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Gannett, GateHouse approve merger, creating nation’s largest newspaper publisher

Deal with GateHouse Media will require massive savings, clouding future for hundreds of newspapers

Stock traders work at the post that handles Gannett on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Gannett and GateHouse shareholders approved a merger of the companies. (Richard Drew/AP)

Shareholders of Gannett and GateHouse Media approved a deal Thursday to combine the companies, after management promised to find $300 million in annual savings that some critics warned would further squeeze already shrunken newsrooms but that some investors warned may not go far enough.

In the deal, GateHouse parent New Media Investment Group will purchase Gannett for a combination of cash and stock, creating a conglomerate that will own more than 250 daily newspapers including publications such as USA Today, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Indianapolis Star, plus hundreds of weekly and community papers.

“This combination will create the leading U.S. print and digital news organization with deep local roots and national scale,” said Michael Reed, chairman and chief executive of New Media, in a statement following the votes. “Together, we will be stronger, with a more viable path to growth for our shareholders and employees, while sustaining journalism in hundreds of markets across the country and enhancing the services we provide to small and midsized businesses nationally.”

The new company — run by GateHouse’s management under Gannett’s name — will be under pressure to find up to $300 million in annual savings within the first two years of the deal, as GateHouse management pledged when it announced the deal in August.

Despite the approval, the deal has come under fire for proposing cuts some view as too drastic and others view as not aggressive enough, a signal of the tightrope publishers of local news have been forced to walk as the industry continues to decline.

Journalism experts and the country’s leading newspaper union have warned the deal will enrich GateHouse’s private equity backers while further eroding the number of reporters, editors and photographers covering local communities.

Last week, the NewsGuild-CWA, which represents more than 20,000 journalists, issued an analysis of the deal that warned the merger “will hurt the communities these media organizations serve.”

But some of GateHouse’s top shareholders have criticized the deal for their own reasons, and the stock price of New Media fell 29 percent during the past week, to an all-time low of $6.68 when markets closed Wednesday. As a result, the deal, originally valued at $1.4 billion, is now under $1.2 billion.

America’s two largest newspaper chains are joining forces. Will it save either?

“Neither company has digital chops that have you jumping out of your seat,” said media analyst Doug Arthur of Huber Research.

“At the end of the day there’s got to be some revenue magic somewhere,” he said.

The new company has a nine-member board that includes no journalists.

Joining Reed, who is chairman, are former gambling executive Kevin Sheehan, marketing executive Mayur Gupta, finance executive Theodore Janulis, Gannett Chairman John Jeffry Louis, marketing executive Maria Miller, marketing consultant Debra Sandler, former footwear executive Laurence Tarica and Barbara Wall, chief legal officer at Gannett. Six members are from New Media and three are from Gannett.

Two journalists who before the deal served on the Gannett board will not be on the new board: Stephen W. Coll, dean of the Columbia University graduate school of journalism, and Larry Kramer, former president of USA Today.

As Gannett merger nears completion, union claims ‘journalism will suffer’ under deal

Media executive Paul Bascobert has been named chief executive of the newly formed Gannett. Reed will remain chief executive of New Media.

Founded in 1906, Gannett became one of the Washington area’s biggest corporate names in the heyday of the newspaper industry, introducing the country to a national newspaper in USA Today and erecting a glistening tower overlooking the Capital Beltway in Tysons Corner.

As the print media industry began to suffer financially in the past two decades, Gannett enacted numerous cost-saving measures, before spinning off its broadcast and marketing units into a separate company. Gannett was last on the Fortune 500 list in 2014, and in the past two years, the number of employees at the company has fallen by one-fifth.

Ever since Gannett spun off from Tegna, its broadcasting arm, four years ago, it has been looking to grow through mergers or acquisitions, with little to show for it.

The deal is expected to finally close Nov. 19, according to New Media.