The death of journalism has been coming for some time—just depends on who you ask. First it was radio, which would put newspapers into the ground. Then television was going to end the profession. Finally, the Internet would be a death blow, right?
No, even if we have tried to speed our death along by giving away our content online, the Internet hasn’t meant death to newspapers, and I doubt it ever will.
The death of journalism isn’t coming from radio, television or the Internet, but instead it will come from within.
Every newspaper sold to a giant company or hedge fund is the slow poison of journalism that will eventually put our industry down for good.
My hometown newspaper was just sold to Gatehouse, if the rumors are true. If they are true, the newspaper I grew up loving is dead, even if the reporters, editors and community don’t know it.
See, it won’t be evident at first. The poison takes time to leach the life out of a great paper like the Hutchinson News.
But, through layoffs, loss of local control, and most importantly, the neutering of the editorial page, the paper will lose any life it had, slowly and surely, until it is merely a shell.
A former publisher who lived through a take-over of Gatehouse explains:
“WOW. If it mirrors the purchase of my town, it means that there will be imminent staffing cuts and they will look at whether each newspaper justifies its current print schedule. Watch for publishers to flee, immediately, followed by top staff. Remember, the Gatehouse approach is, “nobody is irreplaceable.” They strive to find people who will work for lower wages, and they embrace their revolving door workforce.
“This will mean bad news to the Harris chain as Gatehouse will seek to centralize production/pre-press operations,” he said.
“However, to the independent newspapers in the region, it could also represent a potential boon to their abilities to sell advertising and compete against a once strong product. Gatehouse is known for trying to regionalize advertising—especially on the digital side.
“My personal opinion is that this is the absolute worst thing that could happen to a once-strong voice in Kansas newspapers. Once again, it becomes a game of diminishing returns because of staff cuts and overall downtrodden energy throughout the group. You can’t run a quality newspaper when you’re directly tied to an investment company.”
This all happened to a once great newspaper down the highway from Hutchinson, The Newton Kansan, just a few years ago. People who would profit and enjoy a demise of the newspaper industry will report that circulation is down everywhere and people don’t want newspapers.
That simply isn’t true. Our loss of circulation (as an industry—not in my company) is mostly due to our own sabotage and not to some perceived lack of interest in what is happening on one’s community.
The Kansan, and now the Harris chain of papers, is just a line item in a very large portfolio for a hedge fund in which the company that manages it (they own the most papers in the country) accounts for only one percent of gross revenues.
I am sure they matter to those in charge with that kind of pull… The company that manages their paper doesn’t even account for one percent of their overall revenues—just a speck on the map. Hutchinson, Salina, Garden City, and Hays are all in for this same future.
In contrast, our company has to pay attention to Newton and treat it right or our company would suffer. Newton is just one of four papers we own in a tight area of south central Kansas.
That is the biggest difference between local ownership and corporate ownership. The community matters to the local guy. Not so much for the hedge fund managers who look at only profits.
This impacts people more than you think. Newspapers aren’t just like any business in town. If the local hardware store is sold to a big company, you still have a comparable hardware store even if the brands change and the customer service is different. You can still buy a hammer if you need one.
When the local newspaper is sold, the only source for watch dog journalism and informed editorials is in peril. There isn’t always someone left to go to that meeting.
The amount of reporters in the field goes down, and the amount of local control goes away.
This got me fired up recently when I read that the owners of Morris Communications, which owns newspapers all over the country, dictated to every paper they would run an endorsement for Donald Trump in their papers, whether they wanted to or not.
Morris owns the Topeka Capital-Journal in my home state. They lost a member of their local editorial board due to this decision. Many of the readers of the Cap-Journal won’t know the owners required the editorial to run but will take the opinion of what should be one of the most informed groups of people in the community to heart.
It is worse in Newton, where Gatehouse doesn’t want newspapers to write local editorials at all, instead having them write big thank yous and “five things to do this weekend” type stuff.
Even if they could write local editorials, they don’t have time to as they are required to tweet a certain amount of times and do a certain number of videos to keep their jobs; that is on top of the important job of getting the paper out.
We compete with Gatehouse in Newton, and we genuinely feel bad for their employees. They look beaten down.
There aren’t a lot of companies like ours, though. It was risky to take on an establishment newspaper like we did. My wife and I don’t have kids, and we were open and honest with the employees we hired in Newton, letting them know that there might not be a tomorrow, so you have to fight like there won’t be for us to make this work. There were no guarantees in what we were doing.
Unfortunately, there are guarantees that when most locally owned newspapers are sold to giant companies, the quality of those papers and the journalism in them will go down. My friends in Hutchinson have no idea what they had until it is gone.
The poison of journalism is the lack of quality, local ownership. If anything kills journalism, it will be that. The only way to stave off this death is local ownership refusing to sell to these corporate guys or more small companies willing to compete.
If you are reading this and you are the latter, call me or e-mail me. I will be happy to help with your game plan. We have to stick together in this fight. I know the power of the press is real and worth fighting for. I hope more people feel that way, too.
Study done by the University of North Carolina on the state of corporate ownership of newspapers.