June 10, 2020

It’s no secret that news staffing at small-market chain newspapers, Gannett’s especially, has been shrinking radically.

An extreme case in point: The Ithaca Journal in upstate New York now has no locally based editor or publisher and just a single reporter. Ithaca is small, but not a dot on the map, with 30,000 residents and another 30,000 students at Cornell University and Ithaca College (each with a robust student news organization).

Amalie Nash, vice president for local news and audience development at Gannett, confirmed my read of the Ithaca Journal website showing reporter Matt Steecker as the only newsroom contact in town.

After the Gannett/Gatehouse merger six months ago, Nash explained, work remains to be done distributing journalism resources. Any rebalancing awaits riding out the furloughs necessitated by the current steep advertising recession.

The Ithaca Journal and its website are run in tandem with Gannett properties in Binghamton and Elmira, 49 and 33 miles away respectively. A separate staff list (not fully current) listed more than 20 journalists for the cluster.

But news from Binghamton and Elmira is not exactly local if you live in Ithaca. Since the Ithaca Journal publishes six days a week in print, thin editions on some days include few if any stories originating from Ithaca.

How many Gannett markets are in the same depleted state, publishing what some might classify as “ghost newspapers?” Nash said that many of its 260 properties have 10 or fewer news staff and a lot have five or fewer. She declined to give more specific numbers.

I was alerted to the barebones state of the Journal by two Ithaca readers. One, Jeanette Knapp, put her thoughts in a letter to the editor (which, to the paper’s credit, it published):

This is how newspapers die

It saddened me on this beautiful spring morning to realize that there was again not a single bit of Ithaca news in the Ithaca Journal. And no editorial page, no editorial cartoon, no Letters to the Editor, no Leonard Pitts column, all my reasons for reading the paper.

Have you fired all of your Ithaca reporters? There were pages about nursing home issues the other day, but no news of how things are going at Ithaca’s nursing homes and retirement homes.

I suppose someone is reading the four pages of sports news when there is no news, but I would prefer to know how the Kitchen Theatre and Hangar Theatre are doing, and which Ithaca businesses have managed to reopen.

There are school board elections and a state primary coming up. How can we be informed voters without news of the candidates and the issues?

Knapp told me in a phone interview that she was prompted to write after the Journal had dropped its daily editorial page several weeks earlier, and she saw three editions in a row barren of Ithaca stories.

“I like to clip news items,” she said, “but there hasn’t been much of anything to clip lately.” Knapp added that she decorates her refrigerator door with editorial cartoons, but that supply has dried up, too.

Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media, has done extensive work on news deserts and ghost newspapers. A major update of that work is due in a few weeks.

But she told me that she, too, has been unable to dig out a definitive number on how many of the nation’s 1,300 daily newspapers have purged local staff and now are “ghosts” patching together regional news and material from freelancers to round out their weekday papers.

Operating a daily with a nameplate, however feeble the local report, attracts legal notices and paid obituaries — not inconsequential at a time of drastically reduced advertising revenue.

In our interview, Nash indicated that she is by no means unaware or indifferent to the ongoing ravaging of local news operations.

“I am stuck on the statistic from Pew that 71% think newspapers are doing fine as businesses,” she said, adding that people still value newspapers and their websites but assume they will always be there. “That keeps me up at night.”

With pressure to save in multiple ways as Gannett consolidates, the bigger metro markets get the bigger share of scarce news positions because their revenue and profit prospects are better.

Both Mike Reed, the CEO of the GateHouse chain, now CEO of new Gannett, and former Gannett CEO Bob Dickey indicated for a couple years before the merger that they were focusing on acquisitions in mid-sized metros. So small paper groups up for sale were left to others as GateHouse bought properties in Columbus, Ohio; Austin, Texas; and Palm Beach, Florida; and Gannett bought The Record in Bergen, New Jersey.

Ithaca is also an example of how Gannett and other chains are thinning the executive ranks. Through 2018, Neill Borowski, an experienced editor and a Pulitzer finalist in his reporting days, was overseeing the Binghamton-Elmira-Ithaca group. At the beginning of 2019 he left for an editing role at USA Today in Washington, then in August left that job and has launched a local digital site for the South Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia.

In an email, Borowski said, “It’s great to be close to the reader/community again with journalism that serves them,” but he declined to discuss Gannett. He was succeeded by Kevin Hogan, who had been Borowski’s No. 2.

Last week, Ithaca had a George Floyd protest rally with hundreds of participants. The Journal covered it but was outdone by The Cornell Daily Sun and The Ithacan, both with double-bylined articles prominently placed at the tops of their homepages with big photos.

Letter writer Jeanette Knapp said that she is hopeful that at least a little improvement in local coverage may be coming. A professional writer who contributed to the Cornell alumni magazine before she retired, she also offered me this coda:

“Frank Gannett was a Cornell graduate, class of 1904. Elmira was the first paper he bought, and I believe Ithaca was the second.

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

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Correction: This article has been updated to note that Neill Borowski was succeeded by Kevin Hogan, not Matt Weinstein. Our reporting relied on an outdated staff list. We regret the error. 

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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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  • This is true at the Chambersburg Public Opinion & Lebanon Daily News, both in Pennsylvania, as well. Both were Gannettpapers & gutted before the Gatehouse merger.They are edited, managed & printed in York, Pa. Gannett also sold the buildings & move the few staff into rented offices before the merger.