Does Gannett think its own papers matter?

As job cuts hit the chain, coverage--and answers--are in short supply

DETROIT, MI — Want to learn what the deal is with the hundreds of layoffs unfolding at Gannett newspapers across the country? You can get slivers of the story from the local business press and alt-weeklies, and stabs at a big-picture take from industry-watching blogs.

But one place you won’t find news about the layoffs? Many of the affected newspapers themselves.

The wave of job losses began around the end of July; on Aug. 2, Jim Hopkins, author of the independent Gannett Blog, reported that an estimated 226 jobs had been cut—the vast majority through layoffs—based on tips from his readers. At about the same time, a Gannett spokesman gave Jim Romenesko this less-than-robust explanation of the moves: “Some USCP (U.S. Community Publishing) sites are making cuts to align their business plans with local market conditions.” An Associated Press story reported that the same spokesman “declined to say where the cuts are taking place,” or even how many jobs would be eliminated.

Since then, the cuts kept coming. As of Friday, a spreadsheet maintained by Hopkins tallied an estimated 324 layoffs and open jobs eliminated, both newsroom and non-newsroom, at 52 work sites. (The layoffs come less than two months after Gannett announced plans to buy Belo Corporation in a $2.2 billion deal, nearly doubling the number of television stations the company owns.)

Authoritative information, though, remains hard to come by, and not just because corporate is tight-lipped; the affected papers themselves have at times failed to report on the changes and been uncommunicative when presented with questions. Here’s what happened when I tried to get more information from a couple publications in the upper Midwest region I cover for CJR.

No good-byes in Green Bay

According to the Gannett Blog, which is widely cited in other media accounts, the company cut 31 jobs in Wisconsin, including six at the Green Bay Press-Gazette. One of those laid off was veteran editorial cartoonist Joe Heller, reportedly the last staff cartoonist in the state. As Jim Romenesko pointed out, “Press-Gazette readers asking on Facebook about Heller’s departure get a cold ‘the Press-Gazette does not comment on personnel matters’ reply. That’s a nice send-off for a 28-year local newspaper legend.”

The Press-Gazette apparently doesn’t cover layoffs, either, or publish sentimental send-offs to departing staff, or even archive their past work. A search of the paper’s site turned up no coverage of the job cuts. And when I searched for “Joe Heller” on the site, the first result read, “Joe Heller Cartoons -” But when I clicked the link, it was dead: “Unfortunately, that page could not be found.”

This week, I reached out to multiple staffers at the Press-Gazette for more information. The one response I received was from Scott Johnson, the president and publisher, who said, “I am really not the best source for this.”

He added, “We had a handful [of layoffs] at my site and some have already been rehired here or have opportunities at other Gannett sites.” That’s good news for the rehired folks, but only modestly illuminating in terms of what’s happening.

A ‘restructuring’ in Cincinnati

But the situation in Green Bay is crystal-clear compared to what happened at The Cincinnati Enquirer, which experienced its own job reductions, though it’s hard to say quite how many. Cincinnati Business Courier puts the number at 11, and says that was confirmed by Enquirer editor Carolyn Washburn; Cincinnati CityBeat, citing Gannett Blog, says it’s 23, “but it’s difficult to confirm the report because of Gannett’s secrecy with staffing issues.”

The Business Courier and CityBeat also both initially reported that the Enquirer was closing its northern Kentucky and West Chester, OH bureaus. When those reports prompted an outcry on Twitter from readers concerned that the paper was abandoning coverage of their region, Washburn responded on Twitter: “Not true. Same # reporters. Not closing office.” She later supplied a quote to the Courier that led that publication to update its post. “The physical bureaus are staying open, with seats the reporters will use,” Washburn said. “Reporters will work sometimes downtown with editors, sometimes in the bureaus.”

But as Hopkins pointed out in an Aug. 3 Gannett Blog post, what was missing from Washburn’s response is a real account of what did happen at the Enquirer (not that it could fit in a tweet). Meanwhile, search for “layoff,” “job reduction,” “Gannett,” and “Kentucky edition,” and you won’t find either a reported article or an official announcement of the changes. Here’s Hopkins’s attempt to suss out the situation:

Washburn says the Kentucky office will not close. But she doesn’t acknowledge that the office, which was responsible for a Northern Kentucky edition, will no longer be staffed with reporters, according to that edition’s editor, Steve Wilson [who was laid off]…

In the end, this may be all about semantics and rearranging the deck chairs. The Enquirer is shutting down its Kentucky “bureau” (journalism terminology) but keeping open an office for business purposes. And it’s keeping the same number of reporters, but only by cutting other jobs in the newsroom.

I contacted multiple people at the Enquirer for clarity on this story over the past week. Washburn is out of the office until Aug. 19. Senior news editor Randy Essex initially said, “I’ll decline your request” for an interview, and told me that the Enquirer’s marketing director would pass my information to a Gannett representative, neither of whom he named. Later the same day, he sent me this statement:

Enquirer Media completed some restructuring as part of a need to manage our costs and adapt to a quickly changing marketplace. That’s the reality of our industry today. We reorganized resources in some departments to ensure we can focus more sharply on the right audiences and drive revenue across key segments of business.

We believe content will improve in some areas. That’s because we’ve aligned reporting resources with editors who are experts in their subject areas and we are establishing seamless relationships between the content team and our digital and audience engagement leaders.
That’s something. But precisely because it’s about a “restructuring” and not just a shedding of well-paid veterans, it prompts a series of other questions: which resources in which departments? Which audiences? Which content areas? Etc. When I asked Essex if I could indeed be connected the Gannett rep for more information, he told me, “It’s being left to us to comment.”

I also reached out to Laura Trujillo, managing editor of digital content, who thanked me for writing this piece and directed me to the out-of-the-office Washburn and the marketing rep, Mark Woodruff. Woodruff responded with this: “You should have received a response from Randy Essex. We have no further comment and decline an interview.”

So there’s that.

Does Gannett think Gannett matters?

Hopkins, in that Aug. 3 Gannett Blog post, wrote that every Gannett paper he’d checked had declined to carry the AP story about the layoffs. In fairness, not every paper failed to cover its in-house job cuts. The Journal News in New York’s Hudson Valley, for example, produced a brief but straightforward announcement disclosing 26 job cuts within its group, including 17 newsroom positions.

But it’s bewildering, and troubling, that both corporate headquarters and numerous Gannett publications could not clear even that low bar. There’s an obvious problem of hypocrisy when news organizations, staffed by members of a profession that rightly demands transparency of government and other major institutions, are not themselves transparent. There’s also the question of responsibility to readers. The most engaged, most valuable readers want to know what a paper’s plan to cover their community is. They want to know why someone whose work they’ve seen for decades is abruptly gone. When they don’t know, they may lose trust—and, over time, interest.

Finally, there’s the question of what this approach says about the value of news, and of newspapers. It’s obviously true that this is a tough time for newspapers. The market is changing; the quality is not always all it should be; in some cases, “restructuring” may be unavoidable. If you believe that journalism matters, and that the sort of newspapers Gannett owns can be a source of journalism that matters, that’s an important story—which means that reporters need to be set free to cover it aggressively, and the managers implementing these changes need to be out there explaining, at every opportunity, how their papers are going to get better.

But that’s not happening. For all the grief Hopkins has given the company lately, his obsessive coverage at Gannett Blog rests on the idea that Gannett newspapers matter. As for what the company itself has to say? Not so much.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit. Tags: , , , , , , ,