. Many of the papers now trying to succeed in the digital space have been cut substantially. And too many newspaper websites are still clunky mish-mashes with pop-ups, pop-unders and other annoyances.
It’s better to grow than to shrink, so in that sense I guess Tracy’s story is good news. But there’s still a long way to go.
The Boston Globe’s strategy of focusing on digital subscriptions is paying off, according to the latest figures from the Alliance for Audited Media. For the six-month period ending on March 31 of this year, the Globe’s paid weekday circulation was 331,482, up 81,201, or 32%, over the same period a year earlier. On Sundays, the Globe’s paid circulation was 387,312, up 73,347, or 23%.
The increase came despite the continued shrinkage of the print edition. Weekday print was 77,679, a decline of 16%. Sunday print is 135,696, down nearly 15%. Paid digital now accounts for nearly 77% of the Globe’s circulation on weekdays and 65% on Sundays — numbers that no doubt had a lot to do with the hunger for local and regional news during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The numbers were not nearly as rosy at the Boston Herald, which has been gutted by its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital. Paid weekday circulation, print and digital, is now 56,791, a decline of 9,686, or more than 14%. Sunday circulation is 58,461, down 14%. Digital is essentially flat, with nearly all of the decrease coming from the Herald’s fading print product. The Herald today sells an average of 22,032 print papers every weekday and 25,892 on Sundays.
The new circulation figures at the Globe and the Herald come amid a massive decline in print circulation nationwide. According to the Press Gazette, a British website that covers the news business, print circulation of the top 25 U.S. dailies fell from 4.2 million to 3.4 million over the past year, a decline of 20%.
Especially harrowing was USA Today, which lost 303,000, or 62%. As we all know, the paper is highly dependent on hotel distribution, which took a massive hit during the pandemic. Gannett recently announced that some of USA Today’s content would move behind a paywall.
Correction: I botched one of the numbers and have updated this post.
It will be interesting to see if it works. USA Today is a perfectly fine paper, but it’s not quite in the class of the Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. Its principal attraction has been that it’s free, making it a quality source of national news that can easily be cited. When I link to a story in USA Today, I do so knowing that my readers will be able to access it.
On the other hand, we know that free news supported entirely by ads doesn’t work for digital newspapers, as Craigslist, Google and Facebook have destroyed the value of online advertising. I can understand why Gannett, USA Today’s corporate owner, decided it was time to get on board. I’m just not sure why someone would choose USA Today over one of the other national papers.
Then, too, USA Today’s traditional distribution routes no longer work, either. I haven’t seen any of the paper’s once-ubiquitous news boxes in years. The paper was also something generally offered free by hotels, but it could be a long time before business travel recovers from the COVID pandemic.
Gannett, as we know, is a debt-addled chain that has been slashing the newsrooms of its 100 or so daily newspapers and 1,000 weeklies, most of which already have paywalls. The USA Today announcement says that the paper has unique value because it can draw on the resources, such as they are, of the USA Today Network. But those of us who read a Gannett community paper know the journalism flows in both directions, with out-of-town news from other Gannett papers filling up space that ought to be devoted to local coverage.
My skepticism aside, I wish USA Today the best. I know that it produces good journalism, and perhaps it appeals to those who don’t like the Times’ snark, the Post’s breathlessness or the Journal’s focus on business coverage. We’ll see whether it works.
It was a move reminiscent of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which allowed federal investigators to spy on the reading habits of library and bookstore customers in the name of fighting terrorism.
Last week we learned that the FBI had subpoenaed USA Today in pursuit of Internet Protocol addresses and other data. The goal was to help the agency figure out the identities of people who had read a story last February about a Florida shootout in which two FBI agents were killed and three were wounded. The subpoena specifically cited a 35-minute time frame on the day that the shootings took place.
Fortunately, USA Today’s corporate owner, Gannett Co., the nation’s largest newspaper chain, took a principled stand and fought the subpoena. On Saturday, the FBI backed down. There’s already little enough privacy on the internet without having to worry about the possibility that government officials will be looking over our shoulders as we’re reading.
