Teresa Stepzinski, a veteran journalist at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, spent Saturday reporting on the city’s huge civil rights protest, where an estimated 3,000 people turned out to march on police headquarters.

As in many cities and towns across America, this protest — sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis policeman — started peaceful and turned violent, with tear gas fired, a sheriff’s deputy hospitalized and windows shattered.

The next morning when Stepzinski saw the Sunday paper, she was stunned.

“Honestly, it was heartbreaking,” she told me. “This was an incredibly important event for our community, and — there’s no other way to say this — it got buried.”

The paper’s front page was dominated by a blue rectangle bearing the words “Rebuilding America” — the Gannett newspaper chain’s business-friendly collaboration between its newsrooms and ad departments.

The protest coverage, except for a small teaser box at the top of the front page, was relegated to the metro section.

Anyone who surveyed the front pages of the chain’s Sunday papers would be greeted by a sea of bright blue graphics with words like “We’re in this together” — but, in many cases, with precious little indication that the nation has been roiled by protests on a scale we haven’t seen in decades.

Some of the larger Gannett papers — the Des Moines Register, the Detroit Free Press and the Columbus Dispatch, among others — did bestow lavish, out-front coverage on the protests. But at the papers in Naples, Fla. and Fayetteville, N.C., the entire fronts were decked in “Rebuilding America” blue.

At the Cape Cod Times, they even made space within the full-page “Rebuilding America” treatment for the headshots of two Gannett executives. Less than two hours from New York City, the Poughkeepsie Journal had not a single word about national or regional protests on its front; and even the paper in St. Cloud, Minn., about 60 miles from Minneapolis, carried the big blue box on its front page, giving a one-column treatment to the protests.

To be sure, most of the papers offered plenty of protest coverage on their websites and inside their print editions, though sometimes — as in Jacksonville — you had to go to a different section to find it.

One can reasonably argue, of course, that the digital version is far more important these days — and Gannett does make that case.

“Our coverage was comprehensive and timely. Given deadlines and readership habits, we aren’t able to, and don’t believe it makes sense to, rely on our printed newspaper as a breaking-news vehicle,” said Amalie Nash, vice president of local news and audience development for Gannett’s USA Today Network.

The deadline for typesetting in Jacksonville is 7:15 p.m., she said in an email, making it unfeasible to include what happened later in the evening.

But newspapers have been known to move deadlines back. And, in historic moments, everyone understands that print front pages still matter. Even in the digital age, they make a powerful statement about priorities and news judgments.

For Ben Frazier, founder and president of a civil rights nonprofit, the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, Sunday’s front page was an affront.

“This was either the No. 1 or No. 2 civil rights event in our city’s history, something we’re calling the March on Jacksonville,” he told me. “It was not given anything close to its just due.”

Andrew Pantazi, another Times-Union reporter and co-chairman of its newsroom union, called the paucity of front-page coverage especially painful because of the paper’s recent efforts to strengthen connections with the black community after a long history of mistrust.

It’s not surprising, of course, that Gannett is pulling out all the stops to find advertising revenue with its “Rebuilding America” effort. Newspapers have been devastated by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic; some have shut their doors permanently. Others have laid off staff or instituted deep pay cuts, often in the form of mandatory furloughs. That’s true at Gannett, long one of the nation’s largest newspaper owners, now merging with another giant chain, GateHouse Media.

Ryan Martin — an Indianapolis Star investigative reporter with a specialty in law enforcement issues and a Guild official — was hit by tear gas as he covered Saturday’s protests, a situation that was “extremely scary at times.” Like Stepzinski in Jacksonville, he thought what readers first saw was disappointing — and damaging to the paper’s reputation.

“The Star is very much perceived as white media here,” Martin told me. “When you’re trying to make inroads to rectify that, this kind of thing is a setback.” (A Gannett spokeswoman said that some Star delivery people mistakenly wrapped the preprinted “Rebuilding America” section around the paper’s first section, covering what was an appropriately newsy front page, and creating a false impression for some readers.)

Nash, the Gannett executive, noted that in some cases the “Rebuilding America” sections, were preprinted, making it impossible to adjust. And, she noted, the network’s print and digital editions have given appropriately heavy coverage to the protests since Saturday night, and will continue to do so.

Local papers do need a new infusion of ad dollars if they’re going to survive. It’s understandable — necessary, even — to develop new ventures. But this project threatens to breach the traditional efforts to maintain editorial independence and integrity by separating news from advertising.

While Gannett framed its “Rebuilding” project as news rather than an ad supplement, Rick Edmonds of Poynter.org reviewed the chain’s internal communications and found that the project “tiptoes into deploying the network’s newsrooms . . . to produce a boatload of stories in support of an ad sales initiative.”

And that was even before the inopportune timing of this weekend’s galvanizing news cycle highlighted how dozens of Gannett papers were sidelining editorial judgment in print.

If local newspapers are going to survive — a very real question — they do need to fix their bottom-line problems. But they also need to hold fast to their basic mission: Presenting the most important news, truthfully, with proper emphasis, and in a timely fashion.

Last Sunday, in too many cases, that mission gasped for air in a sea of blue ink.

(Correction: An earlier version of this column reported that “Rebuilding America” feature pushed protest news off the Indianapolis Star’s front page in some editions. The feature was actually in a wraparound section, not on the front page. This version has been updated.)

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