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The fate of local news: America's largest newspaper company is creating news deserts

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

The country's largest newspaper company, Gannett, is once again forecasting it will sell off more of its daily newspapers. Since its merge with newspaper company GateHouse Media in 2019, Gannett has closed or sold hundreds of papers and slashed staff by more than half, and that is projected to continue. Joshua Benton has been writing about this for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, and he joins me now. Welcome.

JOSHUA BENTON: Good to be with you.

FLORIDO: Joshua, Gannett had 25,000 employees at the end of 2019, and less than four years later, it has just over 11,000. It slashed staff by more than half. I mean, newspaper revenue has been steadily declining over that time but not by that much, not at that rate. So what's going on here?

BENTON: The Gannett that we have now is the result of the merger of two very large companies. The idea was an individual newspaper might struggle on its own, but if you buy enough of them, you can extract as much of the cost of producing the newspaper from the local community as possible. You cut down on print days. You have the page layout and editing done elsewhere. The thought was you could achieve these economies of scale and make a profitable business. The problem is, as part of the merger, Gannett took on a lot of debt, and they have to pay off that debt. So they need revenue. And the way that they have been doing that is by cutting costs to the bone. That means cutting staff and cutting the quality of their newspapers.

FLORIDO: I guess it goes without saying that print circulation of newspapers has plummeted in recent years. It's been on the decline for decades, actually. And today, most people get their news online. Is it just the case that these Gannett newspapers aren't managing to get people who used to subscribe to their print paper to subscribe to their digital product instead?

BENTON: Yeah. Newspapers have generally given up on the idea of creating new print readers. They're not really making new print readers anymore. So the idea has been to shift to digital, and Gannett claims some degree of success in doing that. But even when that does happen, newspapers generally make significantly less money off of a digital subscriber than they do from a print subscriber. The other problem is that there are lots of other free alternatives for a lot of local news and information, and people will be happy to consume those without bothering to subscribe to the local daily.

FLORIDO: You write in the Nieman Journalism Lab that in the last few years, Gannett had 563 newspapers and today has fewer than 400. Many of these are newspapers that are serving smaller cities and towns. So what does it mean for these communities when their newspapers are sold or closed or even if they're just gutted of staff?

BENTON: Yeah. Gannett CEO Mike Reed has said that he sees in the future, the company will be focusing on its larger newspapers in communities like Phoenix and Indianapolis. But Gannett owns a lot of very small newspapers, a lot of weekly newspapers, a lot of very small daily newspapers. Those larger weeklies and smaller dailies are in a really tough position economically. It's very difficult to manage the cost while emphasizing digital subscriptions and getting enough of them to make things work out. There are also communities where there often isn't as much of an alternative in terms of a local television station or a local digital news outlet that's covering the area.

So in a lot of communities, there just aren't a lot of options. And these places will become more like a news desert. You know, one newspaper in Eugene, Ore., The Register-Guard, was locally owned by a family in Eugene until 2018 when it sold to GateHouse and - which was then merged into Gannett. And in that time, the newsroom has gone from over 40 employees to what on its current staff listing is seven. It's really hard to run a robust newsroom when you have seven people working in your newsroom.

FLORIDO: At the end of the day, Gannett is a business. Most newspapers are businesses, with a mission to inform the public, yes, but also driven by profit motive. So do you see any solutions here for the local communities that are being left behind in these sort of information deserts?

BENTON: I think it is very difficult to manage the transition from a print daily to an effective digital news outlet. It's often much easier to start from scratch. It's not happening everywhere. But there are communities across the country where smart digital outlets are growing to the point where in some cases, they have bigger newsrooms than the local daily newspaper does. It is possible, but it's a challenge.

FLORIDO: What do you see in the future of local news?

BENTON: I see a lot more uncovered city council meetings. I see a lot more corruption that doesn't get noticed. I see a lot more uninformed voters, more people who take their cues for how they view their government from national media and the politicized world there as opposed to their local government. There certainly are bright spots. There are green shoots going up, but the challenge is just very difficult.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with Joshua Benton. He's a senior writer at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. Thanks for being with us.

BENTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Fuller
Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
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