Gannett cribs from Advance Publications playbook for struggling newspapers

Staff compete for fewer jobs; 'readers become the assignment editor'

Gannett’s latest Great Leap Forward will go “digital first,” heavily emphasizing metrics to guide coverage. It will have significantly smaller newsrooms with a few more reporters and a lot fewer editors, in part because it is centralizing production work like copyediting and page design in regional hubs. All newsroom jobs have been redefined and current staff must apply for new jobs. And, of course, there are the buzzwords and the chirpy editors’ notes to readers. Assignment editors become “content coaches.” Managing editors are now “content strategists.” A diminished newsroom is a “bold new structure.”

Sound familiar? It’s essentially the do-more-with-less playbook pioneered by Advance Publications, owners of The Times-Picayune, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and other regional papers. There’s at least one big difference, though, between Gannett’s move and the Advance model. “We don’t have any plans for reducing print,” says Kate Marymont, Gannett’s vice president for news, in an interview.

Maybe not, but the internet does.

The latest move comes as Gannett prepares to hive off its newspapers into a separate company, isolated from its more profitable broadcast and digital properties. Serious cost-cutting has become an annual exercise for Gannett and other newspaper companies in the last several years, as advertising revenue has plunged. With no end in sight to the ad declines, with circulation revenue stalling after a bump from paywalls and all-access plans, and with chain papers soon to be without the cross-subsidy from their higher-margin corporate cousins, the cutting seems destined to continue.

For Gannett, its latest “newsroom of the future” is being piloted at six papers: the Nashville Tennessean, The Indianapolis Star, the Pensacola News Journal, the Asbury Park Press, the Greenville News in South Carolina, and the Asheville Citizen-Times in North Carolina.

In Nashville, The Tennessean recently hired Stefanie Murray, who served as editor in chief an alum of Advance’s pilot project,, as editor, a position it now calls “vice president of content and engagement.” The Tennessean has 89 staff members, who will have to duke it out for 76 new positions. Nevertheless, Murray told readers, “I’m confident you’ll love the end result: we’re promising a stronger, more interesting Tennessean delivered by a highly engaged group of journalists who care about Nashville.”

The number of reporters will increase from 37 to 43, but editors will decline from 17 to 10, and there will be a big emphasis on “scientific principles” to guide coverage. “We’re going to use research as the guide to make decisions and not the journalist’s gut,” Murray told Poynter.

Marymont, Gannett’s VP of news, at least understands that the journalist’s gut is a key part of the equation. “Data is only helpful as to the deeper understanding that you can bring to it,” she says. “We certainly are not looking for clickbait. We’re not trying to drive empty clicks. We’re trying to build loyal returning customers by giving content we know they want by following over period of time.”

But editors are much of the “journalist’s gut” in a newsroom—not to mention the guardians of quality—and editing will be seriously diminished under the new model.

“I think one of the big changes is that as the reporters become more attuned to their metrics and what readers are telling them, and become more expert at analyzing that data,” Marymont says, “the link between reporter and conventional assignment editor isn’t as necessary. Readers become the assignment editor instead of the more conventional assignment editor of the past. We’re converting roles to coaches. They don’t need people looking over their shoulder, they need help growing their storytelling skills. Instead of assignment editors, we’re going to have content coaches.”

What are content coaches, exactly? “In the past, assignment editors had to do lots of things. They had to be writing coach, assigning coach, managing visuals. The coaches then are kind of not assigned to specific reporters. They’re assigned to whatever is their area of expertise. By dividing it this way, we can have specialists who can really, really help improve their game.”

In Indianapolis, the editor is, apparently, still called an “editor,” and he might have benefited from someone looking over his shoulder on his letter to readers. Star boss Jeff Taylor refers to some variation of “expanding” or “increasing” staff 10 times before stuffing this at the bottom:

To accomplish this, we will reduce the number of managers and streamline and reposition some jobs in our production process.

The Star, like The Tennessean, will cut about 15 percent of its newsroom. To learn that, though, we must turn to the Indianapolis Business Journal. The IBJ reports that “the cuts include five of the Star’s 11 photographers and the entire staff of the copy desk.” The 124 staff members will have to reapply for 106 new jobs.

“It’s like we’re getting ready for the Hunger Games,” says one Star staffer. “It’s awful. Worst I can recall.” That’s saying something, since the Star has been through quite a lot. In 2000, it had 275 journalists, a number that will have dropped by 62 percent when the latest layoffs are complete.

“Every job has been redefined,” Marymont says. “That’s why everyone applies for a new job. There are some smaller number of jobs, so not everyone will find a job.”

In Florida, the Pensacola News Journal will have a “patriotism reporter” (salary starting at $25,280), while outsourcing its production to Nashville.

But it’s hard to tell if Gannett papers will have things like city editors and sports editors. “I can’t say every site has a sports editor,” Marymont says. “Some will, some won’t. They have to decide.”

In the Carolinas, Joshua Awtry, who edits one paper in North Carolina and another 62 miles away in South Carolina, was at least admirably forthright in his editor’s letter, putting the layoffs up high. He told CJR’s Corey Hutchins this recently:

To me the future is not about low-hanging fruit and, you know, click-bait’s a trendy word, but click-bait-style headlines … we can do that and we could grow pageviews tomorrow. That’s not what I’m in the game for. I want to make a difference in our community.

Gannett’s papers, of course, have grave problems, like virtually all newspapers. But they’re only going to be exacerbated by yet another round of layoffs. This is a company whose newspapers had $314 million in operating profit last year, a number that will be down significantly this year but will still likely be in the $200 million to $250 million range.

These layoffs will not result in large amounts of savings. The Tennessean, for instance, has 37 reporters right now, who probably cost it about $2 million a year. The entire newsroom payroll will probably be under $5 million, generously assuming average salary and benefits of $65,000.

The new cuts will save the paper a few hundred thousand bucks a year, perhaps. This at a paper that reportedly earns more than $10 million a year.

Plus, Marymont says there will be some hiring at Gannett’s regional production hubs, though she said she didn’t know how much.

In a column a few days ago, the Tennessean’s Murray touted USA Today’s Social Media Tuesdays as an experiment “wherein the staff is able to get information only from social sources.” That would be crazy if it were true. Fortunately, it’s not.

Social Media Tuesdays at USA Today are for acting like readers can only access their stories via Twitter, Facebook, and the like. Reporters are not banned from picking up the phone, getting gum on their shoes, or any of that.

A good copy editor would have caught that one.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,