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Gannett hatchet taking out the best at local newspapers

When Gannett and Gatehouse Media finalized their merger last November, creating the nation’s largest newspaper company and operating under the Gannett brand — owning about one in five dailies — it was no secret that the elimination of journalism jobs would accelerate.

It did. Now with the COVID-19 shutdown draining newspapers of advertising dollars, it is getting worse. Hypocritically for a news company, Gannett hasn’t been transparent about how many jobs it is cutting, but it has been a lot, with older, experienced and, yes, higher-paid journalists being favored targets.

Last month the Pew Research Center reported that the number of newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 51% between 2008 and 2019, from about 71,000 workers to 35,000.

I cry for our industry and again count my good fortune in being in the employment of The Day, one of the last independents with an unusual business model that prioritizes product over profits. We’re not immune, and taking our lumps, but we’re trying.

Two recent Gannett cuts hit close to home for me and illustrate what is being lost.

I was born in Providence and was a Rhode Islander until I graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 1979 and took my first newspaper reporting job in rural Vermont. The Providence Journal was the newspaper I grew up with (and, in the evening, the since departed Evening Bulletin).

Reading its pages planted the seeds that would lead to my career as a newspaperman. I was drawn to following politics at too young an age, engaging adults in debates over politicians and policy. A political nerd. Rhode Island had more than its share of scandals. The Journal reporters did a great job digging into them, with its editorial pages doing the desk banging to demand accountability.

So my heart sank upon learning this past Monday that the Journal, now a Gannett newspaper, would no longer carry editorials.

In a note to readers, Executive Editor Alan Rosenberg tried to put a noble spin on this. The editorials, he wrote, “inadvertently undermined readers’ perception of a newspaper’s core mission: to report the news fairly.” Get rid of editorials and full faith in the objectivity of news reporting will return, he argued.

“We’re done with editorials,” he declared.

I say, balderdash. This was a financial decision. Only days earlier the Journal had sent their award-winning Editorial Page Editor Edward Achorn packing after 21 years on the job. No editorials, no need to replace him. On Feb. 29, the newspaper had featured Achorn in its “Projo People” profile, lauding his ability as an editorial writer to “shine a spotlight into the dark corners of government.”

“I think it’s very important for the Journal, as an institution, to stand up and fight for the people of Rhode Island. Commentary is a very important part of that,” Achorn was quoted.

What changed? Finances.

Now the spotlight is off.

Meanwhile at the Norwich Bulletin, another Gannett holding and a place I worked at in the 1980s when it was family owned, an editor of long service to the Bulletin and the community was laid off, his departure not even acknowledged in its pages.

Jim Konrad joined the Bulletin in 1986, straight out of Eastern Connecticut State University, first working as a sports reporter. Except for a few years when he worked at the Poughkeepsie Journal in New York in the early 2000s, Konrad’s career was the Bulletin. He worked his way up to the position of executive editor. Konrad knew the community and the community knew him.

The Bulletin named a new, younger replacement who will also continue those same duties at the Newport Daily News, in Rhode Island, saving a salary. What a perfect match. Everyone knows how much in common those two communities have.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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