Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Amid big merger, many smaller papers do well; experts say keys are a quality product and 'real ties to the community'

Kevin Slimp
If the pending marriage of Gannett Co. and GateHouse Media is to be a success, the merged company's managers will have to remember that their newspapers should be about producing quality journalism and a sense of community, two knowledgeable observers told Jonathan O'Connell of The Washington Post.

Community newspaper consultant Kevin Slimp of Knoxville, Tenn., says in a post on his State of Newspapers site that he surprised O'Connell by telling him that the U.S. still has about 12,000 newspapers in the country, and "that most, not all, but most papers are doing fine financially."

O'Connell reports that Slimp's survey of about 400 publishers last year found that for successful papers, in Slimp's words, “Job number one is to put out a good product. Job number two is to realize that your business is still mainly on the print side.”

"Slimp is a longtime critic of newspapers’ rush to cut their staffs and race to digital platforms once the Internet began cutting into business," O'Connell notes. "When that failed, he said, private equity investors and Wall Street sharks arrived and further gutted the papers for profits."

“They should not have ignored their main products, and they should not have reduced their staffs,” Slimp told the Post. “When you start getting rid of reporters, no one wants to read your paper.”

O'Connell writes, "There is some data to suggest that this time around could be different: that newspapers — while nowhere near as robust as they once were -— could find some stability in balancing their print and online businesses as part of large chains. Gannett increased digital-only subscriptions by 34 percent from the same time last year to 561,000."

But Bernie Lunzer, the president of NewsGuild-CWA, the labor union for newspaper journalists, told O'Connell that he fears the merged chain will have “layoffs and more cookie-cutter journalism.”

"Lunzer agrees that the future of local news largely relies on success online and a degree of corporate efficiency. But he’s worried more financial machinations from Wall Street and out-of-town owners will short circuit the required solutions," O'Connell writes, quoting him: “Creating real ties to the community — that’s the only way these things are going to work. And I just don’t think that corporations think that way.”

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