Gannett lays off journalists, closes papers and keeps the numbers to itself

Frank Gannett (1876-1957) founded the newspaper chain that bears his name. Photo (cc) 2009 by History Rewound.

What more can be said about the latest round of Gannett layoffs? This one was telegraphed well in advance, and I wrote about what was coming three times (here, here and here) before the hammer finally came down on Friday.

We don’t know the extent of the damage; The Associated Press reported that the “company declined to provide details about the number of people losing their jobs.” The number 400 has been bandied about, but is that 400 journalists or 400 total employees? In any case, that number has not been verified. We do know that the cuts were broad and deep, from Worcester County, where, according to Grafton Common, the chain’s weekly papers were decimated, to its national flagship, USA Today.

Los Angeles Times reporter Jeong Park has provided one way of looking at what happened. Gannett owns about 250 newspapers and other properties, and, before Friday, it employed about 4,000 reporters, editors and photographers. Our three national papers together also employ about 4,000 journalists — The New York Times (1,700), The Washington Post (1,000) and The Wall Street Journal (1,300). And, unlike Gannett, they’re all growing.

Gannett’s losses in the most recent quarter were so vast that it seems likely management will come back for another bite at the apple in a few months. After all, they’ve been on a rampage in Eastern Massachusetts, closing a number of weeklies in 2021 and 19 earlier this year (the company also merged nine papers into four). They’ve pretty much given up on local coverage, too.

Meanwhile, the company’s top executives pay themselves millions of dollars, and even the part-time board members are getting north of $200,000. And it’s been reported that CEO Michael Reed bought another 500,000 shares of Gannett stock last Tuesday, paying $1.22 million.

This feels like the end game, but it probably isn’t. There are always more papers to close, more people to lay off and more websites to strip of any real journalistic content. My heart goes out to the folks who lost their jobs on Friday. I hope they all land on their feet — and I also hope that many of them will look into the possibility of starting independent news projects in the communities they used to cover. The need and the opportunity are there.

We end our summer podcasts with a round-up of local news items. See you in September!

Rainbow Arch Bridge, Lake City, Iowa, the center of a bizarre newspaper war. Photo (cc) 2014 by David Wilson.

On this week’s podcast, Ellen and Dan dive into their reporter’s notebooks after their scheduled guest had a last-minute medical emergency, catching up with NJ Spotlight News, the emergence of The Lexington Observer, the transition at The Texas Tribune, and the turmoil at The Graphic-Advocate (both of them!) of Lake City, Iowa.

Ellen also has a rave for Emily Rooney’s “Beat the Press” podcast and her recent interview with legendary WCVB-TV news anchor Natalie Jacobson, who’s written a memoir about her life and career.

Like Boston’s Orange Line and Green Line, the “What Works” podcast will be off the intertubes for a few weeks as Ellen and Dan race to meet the deadline for their book about the future of local news. You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

While Gannett journalists brace for layoffs, those at the top rake in big bucks

Photo (cc) 2008 by Patrickneil

By Dan Kennedy

With Gannett targeting its journalists for yet another round of layoffs, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at the people at the top. A reminder: Gannett is an amalgamation of the old Gannett and GateHouse Media, which was notorious for cost-cutting and which dominates the new Gannett.

There’s a wealth of information — and a lot of wealth generally — in the money-losing newspaper chain’s 2022 proxy statement. It begins with Michael E. Reed, the chairman and chief executive officer, who was paid $7,741,052 in 2021. Of that total, Reed received $900,000 in base salary, $6,074,000 in stock awards and $767,052 in “Non-Equity Incentive Plan Compensation.”

Next up is Douglas E. Horne, the chief financial officer and chief accounting officer, whose payout added up to $1,753,698, of which $600,000 was base salary, $581,318 came in the form of stock awards, $562,380 was for that aforementioned incentive plan and $10,000 was in other income.

Also of interest is Gannett’s nine-member board of directors, eight of whom were paid well in excess of $200,000 to provide advice and counsel on a part-time basis. Now, I have no insight into how much work a Gannett director puts in — although, according to Investopedia, the average corporate board member takes part in just a bit under eight meetings per year. In general, though, serving on a corporate board is an exceedingly light lift. The board chair, as previously noted, is Reed. Here are the other eight directors and their compensation. You can find their company-provided bios (except Hegde, who has left the board) in the proxy report, starting at page 14.

