Gannett’s Mass. weeklies to replace much of their local news with regional coverage

A slidedeck explaining the new regional beats for Gannett’s local reporters. Click here or on image to view the deck in its entirety.

Gannett is poised to take a major step back from its coverage of Massachusetts communities as it prepares to replace local news in its weekly papers with regional stories about topics such as public safety, education, racial justice and the environment.

This post is based on communications I had with several sources who insisted on anonymity as well as internal documents that were provided to me. There are a number of details I don’t know. For instance: Is this part of a nationwide initiative? Will the dailies be affected? Will there be any coverage of such important matters as city council, select board and school committee meetings? How will local elections be handled?

Also, I hear that several — perhaps three — Massachusetts weeklies will not be affected by the move, including the Cambridge Chronicle. I don’t know which of the other papers will be left more or less alone.

Emails to Gannett corporate headquarters in McLean, Virginia, and to Gannett New England went unanswered. The company is the largest newspaper chain in the U.S., with more than 100 dailies and around 1,000 other media properties.

The Massachusetts papers are known collectively as Wicked Local. The changes will take effect within the next week or two. According to a message to employees from Len LaCara, content strategy analyst at Gannett’s USA Today Network, the change is being made in an attempt to bolster paid digital circulation and offset shrinking print readership. According to a screen shot of his message that was sent to me, he wrote:

There is ample evidence that people will not subscribe to read a lot of the content currently being produced for the newspapers. We see this in the low subscription numbers and the lack of traffic to the stories. But we have seen in community after community that the topics Lisa outlines for you are valued by your potential audience. [This is a reference to Lisa Strattan, vice president of news for Gannett New England.] They can and do generate loyal digital readers who will return to your site and renew their subscriptions.

Well, I want to know what’s going on at City Hall, and if my local Gannett weekly isn’t going to tell me, I’m stuck. In our community we have a Gannett weekly with a capable full-time reporter, who is apparently going to be reassigned to cover regional news. Other than that, we have Patch, Facebook and Nextdoor. Big opportunity for Patch, but I can’t imagine they’re going to staff up.

I’m told that Gannett journalists have been asked to apply for new regional jobs covering their preferred beats. Click on the slidedeck above for more details. Although Gannett has closed a number of weekly papers over the past year and has gone through round after round of job cuts, I hear that no one is losing their jobs as a result of this reorganization.

As for the appeal of regional news — isn’t that why we have The Boston Globe, public radio and television, and TV newscasts? I want local news from my local paper. I understand that circulation at Gannett’s weeklies is shrinking, but I think it’s more likely because there isn’t enough local news rather than too much. This does not strike me as a smart move, to say the least.

Update: I’m hearing that a few of the weekly reporters will be assigned to Gannett’s dailies rather than to one of the new regional beats.

There’s no reason to think that a Nextdoor-like service would have saved local news

Every so often, media observers berate the newspaper business for letting upstarts encroach on their turf rather than innovating themselves.

Weirdly enough, I’ve heard a number of people over the years assert that newspapers should have unveiled a free classified-ad service in order to forestall the rise of Craigslist — as if giving away classified ads was going to help pay for journalism. As of 2019, Craigslist employed a reported 50 full-time people worldwide. The Boston Globe and its related media properties, Stat News and Boston.com employ about 300 full-time journalists. As they say, do the math.

Sometimes you hear the same thing about Facebook, which is different enough from journalism that you might as well say that newspapers should have moved into the food-services industry. Don Graham’s legendary decision to let Mark Zuckerberg walk away from an agreed-upon investment in Facebook changed the course of newspaper history — the Graham family could have kept The Washington Post rather than having to sell to Jeff Bezos. As a bonus, someone with a conscience would have sat on Facebook’s board, although it’s hard to know whether that would have mattered. But journalism and social media are fundamentally different businesses, so it’s not as though there was any sort of natural fit.

More recently, I’ve heard the same thing about Nextdoor, a community-oriented social network that has emerged as the news source of record for reporting lost cats and suspicious-looking people in your neighborhood. I like our Nextdoor and visit it regularly. But when it comes to discussion of local news, I find it less useful than a few of our Facebook groups. Still, you hear critics complain that newspapers should have been there first.

