The Bar Is VERY Low

A journalist friend recently posted an article to Facebook with data that confirmed my periodic complaints about Gannett. Nieman Journalism Lab is a site supported by the Neiman Foundation, which describes itself as devoted to the elevation of journalism.

This particular report falls into the “I told you so” category. The lede really sums it all up:

Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain, should wake up each morning thankful for the existence of No. 2 Alden Global Capital.

After all, who could ask for a better point of comparison? Alden is the perfect industry villain, a faceless private equity fund dedicated to nothing but cost-cutting and cashflow-draining. Its corporate website contains a total of 21 words, nine of which are “Alden,” “Global,” or “Capital.” It’s run by a secretive billionaire who last gave an interview in the 1980s — the sort of person who can own 15 mansions in Palm Beach and still think: I could really use a 16th.

If Alden is the “bar,” Gannett clears it. After all, as  a century-old newspaper company, we do expect Gannett to give a rat’s patootie about journalism. On the other hand, as the article notes,  Gannett has rarely been considered a good newspaper company:

its reputation for cheapness and cookie-cutter products go back decades. (As The New York Times described it in 1986: “a chain of mostly small and undistinguished, though highly profitable, newspapers.”) But it was at least a familiar name, run by news people and with at least some dedication to its civil role in hundreds of communities….

But “we’re better than Alden!” has its limits as a brand promise, and Gannett’s most recent annual report drives home the fact that no company has done more to shrink local journalism than it has in recent years. Let’s total up the damage — in raw numbers, if not in stories unbroken and facts not uncovered.

When Gannett merged with Gatehouse–another “vulture” company–the search for “efficiencies” deepened–and the number of employees tanked. At the time of the merger, early in 2019, the two companies had a total of 27,600 employees.

By December 31, 2019, the combined company was down to 21,255. By the end of 2020, that had dropped to 18,141. A year later: 13,800. And its most recent SEC filing reports that, as of the end of 2022, Gannett had just 11,200 U.S. employees remaining (plus another roughly 3,000 overseas, mostly in the U.K.).

In other words, Gannett has eliminated half of its jobs in four years. It’s as if, instead of merging America’s two largest newspaper chains, one of them was simply wiped off the face of the earth.

One reason for the precipitous decline was the debt Gannett assumed in order fund the merger. (A similar problem drove the decline in reporting staff when Gannett acquired the Indianapolis Star.) Taking out a giant loan at a high interest rate meant that  “hundreds of millions in revenues have had to be redirected to debt payments.”

The most jaw-dropping information in the linked post, however, was a graph showing the declines in circulation experienced by newspapers acquired by Gannett. 

The total drop reported was 66.8%–an average that our local Indianapolis Star has exceeded; Star readership has declined by a whopping 74.5%. A similar chart, tracking non-Gannett papers facing many of the same challenges, showed far less decline. As the article noted,

“There are plenty of explanations for the gap — but it’s hard not to believe that Gannett’s gutting of their editorial products hasn’t been a driving factor.”

Ya think?

Bottom line, adequate credible information about the community it serves is a newspaper’s product. When drastic cuts in newsroom personnel make it impossible to provide that product–when residents of an area can no longer turn to local journalism to find out what their government is doing or failing to do, when there aren’t enough reporters to attend important meetings and hearings–when even the tried-and-true lure of sports reporting fails to include coverage of all the local teams–why would anyone pay for that newspaper?

If I had a career producing dresses, and the dresses became progressively more shoddy and poorly constructed, people would soon stop buying them. The difference is, a failed dressmaker doesn’t endanger democratic self-government. A failed news media, however, threatens the ability of a local community to address–or even recognize–collective problems.

The good news is that the gap created by newspaper chains that pursue profits by ignoring their essential purpose are being challenged by new entries into local information markets.

The Indiana Local News Initiative is the latest media startup in Indianapolis. It joins The Capital Chronicle that debuted last July and State Affairs Indiana, that arrived in December. And last August, digital media company Axios announced plans to launch a daily email newsletter in Indianapolis.

They knew a news desert when they saw one.


  1. It seems that journalism is evolving in order to remain vital, and I see that as a positive development.

  2. One thing I noticed about the Indianapolis Star, before ending my many decades of subscribing, was the Obituary section began using larger print, taking up more space for each obit, front page headlines and articles about the Colts before, during and after football season, Colts reports in the Sports Section and a separate Colts section during the season, plus the “free” minimized version of USA TODAY. All of this added bulk to the newsless Star; Gannet based sales of the Indianapolis Star on quantity, not quality which readers subscribe to newspapers for. Their home delivery service also suffered; once required to deliver the daily Star on porches of elderly and disabled subscribers was lower to “anywhere on the property of” which covered all home subscribers. The households in my neighborhood would find their newspapers on the city sidewalk and in the street and one neighbor whose driveway abutted his neighbor’s driveway would find he paper next door. I no longer see the Indianapolis Star sleeves anywhere in my area; if their home delivery services has declined completely, how are they staying in business?

