In the mid-80s my dream of working at a major U.S. newspaper was destroyed when a company called Gannett acquired the Detroit News. I was hired by the News because I had experience working in a highly competitive journalism market and when I joined the publication it was engaged in a fierce competition with the Detroit Free Press. Conventional wisdom had it that Detroit couldn’t support two newspapers, and the News and Freep were engaged in a do-or-die war to put each other out of business.
Gannett didn’t like competition, and the company immediately negotiated a truce with Knight Ridder, the owner of the Free Press. The two companies took advantage of the Newspaper Preservation Act, which allowed them to merge their business operations providing they maintained separate newsrooms. I bolted before the so-called joint operating agreement (JOA) was finalized, as sharing a corporate bed with the Freep was anathema to me.
A brilliant and feared local journalist named Matt Beer and I partnered to create a feisty independent tabloid modeled after the Toronto SUN. The SUN was launched in 1971 by former journalists of the Toronto Telegram, which folded after the broadsheet’s owner concluded he couldn’t profitably compete with the mighty Toronto Star and the establishment Globe and Mail. No one thought a conservative city that was still known as “Toronto the Good” could support a racy tabloid featuring a daily scantily dressed “SUNshine Girl,” but they were wrong. The tabloid was a huge success.
Beer shared my low regard for the managements of Gannett and Knight Ridder, and we were confident that we could beat them launching our tabloid, which we dubbed the Detroit SUN because we thought the Sun name had good karma. Tabloids thrive on crime and sports, and Detroit was begging for one. But when we tried raising money everyone doubted that a startup run by a couple of rag tag journalists could compete with two of the biggest newspaper chains in the country. The advertising campaign Beer and I put together caught the attention of a highly regarded local agency, which made me a job offer I couldn’t refuse.
The Detroit SUN never saw the light of day.
A money-losing monopoly
Gannett and Knight Ridder promptly proved Beer and I were right in viewing their managements as dimwits. Immediately after getting their JOA approved, they immediately jacked their advertising rates three-fold. Southeastern Michigan in the mid-80s was dominated by local businesses with grit, and they refused to pay the higher costs. Having gotten a business monopoly, the chains thought it an opportune time to break the local unions, forcing a bitter strike that resulted in the cancellation of subscriptions. In those days, Detroit was still a union town.
Gannett destroyed the Detroit News by eliminating its morning print edition and took other measures to gut the publication. Even with a newspaper business monopoly, Gannett and Knight Ridder lost money for years.
Gannett subsequently dumped the News and acquired the Free Press, whose journalism is a far cry from the publication’s former glory. Underscoring its lost influence and competitiveness, when Ford CEO Jim Farley recently leaked that he planned to fire 8,000 employees, or 26 percent of his U.S. salaried workforce, he gave the story to Bloomberg.
Poorly executed inclusion
Gannett, to its credit, was a pioneer in championing inclusion and diversity. Even in the 80s, it mandated its newspaper managements to promote Blacks, and editors were literally paid a bounty for every Black journalist they hired. That didn’t sit well with many accomplished Black journalists, who didn’t want the perception they were hired because they were Black. Shortly after Gannett took over the News, longtime Black journalists staged a byline strike, alleging that Gannett’s newly hired managers were racist. The best Black journalists had the same disdain for Gannett’s lightweight editors as did white journalists.
Gannett continued to grow over the years and acquired daily publications that punched way above Gannett’s journalism weight. Gannett ultimately Gannettized them, sucking out their local uniqueness and turning them into soulless content creators packaged as mini me versions of USA Today, the company’s flagship publication. Gannett publications are designed and edited at various regional content processing facilities.
Gannett had various managements over the years, but the ties that bound them were ineptness, bad ideas, and excessive compensation. As recently as 2017, Gannett was paying a former Wall Street Journal editor with no local newspaper experience who also oversaw the launch of a failed business publication $2.5 million to serve as chief content officer and editor of USA Today.
Gannett was acquired in 2019 by GateHouse, another media chain known for even more aggressive cost cutting and low-quality local journalism, underscored by the fact that GateHouse opted to adopt the Gannett name. The combined enterprise controls hundreds of local media outlets in 46 states, and Newsquest, which operates 120 local media brands in the UK.
USA Today’s mounting disgraces
Gannett’s management bares blame for the company’s business decline, but the company’s woke editors and reporters, particularly at USA Today, have also contributed mightily.
A reporter who I regard as far-and-away the best journalist on his beat recently confided that he opted to leave USA Today after attending a meeting and someone complained there were too many white faces in the room. David Mastio, a former deputy opinion editor, was demoted and ultimately forced out after tweeting, “People who are pregnant also are women.”
From Mastio’s op-ed published in the New York Post:
That idea was forbidden because a “news reporter” covering diversity, equity and inclusion wrote a story detailing how transgender men can get pregnant. I compounded my sin against this new orthodoxy by calling the idea that men can get pregnant an “opinion.”
If I wanted to keep any job at USA Today, my bosses informed me, I needed to delete these offensive tweets because they were causing pain to the LGBTQ activists and journalists on our staff.
Another recent USA Today disgrace was the revelation that Gabriela Miranda, a breaking news reporter, used fabricated sources in about two dozen articles the publication was forced to delete. Miranda, who formerly covered education and the Hispanic community at the Gainesville Times in Georgia, was a young reporter who possibly cut corners because the pressures of covering breaking news were too formidable. I blame USA Today editors for failing to adequately supervise Miranda, but a former reporter who is in touch with former colleagues told me no editors faced any consequences.
Yet another USA Today disgrace was allowing failed Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to extensively revise her published commentary supporting those who chose to boycott businesses in the state because of its election laws. Two days after Abrams’ commentary was published, Major League Baseball announced that it was pulling the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta because of the state’s voting law. The legacy media cited the stealthily edited commentary to defend Abrams that she wasn’t responsible for MLB’s decision.
Compounding USA Today’s shame was the publication received a grant from Facebook to “fact check” stories.
USA Today’s unadulterated wokeness was deftly captured by Christian Toto in his takedown of the Virginia-based publication’s recent humorless feature on comedy. If I worked at USA Today, I’d likely drown myself in the Potomac, no doubt to the delight and applause of the wokesters running the place.
Disastrous financial quarter
Gannett earlier this month reported disastrous second quarter earnings, racking up a loss of $54 million on revenues of $749 million. Gannett CEO Mike Reed said the company must slash and burn more employees to “responsibly and proactively [align] resources to our highest strategic priorities and [lower] costs to be in line with revenues.” One way to achieve that alignment would be for Reed to cut his $7.7 million annual salary, but he appears to get compensated by the gallons of employee blood he spills. Reed reduced Gannett’s overall headcount by 24 percent in 2021.
Here’s how little regard Wall Street has for Gannett.
The company is valued at this writing at $375 million. By comparison, Cox Enterprises just agreed to pay $525 million to acquire Axios, a publication founded a mere five years ago by a trio who were responsible for the launch and success of Politico.
Axios specializes in White Castle journalism, producing digital information sliders. The company plans to expand with localized versions of its publication in more than 100 cities, and you can rest assured they’ll eat Gannett’s lunch in every market they compete.
My Detroit SUN partner Matt Beer died in 2003, but I know he’d be as amazed as I am it took so long till Gannett was finally served its just desserts.