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Well, maybe they should have. But how good a business is it, really? Like Craigslist, social media thrives by having as few employees as possible. Journalism is labor-intensive. Over the years I’ve watched the original vision for Wicked Local — unveiled, if I’m remembering correctly, by the Old Colony Memorial in Plymouth — shrink from a genuinely interesting collection of local blogs and other community content into a collection of crappy websites for GateHouse Media’s and now Gannett’s newspapers.

The original Boston.com was a vibrant experiment as well, with community blogs and all sorts of interesting content that you wouldn’t find in the Globe. But after the Globe moved to its own paywalled website, Boston.com’s appeal was pretty much shot, although it continues to limp along. For someone who wants a free regional news source, it’s actually not that bad. But the message, as with Wicked Local, is that maybe community content just doesn’t produce enough revenue to support the journalists we need to produce actual news coverage.

Recently Will Oremus of a Medium-backed website called OneZero wrote a lengthy piece about the rise of Nextdoor, which has done especially well in the pandemic. Oremus’ take was admirably balanced — though Nextdoor can be a valuable resource, especially in communities lacking real news coverage, he wrote, it is also opaque in its operations and tilted toward the interests of its presumably affluent users. According to Oremus, Nextdoor sites are available in about 268,000 neighborhoods across the world, and its owners have considered taking the company public.

There’s no question that Nextdoor is taking on the role once played by local newspapers. But is that because people are moving to Nextdoor or because local newspapers are withering away? As Oremus writes, quoting Emily Bell:

In some ways, Nextdoor is filling a gap left by a dearth of local news outlets. “In discussions of how people are finding out about local news, Nextdoor and Facebook Groups are the two online platforms that crop up most in our research,” said Columbia’s Emily Bell. Bell is helping to lead a project examining the crisis in local news and the landscape that’s emerging in its wake.

“When we were scoping out, ‘What does a news desert look like?’ it was clear that there’s often a whole group of hyperlocal platforms that we don’t traditionally consider to be news,” Bell said. They included Nextdoor, Facebook Groups, local Reddit subs, and crime-focused apps such as Citizen and Amazon Ring’s Neighbors. In the absence of a traditional news outlet, “people do share news, they do comment on news,” she said. “But they’re doing it on a platform like Nextdoor that really is not designed for news — may be in the same way that Facebook is not designed for news.”

Look, I’m glad that Nextdoor is around. I’m glad that Patch is around, and in fact our local Patch occasionally publishes some original reporting. But there is no substitute for actual journalism — the hard work of sitting through local meetings, keeping an eye on the police and telling the story of the community. As inadequate as our local Gannett weekly is, there’s more local news in it than in any other source we have.

If local newspapers had developed Nextdoor and offered it as part of their journalism, would it have made a different to the bottom line? It seems unlikely — although it no doubt would have brought in somewhat more revenues than giving away free classifieds.

Nextdoor, like Facebook, makes money by offering low-cost ads and employing as few people as possible. It may add up to a lot of cash in the aggregate. At the local level, though, I suspect it adds up to very little — and, if pursued by newspapers, would distract from the hard work of coming up with genuinely sustainable business models.

Daily papers in Medford and Malden, long in extremis, finally give up the ghost

The Malden Evening News. Photo via Wicked Local, from the News' now-defunct Twitter account.
The Malden Evening News. Photo via Wicked Local, from the News’ now-defunct Twitter account.

Two venerable Greater Boston daily newspapers, the Malden Evening News and the Medford Daily Mercury, have ceased publication, according to Wicked Local. In recent years there was little news in either one. But they were good papers under the ownership of the late David Brickman, who bought the Mercury in 1947 and eventually owned both papers as well as a third, the Melrose Evening News.

According to an obituary of Brickman that appeared in The Boston Globe in 1992, he was a driving force behind the state’s open-meeting law and served on the state’s Ethics Commission. He also served in various political capacities under governors Leverett Saltonstall, Christian Herter, John Volpe, Endicott Peabody, Foster Furcolo and Ed King, all while continuing to publish his newspapers. That’s not exactly what we would consider ethical journalism today, but it wasn’t that unusual at the time.