  • Kevin M. Sheehan, $285,000 ($160,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards)
  • Vinayak Hegde, $212,500 ($87,500 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards)
  • Theodore P. Janulis, $251,250 ($120,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards; $6,250 in other compensation)
  • John Jeffry Louis III, $235,000 ($100,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards; $10,000 in other compensation)
  • Maria M. Miller, $225,000 ($100,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards)
  • Debra A. Sandler, $245,000 ($120,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards)
  • Laurence Tarica, $255,000 ($120,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards; $10,000 in other compensation)
  • Barbara W. Wall, $235,000 ($100,000 in fees or cash; $125,000 in stock awards; $10,000 in other compensation)

For the eight board members other than Reed, that’s an average of $242,969. I can’t offer a judgment as to whether that’s excessive, but I can cite a few data points. First, in 2018, USA Today, Gannett’s flagship newspaper, republished a story from 24/7 Wall Street under the provocative headline “25 companies that pay their board of directors a shocking amount.” The lowest of those 25 was Citigroup, which paid its board members an average of $297,407 — more than Gannett, but not massively more. Second, according to Investopedia, the average corporate board member is paid $42,750, although it was much higher than that at larger firms.

You also have to ask what, exactly, Gannett’s executives and board members are being rewarded for. Last week’s bad news was only the latest for a company that seemingly can’t find a way forward. Its stock price closed at $2.36 on Friday, down from a 52-week high of $7.05 last Sept. 17. Yes, we are in the midst of a local news crisis. But Lee Enterprises, another publicly traded newspaper chain, is doing reasonably well, as are independent local news sources across the country, from larger newspapers like The Boston Globe and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis to hundreds of hyperlocal projects. Gannett needs to demonstrate that it can provide communities with the news and information they need, and they’re failing miserably at that.

Meanwhile, the people doing the actual work make peanuts. According to a study in the fall of 2020 by the NewsGuild-CWA, Gannett journalists at 14 unionized daily newspapers were earning a median salary of $52,000, and those with fewer than 10 years of experience were making $43,000 to $44,000. Those at non-union papers are almost certainly making substantially less. And now they are bracing for yet another round of layoffs, while the people presiding over this fiasco are paid hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.

A terrible day for Gannett, to be followed by terrible days for its staff and communities

The late Gannett chairman Al Neuharth, who created USA Today, was no stranger to cost-cutting. But he’d be rolling over in his grave at what’s taking place now. Photo (cc) 2013 by George Kelly.

By Dan Kennedy

Gannett, the country’s largest local news chain, is in a tailspin. The publisher of some 200 daily papers reported a significant loss in the second quarter — $54 million on revenues of $749 million.

According to Rick Edmonds, who analyzes the media business for Poynter, the company is either down or missing its targets in digital and print advertising as well as print circulation. The sole bright spot: a steady rise in paid digital circulation. Extensive layoffs are on the way. Edmonds quoted a memo from Maribel Perez Wadsworth, head of the media division, in which she said: “In the coming days, we will … be making necessary but painful reductions to staffing, eliminating some open positions and roles that will impact valued colleagues.” It’s hard to see how shrinking an already diminished product is going to help.

Those of us who live in Eastern Massachusetts and environs might wonder where they are going to find any staff members to lay off. Over the past year, the chain has closed many of its community weeklies. Its dailies are still publishing, but with skeleton newsrooms.

The question with Gannett is how many of its problems are simply part of the overall local news crisis and how many are of its own making. Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and the John M. Mutz Chair in Local News at Northwestern’s Medill School, tweeted:

As it turned out, Lee did reasonably well, which Chris Krewson, executive director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers noted in a response to Franklin.

I would argue that though the challenges facing community journalism are very real, there are some unique factors at work with the current iteration of Gannett, which lost its way in the cradle back when GateHouse Media was born. GateHouse and Gannett merged a few years ago, but it was essentially a takeover by GateHouse, which has been pillaging its local titles for the past 15 or so years. Gannett’s schemes to overcome the mess in which it finds itself strike me as harebrained. Its plan to pursue sports betting isn’t going well, as Edmonds reports. Then there is its dream of getting into nonfungible tokens (NFTs). Seriously?

