May 19, 2020

Gannett has launched a combined ad sales and news initiative for the end of the month on the theme of how businesses and individuals are preparing for a broad reopening of the economy.

The “Rebuilding America” special issues, planned for May 30 and 31, will appear across Gannett’s 260 regional paper network as well as USA Today.

An internal memo from a regional editor, obtained by Poynter last week, offers this overview:

It’s a joint effort between the news and the sales side. In the current uncertainty, the moving target is the ad side. A sales rally launches today and will set the tone for the effort. We’ll just have to see how big this gets.

On the most optimistic side of the equation, this could be one of the largest newspapers we ever produce, but only time will tell.

Basically, this is a series of national stories produced both out of the mothership and some expertise in the field at some local properties, like an auto industry piece from the (Detroit) Free-Press. For all of us, this means producing a series of sidebars about our local scene: what might tourism look like as America reopens. … What might restaurants look like after the reopening and beyond? …

Each property is responsible for these sidebars and the number is scaled to the property’s size. There might be clusterwide stories that make sense for our new combined markets.

The hardest part is this is a pretty ambitious effort and tight turnaround.

An accompanying presentation indicates that the company has identified a dozen promising categories for corporate ads and stories, “The sales plan is an ambitious undertaking that will be supported by a multi-faceted content plan that showcases ‘a single moment of impact,’ capturing national and local angles of the most pertinent aspects of America’s economy.”

Local newsrooms will be asked to produce a number of geographically specific “sidebars,” tentatively 10 to 12 at the chain’s largest papers like The Arizona Republic and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, fewer from smaller properties.

The topic categories lead with medical — hospitals and nursing homes, with a range of other sectors including restaurants, real estate, retail and sports.

While the memos do not dictate that the editorial content be entirely positive, the thrust is to position Gannett’s USA Today Network as “the nation’s source for a powerhouse platform that tells the story of America’s rebuilding economy.”

The project is being framed as news rather than an advertising supplement. But it at least tiptoes into deploying the network’s newsrooms (operating at three-quarter strength because of furloughs) to produce a boatload of stories in support of an ad sales initiative.

The presentation overview says that a “sweeping national story” will be accompanied by “a joint column from (editorial chief) Maribel Perez Wadsworth and (revenue chief) Kevin Gentzel about this section and Gannett’s commitment to this process.” It also encourages “local editors and sales leaders to write a joint column about each site’s commitment to their community.”

Gannett had a large digital ad sales effort even before its takeover six months ago by GateHouse Media (retaining the Gannett name), more than doubling the number of properties.

Despite the deep advertising cuts that came two months ago as the pandemic and economic crash took hold, there have been signs that corporations and large regional businesses want to get back in the game. This generation of ads are a branding opportunity and often carry messages related to the crisis.

The sources who provided the internal memos to Poynter also indicated that NewsGuild chapters are preparing a protest letter this week to CEO Mike Reed, charging that the plans cross an ethical line by linking content so closely to advertising.

A Gannett spokeswoman confirmed the “Rebuilding America” plans, still being finalized and subject to change, but did not make an executive available for questions. We will add details to this story if they are forthcoming.

Click through to view a PDF of the full presentation

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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