Gannett-GateHouse merger raises more questions about the news industry

John Kelleher

(Havre Herald) It was February 1978 when I first entered the smoke-filled Star-Gazette newsroom with typewriters clacking.

It was my second daily journalism job, but this was at the “big newspaper.”

The Star-Gazette had 42,000 subscribers in six counties and two states. Its headquarters was in Elmira, N.Y., a declining upstate city full of people with hearts of gold. There was a staff of more than 40 in the newsroom.

It was an awesome experience. The newsroom was full of people with 30 years of journalism experience who went after news stories with the enthusiasm of a rookie reporter. The editor was a gray-haired regal man who knew Elmira and knew newspapers like the back of his hand.

This all came to mind Monday as news spread about the sale of Gannett Co. Inc. to the GateHouse newspaper chain. The new company will be called Gannett and its headquarters will be at Gannett’s offices in suburban Washington, D.C. But many of us fear the new company’s soul will be that of GateHouse. Some see the merger as the last gasp of big newspaper chains hoping to hold on until they can convert to all-digital.

The Star-Gazette was the first newspaper to be part of the storied Gannett chain, which would become the largest newspaper outfit in the country.

The story has it that Frank Gannett stopped in downtown Elmira to grab a sandwich en route to taking a new job as editor of a newspaper in nearby Ithaca.

Instead of a sandwich, he bought the Elmira Gazette. Rumor has it, the price was about what the sandwich would have cost him. The Gazette was dying. It had been the house organ of the Democratic Party, which Gannett changed on his first day of ownership. Within weeks, he merged it with the Republican-owned Elmira Star.

For the next century, Gannett built his empire and the Star-Gazette reported the news, good, bad and otherwise. Scandals were uncovered. News that people didn’t want reported was reported. A newspaper came out every day, even when reporters had to dictate their stories from a makeshift newsroom to Ithaca because the office was washed out by the worst flood in New York State history.

But that was back in the day when it was easy to satisfy both shareholders and readers. Shareholders would get their money, readers would get their news.

But later, readers started flocking to the internet and advertisers followed. When that happened, newspapers cut staff. There was less news. Then there were fewer readers. And so on.

The news business reports a lot of news, but it hasn’t got across the message that business is in dire straits.

I haven’t been back to Elmira in years, but friends on Facebook tell a depressing story. The staff is a tiny fraction of itself. It has lost more than half of its daily subscribers. The editor and publisher are located at the Binghamton office, 60 miles away. Very few mentors with 30 years of experience. The place is basically a branch of the Binghamton office.

Elmira is hardly alone. To make ends meet, this is what was done.

So what’s the future of this crazy business we call the news media? There has to be a future, most people agree.

Democracy dies in darkness, the Washington Post proclaims on its masthead every day.

But the old model may be on its last legs.

Who will report on the meetings, uncover the scandals, report on the floods and fires?

There are a lot of possible answers:

We can keep on trying to make the traditional method of corporate-owned newspapers work. Reporters at Montana newspapers, dwindling in numbers though they may be, have done great work despite skimpy newsholes and tight budgets. Can they keep it up?

Some family-owned newspapers have worked diligently to cut costs but keep the core values of the paper. They will settle for a pittance of the profits, knowing that they are performing a valuable community service. Sometimes that works, but the newspaper in Youngstown, Ohio, said it had lost money in 20 of the last 22 years. It is throwing in the towel.

Some are trying non-profit newspapers and websites. They work on a model like Yellowstone Public Radio or Montana PBS. Donors are asked to give money. In the end, they still have to pay the bills.

Then there are those wayward folks in love with their adopted communities and in love with journalism. They set up a small office, open their laptops, write stories and fill a news niche that would otherwise be unfilled. Montana has a few of those in Missoula, Helena, Great Falls and Havre. Not to pat ourselves on the back, but we hope there is a role for these folks in the future of journalism.

Some or all of the above will decide how people get their news in the future.

There has got to be an answer. Yes, we are biased, but people need to have a good, objective look at the news of the day if they are to make informed decisions.

For all the dismal news, there are rays of sunshine. Young people entering the profession today are more enthusiastic than ever before. They are better prepared than we were. They know the uncertainty of the craft. They are undaunted.

The best and the worst thing about entering the news business today is that they have no idea where it is headed.

But somehow it’s got to be headed toward success. Too much is at stake.

I hope the Gannett-GateHouse marriage helps the process.