Time for journalists and readers to fight back against the destruction of American newspapers
Over the holiday weekend, my wife and I had occasion to take the commuter rail out to Dedham to a family gathering in memory of loved ones who have left us. As we walked the mile to my cousin’s place—through middle-class suburban streets nearly bereft of foot traffic (and, in some places, sidewalks)—I looked at the many houses we passed. And thought about the fact that, despite their generally tidy exteriors and the lush greenery all around them, we were walking through a “news desert” in formation.
News desert is an expression I’ve used much in the last year and refers to a municipality that no longer has enough professionally staffed local news outlets to properly cover the happenings within its borders.
Like dozens of other communities in the Bay State, Dedham is a town that once had a daily newspaper (and I have little doubt that a deep dive into library archives would unearth evidence of competitors). The Dedham Transcript was founded in 1870 with its own full-time editors, reporters, and support staff. Over a century hence, like so many other outlets, its successor paper was caught up in the wave of news media consolidation—and by 2006, it was acquired by GateHouse, a corporation that owns 156 daily newspapers and 328 weeklies. Over 100 of which are in Eastern Massachusetts.
Three years later, the Daily News Transcript, as it was known by then, was shuttered. And today it survives as one of a growing number of “ghost papers” around the US—with articles from one staff reporter responsible for covering a number of communities for GateHouse, padded out with content from other news outlets owned by the same company… plus some press releases, event listings, and letters to the editor. Literally a ghost paper in this case, since GateHouse reverted the publication to its long-dead predecessor’s original name, Dedham Transcript.
The town has two other news outlets at the moment. A Patch outpost featuring content by another reporter that covers several municipalities, and a weekly newspaper, Dedham Times—which covers some community events and records the outcome of some key local government meetings. It also has a pretty robust-looking, professionally run community access television station, Dedham TV, that airs government meetings in the public interest.
What’s missing, of course, is much in the way of investigative reporting about town affairs—other than sporadic critical coverage from major Boston news media and probably some local blogs of questionable quality. Precisely what gets lost as budgets of the remaining corporate news outlets get ever tighter and reporting staff is eliminated by management. Yet the element of journalism that is most important for the maintenance of democratic governance at the local level.
Also much on my mind as my wife and I walked was a Boston Globe article of last Wednesday recounting highlights of the International News Media Association’s World Congress of News Media. At which New York Times editor Dean Baquet predicted, “most local newspapers in America are going to die in the next five years, except for the ones that have been bought by a local billionaire.”
The very next day, as if on cue, GateHouse announced the layoff of an unspecified number of staff reporters at many of its properties around the US. That afternoon, Mike Reed, CEO of GateHouse’s parent company, New Media Investment Group (which careful readers of this column will recall is owned Fortress Investment Group LLC, which is owned in turn by Japanese multinational SoftBank Group Corp.), told Poynter that there were “a couple of hundred” staffers being laid off. After denying that number earlier in the day.
Of course the way Reed stated this point was exactly as disgusting as you’d expect from his brand of bottom-feeding corporate chieftain, “We are doing a small restructuring—at least that’s what I would call it—that I’m sure will be misreported. We have 11,000 employees. This involves a couple of hundred.”
He went on to say that most of those 200 positions weren’t journalists—indicating that the number of journalists being “downsized” was “more like 10.” A number that was roundly mocked and derided as laid-off journalists took to social media to announce the loss of key reporting staff in outlet after outlet that have already suffered repeated rounds of layoffs over recent years.
Meanwhile, on the very same day, the Boston Business Journal reported that “In addition to the vote on compensation, shareholders … also approved [New Media Investment Group’s] spending $100 million to buy back its own stock, a measure that’s typically taken by companies to increase their share price.”
Taking care of the investors while sticking it to the reporters. The news industry of 2019 in a nutshell. Still, those New Media shares were down 45% from a year ago prior to what looks very much like a desperation move, and the same shareholder meeting shot down a $1.7 million compensation package for GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis. So maybe both worthies are not long for their jobs either. Cold comfort to all the newly jobless journalists. But then revenge is a dish best served at that temperature.
