Thursday marked another round of layoffs for GateHouse Media properties. Several newspapers across the country felt the impact.
Mike Reed, CEO of GateHouse’s parent company, New Media Investment Group, told Poynter, “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.”
Though Reed clearly wants to deflect the implications of this round of layoffs, he seems to ignore how losing even a couple of people from a staff that has already felt deep cuts can negatively impact a news organization.
The most concerning implication of this move revolves around the nearly 150-year-old Hutchinson News and how the journalism landscape in Kansas will look in the coming months and years.
After all, GateHouse, according to its website, publishes 10 dailies, nine weeklies and one shopper in Kansas. The Hutchinson News, and its sister papers previously owned by the Harris family of Harris Enterprises, joined that number in 2016.
Since that and other purchases have been made, GateHouse has been under fire from those who pay attention, including myself, due to the nature of its business model, which seems to only worry about pleasing shareholders.
The Hutchinson News hasn’t been the same since GateHouse took it over. The breadth and depth of the coverage has suffered, and now with even fewer people in the newsroom, that promises to only get worse.
One significant casualty of these layoffs was Ron Sylvester, the editor of the Hutchinson News who also oversaw eight GateHouse-owned news operations in Kansas.
“Joined the ranks of laid-off #journalists today. Reaching out to my network. Let me know what a hard-working kickass journalist with 40 years of experience and a pioneer of social media should do next. #PlanB,” Sylvester tweeted Thursday night.
This move by GateHouse comes days after the Kansas Leadership Center produced the Spring 2019 issue of its quarterly publication, The Journal, that looked specifically at the plight of journalism in the state.
The main news outlet the cover story looked at? It was the Hutchinson News, of course.
Joel Mathis, writing for The Journal, used the Hutchinson News as the prime example of why corporate instead of local ownership is damaging journalism throughout Kansas. Beyond that, it presents a damning case against GateHouse and its vampiric business practices that only seek to drain a news organization of its profits with apparently no regard for the quality of journalism it produces.
According to the article, “4 out of every 10 Kansans outside the KC metro area who receive a daily newspaper today are getting it from a GateHouse publication.” And that is a frightening statistic for communities that rely on the local paper to be informed. If everything is coming through what essentially amounts to a single source, how reliable can the information be when it comes to understanding, truly understanding, the community it purports to serve?
Julie Doll, who spent 14 years working for Harris newspapers, told Mathis for his article in The Journal that corporate ownership isn’t as big of a problem as some make it out to be.
“In my experience, the quality depends on who leads the newsroom rather than who owns the newspaper,” she said.
Sure. That makes sense. But there are two issues with that line of thinking.
First, it doesn’t matter who is in the newsroom. If the corporate overloads send down a mandate for a specific type of coverage or anything else, it will have to be done, even if it doesn’t “fit” within what the newspaper’s goals for the community are. After all, if the boss tells you to do something, you better do it or start polishing your resume. Standing up for what is right and just is fantastic, but that doesn’t always mean good will prevail over evil.
Second, what happens when there is no one left in the newsroom? When a company like GateHouse puts profit ahead of people, soon there won’t be anyone at the paper to stand up against the corporation and do the good work of a journalist.
After all, that’s what’s happening in the case of Sylvester. He’s one of the good ones, with a resume that stops in at places like the Wichita Eagle (where he covered the BTK serial killer), the Las Vegas Sun, and the Orange County Register, to name a few.
He will no longer be in the newsroom to lead the charge of good journalism. So who is going to step up and fill that void?
At one point in the 2000s, according the Mathis, the Hutchinson News had about 30 staff members, but as of February 2019 the number was closer to 10.
Such slashing of journalists undoubtedly impacts local news, and the consequences are far from positive.
Mathis reported 17 Kansas newspapers closed between 1996 and 2015. That sets the stage for the existence of news deserts.
According to 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, a new desert is “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.”
Journalism is key for a democracy. It is why journalism is considered the Fourth Estate, right after the three branches of government. The role of journalists is to provide a watchdog role of government and provide important information to the communities they serve.
A news desert is dangerous to democracy. It limits civic engagement. In order to have a strong democracy, we have to have strong civic engagement.
