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Latest Gannett Layoffs Sting Westchester, Communities Across U.S.

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It was two decades ago, in late 2000, and I was 22 years old, seated in my goofy ill-sized suit in the corner office of a Head Honcho at The Journal News, interviewing for a position as a reporter.

Growing up on Long Island, anything north of New York City might as well have been the tip of Niagara Falls, all some vague, fuzzy “upstate.” I didn’t know Westchester County from North Country, New York.

If printed news, for example, wasn’t in Newsday, the Daily News or The New York Times, it generally wasn’t on my newspaper radar screen. So I was just genuinely making innocent conversation when I asked Mr. Honcho a question as my job interview was winding down.

“So what grade might you give The Journal News as an organization?” I asked, or something along those lines. 

“A C-minus,” he immediately replied, with a wry grin.

In a moment, I’ll get back to my story, the brutal impact of Friday’s wrenching Gannett layoffs, and my illuminating conversation with Asher Stockler, a local government accountability journalist at The Journal News/lohud, and the secretary for the Hudson Valley News Guild, a union repping the editorial staff at The Journal News, the Poughkeepsie Journal and the Times Herald-Record.

But a quick other point first. There’s always been a weird dynamic when it comes to The Journal News and, more recently, the outlet’s important digital platform, lohud.

My oversimplified analysis: the individual reporters, visual journalists and editors are consistently first-rate, to this day, producing excellent work, while the upper Gannett corporate management has, generally speaking, to use a technical term, sucked.

It strikes me as an organization where ambitious young reporters, award-winning mid-career journos, and seasoned vets get dragged down by corporate bureaucracy, schizophrenic company priorities, and myopic bottom-line thinking.

Local regional dailies play a critical institutional role in watchdogging government to a scale not entirely possible for resource-strapped community news organizations like ours throughout the country. That’s why Friday’s layoffs are so bruising. 

HONCHO’S GRADE
So, back to that Head Honcho and his C-minus grade. I recall being taken aback by the answer.

He seemed to relish delivering the zinger about his own organization. When I started at the paper a few months later in 2001, and relayed the story to one of my new colleagues, I learned how Mr. Honcho had since left for a different newspaper.

And I also eventually saw how his exhausted mood at the end of his tenure foreshadowed what I’d soon myself discover about the surroundings. 

At first, I didn’t know what Honcho was talking about. I was one of the young reporters hired to produce community journalism for the newly-launched Journal News Weeklies division, with a beat covering the City of Peekskill for The Star. A great first job, lucky to have it.

I was surrounded by a creative, talented crew — young reporters and senior editors eager to deliver high-quality, fact-checked content. (The local executives were also generally warm, supportive and smart, albeit seemingly unnerved by ever-changing corporate edicts from Gannett’s McLean, Va. headquarters). 

But over the next 15 months, before I left for a different newspaper job, I saw how cringey corporate mandates and a morale-sapping culture fostered by folks outside the newsroom sometimes turned editorial startup energy into stale air, as much fun as we often had.

In fairness, some of my analysis at the time was a result of being a young punk. Yet even with that distorted lens in mind, looking back years later, I can objectively identify some signs of real, festering toxicity.

As one of the biggest newspaper publishers in the country, made somehow even less journalistically-motivated in 2019 after the merger with GateHouse, Gannett’s financial woes are our woes — and by “our” I mean our communities across the country, hurt by the downsizing of already skeleton-staffed newspapers.

99 PROBLEMS
Last week, after the most recent quarterly reporting showed Gannett’s revenue dropping 7% compared to the same time last year, the company’s plans to cut editorial staff were announced — newspaper ad sales and subscription sales are still suffering. And on Friday, as planned, the hammer dropped.

Lohud lost its top editor — the executive editor, Mary Dolan, — and the investigations editor, Frank Scandale, while dozens of other Gannett journalists at news organizations across America also found themselves suddenly unemployed.

Without yet knowing all the particulars, it feels safe to say that losing two top editorial leaders can crush the ambitions of an already drastically undersized staff. 

“At lohud, they essentially decapitated the newsroom,” said Stockler, the Hudson Valley News Guild secretary and accountability journalist I spoke to over DM and phone on Saturday. In nearby Orange County, at the Gannett-run Times Herald-Record, where I worked as an intern and later a staff reporter for a very brief time in 2002, the news director, Beth Kalet, was also let go, Stockler added.

I can tell you firsthand that the Record (earlier ownership/different era) was once a bustling newsroom, one of the best regional dailies in the Tri-state area and beyond. It was almost like (a more exurban version of) Michael Keaton’s big city tabloid in “The Paper.” It’s now a relative ghost town by all accounts. 

“These layoffs are not only devastating to us personally, as some of the very last reporters remaining at The Journal News/lohud.com, but they are sure to be equally harmful to our readers and to the residents of Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties,” added Stockler, who started as a reporter at The Journal News/lohud last year.

