My local New Bedford Standard-Times has been shrinking for years, laying off nearly half of its newsroom staff since 2005, and now it’s again shrinking physically. I woke up a month ago to find my morning paper had lost an inch off each side, with a note inside helpfully informing subscribers the paper is becoming “more compact.” Even the smaller size didn’t help spread out the woefully thin news coverage – just 3 pages worth.
As the Boston Globe’s Jon Chesto has documented, GateHouse Media has been conducting an experiment with its nine Massachusetts daily newspapers: How small can it shrink the journalism staff while still getting readers to pay for it?
“They are finding that even in 2015, there can be lots of efficiencies in these enterprises, which is somewhat surprising given that we’ve had cutting for seven or eight years now,” said Ken Doctor, a media analyst who runs the Newsonomics blog.
But some say it’s not just jobs that are being lost.
“You get this homogenization effect,” said Thomas Caywood, a reporter who left the T&G post-acquisition after his request for a modest pay raise was denied. “Yes, it’s more efficient to have this design center in Austin. But I think you lose some of the regional individuality. GateHouse is to journalism like what Olive Garden is to Italian food.”
GateHouse and corporate owners like it aren’t fooling anyone. Print circulation has fallen in lockstep with layoffs. GateHouse bought the Providence Journal from Belo, which as Dean Starkman reported, had laid off newsroom staffers not because it couldn’t afford them but to free up cash for huge executive bonuses. GateHouse, of course, immediately laid off even more newsroom staff.
We’re often told that newspaper circulation decline is inevitable due to the rise of the internet and the KIDS TODAY (yells at cloud). But how much circulation decline is baked in, and how much is driven by corporate owners only focused on immediate profit over building a long-term product?
Here’s one example. NewBedfordGuide.com has over 53,000 Facebook likes, while the Standard-Times has barely over 7,000. How did they let a tiny startup drink their milkshake? How much in long-term profit was lost?
Again, the long-term opportunities are there, but they take a back-seat to short-term profit, if they’re allowed to ride along at all. Today’s Wall Street newspaper overlords are in this game to wring out every drop of profit they can, and if the layoff-profit merry-go-round ever shows signs of stopping, they’ll burn down the newspapers in bankruptcy, write off the ashes, and leave us to count up the damage to our communities.