We are in the midst of a systematic assault on the media’s role in holding the powerful to account. And it’s long past time for our elected officials to do something about it by passing legislation rather than relying on assurances by President Joe Biden that he’s ending these abuses. After all, Biden’s assurances can be undone by the next president with the flick of a pen. We need something stronger and more stable.
Barely a month ago I wrote about the revelation that the Trump Justice Department had spied on three Washington Post reporters’ phone records. I observed that Trump’s actions were in line with a long string of presidential attacks on the media, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush to Barack Obama.
Since then, the revelations have come at a dizzying pace. In addition to the USA Today subpoena, which strikes me as especially egregious since it targets readers rather than journalists, there have been at least two other noteworthy instances of abuse:
• In late May, CNN reported that the Trump administration had secretly obtained 2017 email and phone records of Barbara Starr, a longtime reporter for the network. The period in question was June 1 to July 31, 2017.
• In a particularly noxious abuse of the government’s power, The New York Times reported several days ago that the Justice Department had subpoenaed Google for the email records of four Times reporters — and that, though the inquiry had begun under former President Donald Trump, it continued under Biden. As recently as March, the Justice Department obtained a gag order prohibiting Google from informing the Times. That order was later amended so that a few top officials at the Times could be told, but not executive editor Dean Baquet.
“It is urgent that we hear from the attorney general about all three Trump-era records seizures, including the purported reasoning behind them and the rationale for not notifying the journalists in advance,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a statement released last week. “The goal must be to ensure that such abuses never occur again.”
Compounding the problem is the widely misunderstood belief that government officials are violating the First Amendment. For instance, on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” this past Sunday, Adam Goldman, one of the four Times reporters targeted in the Google probe, said, “The U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. has a history of trampling on the First Amendment, so that’s why I wasn’t surprised. They treat the media, they treat newspapers like drug gangs.”
In fact, over the past century the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment in such a way that the protections for news gathering are exceedingly weak.
Protections for publication and broadcast are strong, which is why the press has been able to report on secret stolen documents — from the Pentagon Papers to the Snowden files — with few concerns about facing prosecution.
But the court has ruled that journalists have no constitutional right to protect their anonymous sources. And with regard to the current string of spying revelations, the court has held repeatedly that journalists enjoy no special rights that would not be available to ordinary citizens.
President Biden recently pledged to end the practice of seizing reporters’ records, saying the practice is “simply, simply wrong.” Some observers questioned whether he actually meant it, since he’d be breaking not just with Trump’s abuses but with longstanding practice. That, in turn, led press secretary Jen Psaki to assure journalists that Biden planned to follow through on his pledge.
But what a president does, a future president can undo. To guarantee that the press will be able to perform its watchdog role, we need a federal shield law so that reporters won’t be compelled to reveal their confidential sources. Such protections — either by law or by court decision — are already in place in 49 states, with the sole exception being Wyoming.
We also need legislation that prevents the government from secretly spying on journalists’ online activities — and on readers’ activities as well.
No doubt opponents will insist that the government needs to be able to spy in order to keep us safe. But the Post, CNN and Times cases appear to involve the Trump administration’s politically motivated attempts to learn more about the origins of the Russia probe, including the activities of former FBI Director James Comey. The USA Today case did involve a much more serious matter. But after dropping its demands, the FBI told the BBC that “intervening investigative developments” made the information unnecessary.
Which is nearly always the case. Rarely does the government’s desire to interfere with the press’ role involve a situation that’s literally a matter of life or death. And the law can accommodate those rare instances.
In general, though, the government should go about its business without compromising the independence or freedom of the press.
At the same time that Gannett is taking a principled stand by refusing to turn over IP data to the FBI, its executives are also making fools of themselves. I tend to be fairly relaxed about front-page ads on the grounds that the money’s got to come from somewhere. But get a load of this:
This is what was on the front of the paper, with the actual front page inside.
Following the completion of a long-anticipated deal to merge GateHouse Media with Gannett, GateHouse’s top two executives, Mike Reed and Kirk Davis, sent a confidential message to the troops, a copy of which was forwarded to me by a trusted source.