He also noted how Gannett’s “retreat” will lead to important local stories going unreported and said how more “government wrongdoing will remain unexposed.”

Stockler is spot on. Us smaller town community news organizations are out here hustling and delivering our own value but don’t have anywhere near the (old) Gannett-style resources to finance robust investigative units and the like to service about 1.4 million residents across a trio of counties.

As for corporate culture, when I raised that topic, Stockler characterized the current iteration as “cold and distant.” He did also note how he remains cautiously hopeful that open positions could eventually/possibly be filled with new staff.

But it was also clear that his eyes are more than wide open. No one is wearing rose-colored glasses. 

ROME BURNS

As of this writing, there were 20 confirmed newsrooms across the country zapped by the layoffs but that number is expected to grow. Additional cuts are likely on Monday, Stockler said.

To be clear, the very real challenges faced by Gannett and news publishers large and small are impossible to exaggerate. Our small staff, for example, still remains smaller than it was pre-COVID, and smaller than it was last month.

It’s a herculean effort for any local news organization to generate enough revenue to fund even a tiny group of community journalists. But Gannett’s troubles, in particular, always seem exacerbated by its decision-making.

Moreover, company leaders are tone-deaf and/or excessively greedy with the compensation they dole out to top corporate brass. It’s money they could more wisely use to invest in sustainable future business models for local news — ways to improve business and journalism simultaneously.

The incredible work being done by an industry leader like Tim Griggs with the Facebook-Meta Accelerator program (we’re participants) is one important example of an innovator advocating results that can scale. 

TEEMING WITH PEOPLE

If you came of age after the setting of our industry’s sunnier days, it’s hard to describe just how robust the staffing levels were at regional daily newspapers less than a generation ago.

In fact, as recently as 2013, AFTER The Journal News cut 26 jobs, including 17 newsroom positions, it was still, comparably speaking, teeming with people; 206 employees to be exact after that summer’s latest personnel bloodbath. (Timing wise, it’s probably worth noting I launched The Examiner in 2007, after Gannett shuttered The Patent Trader weekly community newspaper, opening up a hole in the marketplace). 

That era was nothing compared to the leadership role regional dailies played in their communities even in the early 2000s. Don’t forget, local news was already tumbling down a death spiral in 2013 for almost a decade when The Journal News still staffed about as many people as, say, play for all NBA Eastern Conference NBA teams combined. 

Examiner Editor-in-Chief Martin Wilbur, for his part, was a reporter at the paper from 1989 through 1991.

In the Putnam bureau alone, where he worked, six staff news reporters exclusively focused on coverage of a small county with less than 100,000 residents. There were localized bureaus up and down the region; Martin remembers dedicated editorial chiefs running reporting units in Rockland, Yorktown, Harrison/White Plains, and Yonkers.

There were more than 1,000 personnel in the company’s heyday, remembered a different former employee who started there in the late 1980s. Newsroom staff by itself totaled more than 200. 

I haven’t yet been able to confirm the current companywide staffing total but the full-time journalist head count is now measured in just the dozens, without any apparent future growth (or even maintenance) plan on the table.

In terms of present editorial employees, post-cuts, there are about two dozen total reporters, photographers, and sports journalists, along with less than a dozen manager-level editors, current and former staff sources estimated. And while these numbers are woefully inadequate as compared to what’s needed to properly serve the public good, there’s no evidence to suggest we’ve hit bottom.

Sadly, in a country where more than 2,000 newspapers bit the dust over the past almost 20 years — we’ve lost a quarter of the industry since 2004 — there are also plenty of news deserts elsewhere in the United States that could only wish for about 35 professional daily journalists to cover and curate local happenings. (Not to mention independent community news organizations like ours and others across the Hudson Valley to augment coverage of larger outlets).  

More than 200 of the nation’s 3,143 counties and equivalents have no real local news source, according to the U.S. News Deserts Database. Let’s just hope we’re not calling 2022 the (relative) glory days compared to where we are in, say, two to three years. 

TREES AND FORESTS 

Anyway, I don’t want to paint too cartoonish a picture here of the good guy worker bees exterminated by bad guy corporate killers. (Although you should read the piece about Gannett’s CEO, who reportedly bought $1.22 million in Gannett stock for himself as Rome burned. And it’s not just the CEO; plenty of Gannett executives and even board members are seeing their pockets generously lined these days in excessive fashion). 

Gannett aside, the most well-intentioned industry bosses are genuinely overwhelmed by a historic tidal wave of local-news-specific business hurdles. More than anything, beyond the morality play, this is a sad story — it’s impossible to calculate the impact of insufficient staffing at news organizations.

Across the country, there are just way too many trees falling in the forest without anyone there to tell us what happened.

– Adam Stone is the founder and publisher of Examiner Media. Readers can support the company’s local news mission for about a dime per day and receive bonus content and other perks by joining as members. https://www.examiner-plus.com/subscribe?coupon=3267a532

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