When daily newspapers stressed by declining readership meet the imperative of a corporate culture determined to satisfy stockholders above all, damage seems inevitable.
According to Sandy Bender, who in 2010 left Salem’s Statesman Journal, the casualties are not those who own the enterprise, but the many individuals whose hard work kept it going.
The SJ is owend by Gannett, currently the largest U.S. newspaper publisher, as reckoned by circulation numbers “Due to corporate directive, the people who control Gannett have lost sight of the community their paper functions in,” Bender told us.
On September 10, Statesman Journal’s publisher Steve Silberman announced the paper would lay off about 50 workers this month; 20-25 of them full-time and 30 of them part-time. The lay-offs are the result of a decision to stop printing the paper in Salem; for the next four years, printing will be done in Portland, by The Oregonian.
The cut to local staff was made to save money, Silberman said, though he would not quantify the amount. His announcement was made as Gannett’s stock reached a record 52-week high, $16.30 a share. *
Bender is concerned about the ongoing outsourcing of work, consolidation of production processes and layoffs of employees that have changed the way Salem readers get their news. According to former Statesman Journal employees, the paper has began to outsource graphic design, image processing, and page design.
They also say that March 12 was the last day the Statesman Journal’s front page was designed in Salem itself.
October 14 will mark the first Statesman Journal issue printed in Portland. The agreement with the new company stipulates that Oregonian employees must not look at Statesman Journal papers while they’re on the presses.
Gannett Blog, run by Jim Hopkins, a former USA Today staffer, collects vast numbers of statistics from public sources and reports from industry insiders as well as from current and former Gannett employees (it is unauthorized by Gannett and is generally critical.) The blog estimates that prior to this layoff, seven other Statesman Journal employees were offered buyouts in 2012, with 3 of them from the newsroom. (Silberman made a point on September 10 of mentioning that there would be no newsroom staff cuts this round.)
Gannett is a publically traded media company that owns more than 80 U.S. daily newspapers and 23 television stations. It had the means to acquire Blinq Media (one of the top third-party Facebook ad buying platforms,) in August 2012.
Its ingenuity in the face of falling newspaper readership is impressive. But, according to critics like Bender and Hopkins, corporate solutions to financial challenges do not lead to better local newspapers. Or – to better communities. The profits that papers like the Statesman Journal reap are sent straight out of town to Gannett’s corporate ownership. Meanwhile Gannett’s local layoffs rob cities like Salem of jobs, such as the 50 that are being lost now, and they deprive newsrooms of long-time “institutional knowledge.”
Corporate-driven changes are customer-unfriendly in other ways, too. In February 2012 Gannett announced it would begin charging all users who accessed more than 15 online articles/month by the end of the year. This policy has already taken effect in Salem.
When Craig Dubow resigned as CEO of Gannett in 2011, he’d been paid a yearly salary of 9.4 million – 313 times the wage of the average reporter working for him. Debrow was responsible for massive layoffs; during six years Gannett laid off 20,000 of 52,000 employees, according to industry estimates. But despite a work performance that was by any standard horrible, Dubow was awarded a severance package of $37 million.
When it cuts costs by outsourcing and local layoffs, “Gannett is not enhancing customer service by any way that can be defined,” Hopkins said. “Since 2008 especially, the company has been reducing employment in all departments, including two of the most critical: editorial and advertising sales… There’s simply no way that efficiency can make up for the loss of so many bodies.”
Twelve of the current and former Statesman Journal employees Salem Weekly contacted refused to speak to us on record. Hopkins said, “current employees are afraid to be quoted… they worry about losing their jobs. Former employees, meanwhile, worry they won’t get freelance work, or references while job hunting.”
According to a source who was employed by Gannett for six years, “Most of the actions and the impact on morale are corporation-wide, and not at all unique to the Statesman Journal.”
We attempted to contact both Silberman and Bill Church (Executive editor at Statesman Journal) several months ago with questions about staff cuts. Neither has replied to us yet.
“Decrease in local print media hurts the entire local region,” says Professor Tiffany Gallicano, School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon.
Today’s daily newspapers are faced plunging circulation and plunging ad sales. Time will tell whether the corporate culture running Gannett will find a way to continue profit margins while respecting the people and communities who support them.
* As our paper went to print on October 1 Gannett’s stock price had risen to $17.97/share.