10 Ways Journal Sentinel Will Change
GateHouse purchase of Gannett is dreadful news for local and national journalism.
Last week brought bad news for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and for this community and state.
The shareholders of two companies, Gannett (which owns the JS) and GateHouse, voted to to merge, though it is more like a buyout as the parent company of GateHouse, New Media, will own 50.5 percent of the newly formed entity. For Milwaukee’s daily newspaper, which already saw its staff slashed under Gannett, the deal was somewhat like jumping out the frying pan and into the fire. As tough as Gannett has been about cutting staff, GateHouse has been even more ruthless.
How will this affect the Journal Sentinel? Probably in countless ways, but here are the ten biggest changes in the leadership that runs it:
1. Much more remote ownership: As big as Gannett was, the newly-formed company will be far bigger. It’s now the largest newspaper publisher in the country, numbering more than 250 daily newspapers including USA Today, plus hundreds of weekly and community papers. GateHouse Media is part of the New Media Investment Group which is managed by Fortress Investment Group, a New York financial firm that is owned by the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank. Needless to say, the coverage of this community and the state by its largest newspaper is not a great concern for this multi-national conglomerate, whose decisions will be all about driving revenue.
2. Less input from journalists: The new company’s nine-member board has no journalist on it. Two journalists who served on the Gannett board are gone: Stephen Coll, dean of the Columbia University graduate school of journalism, and Larry Kramer, former president of USA Today. Mike Reed, CEO of the new company is seen as a newspaper man, but will be operating under a board whose style is likely to continue the GateHouse approach of cutting costs to drive profits.
3. Questionable morals: GateHouse’s push to make money has led to “tactics that have raised eyebrows,” as one news account noted. “In 2016, GateHouse reporters at its Las Vegas paper were ordered to begin investigating judges who had been a thorn in the side of billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson… Weeks later, GateHouse sold the Las Vegas paper to Adelson for $140 million, more than double its book value.”
Meanwhile, Fortress Investment was milking the publishing company for all the money it could, extracting $250 million from New Media/GateHouse between 2014 and 2021, an analysis by News Guild CWA estimated. “A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests those fees could have paid the salaries and benefits for 336 workers… Leon Cooperman, the largest investor in New Media, called the Fortress compensation package ‘morally wrong’.”
4. Greater financial pressures: Yes, newspaper publishers like Gannett were already under the gun to spend less, but this deal leaves the new company facing a firing squad. To finance the transaction, New Media will borrow $1.792 billion from Apollo Global Management LP at an annual interest rate of 11.5 percent, a rate the News Guild analysis called “usurious.” The loan almost triples the combined long-term debt of the two companies.
Meanwhile, the fees collected by Fortress, which the billionaire investor Cooperman called “immoral,” would continue though lowered slightly. Fortress would continue to collect a management fee of 1.5 percent of assets and an incentive fee of 17.5 percent of profits, down from 25 percent before the merger.
All of which means the company will be forced to impose severe efficiencies, experts have suggested. While the company has five years to pay of the $1.8 million debt, “at an interest rate of 11.5%, the Apollo loan could become onerous if not paid off quickly, said Tim Hynes, head of North American research for debt analysis service Debtwire,” in a story by USA Today.
5. A bigger need for immediate staff cuts: Gannett was already expected to cut its newsrooms can by 3 to 5 percent, as Nieman Lab reported, but the new deal likely means bigger cuts. “And the company won’t wait for the first of the year to begin layoffs,” the publication predicted. “With immediate savings a priority, expect those anxiety-inducing conversations to begin right after Thanksgiving.”
“No one knows for sure just how many employees will be laid off in the wake of the merger, but estimates put the number between 3,500 and 4,000,” an analysis by Brookings notes. “There are 37,900 workers employed by U.S. newspapers today. Together, Gannett and GateHouse employ 27,600 or 73% of them. If the expected layoffs occur, that will mean up to a 10% reduction of the nation’s total newspaper workforce.”
“In any room of eight people at a current GateHouse or Gannett operation, one is likely to see her job gone in 2020,” Nieman Lab predicted.
6. A bigger push for long-term staff cuts: Compared to Gannett, Gatehouse has cut stuff more deeply. The NewsGuild-CWA analysis noted that between April 2014 and April 2019, 12 of its bargaining units within GateHouse experienced a drop in employment of 40.1 percent versus 28.8 percent for bargaining units within the Gannett chain.
No one knows what the long-term picture for staff cuts will be, but until the debt with Apollo is paid off, there will be enormous pressure to continue slashing operations.
7. Fewer newspapers and more ghost newspapers: At both Gannett and Gatehouse, at least a third of the local papers “are so-called ‘ghost newspapers’ with as few as one, two or three locally based reporters or editors, as the Pointer Institute has reported. But GateHouse has also been aggressive about merging newspapers. “Local papers will likely vanish,” Lunzar predicts. In Wisconsin Gannett owns daily newspapers in Appleton, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Manitowoc, Marshfield, Oshkosh, Sheboygan, Stevens Point, Wausau and Wisconsin Rapids, and those are likely candidates for a merger. This will have no impact on the Journal Sentinel, other than losing a few state stories it sometimes runs from these outlets.
And the new company has a long way to go. “together the two companies have been growing paid digital subscriptions and now have 824,000. Spread over 250-plus properties, that is a little more than 3,000 each,” Poynter notes.
A bright spot for Milwaukee is that the Journal Sentinel has been a leader in Gannett’s effort, with roughly 40,000 digital subscribers. However, as at all Gannett publications, a number of those “are at a discounted introductory rate, hence not generating much revenue — and there’s no sure bet readers will renew when the price goes up,” Poynter notes.
9. Less emphasis on local journalism. Yes, that too was true for Gannett, as Urban Milwaukee has reported. But the financial pressures of this deal will likely cause an even greater de-emphasis on local journalism because it doesn’t drive big traffic numbers, which the company will desperately need to drive revenue.
10: Less working journalists: “In the next year, it is likely the country will see thousands of reporters and editors previously employed at the local newspapers owned by Gannett and GateHouse leave the industry altogether,” Brookings predicts. This may also drive down pay for journalists, and may make it easier for News Guild CWA to unionize more newspapers.
Outside the industry, for readers and communities who need news coverage, the deal is a disaster that will inevitably mean less coverage and less transparency in government.
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More about the GateHouse-Gannett Merger
- Baldwin, Brown, Menendez Lead Senators Urging Media Companies to Recognize Workers’ Unions - U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin - Nov 20th, 2019
- Murphy’s Law: 10 Ways Journal Sentinel Will Change - Bruce Murphy - Nov 19th, 2019
- Another New Owner for Journal Sentinel - Erik Gunn - Nov 15th, 2019
- Journal Sentinel Braces for New Merger - Erik Gunn - Oct 25th, 2019
- Murphy’s Law: Why the Journal Sentinel Won’t Die - Bruce Murphy - Aug 13th, 2019
- What Does GateHouse Deal Mean for the Journal Sentinel? - Erik Gunn - Aug 8th, 2019
- GateHouse Deal Could Hurt Journal Sentinel - Erik Gunn - Jul 29th, 2019
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Journal Sentinel Making Historic Move - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 25th, 2019