Gannett newspapers are hiding an important local story

A potentially crucial local story went uncovered at a number of Gannett-owned newspapers this week. The big news? More reductions in the ranks of journalists at some of the titles owned by the Virginia-based media conglomerate. The scope? Gannett executives refuse to say.

Newsroom cuts have long been a fixture among publicly traded newspaper companies, particularly Gannett, which announced in October 2016 that it would trim 2 percent of its total workforce—equivalent to more than 300 employees. But the corporation has foregone such transparency with its latest round of cutbacks, which come a week after a quarterly earnings report in which publishing revenues fell more than 10 percent compared to the same period last year, excluding acquisitions.

Gannett spokeswoman Chrissy Terrell declined to elaborate on which papers felt the ax—or how many jobs were slashed—saying the company does not comment on personnel decisions.

Gannett’s stated “purpose,” according to its website, is to “serve communities” and “get the right information, tools and guidance to people at the right time.” Many local readers, however, remain in the dark about how this umpteenth round of belt-tightening might affect the diminished newspapers they read. Meantime, Gannett properties have largely remained mum on whether they were affected and, if so, what it means for their local roles.

Word of the newsroom reductions began dribbling out Wednesday on Twitter, with a message passed on by retired media writer Jim Romenesko from a tipster who suggested the cuts may have arrived with a hush order from corporate or a local publisher:

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Terrell said that the Gannett mothership gave no such directives, adding, “Our local editors make their own decision on coverage.” I found only two examples of in-house coverage, one coming from the Independent Mail, in South Carolina, which saw seven newsroom staffers depart.

“The Independent Mail brand is important to this community and so is the information we provide on a daily basis,” News Director Steve Bruss was quoted as saying in the un-bylined report, which did not note how many journalists remain. “Our mission of being Anderson’s newspaper will not change.”

Such messages seem to be important, if boilerplate, PR after newsroom cutbacks: We’re still here, and we’re still working for you. Yet additional insight to just how much Gannett had trimmed, and where, came in bits and pieces from departing staffers and alternative media. The other paper that covered its own reductions, the Las Cruces Sun-News, in New Mexico, similarly omitted the number of remaining staffers. While the three journalists it lost is minute relative to the more than 3,000 journalists Gannett employs nationwide, such totals can be sizable bites from small newsrooms. The Santa Fe New Mexican, which also covered the layoff news, put the Sun-News’ editorial staff around 10. The paper’s managing editor also announced her resignation on the same day.

Related: Employment picture darkens for journalists at digital outlets

The informational vacuum left many speculating as to the size of total staff reductions, and an un-dated ABC News article that fit the popular narrative of Gannett as a bloodletter began circulating on Twitter. The piece suggested Gannett had slashed 1,000 newsroom jobs, though the stock price it mentioned indicated that it was published in 2008.

The confusion is yet more evidence of the difficulty in measuring what communities lose—accountability journalism, beat reporting, institutional knowledge—as local newspapers wither. Their continued decline comes as national media have been bolstered by digital investment and, more recently, renewed interest since the election of President Donald Trump. Despite debate over the centralization of the national press on the coasts, however, less attention is paid to how atrophy at the local level plays into media bubbles and drops in public trust.

There are a few bright spots among metro newspapers that are privately owned by civic do-gooders or experimenting with nonprofit models. Digital startups have also proved promising in a number of small communities. But for now, with newspaper chains beholden to quarterly earnings reports that look ever more grim with the implosion of print advertising, more reductions are on the horizon at many newsrooms.

“That’s why ‘support your newspaper because local journalism is important’ isn’t as simple a proposition as it sounds,” Matt DeRienzo, executive director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, wrote on Medium Thursday. “Because what if the ownership of your local newspaper is the biggest threat to the continued existence of watchdog journalism in your community?”

If your paper was affected by Gannett’s latest round of cutbacks, give a shout at duberti@cjr.org.

Related: Gannett’s push into New Jersey saps local coverage

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.