The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When local news goes away, citizens suffer. Gannett’s megamerger will probably just inflict more pain.

A GateHouse Media-owned Palm Beach Post and the Gannett-owned USA Today.
A GateHouse Media-owned Palm Beach Post and the Gannett-owned USA Today. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

For a local journalist, having your newspaper snapped up by the Gannett chain never was a joyful prospect.

Although journalistically respectable — and sometimes excellent — the Virginia-based company was known for its lean newsroom staffs and its emphasis on high profit margins.

But times have changed. As it turns out, there are worse fates.

The recently announced $1.4 billion merger with another giant newspaper chain, GateHouse Media, is not good news for journalists at Gannett’s nationally circulated flagship, USA Today, or its prominent regional papers including the Detroit Free Press, the Indianapolis Star, the Des Moines Register, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Arizona Republic.

GateHouse’s approach to its newspapers in recent years has made Gannett look almost munificent by contrast. And although Gannett’s name will be attached to the new company, GateHouse’s business practices seem more likely to prevail.

The merger, if it happens, means even deeper cost-cutting in newsrooms that are already hollowed out.

“There is no more real newspaper in the city of Worcester,” Mayor Joseph Petty told Massachusetts radio show Talk of the Commonwealth recently after the Telegram — owned by GateHouse — abruptly laid off its veteran columnist, Clive McFarlane, among others, in yet another round of job eliminations.

McFarlane, on Facebook, blasted “the indignity of corporate management.”

“After 26 years writing for this community, I was unceremoniously shown the door today by Gatehouse, deprived even of the long-established protocol of allowing a columnist to bid farewell to his readers,” he wrote, according to Politico’s Massachusetts Playbook.

None of this is positive news for local journalism writ large, which is in an existential crisis. (The local newspaper business, in the blunt assessment of investor Warren Buffett, is “toast.”)

It’s a crisis that threatens American democracy. Local newspapers, despite all their flaws and limitations, have been a trusted — and necessary — source of information for citizens across the country.

When local news withers, bad things happen, studies show.

People vote less, and they vote in a more politically polarized way. Political corruption has more opportunity to flourish, unnoticed by the local watchdog. And municipal costs may rise.

More than 2,000 newspapers have gone out of business in the past 15 years, according to the University of North Carolina’s Penny Muse Abernathy, the leading expert on so-called news deserts that result.

Most are weeklies, but many metro dailies are in real trouble, too. The Vindicator, in Youngstown, Ohio, will shut down this month, leaving a substantial city without a daily paper.

Assuming that Gannett and New York-based GateHouse achieve their merger, the new company will control one of every six remaining newspapers in the United States, with dailies and weeklies across almost every state.

“This current deal is far from ideal for either company, or its shareholders, or its employees, or its readers,” wrote Ken Doctor, who has been tracking the machinations closely, in Nieman Lab. (He noted recently that there is a renewed chance the deal, which has had its ups and downs, won’t go through as had been announced earlier this month.)

For those last two groups — employees and readers — one of the most troubling aspects is an ambitious-sounding number associated with the merger: $300 million. That’s the amount of cost-savings that top executives want to achieve.

Not just one time, but annually.

In the newspaper world, there aren’t many ways to save that kind of money, though one hears promises about “cost synergies” and “digital transformation” and “economies of scale.”

Well, maybe.

But the cost-slashing measure that seems to spring most readily to mind is reducing head count: cutting employees, including journalists.

Like that popular Worcester columnist. Or government reporters. Or an entire copy desk. Or any of the people who make a local paper worth reading and worth subscribing to.

The decline of local news is getting serious attention these days. Nonprofits are springing up or offering help. Foundations are providing research and funding.

Extreme solutions — even a “Marshall Plan for journalism” as NYU’s Michael Posner put it — are being proposed.

Facebook and Google, which together suck up the vast majority of digital advertising dollars, are pitching in with money and resources.

But the crisis continues apace. Papers close, merge, shrink. Many have become shells of their once robust selves, inspiring the coinage “ghost newspapers.”

Ten years ago, the visionary tech writer and teacher Clay Shirky wrote a seminal article that forecast this demise: “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.”

What was once unthinkable is becoming reality.

The Gannett and GateHouse merger looks like one more step along that dire path.

For more by Margaret Sullivan visit