Luckily, only one county in Kansas is without a newspaper. That is Elk County, and even it is served by neighboring Chautauqua County. However, as Mathis pointed out in The Journal, nearly half of the counties in the state only have one newspaper. One “small restructuring” at those papers could spell the end for them. Then what? The news deserts expand and the availability of trustworthy information declines. The state is walking a tightrope while GateHouse shakes it.
Here’s the thing companies like GateHouse don’t understand. All news is important in small communities. Even the briefs sharing how “the Smith family got together with the Johnson family for a cookout” serve a purpose. It may not be Earth-shattering information, but it keeps the community connected. One must keep in mind “the social value of newspapers,” as Mathis said.
This is why I love journalism and have made my career center on the media. I am a former weekly newspaper editor, and I am now a journalism educator. Despite the idea of “fake news” being so prevalent in our polarized society, true journalism is anything but fake. The local newspaper is the lifeblood of a community. It gives the answers to the questions people are pondering. Instead of trusting the likes of unreliable social media feeds, people can read the local news paper and be confident about what is going on.
Without a local news outlet staffed by professional journalists, the local school board or city council can do whatever they want with taxpayers’ money because no one is looking over their shoulders. Journalists help keep elected officials accountable.
Local journalists are also part of the community. They celebrate the collective wins and mourn the losses along with their neighbors. Journalists care, and they want what’s best for the town. Sure, sometimes they may have to report on the negative happenings, but it isn’t something they look forward to. It’s their job to keep people informed — good or bad.
And that’s what I try to stress to my students. Every story isn’t going to be award-winning, but it is still worthy of coverage. If it is important to any segment of the audience, perhaps even more so for the marginalized individuals, then it is worthy of being reported on. Journalists must give a voice to the voiceless and not cede that role to faceless social media algorithms. The computer codes don’t know what is important. The journalists in the communities they serve do.
With an informed citizenry comes an engaged citizenry. Civic engagement is crucial for communities. People need to take part in the democratic process. The technology we now have available to us can be helpful, but as Robert D. Putnam found in his book, “Bowling Alone,” technology is more likely to divide us and mute our civic engagement.
That’s why I try to focus on the relationship between civic engagement and journalism when I do research in my capacity as an educator. To be civically engaged, one must develop critical thinking skills, communication, organization, and decision-making. Likewise, to be an effective journalist, one must fine-tune the same skills. Whether a person is a journalist or not, paying attention to what is going on around them, both politically and otherwise, is a crucial task.
A prime way to build this proverbial toolbox is for high school students to take part in scholastic journalism programs. Students must learn civic engagement means contributing to society by, at minimum, voting in elections, discussing public issues, and volunteering with organizations dedicated to social causes. Research suggests student participation in activities such as high school or college journalism programs supports civic engagement in adulthood by laying a foundation in which such engagement is valued and respected due to developed knowledge and identity.
No matter what happens to the journalism industry, there will always be a need for journalists to report the news. However, if as a society, we don’t take more steps to help preserve the journalism organizations we have, we may end up losing something we will miss dearly in our local communities.
How can we do this? Buy a subscription to your local paper. Donate to your local NPR station. Thank a journalist for the work he or she is doing. Don’t rely upon Facebook for your news. Ignore the idea that the media is “the enemy of the people” and “fake news.”
Online and other forms of digital news are great and convenient, but print still matters. Reading the news on my phone or tablet still doesn’t give me the same sensory experience as opening up a newspaper.
As The Journal managing editor Chris Green wrote in Spring 2019 issue, a print product “fills a gaping hole in getting people on the same page. Social media algorithms slice and dice us up into categories and segments. Almost no one sees the same posts, and civic life increasingly turns to dialogue among people working from vastly different information or worldviews.”
At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t matter how you get your news as long as you are supporting the cause, usually with your pocketbook. It takes money to produce quality journalism, but don’t confuse that with profit-hungry, predatory business models that don’t care about quality reporting.
Preserve democracy. Support local journalism. Don’t let the evil of corporations such as GateHouse win. Our civic society is at stake.