A looming media mega-merger is likely to cast a long shadow over Wisconsin journalism.
The Wall Street Journal reported 10 days ago that GateHouse Media and Gannett were in merger talks that would combine the two newspaper chains under the GateHouse umbrella.
“It’s increasingly likely to happen,” wrote news business analyst Ken Doctor earlier this month, citing “multiple sources” and forecasting an announcement by the end of the summer.
The potential impact of such a combination would be extensive in America’s Dairyland.
Gannett owns 109 daily newspapers, including 11 in Wisconsin. Only Ohio, with a dozen, has more Gannett properties.
The chain’s Wisconsin holdings include the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state’s largest newspaper. The others are in Appleton, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Manitowoc, Marshfield, Oshkosh, Sheboygan, Stevens Point, Wausau, and Wisconsin Rapids.
GateHouse has 156 daily newspapers and 300-plus weeklies. In Wisconsin, the only GateHouse holdings are the Milwaukee-based Daily Reporter, focusing on construction news, and the monthly Wisconsin Law Journal.
“A combined Gannett and GateHouse would create a superchain that owned and operated more than one-sixth of all daily newspapers in the country,” writes Doctor in his Newsonomics column at the NiemanLab website. “The merged company would control 265 dailies with a combined daily print circulation of about 8.7 million.”
A larger company would not, however, necessarily mean more resources for the individual papers in the new organization.
Gannett’s 2016 acquisition of the Journal Sentinel stunned the community and the staff of the daily, already buffeted, along with the rest of the newspaper industry, by nearly two decades of economic turmoil, including repeated rounds of layoffs and buyouts.
When the evening Milwaukee Journal and morning Milwaukee Sentinel merged in 1995, the combined paper’s local ownership was a point of pride. The Journal Sentinel launched with a newsroom staff of more than 400. Today, the newspaper’s website lists fewer than 100 editorial employees.
The newspaper is selling its iconic and largely empty downtown Milwaukee building and moving to new offices a few blocks east early next year.
“The loss of head count in the newsroom is staggering to see,” retired Journal Sentinel reporter Meg Kissinger told the Wisconsin Examiner. “You cannot cover a local community in the same depth.”
Kissinger started at the old Milwaukee Journal in 1983 and rose to be one of the star reporters at the Journal Sentinel, earning recognition for coverage of mental illness among many other topics.
“It was a bitter pill for people to swallow when it became part of the Gannett chain,” she said. “People took great pride in being this champion for local news.”
Despite the worries, she added, “Gannett was trying at the beginning. They talked a lot about emphasizing investigative reporting, but also letting the Journal Sentinel be the Journal Sentinel. I don’t think that’s going to be sustainable with GateHouse taking them overGateHouse has been on an acquisitions binge — spending more than $1 billion since 2013 on “dozens of papers in 15 states,” in the words of a profile of the company in The Expanding News Desert, a report produced by the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media in the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
GateHouse is part of Fortress Investment Group, and the newspaper chain accounts for less than 2% of the parent firm’s $70 billion in annual revenue from holdings that also include golf courses, railroads and financial services.
The profile describes a recurring strategy of aggressive cost-cutting once GateHouse takes over: “It consolidates functions such as copy editing and page design in a remote location. Additionally, specialty and veteran reporters are laid off or severed, and then replaced by general assignment reporters whose journalistic responsibility is to produce ‘shareable’ stories that attract online readers. As a result, GateHouse-owned newsrooms are often half the size within a matter of months.”
GateHouse isn’t alone in relying on consolidation. Both Gannett and Lee Enterprises, which also owns several Wisconsin newspapers, have relied on regional “hubs” to provide copy editing and design for papers across several states
GateHouse’s approach appears much more aggressive, however, and includes “selling, closing and merging under-performing papers,” the UNC profile says. In May, the chain laid off “several dozen” journalists from its daily papers across the country, the Poynter Institute’s Tom Jones reported. (A company executive who spoke with Jones wouldn’t confirm numbers, but downplayed the reductions.) In June, the chain combined 50 weekly newspapers in Massachusetts into 18 publications.
Wisconsin would seem to be a likely candidate for the latter strategy, given the proximity of several of the Gannett papers to each other.
In June, GateHouse announced plans for a new 30-member national investigative reporting team with staffers “embedded in local newsrooms.”
But the UNC profile concluded that there had been “little investment in GateHouse newsrooms,” citing stagnant wages, layoff threats and ramped up productivity demands, all while average daily circulation at existing GateHouse newspapers declined 15% from 2014 to 2018.
Kissinger now teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. “I tell my students all the time — it’s a vital part of the democracy to have a thriving press,” she said. “I do think a solid news organization is a precious gift to a community.”
Seeing what appears to lie ahead for her former colleagues troubles her. “I just have a lot of respect for so many of the people that have worked there,” Kissinger said. “It makes me so sad to think about the direction this seems to be heading.”