GateHouse and Gannett are the two largest newspaper publishers in the United States. By coming together, they have created a media colossus, albeit one whose decline continues apace. Reed and Davis’ message says in part:
We are incredibly proud of this team’s commitment to high-quality journalism and community leadership; this mission will remain at our core. The Gannett acquisition positions us as the leader in community journalism in the United States. In addition, we believe that together, we are well-positioned to address the profound changes our industry has faced in media consumption habits and advertising spend.
As you can see for yourself, the memo is mainly corporate boilerplate (and I don’t just mean the literal boilerplate on the second and third pages). For me, the main takeaway is that they say nice things about Gannett’s flagship, USA Today, which suggests that GateHouse — clearly the lead player despite being smaller than Gannett — isn’t going to mess around with Al Neuharth’s baby, at least not right away.
By the way, you’ll see a reference in the memo to BridgeTower Media, a name I was not familiar with. It turns out that’s the name for a GateHouse division that publishes B2B titles such as Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.
The newspaper analyst Ken Doctor broke the news of the impending merger over the weekend. Keep an eye on the debt the combined company is taking on. Doctor estimates that it could be as high as $2 billion, which would seem to suggest further cuts ahead regardless of what kinds of cost efficiencies GateHouse-Gannett is able to achieve. As I wrote for WGBHNews.org two months ago, when it first became clear that the two companies would merge:
When a chain takes on debt to keep buying more properties and extracts revenues from its individual papers in order to satisfy shareholders, there is simply less money available for journalism than there would be with independent ownership.
I don’t think this was necessarily a terrible day for local journalism. MNG Enterprises, the hedge fund-owned chain formerly known as Digital First, was kept at bay, and that’s not nothing. But neither was it a good day. Committed local ownership is the key, and this merger moves us that much farther away from it.
It’s hard to imagine worse news for the beleaguered business of local journalism. The Wall Street Journal reported (sub. req.) on Sunday that Digital First Media, the hedge-fund-owned chain notorious for squeezing out the last drop of blood from its newspapers, is trying to buy Gannett. Brian Stelter has posted an update at CNN.com.
Gannett is best known for publishing USA Today — which, though it’s a perfectly fine paper, it’s mainly something to look at when you’re in a hotel. The real story is its vast chain of local newspapers, which are listed here. New England is a nearly Gannett-free zone, with the Burlington Free Press of Vermont being its only holding. By contrast, New Jersey, with eight Gannett local news properties, would be devastated. Digital First owns three papers in Massachusetts: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
According to USA Today, Gannett had not received an offer from Digital First as of Sunday night. But it’s for real, as Jeff Sonderman of the American Press Institute tweeted:
The proposal from Digital First Media to acquire Gannett has been published: https://t.co/E7epJn8YFG DFM's argument to investors could be summarized as "We would cut more costs, maximize cash flow, and kill all digital investments." pic.twitter.com/xrz8kD68IT
Not to praise Gannett too much. Back when the newspaper business was considerably healthier than it is today, media critics like the late Ben Badgikian reported that Gannett insisted on profit margins of 30 percent, 40 percent or more, cutting considerably into their public service mission. In recent years, Gannett has cut the Burlington Free Press to the bone. In “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote about an alternative media ecosystem in Burlington that had grown in response to the decline of the Free Press. It’s only gotten worse at the Free Press since I did my reporting in late 2015.
But Gannett, a publicly traded company, and GateHouse Media, another hedge-fund-owned chain, at least seem to be in the business of trying to chart a path to the future. Digital First and its owner, Alden Global Capital, by contrast, appear to be in what economists refer to as “harvesting” mode, taking the last few dollars out of their shrinking newspapers before shutting them down or selling them off.
I’ve written about Digital First several times. Most recently, I wrote for WGBHNews.org about a report from the University of North Carolina called “The Expanding News Desert,” which was highly critical of Digital First and GateHouse. In 2014, I tracked the history of Digital First in New Haven for The Huffington Post — from bankruptcy to a fascinating experiment under the visionary leadership of John Paton and then back to bottom-line-oriented cost-cutting.
Let’s just hope the Gannett board decides to fight rather than give in.
Update:Ken Doctor writes at the Nieman Journalism Lab that Gannett may try to escape Digital First’s clutches by running into the arms of Tribune Publishing, known until recently as tronc.