May 9, 2024

Sarah Leach, an experienced editor overseeing 26 Gannett community papers in four states, was fired via video conference first thing the morning of Monday, April 29. She was accused, she said, of “sharing proprietary information with (a reporter for) a competing media company.”

The reporter in question was me.

Her boss, Silas Lyons, next asked, “How do you respond?” Leach recalled. Then he added, “We have documentary evidence you have been communicating with Poynter.” No performance issues were raised. Since the dismissal was for cause, after 13 years of service, Leach was offered no severance.

Lyons’ bill of indictment was half right. Leach and I met five years ago at a Poynter seminar and have stayed in touch since. She did email me March 29, saying, “Things are a lot worse than people realize, and I’m hoping people are telling you about it. … I can’t speak on the record, but I’ll tell you what I know.” The rest of our interchanges were by phone or through her private email.

Lyons did not say how the company identified her as a source. As best Leach and I can figure, they must have tapped into her office email. “That’s the only way I can think of that they could have known,” she said.

The firing took place while I was still reporting the story, two days before Poynter published it. Leach published her own statement Thursday afternoon.

Back to the facts in a moment. But as both a participant and chronicler, I do have an opinion of what happened.

Outrageous! Gannett is a news company, not a widget factory, though it often does seem to be run like a widget factory. Gannett employs several thousand journalists who go to work every day in pursuit of stories, some of them based on insider tips and information. To pillory a successful and basically loyal editor because she raised an issue mildly embarrassing to the company…? Gannett’s top management extols itself for its commitment to excellent journalism while deploying espionage on its own employees? What a bunch of phonies.

Leach’s take: “They seem to be more interested in controlling their outward image than listening to their own people.”

Lyons declined to comment, as did spokesperson Lark-Marie Antón, who said the company does not discuss personnel matters.

Leach’s tip and my story concerned a ballyhooed initiative to revitalize Gannett’s small community papers like the one Leach had edited for years in Holland, Michigan.

The centerpiece, known internally as I-30, was to hire at least 30 new reporters for outlets that had only one or none who were locally based. However, just as it was getting rolling, the initiative was suspended in November. Then Lyons told 17 editors at the end of March that the “pause” (his wording) would extend through the second quarter.

Meanwhile, chief content officer Kristin Roberts continued to brag about I-30’s success as recently as February, three months into the pause, in an earnings call with analysts and a webcast.

Leach has been promoted several times during the five years I’ve known her. Still based in Holland, she oversaw The Holland Sentinel there and 25 more papers in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota. The pause was a bitter pill to her and the editors who reported to her, as they had been scrambling for years to cover multiple outlets with ever-shrinking staff. When the promise of fresh resources was postponed indefinitely, she said, that extended a management nightmare. She hoped that a story on it would goad her superiors into action.

I spoke with Leach minutes after her firing. Though shell-shocked, she already had a firm fix on the situation. “I took a chance, and I got caught,” she told me. “It seemed important to reveal what was going on.”

Leach is a single mom of three. Because of her family situation, she said, she cannot leave Holland for a job elsewhere. The sudden loss of income was alarming.

She turned quickly to patching together work and found immediate encouragement. Two newspapers (including The Detroit News) and a TV station have expressed interest in employing her to cover Western Michigan. “I’m going to be able to pay my mortgage,” she told me this week.

This had been an especially good year for Leach professionally. She chose herself to cover a big local story as a new right-wing group of county commissioners took control and began dismantling the government — starting with the local health department.

The stories were forceful enough that her predecessor as Holland Sentinel editor and another citizen nominated her for a Pulitzer Prize in local reporting. Also, The Washington Post jumped in with long stories, seeing a Middle America case in point of MAGA stalwarts in action at the local level.

With her Post connection, Leach was hired to cover the Michigan leg of a three-city series of Trump rallies May 2. She shared a quadruple byline three days after being fired.

There is one other oddity in the sequence of events. Leach had a conference call, scheduled before I began work on the story, with Michael Anastasi, who oversees all of Gannett’s 200-plus regional papers (USA Today has a separate structure). “I had never had that kind of one-on-one conversation with him,” she said.

As it happened, the call took place the Friday before she was let go. It was a pleasant how-are-you-doing chat, she said, that allowed her to make her pitch for more staffing.

She gleaned from talking to Anastasi and then to former colleagues after she left that while the promised I-30 hires remain on hold, permission to fill several other positions had just been approved.

That was a relief. “It’s not The New York Times.” she said, “but I’ve dedicated most of my career to community journalism — they need to be served too.” Her choice to raise a fuss seems to have achieved at least part of her objective. But Leach won’t be around at Gannett for the next chapters.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
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…
Rick Edmonds

More News

Back to News


  • Sarah is a class act, a champion for local journalism at a time when local journalism needs all the champions it can find.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.