I don’t remember much about how Nov. 20, 2014 began. I only know it was a Thursday because I looked it up. Almost everything else is a big blank. I was still working in those days for the Burlington Times-News, where I was executive editor. I imagine I came into the office shortly after 8:30 a.m. and attempted to configure what the news of the day might be and how we would manage to cover it all with six or seven reporters
And then the company I had worked for only a couple of years announced it was being sold. “Another day, another newspaper company to work for,” I wrote on my Facebook wall that afternoon. “Can’t say I saw this coming when I woke up this morning.” It was my third different newspaper company over a period of less than 10 years — and it would be my last — thankfully.
Five years ago today it was announced that New Media Investment Group Inc. owner of GateHouse Media, had purchased 26 newspapers from Halifax Media Group, including the Burlington Times-News and other newspapers once owned by Freedom Newspapers, Inc. or the New York Times. Halifax had purchased the former Freedom newspapers in 2012. I remember because I found out about the sale while on vacation in Cooperstown, New York. My boss called to let me know while I was browsing around baseball collectibles stores. I had worked for Freedom, a family owned company, for the previous 27 years.
So the news was unsettling to say the least. It’s not that I would miss Halifax. it wasn’t around long enough to develop nostalgia. There really wasn’t much to recommend Halifax either. It was a dropoff from Freedom in terms of accessibility to upper level management, capital improvements, salary and benefits. Then again, newspapers were already in sharp decline so what could anyone expect. Nothing was going to be good again in newspapers no matter what companies say on the day of purchase. They’re all committed to journalism when a sale is announced. Then the opposite becomes true. Halifax was merely a caretaker company of investors looking to own some properties and then try to turn a profit on a basic real estate sale. It was a Suze Orman kind of deal.
The Halifax properties were sliding when GateHouse / New Media made the purchase, which was finally approved in December of 2014 or January of 2015. At the Times-News we weren’t sure what to expect. We thought things couldn’t get much worse. We thought wrong. But because GateHouse was and still is a large company owning a lot of newspapers in all parts of the nation, I was foolish enough to be cautiously optimistic.. There were some dire warnings from longtime friends. GateHouse, it seemed, had a history of slashing payroll.
As the saying goes, “the past is prelude.”
Nearly every financial quarter new rounds of cuts were announced. Corporate decisions whittled the staff to a nub, and coverage suffered. While top level executives received large bonuses, the ability of newspapers to serve their communities withered and died. A mass exodus of GateHouse editors followed a program offering voluntary buyouts in 2016. I jumped at the opportunity to get out of a horrible situation and left on my own on Nov. 18, 2016, an anniversary I just celebrated.
I knew things would get worse in the following years and I take no joy in being right. The Burlington newsroom, which had 28 full-time staff members and a contingent of part-timers in 2007, now has only nine. The Main Street building is largely empty, the press no longer runs there with the jobs outsourced to Fayetteville. There is no copydesk operation, that work is outsourced to a design center in Austin, Texas. There are only two reporters. On some days there is no local news outside of some retyped press releases in the newspaper. The people still there are working harder than ever, but it’s an impossible job. I feel badly for them.
By coincidence I note that today, on the fifth anniversary of GateHouse purchasing the Halifax newspapers, the Times-News has a story detailing what will happen now that GateHouse has merged with Gannett to form the largest by print circulation media company in the nation. The planned merger was announced earlier this year and voted on by shareholders and approved earlier this week. It’s an incredible group of newspapers now under the umbrella of Gannett Co., and Gannett Media Corp., including the USA Today, In all, there are more than 250 daily publications from coast to coast. It’s a lose-lose proposition for every single one.
Of course, the executives of this new merged behemoth talk the same old game. One said “Our mission is to connect, protect and celebrate our local communities. Great journalism really is the core of that mission. The question really becomes, what’s the sustainable exciting business model that powers that mission.”
Journalism is always the stated mission on sale day but the plan goes awry when it comes to keeping enough people on the job of actually reporting news that matters to people in communities. This reborn Gannett wants all-in on digital products and marketing. But there wasn’t much talk about how much news would be delivered online. The new company faces the kind of debt that makes more cuts inevitable. And yet still promises to deliver good journalism, including investigative reporting — something that isn’t happening now.
Let’s just say I’m not optimistic at all this time.
What I think will actually happen is more of the same, but fewer publication days ahead. I believe the Times-News and other Gannett-owned entities in the state will continue their evolution into regional style publications with the idea of local news expanding to stories published from far-flung North Carolina cities like Gastonia, Hendersoville, Fayetteville and Wilmington.