In the early 1980s my wife, Barbara Kennedy, was a freelance photographer for Brickman’s papers. We lived in Medford back then, and the five-days-a-week Mercury was a respectable source of goings-on around the city. Even then, though, there were signs that Brickman was having financial difficulties (freelancers are always the first to know), and he sold his papers in 1989.

According to this well-sourced Wikipedia article, in 1990 Brickman’s successor, Warren Jackson, combined all three papers, as well as an Everett edition of the Malden paper, into one entity known as the Daily News-Mercury. In 1996 the paper was acquired by its last owners, the Horgan family, who revived the separate Malden and Medford nameplates.

When Barbara and I returned to Medford in 2014 after 30 years on the North Shore, we discovered that the Mercury had fallen on hard times, as its contents consisted almost entirely of press releases from Malden. We began reading GateHouse’s Medford Transcript, a Wicked Local weekly, which does a respectable job with its extremely limited staffing.

As sad as it is to see any newspaper go under, perhaps the not-unexpected demise of the Malden and Medford dailies will open up an opportunity for someone to start an independent journalism project to give GateHouse some competition, either in print or online. Medford is already the home to several vibrant online communities and to a website called Top 10 Things to Know in Medford Right Now, which suggests that the demand is there.

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GateHouse New England shrinks, prepares for reorg

Photo (cc) 2012 by Dyana. Some rights reserved.
Photo (cc) 2012 by Dyana. Some rights reserved.

Update: I have been told that the new term for “reporter” will be “multimedia journalist.” That’s a perfectly respectable title, so I withdraw the anticipatory snark you’ll find below.

GateHouse Media New England, which owns more than 100 daily and weekly newspapers in Greater Boston and its environs, is shedding about 40 positions through buyouts and layoffs, according to Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal.

The full picture is not entirely clear. Seiffert reports that the buyout was offered to GateHouse’s non-union employees. But Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio recently wrote that employees at GateHouse”s Providence Journal, a union paper, were also offered a buyout.

GateHouse, headquartered in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, owns more than 600 newspapers and other media properties nationwide. Its New England holdings include many dozens of community weeklies, as well as high-profile dailies such as the Journal, the Quincy Patriot Ledger, the MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and the Cape Cod Times.

GateHouse papers have shrunk so much that concerns have been raised over whether they are going to have to pursue a fundamentally different way of doing things that would involve covering less and less community news. Further cuts could also give rise to more independent local news projects in GateHouse communities, such as the Bedford Citizen and the Worcester Sun, which I wrote about for the Nieman Journal Lab last fall. (Disclosure: I was recently asked to serve as an unpaid adviser to the Sun.)

One thing is for sure: The turmoil hasn’t ended. On Tuesday, Lisa Strattan, who is in charge of GateHouse Media New England’s recently redesigned Wicked Local websites, announced a relaunch that will be unveiled around mid-September. In a memo I obtained, she wrote:

We plan to reorganize into several teams, some serving the whole of Wicked Local and some focused along already established unit lines, to better leverage talent across our entire footprint.

Our centralized teams include a Print Production team, a Special Sections team, a Photo team and a Digital Specialists team. During a later phase of our reorg, we hope to organize our Sports personnel into a Wicked Local Sports team. Our West, Central, North and South units will also divide journalists into teams within each unit, covering given geographic areas.

She added: “Accompanying our reorg will be new job titles (and descriptions!) that better describe the role of a multimedia journalist or editor in 2016. For instance, reporters use a burgeoning bag of tools to create multi-layered multimedia stories. Although ‘reporter’ is tried and true, it’s important to signal our dramatic shift in newsgathering, both to our internal and external audiences.” Let me say that I cannot wait to see what new title GateHouse comes up with for “reporter.” (You can read the full memo here.)

Given that Strattan specifically includes print under her bailiwick, it sounds to me like the papers may be moving away from their traditional community-by-community orientation, with journalists assigned to stories within regions as needed. If that’s what she intends, then I’d be shocked if it doesn’t translate into less local coverage.

