Op-ed: After merger, Gannett must keep local journalists in their jobs

In October 2017, I took a job with the Winchester Star, a weekly newspaper owned by what was then known as GateHouse Media. I was the only reporter covering Winchester, a Boston suburb of about 23,000 residents. When I started, I was also the fourth person in five years to hold the job. 

It took a year before I felt I had a grasp on the Winchester community and its key issues: a low percentage of affordable housing, rapid growth of the school population, and high property taxes, among others. The more I attended local events and interacted with residents and officials, the better I understood the town. Learning more about Winchester’s zoning laws helped me to better cover controversial stories related to land use and housing. Local seniors told me how they struggled to afford staying in homes where they raised their families, and helped me move my stories beyond property-tax numbers. Eventually, locals started calling me with story tips that didn’t surface at public meetings or in press releases, enabling me to write with greater insight and not miss stories important to the community. After my first year at the Star, one resident said to me, “We’re not used to reporters staying this long.” 

In August, GateHouse parent company New Media Investment Group announced its acquisition of the media giant Gannett—a merger whose goal, according to a press release, is to “preserve and enhance quality journalism.” (The deal closed in November; the new company is now simply known as Gannett.) Since then, discussions of the merger have revolved around forthcoming layoffs, which will doubtless damage the quality of local news coverage. But the preservation of quality journalism also depends on Gannett keeping journalists in those jobs it doesn’t cut.

PREVIOUSLY: The precarious state of local-news giants

It takes time for journalists to develop connections to their communities. That connection is something communities expect: according to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, 81 percent of adults believe reporters should be “personally engaged with their local area,” and about 85 percent believe reporters should understand their community’s history. Asked for their perception of local news’ community connections, 34 percent of respondents said local journalists are “out of touch.” Respondents who believed their local journalists were “in touch” expressed greater confidence in their local media, and were more likely to see it as “fair.” 

In 2016, GateHouse New England went through a major reorganization. It cut staff at its weeklies by reducing two-person teams—editor and reporter—to one: a multimedia journalist, whose role essentially combines the responsibilities of a print editor and digitally-minded reporter. This past summer, the company consolidated 50 of its New England weeklies into 18 publications

Some reporters handled digital sites and print papers for two or three communities—a setup that would make it nearly impossible to develop a meaningful connection with those communities.

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

While it’s not unusual for young journalists to move on to bigger outlets after a year or two, the increasingly heavy workloads, low salaries, and lack of backup prompted several of my former colleagues to leave. 

As a multimedia journalist, I was responsible for daily coverage on Winchester Wicked Local site—the Star’s digital imprint—including breaking news stories, coverage of select board and school committee meetings, police report summaries, and local features. To keep up pageviews and to encourage the growth of a digital audience, I layered my stories with photos, videos, and other tools such as maps and audio clips. I also had to balance those digital demands with curating the weekly print paper—laid out by a separate print editor—which involved ensuring that the front page featured a decent photo (often taken by me), and that letters, op-eds, and community news were included. Some reporters handled digital sites and print papers for two or three communities—a setup that would make it nearly impossible to develop a meaningful connection with those communities. 

The relatively low compensation for these responsibilities makes it hard for reporters to keep up with their living expenses. (My salary, $30,000, was on the high end.) Some of my former colleagues made it work by taking on side jobs or living farther away from the communities they covered. Abbi Matheson, a former colleague who covered Arlington, left after 15 months due to financial concerns. I would have stayed in that job for a lot longer if I had made enough money to pay for my student loans,” she told me. 

I would have stayed longer, too. I loved the work and the community I covered. While low pay was also a major factor in my decision to leave, it wasn’t the only reason. The relentless pressure that came with not having enough backup for late-night meetings, weekend events, and vacations eventually started to take a toll on my family. While my managers were supportive of a healthy work-life balance, opting out of local events meant potentially missing an important story and, with that, a chance to boost pageviews—one of the main metrics for measuring a reporter’s success. As a result, in an effort to cover all key aspects of Winchester life, I often felt like I was falling short.

If the new Gannett wants to ensure a “stronger future for journalism,” it must equip its journalists with tools and resources that will make it possible for them to get to know their communities beyond the surface and continue to illuminate local issues vital to our democracy.

ICYMI: Hundreds of ‘pink slime’ local news outlets are distributing algorithmic stories and conservative talking points

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

Mariya Manzhos is a freelance journalist based in Boston. Her writing can be found at mariyamanzhos.com.

TOP IMAGE: Winchester, Massachusetts