  3. Why does Gannett not mention their owner – Softbank, from Japan?

    It seems deliberate for some reason.

    Journalism is still being censored, if not targeted across the country. The 25-foot barrier around the police is another encroachment. Those who make a living self-publishing and sharing on Twitter and other platforms must deal with algorithms instead of editors at mainstream media outlets.

    Posters used to think Gannett was too liberal in our market, so what will they think of Axios? LOL

    It’s like threading a needle…lots of forces working against you. People cannot afford to like my posts against oligarchy because they don’t want to lose their job. They’ll tell me offline they like it and appreciate the work.

    That’s NOT how democracies work…

  4. When I was a young’un, I remember going to the corner store to pick up my latest comic books on a regular basis, and every morning, pick up the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Times, the Chicago Sun, and the Chicago Daily News for my grandmother. The Chicago Tribune was about 4 in thick on Sunday, the Chicago times, which later merged with the Chicago Sun, was about 5 in thick on Sunday.

    All of the weekly papers Monday through Saturday and including evening editions, were about 2 in thick. I would enjoy looking at the myriads of ads, and, I was very interested in the sports sections. They had quite a selection of political cartoons and of course the Sunday funny papers.

    I remember all of the papers except the Tribune eviscerating the original Mayor Daley, They would literally start a battle with mob bosses. The papers were loaded with muckrakers, one that I remember, was Mike Royko, And as I recall, no one wanted him digging into their muck.

    The coverage of the Vietnam war, and Richard Nixon, were spectacular! Now, the two newspapers left, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun Times are about 3/8 of an inch thick, sometimes less than that. And mostly, nothing much of interest.

    Capitalism gutted news organizations. Newspapers were a thorn in the side of the wealthy and the criminal element. Sometimes these were one in the same. When they realized they could silence criticism by eliminating opinion pieces and investigative reporting by purchasing and dismantling their enemies, it was all over.

    No one wanted those dogged reporters on their trail, no matter what they were up to, they wanted to control the narrative but couldn’t. That’s why they’re all gone!

  5. When Gannett bought the Star, the drop in quality occurred quickly – the paper took on the appearance of the National Enquirer, lots of drivel and little news. Another example of this process was the purchase of a Los Angeles paper by one based in Chicago (I forget the names involved). TShe editors of the Los Angeles paper either resigned or were fired, when they objected to eliminating stories on the front page about local companies (often bad news), because of
    the advertising dollars obtained from those companies.

    Somewhere in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a comment about the quality of the local newspapers he saw on his trip here, as opposed to that of the papers in France. The local papers wrote about local things – good or bad things – which were of interest to their readers, whereas the French papers were filled with little more than gossip. Of course, the local papers were strictly local in the 1830s, and depended on the purchase price, not on advertising, so the editors had to give their readers news, not pap.

  6. Pascal,

    I’m pretty sure the drop in quality began before Gannett acquired the Star, though Gannett certainly expedited and made worse that decline.

    I’m not sure if it matters whether newspapers are funded by advertising revenue or the purchase price of the paper…if newspapers fail to give readers what they want to read, people won’t read them and circulation goes down.


    As far as circulation figures go, I have serious doubts about the accuracy of the figures. Are they just counting people who subscribe to a physical paper and are on-line subscribers. What about people like me who no longer subscribe to either but I read the free articles in the Star online edition which seem, thankfully, to be increasing. And what about people who buy an occasional newspaper from a box on the street. Are they counted?

  7. By the time a story makes a local Gannett paper, it’s already at least 2 days old and has been reported on, and followed up on, by all of the local television news shows. Today’s newspaper is replete with old news.

  8. I subscribed to the Star until, as JoAnn noted, delivery could be anywhere in the vicinity of my property, rather than at my door.

    I subscribe online so I don’t hit a paywall for the few stories/editorials I’d like to read, but even at that, I won’t pay their standard rate (many times more than I pay for the Washington Post!), and wait for a special of around $1/6 months; rinse, repeat.

    The liberals think they’re too conservative, the conservatives think they’re too liberal. The Comments section is a cesspool. But sometimes I’m tipped off to some legislation I missed (I’ve been busy).

    Overall, I want to read an unbiased report of “what happened”. I don’t want to have someone tell me what to think about their version of what happened. This is becoming too hard to find.

  9. What else would we expect from businesses run by cost accountants and profit rakers? The news? What a bother. Cutting jobs to pay for a merger… what a concept. No civic duty or pride allowed. Perfect.

  10. Mr. Sorg. I agree, and disagree. The dogged reporters are not all gone. They’ve just shifted from newspapers to

    JPS: “No one wanted those dogged reporters on their trail, no matter what they were up to, they wanted to control the narrative but couldn’t. That’s why they’re all gone!”

    Eminent dogged reporter Seymour Hersh spoke Tues. 3/14/23 at the National Press Club in D.C. His scope of knowledge from his years of dogged reporting is astounding. The next day, on the Ides of March, Mr. Hersh published on an article entitled, “Who’s Your George Ball?” Mr. Hersh is very prolific, and requires much background information to fully understand, but he is very informative to read.

