By Dan Kennedy
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. I’ve also heard that a few of the weekly reports will be reassigned to one of Gannett’s dailies rather than to a regional beat.
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.