In the age of Google, the hardest information to find is local.*
Do you have a local paper? Who owns it? Do you read it?
Our paper, which has been run by the same family for 90 years, was sold last week. The new owner is Gatehouse Media, a company that has been scooping up local papers all over the country. Gatehouse runs over 620 business and community publications, including 125 local newspapers.
Many around here are wondering if the new owners have an ideological agenda like Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair, which owns the largest number of T.V. stations (including KVAL in our town), requires its stations tuck ultra-conservative editorials in with news broadcasts.
Probably not. GateHouse did sell the largest paper in Las Vegas to right-wing casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, which caused a ruckus, but it appears to have been transactional on GateHouse’s part, not political. According to the CEO “the then-unnamed interested party made an extraordinary offer – extraordinary offer.” The blowback apparently came as a surprise to Gatehouse.
Rising from the ashes of 2013 bankruptcy proceedings, Gatehouse has been on a buying spree. Until recently it was owned by an investment bank, Fortress Investment Group. At the helm is newspaper executive Kirk Davis, 53. He says he wants to find a way to keep local newspapers alive. His near-seven-figure pay package probably sweetens the task.
Using loans, income from papers and investment income, Gatehouse buys small papers in financial trouble, centralizes operations in one of its regional offices, cuts back on local staff and overhead, prints a lot of AP stories, trims sports and local news. In other words, it sucks as much profit as possible from small, faltering papers before they go belly up. In return, local communities at least have a paper.
Last February, a Japanese telecom company called SoftBank, owned by billionaire Mayayoshi Son, bought Fortress for $3.3 billion in cash. The purchase came shortly after Mayayoshi promised President Trump he would bring 50,000 jobs to the US. Firing copy writers and centralizing processing creates new jobs? We’ll see.
‘GateHouse is to journalism like what Olive Garden is to Italian food.’ —Thomas Caywood, Ex-Worcester Telegram & Gazette reporter
Bottom line: Our paper will probably become leaner and less local. Pink slips are coming for photographers, copy writers, staffers, and perhaps an editor or two. We’ll see more reprints from the big papers, and know less about what’s going on at the high schools, music venues and senior centers.
This follows a long decline of local papers.
A salute to the Baker family, who kept our paper aloft for so many years. In the meantime, is there anything that can be done? In some communities, newspapers are being bought back from private equity, with plans to make the business break even rather than profitable, and to allow the kind of editorial freedom we need and that we’ve come to expect from our papers.
We personally switched to an electronic version of our local paper last year, which now competes with the pile of headlines that come with daily news feeds. I miss holding the paper in my hands, and find myself sitting down to read when I see a newspaper in a waiting room or on an empty bench. My hope is that once Gatehouse sucks the Register Guard dry, there will be someone local with the resources and desire to buy it back at a fire sale price, and resurrect it to the lively and challenging publication it was.
Here’s a story about what’s happened to newspapers purchased by Gatehouse.
*Eric Abrahamson, Founder of the Black Hills Network
Featured Image credit: Kheng Cheng TOH