When the news broke, when clarity mattered most to the nearly 32,800 people working in Gannett’s newspaper division, the announced elimination of 1,000 jobs came not from its eighty-four Local Information Centers but from a blog run by a man vacationing off the coast of Spain.
About 2 a.m. in Spain on August 14, Jim Hopkins, a fifty-one-year-old spending his summer on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza, checked his e-mail one last time before bed. A reader of his site, the independent Gannett Blog, had written to him from Maryland, where employees at the Daily Times of Salisbury had received a memo from the publisher: “Across Gannett’s Community Publishing division,” Rick Jensen’s afternoon dispatch read, in part, “about 1,000 positions will be eliminated - about 3% of the workforce.”
Six hundred of those eliminations would come through layoffs. The memo confirmed rumors that Hopkins had been tracking. He sent e-mails to Tara Connell, Gannett’s vice president of corporate communications; Jensen; and Greg Bassett, executive editor of the Daily Times. Bassett replied and didn’t dispute the news.
Hopkins posted an entry that unfurls like a news story—it flashes a leaked memo, delivers hard numbers, and provides context. It’s a more thorough account than anything a Gannett paper published the next morning.
Hopkins earns no money from the site, and although he acknowledges the possibility that he could, he says it’s unlikely. His newsroom is fully mobile. He posts mostly from his laptop, but he sometimes sends breaking news from his iPhone. In the brief professional bio posted beneath his mug shot at the top right of the blog’s home page, Hopkins notes what he once kept to himself: he was an editor and reporter at Gannett papers for twenty years. (Hopkins, who lives in San Francisco, didn’t reveal his identity until January 11, 2008, one day after he accepted one of forty-three buyouts in the USA Today newsroom.)
He sees his future not on the staff of another media company but as a self-employed online journalist. He’s teaching himself to produce short video documentaries and, contrary to assumptions that he’s a crotchety champion of newspapers’ bygone days, says he lately has become “more optimistic about the prospects for twenty-first century journalism.”
The Gannett Blog speaks to that. And for a company that, like most of its competitors, has all but written off the future of its print editions in favor of online strategies, it’s an ironic development. “Hate to point this out,” a reader posted, “but the last 127 posts kinda prove that crowd sourcing a story works.”
While at USA Today, Hopkins says, he helped run two blogs—one about small businesses and entrepreneurs, the other about technology news. Gannett has been wise to urge employees to start blogs, he says, but “many of these blogs have little or no budgets; employees too often are expected to maintain them in their ‘free time.’” Managers “discouraged me from taking a more innovative, creative approach to blogging—one of many reasons I decided to take a buyout, and try blogging on my own,” he said.
Hopkins decided he’d maintain the blog for as long as he had at least 500 readers. In August, according to his most recent traffic report, that number grew to nearly 29,000. Hopkins attributes much of that leap to the magnitude of recent Gannett news, and he expects September’s numbers to reflect a falloff.
Nearly all of the site’s comments are anonymous. That doesn’t stop people from presuming certain contributors are cloaked managers. “This blog,” one reader commented, “is all about informing employees about things the company doesn’t tell us. We are left to speculate at times because of the lack of timely info coming from the likes of you.”
Such posts betray a suspicion, widely held among readers, that any comment in defense of Gannett must have come from the keyboard of someone in bed with Corporate, that dirty adjective-turned-proper-noun.
One thing is certain: executives and their staffs read the site.