    You’ve likely not heard of Mr. Hersh’s 3/14/23, 1:25:10, presentation at the National Press Club, including audience Q&A. It was not well covered in the mainstream media. You might get the impression it was suppressed by the MSM, as is the work of many of the dogged reporters.

    The dogged reporters are still around; you just have to look harder to find them.

  11. For what it is worth, I grew up in a New York City that had MANY newspapers, and am not familiar with why most of them died
    out, but they did. And that was decades ago. To my knowledge there are now 4 citywide papers, the NYT, the Daily News and 2
    Murdoch owned ones, the WSJ and the NY Post/rag. In regard to the latter, I often think that alexander Hamilton must be turning
    around in his grave, as the saying goes.
    Yes, it does seem that capitalism killed off the newspapers.

  12. There are two kinds of product and service streams being offered in the marketplace; commodities that are offered by several alternative corporations, and value-adding products and services offered by one or two alternative corporations. Corporations offering the former only compete on price and advertising. The latter compete on product and process development capabilities and offer their customers products like no others in terms of the benefits of their consumption. Like most this or that categories, these are not black or white but share some overlap.

    Journalism used to be a profession and therefore a value-adding product. Media expanded to include competing multiple delivery modes and changed into a commodity. Not that journalism itself became no longer a profession but the provision of it to customers could be satisfied by many different means and therefore corporations. National news became more interesting and local news less so to most consumers. All media competed instead of more or less only like media. That’s a tsunami of change in the fundamentals of economics. More wealth became available to redistribute up which rules the economy, not value to consumers anymore.

    Big and national beats little and local.

  13. I misss finding newspapers left at cafes,truckstops, waiting rooms the look never changes,rolled,bruised folded over,but left for someone else to read. picking one up and finding the local hesdlines,ongoing,and the type of journalism,right,left,upside down/NYpost/rag.( dont touch it)
    My grandfather rode the commuter train everyday,Jersey city to newark,and every day the newark evening news or the NYtimes,and afew occaisions,the daily when the first foot steps on the moon.. at 8 i started reading them 1963,i never gave up lifting another up to read it once more,left to someone elses grasp. though the headlines were the eye catcher,im a page two and beyond. catching a recent issue,and maybe catching up on it later.(all prior internet) finding a few sun from the UK was a treat,tryin to decipher proper? english as another language. the funnier i find stories,even in drab issues,i find the intelligence of that writer seems above most when they can put some humor into a the issue and make the experience of reading it more enjoyable. today its all cramed into space available,and the smell of the ink isnt there,and of course,my bacon requires i buy paper towels now. i wonder of those vultures own paper towel companies?

  14. Ive wrote stubstack a few times in their contact e mail, asking if they provide a login page instead of a app. two months,no answer,do they exisit as a company or just a AI protal?

  15. Pete:
    try getting answers to tech questions about a product for sale on so,eones website. asking for the upper sphere to get answers also,seem a waste of time. the plan today is,just buy the sucker and return it if your not happy.. im not a big green person but.i have issues with their cavalier approach to wasting ones time(mine) and resources. seems todays anything is about wasting your time,at our expense.
    seems amazon and the like ,when they get returns,they just trash them,and write offs are tax deductable. what if that changed?

  16. Mr. Evans, I believe that Seymour Hersh is a wonderful investigative journalist. The record shows, however, that he’s misreported a number of stories over his lifetime of work, often relying on an unnamed single source. A journalist like Hersh needs an experienced editor to check his work and confirm sources before publishing the report.

    On a similar note, there’s no question that the Star’s content has deteriorated in quantity and quality. I suspect a contributing factor is the loss of seasoned, experienced editors.

    The Star’s

  17. I get both the Star and the NYT delivered daily. Monthly subscription to the Star is 95% of the cost of the NYT. The Times is unmatched for coverage of international news, but is lacking on broad national news. Its sports coverage is, at best, anemic. It devotes way to much space to “style”, and for me, the “Arts.”

    As has been pointed out, much of the Star’s local reporting is old news by the time it gets published (I don’t expect to read about Purdue’s NCAA loss until the Sunday paper, and I know that IU’s results won’t make the paper until Sunday). The only things that make the Star worth having are the funnies / puzzles and the occasional coupons that sometimes get the cost down under 90% of the Times.

    Neither is really worth the time that they take to look at! But I have been reading a paper for 70 years and like the feel of a paper in the hand, so I keep wasting my money on them. Eventually they will price themselves out of my retirement budget which will leave me sad.

  18. Gannett has ruined my hometown paper, the Panama City News-Herald. No coverage of local high school sports, and very little of local politics, for example. We have local elections coming up in April, and there’s been no coverage of that at all. Most of the articles come from other Gannett-owned papers, or from USA Today. As best I can tell, they’re down to three staff writers. Printing of the paper has been outsourced to someplace in Alabama or Mississippi, so deadlines are absurdly early. If it happens today, you won’t read about it in the News-Herald until three days from now. The N-H was never a great paper, but it’s a joke now.

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