Gannett’s flagship is USA Today, which is still a solid paper. If I had to guess, I’d say they’ll leave it pretty much alone so that they can use it as a wire service to fill up their regional and local papers. I mean, even more than they’re already doing.

Sadly, Gannett’s journalists have been on a roll, with reporters at the Indianapolis Star and The Columbus Dispatch breaking the story about a pregnant 10-year-old rape victim — and then confirming it when it was questioned by right-wing propagandists and by Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler. The Austin American-Statesman obtained and published video of the police (non)response to the school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, after editing out the children’s screams. This is outstanding journalism, and soon Gannett will have fewer journalists.

Gannett’s greed and incompetence are going to mean fewer jobs for reporters and less coverage for local communities. It’s an ongoing tragedy, but it does open up possibilities for entrepreneurs who are looking to start new projects.

Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro tells us about her national campaign to invest in local news

Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro

On the latest podcast, Dan and Ellen talk with Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, CEO and co-founder of the National Trust for Local News. She is also a senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School in New York. At the Tow Center, Dr. Hansen Shapiro’s work focuses on the future of local journalism and the policies needed to assure that future. Her research involves audience engagement and revenue strategies, as well as the relationship between news and social platforms. She holds a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Harvard Business School.

The National Trust for Local News is a nonprofit that is dedicated to “keeping local news in local hands.” The Trust works with local news publishers, philanthropists and socially conscious investors, and, as Dan has reported, worked with other collaborators to buy 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado, perhaps saving them from hedge fund ownership.

Dan has a Quick Take on a recent newsletter by past “What Works” guest Kristen Hare of Poynter, who reported on local media people who are starting to fight back against the abuse they’re receiving from some of the more sociopathic members of their audience.

Ellen weighs in on the death of Tim Giago, the founder of the first independently owned Native American newspaper in the United States, and dives back into the Dumpster fire in the newsroom of The Aspen Times in Colorado.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

A free weekly newspaper will cover Middleborough and Lakeville

Oliver Mill Park, Middleborough. Photo (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy.

By Dan Kennedy

Local news outlets are popping up left and right following the decimation of our Eastern Massachusetts weekly newspapers at the hands of Gannett. But I want to give a special shoutout to Anne Eisenmenger, who’s going to launch a new weekly paper in mid-August to cover Middleborough, the town where I grew up, and neighboring Lakeville.

Nemasket Week, which will debut on Aug. 18, will be a free, advertiser-supported newspaper with a website. It’s part of Beaver Dam Partners, which currently publishes Wareham Week, Dartmouth Week and Sippican Week, serving Marion, Mattapoisett and Rochester. Eisenmenger, a Boston Globe and GateHouse Media alum who began Beaver Dam 12 years ago, has a proven track record, and I’m looking forward to seeing what she can offer in Middleborough.

Gannett shuttered The Middleboro Gazette last November as part of a wave of weekly closures — about a half-dozen in 2021, followed by 19 in 2022, along with nine others that were merged into four titles. Even worse, nearly all of Gannett’s weekly reporters were reassigned to regional beats, which means that the chain’s papers and websites have little or no local news.

So best of luck to Nemasket Week. And though it’s well outside Eisenmenger’s region, may I suggest that she take a close look at Medford while she’s at it?

The full announcement follows. And by the way, Anne, it’s Middleborough, not Middleboro. Both spellings are in use, but the town is literally the middle borough between Plymouth and Bridgewater.

Tim Coco of WHAV tells us how hyperlocal radio can serve a community

Tim Coco

In this week’s podcast, Dan and Ellen talk with Tim Coco, president and general manager of Public Media of New England. Coco is known for his work as a journalist and advertising executive. He oversees day-to-day operations at the low-power FM station WHAV, which can be found at 97.9 on the radio dial if you happen to be in the Haverhill area. The station also streams at WHAV.net.

WHAV was launched in 1947 by the Haverhill Gazette newspaper, then a daily under the auspices of a publisher who was distantly related to the Taylor family, which then owned The Boston Globe. Coco revived the station about 15 years ago and converted it to a nonprofit, low-power FM station in 2014.

