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.”
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.