By Dan Kennedy
Gannett’s recent move away from local news is not taking place in a vacuum. Financial prospects for the country’s largest newspaper chain continue to deteriorate — and the company’s insistence on degrading its journalism rather than building it up is going to make it that much harder to attract new readers.
As I reported last week, the chain is reassigning staff reporters at most of its Massachusetts weeklies to cover regional beats rather than local news. Although Gannett officials have not commented, I’m told that the three exceptions will be the Cambridge Chronicle, the Old Colony Memorial in Plymouth and the Provincetown Banner. I’m also told that a few weekly reporters will be reassigned to Gannett’s dailies rather than to regional coverage of issues such as climate change and racial justice.
What we still don’t know is what, if any, coverage the Gannett weeklies will provide of such basics as governmental meetings and elections. Maybe part-timers will be used. Maybe they’ll just skip it. There were already a number of Gannett weeklies without any real local coverage, so that’s nothing new.
Meanwhile, the chain’s business continues to slide at its 100 or so daily newspapers and 1,000 weeklies and other properties, according to Poynter business analyst Rick Edmonds. Revenue for the fourth quarter was $827 million, a decline of 5.5%, as its much-ballyhooed increase in digital subscriptions appears to be driven by steep introductory discounts.
Edmonds writes that “as Gannett targets reaching 2 to 2.2 million digital subscriptions by the end of 2022, it faces the double challenge of holding the introductory subscribers as they move up to higher rates while also continuing to quickly add new subscribers.” And rather than invest in journalism, Gannett is putting money into sports gambling and marketing services.
It’s an ugly tale. For Massachusetts readers, it’s a tale that extends back to the early 1990s, when Fidelity began rolling up community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts. From Fidelity to the Boston Herald to GateHouse Media, which morphed into Gannett, it’s been 30 years of cuts, with very little in the way of good news.