Ellen has a Quick Take on $2 million in grants awarded to seven nonpartisan news outlets in Georgia. All are led by people of color, and all serve diverse audiences. The money, which comes from The Pivot Fund, could be transformational.

Dan’s Quick Take is on the Herald-Tribune. No, not that Herald-Tribune. This is the Herald-Tribune of Sarasota, Florida, which had to apologize after publishing a guest op-ed in praise of the Proud Boys, the far-right group that was part of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. It’s a doozy.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Steve Waldman tells us about Report for America and his ongoing quest to save local news

Steve Waldman

On this week’s podcast, Dan and Ellen talk with Steve Waldman, the president and co-founder of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered communities. Steve came up with the concept in 2014 and joined forces with The Ground Truth Project to launch RFA in 2017.

In the projects we’re reporting on for this podcast and for our book, “What Works: The Future of Local News,” we’ve run across a number of RFA corps members. They usually have a couple of years of experience but are relatively new to the business, although there are a few near retirement age, too.

Steve has a deep background in magazine journalism. He was national editor of U.S. News & World Report and a national correspondent for Newsweek. He went on to co-found a multifaith religion website, Beliefnet.com, which won a National Magazine Award. He is also founder and coordinator of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, and he’s crafted some interesting proposals for how government can help revitalize local journalism while preserving editorial independence.

Dan has a Quick Take on the happy conclusion to a bizarre situation involving a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Last fall, Josh Renaud reported that a flaw in a database maintained by the state of Missouri allowed for public access to thousands of Social Security numbers. Incredibly, the state’s governor, Mike Parson, denounced Renaud as a “hacker” and a criminal investigation was begun. It was absolutely outrageous, and now Renaud has been recognized with a national freedom-of-the-press award.

And Ellen takes it all back about Ogden Newspapers, which purchased The Aspen Times late last year but has supressed coverage and prompted a number of staff resignations.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Texas newspaper publisher John Garrett tells us why ‘Print Ain’t Dead’

John Garrett

On this week’s edition of the “What Works” podcast, Dan and Ellen talk with John Garrett, who, along with his wife, Jennifer, started the monthly Community Impact Newspaper in 2005 in Texas. They had three full-time employees and covered two towns in Texas, Round Rock and Pflugerville.

Community Impact expanded into Arizona and Tennessee, and by 2018, Forbes reported, the Garretts had 220 employees and annual revenue of $27 million. They have an online presence, of course, but they also believe in print: their newspapers are distributed by mail every month. They even opened their own printing plant to handle their newspaper and other jobs and have a sign out front that says: “Print Ain’t Dead.”

But as we prepared for this podcast, John told us they’ve just made some tough decisions. They sold their Phoenix operations and closed their small Nashville outlet. They’ve decided to focus on Texas, where their business is doing well, and they have fresh plans for the future there.

Dan and Ellen devote the entire Quick Takes segment of the podcast to the New England Muzzle Awards, a Fourth of July roundup of outrages against freedom of speech and of the press in the six New England states. The awards were conceived of by Dan’s friend and occasional collaborator Harvey Silverglate, the noted Boston civilliberties lawyer. For many years, they were published by the late, lamented Boston Phoenix. They’ve been hosted by GBH News since 2013, and this year marks their  25th anniversary.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Mike Deehan of Axios Boston talks about the debut of the mobile-first Axios Boston

Mike Deehan

On this week’s podcast, Dan and Ellen talk with Mike Deehan, a savvy Boston journalist who is part of the new Axios Boston newsletter. Mike’s colleague at Axios Boston, Steph Solis, was scheduled to join the discussion but was out reporting on reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Deehan and Solis have been reporting on Massachusetts news and politics for a number of years. Mike was formerly digital content editor for State House News Service, editor of Massterlist, and worked for the Dorchester Reporter. Steph worked for Masslive and was an immigration reporter for the USA Today Network. The Axios Boston debut was newsy and a perfect smart-phone scroll for subway reading, whether the MBTA is running or not.

Steph Solis

Dan has a Quick Take on the soaring cost of newsprint. Print is still important to the bottom line at most newspapers, and this turns out to be one more blow to local news. Ellen looks at a new rural news network being set up through the Institute of Nonprofit News.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.