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Globe cuts Your Town staffing in half

Just catching up with this. Jon Chesto of the Boston Business Journal reports that The Boston Globe’s Your Town sites are being trimmed by six correspondents — approximately half the staff. Your Town, part of the Globe’s free Boston.com website, provides hyperlocal coverage of the suburbs as well as of several Boston neighborhoods.

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 8.38.56 AMGlobe regional editor David Dahl tells Chesto that there will be no site closures. But it seems inevitable that there will be cuts in coverage, even though Globe staff reporters and freelancers will continue to contribute. There are more than 100 Your Town sites and about 15 related Your Campus websites covering colleges and universities in Greater Boston.

Your Town got off to a shaky start in 2008, as GateHouse Media — which operates Wicked Local sites in virtually all of the same communities targeted by Your Town — sued the New York Times Co. (the Globe’s owner, at least for a few more weeks) for copyright infringement, arguing that the Your Town sites in some cases aggregated virtually all of GateHouse’s content for a given community without offering much else.

The two sides reached an out-of-court settlement in early 2009, as I reported for The Guardian. Your Town eventually grew into a valuable resource in many communities. But it looks like the sites, which carry little advertising, got to be too expensive to operate.

Chesto writes that the cuts call hyperlocal coverage into question as a business strategy, noting that AOL’s Patch sites are in the midst of deep cuts as well. But though hyperlocal may well be a loser at the corporate chain level, there are a number of successful independent sites operating across the country. You could read a book about such sites, hint, hint. The real issue is that hyperlocal is best understood as a grassroots phenomenon.

Did Globe executives reach this decision on their own? Or was incoming owner John Henry involved? And if he was, what does that say about his priorities for the Globe?

(Disclosure: Journalism students at Northeastern as well as several other Boston colleges and universities contribute to the Your Town and Your Campus sites.)

A few more thoughts on Patch.com

My Thursday posting of an e-mail from a Patch.com local editor who considers herself overworked and underappreciated brought an unusually strong reaction from Media Nation readers — many of them, no doubt, people who work for Patch or who are thinking about it. I received nearly 4,400 page views on Thursday, well over double the usual amount of traffic.

I received several e-mails from current and former Patch folks, also insisting on anonymity, and wary about whether they wanted their words posted at all. I am not normally in the habit of publishing anonymous e-mails, and I’d just as soon Media Nation not turn into a forum for anonymous pro- and anti-Patch missives. But I can say that a few folks agreed with the anonymous e-mail and a few disputed it. One even asked that I pressure my source into giving up her identity so that other local editors will not be suspected. (Uh, no.)

What’s beyond dispute is that community journalism is hard work, and has never been particularly lucrative. In Greater Boston, what’s shaping up is a three-way battle involving Patch, GateHouse Media’s Wicked Local sites and the Boston Globe’s Your Town sites. Here’s what I’m hearing from folks who’ve been in touch with me:

  • Though no one is getting rich working for Patch, it offers better pay and benefits than its competitors. But that comes with an unusually heavy load of responsibilities, as outlined by my anonymous e-mailer. Local editors must manage every aspect of the site.
  • Many GateHouse journalists earn less than Patch editors. But though they also put in dauntingly long hours, editors and reporters don’t have as many non-journalistic responsibilities.
  • Correspondents for the Globe’s Your Town sites are freelancers, and receive no benefits at all.

I should note that nearly all Wicked Local content is repurposed from GateHouse’s newspapers, most of them weeklies. The Your Town sites combine online-only stories, an occasional Globe story and aggregation from other news sources (but not from Wicked Local). Patch is online-only.

I should also note that the Your Town/Wicked Local/Patch combination is far from the only game in community journalism. Medium-size dailies such as the Eagle-Tribune papers north of Boston, GateHouse’s own dailies west and south of Boston, and Rupert Murdoch’s (yes, believe it or not) Standard-Times of New Bedford and Cape Cod Times are among our most important sources of local news. Journalists at those papers tend to be more experienced and better paid, too.

There are two pieces of good news in all of this: there’s a lot of competition for local news in Greater Boston, and competition is good for readers; and, a year after the news business seemed to be collapsing, news outlets are hiring young reporters at a healthy clip in order to staff new hyperlocal sites.