By evening, my DigBoston colleagues and I learned that Worcester GateHouse properties were particularly hard-hit. The daily Worcester Telegram & Gazette lost six staffers. Bad enough. But our sibling alternative weekly Worcester Magazine—ironically, founded over 40 years ago as a competitor to the T&G—was utterly savaged as two of its remaining three editorial staffers lost their jobs. Leaving my fellow political columnist Bill Shaner in charge of putting out that publication by himself for as long as he can.
Speaking as someone who does the very same job on a very similar paper every week with two other full-time staff, Chris Faraone and John Loftus, I can confirm that is a Sisyphean task to say the least.
More to the point, it’s an impossible situation. And yet more proof positive that GateHouse, the concern that put Bill in such an untenable position, doesn’t care about journalism at all. It’s a company that lost some money last quarter even as it canned 60 other staffers, according to Business Insider, and now has quickly set about cutting more mission-critical staff from numerous already hollowed-out news outlets around the country to lower costs and get profits back on track. Likely in advance of closing many of those same publications down for good—once every ounce of value has been squeezed out of their long-established brand names.
After they’re gone—should the prophecy of the NYT’s Baquet, and many others, come true—then what? GateHouse leadership and their bosses higher up the corporate food chain don’t have any answers. But they don’t need any. Their sole imperative is to make as much profit as possible before the newspaper industry goes belly-up. Even as they jam a spike up said belly.
A process set in motion in no small part by GateHouse’s buying up every local outlet it can in states like Massachusetts, forcing them into “megaclusters” of dozens of outlets (as covered in my second of two January columns on the dirtbag conglomerate, “Why GateHouse’s Boston ‘Megacluster” Is a Threat to Democracy”) and sharing increasingly weak content among its properties—produced, as it is, by ever fewer, ever more destabilized, staff. Just enough hands on deck to keep up appearances and keep the all-important ad revenue flowing, mind you, as the corporation’s busywork leads to its inevitable conclusion. Then, a few years from now, many Boston-area communities will have no paid journalists regularly covering their cities and towns. Making them well and truly news deserts.
By way of a solution, there is no easy one to such a monumental predicament. As usual, I will enjoin readers to support any decent independent local news outlets left in your communities. Including DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism—both run in parallel by Faraone, Loftus, and me. And both experimenting with ways to reverse the American news industry’s long slide toward oblivion.
But this week, I’ll add that you all should try to help Bill Shaner at Worcester Magazine. If you’re a freelance journalist in Central Mass, sell him some content to help him keep putting his paper out for the time being without enough staff to produce it in-house. If you work for another news outlet, try to get him some articles that are ready to go for free or cheap—as we’re already doing at Dig and BINJ. If you’re a local advertiser, toss him a contract. If you’re just someone concerned about how he’s doing, drop him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask him what he needs.
No matter that WoMag is owned by GateHouse. People of good conscience will work hard to figure out a way to pull down media conglomerates like GateHouse (and the matryoshka nesting doll-like array of shell corporations that often own them) brick by brick and replace them with more democratic alternatives in the years to come. Right now this is about journalism. This is about keeping an important publication with a storied history alive until some way can be found to wrest it away from a company (really four companies) intent on killing it.
This is also about pushing back against the prophecy of a dead news industry by doing our damnedest to keep it alive.
And, most of all, this is about supporting our friend Bill—a journalist confrere, and a damned good one, who is being screwed over nearly as badly as his co-workers who just lost their jobs. At Worcester Magazine and more than 45 other news outlets around the country. Every reporting position remaining being literally irreplaceable at this point. We need to do what we can to help Bill, and all the overworked, undervalued journalists like him nationwide… until we figure out how to fund American newspapers—in whatever medium they are produced—as well as they were once funded.
On that note, as for GateHouse and all its corrupt ilk… we shall meet them upon the field of honor. Not that soulless rent-seeking multinationals have any.
Executive editor and associate publisher, DigBoston. Executive director of Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Former founder and editor/publisher of Open Media Boston. 2018 & 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Award Winner.