Hard times working the Patch

Boston Globe reporter Johnny Diaz today writes about Patch.com, the AOL-owned network of hyperlocal news sites that is (excuse me) sprouting up around the country.

As I noted earlier, Diaz writes that Patch is up against considerable competition in Greater Boston, principally from GateHouse Media’s Wicked Local websites and the Boston Globe’s Your Town sites — both of which, unlike Patch, are tied to established newspapers.

There are already 13 Patch sites in Massachusetts, with more to come.

After I posted my earlier Patch item, I heard from a Patch local editor (LE, in Patch-speak) who described working conditions that sound pretty challenging. Granted, community journalists in general work very hard for not much money. But the LE who wrote to me suggested that Patch takes it to another level.

The LE who contacted me asked that her name not be used, but gave me permission to publish her e-mail. I have verified that she is who she says she is. I don’t consider this to be the last word, and I would welcome a response from Patch. The e-mail:

The working conditions for local editors at Patch sites raise the question of whether this model is sustainable or about whether this is the reality for journalists working in this new media age.

Basically, the job is 24/7 with so far little support in getting any kind of time off — nights, weekends, vacation days guaranteed under our AOL contract. (Some regional editors do try to help; others don’t.) This time-off issue has become a major concern among local editors. You might hear about the 70-hour work weeks. Yes, 70 hours and more. It’s a start-up and all that, and I knew it would be hard work going in. But what is becoming distressing is this sense that I can’t get a break. I’ve worked in journalism for more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter, online editor, magazine editor, and I’ve never worked so much in my life.

Patch has a policy that it the local editor’s responsibility to find our nights/weekend/vacation replacements. And we must pay that person out of our freelance budgets. I’m just three months into this job, and I’ve heard from LEs around the country that this task of finding your replacement can be daunting, because it is hard to find qualified journalists who have that sort of time to do a vacation fill-in — who who will do it for what Patch pays its freelancers. I’ve been hearing that LEs who have been around longer, up to a year, are starting to question whether the job is worth it.

And, it’s not just being a reporter, but it’s also being a city editor/assignment editor/managing editor/copy editor, and it’s handling freelance payments (and freelance payment troubleshooting), doing videos, monitoring calender and event listings, doing some of our own marketing, and even HR. It seems the business model of this organization is to add tasks, traditionally handled by others in other organizations, to the plate of the local editors. More recently, I’ve been wondering if it would be possible, time-wise, to do the kind of enterprise journalism I would like.

Maybe I should be grateful I have a job and stop griping.

Follow-up: “A few more thoughts on Patch.com.”

Patching in to AOL’s Patch (II)

Old friend Mark Leccese, blogging at Boston.com, offers further thoughts on the competition among Patch, GateHouse Media’s Wicked Local sites and Boston.com’s Your Town initiative.

Let me repeat: The most interesting local online journalism is taking place at the grassroots. And no one in Greater Boston does a better job of aggregating it than Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub. If you didn’t know that already, well, now you do.

(Disclosure: Media Nation is part of Gaffin’s Boston Blogs advertising network.)

Earlier item.

Patching in to AOL’s Patch

AOL’s local-news initiative, Patch, has been ramping up in Massachusetts in recent months. The effort deserves a full post, so consider this a placeholder. Universal Hub has been all over Patch, chronicling the departure of several GateHouse Media employees who’ve signed on as Patch editors.

My tendency is not to get too excited when a national corporation with no roots in journalism decides to take on hyperlocal news. There have simply been too many instances of the suits deciding that journalism isn’t as lucrative as they had hoped and then pulling the plug a year or two down the line.

Based on Arlington Patch, the sites seem attractive and easy to navigate, with a strong emphasis on community participation. But I don’t know that I see anything that would make me choose it over GateHouse’s Wicked Local Arlington site, or Boston.com’s Your Town page for Arlington.

Besides, I think online local news works best when it grows from the ground up. Local blogs vary wildly in quality. But I’d rather check in on Bob Sprague’s Your Arlington blog than to spend my time with the progeny of Steve Case.

That said, it’s early. Maybe Patch will represent some sort of breakthrough. We’ll see.