December 4, 2020

Readers of The Journal News in the Westchester County suburbs of New York City were greeted last Sunday by an odd print edition in their driveway — its A-1 front page was devoid of local news.

A retired editor of two large metros and Gannett watcher flagged the front to my attention. It consisted of three elements:

  • A perfectly good story about youngish COVID-19 victims who have suffered lingering effects. But the piece was reported statewide in New York where Gannett has 12 of its 250-plus dailies, with examples to match and an accompanying photo of a musician who was treated at Mount Sinai in Manhattan. It had run previously in the Democrat and Chronicle, based in Rochester, New York.
  • A house ad for Gannett’s digital marketing services company, LOCALiQ.
  • A story suggesting that readers meld Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday by buying gifts from a good-deed organization. It was produced by Gannett’s South Jersey news staff, and nearly all of the examples are from there or Philadelphia.

The third story shows as a sponsor Wallauer, a Westchester paint and design store chain. It is not advertorial-style sponsored content, however. More likely a premium position pegged to the front-page display and upbeat content of the news piece.

It’s not as though Westchester County and adjoining Rockland and Putnam Counties, with a bunch of affluent towns and more than 1.4 million population, are likely to be barren of local news. Nor does The Journal News have a tiny staff — 43 journalists and a chief editor are listed in its directory.

My tipster’s take (he asked not to be identified by name because he still does some industry consulting):

“On some days they have a strip ad at the very top then a six column strip promo to inside flyers and then a strip ad across the bottom. Leaves room for one photo and story. They’re also doing a lot of canned centerpieces with the same art and a localized story — like what people are thankful for. I must have seen that on 50 or so fronts at the Newseum site. This is called local journalism? Hmmm. Start watching the front pages. They’ll stick out!”

The musician whose photo appears on The Journal News Sunday front page actually does live in Westchester, and his case is treated in the jump of the story, But neither the text or cutline on the front page say anything indicating the Westchester connection.

It is no secret that Gannett has been pouring effort into its digital sites and local-to-national projects coordinated by the USA Today Network. Since the merger of the GateHouse and Gannett chains, the pace has picked up for statewide and regional work that can run in multiple papers.

In doing a feature about retired Hearst executive Lincoln Millstein earlier this week, I revisited an Editor and Publisher piece of his from 2017, slamming the industry trend of news chains chasing digital click volume. He wrote:

“Gannett has so depleted its local news operations, it is committing journalism malpractice. It is stealing those resources to prop up a brand that has virtually no consumer demand — USA Today — and hoping to calibrate a national sales strategy around it. In the meantime, it is destroying its viable local connections and products.”

My emails seeking comment from Journal News editor Mary Dolan, Gannett spokesperson Stephanie Tackach and local newspaper group chief Amalie Nash were not returned. I will add a response if I get one.

While being highly critical here of The Journal News and the trend toward blowing off local it suggests, I need to add a few qualifiers:

  • The Journal News website, like those of other mid-sized and metro Gannett properties, has plenty of local stories. One might argue that the balance represents getting up to speed on print-to-digital transformation.
  • When you combine the traffic of the regional sites with that of USA Today proper (still free), it does create a formidable audience for national ad sales — a key revenue strategy for the merged company.
  • Collaborations — often among outlets with no common ownership — are growing fast and produce an array of strong, data-driven investigations. One on President Donald Trump’s border wall, produced by Gannett papers in four states, won USA Today its first Pulitzer Prize in 2018.

However I see a jumping-off-the-cliff quality in Gannett’s embrace of the form. Too much regional reeks of being a fig-leaf cover for a token effort at the local level — at least for remaining print readers.

Not that there are so many of those. The Journal News’s latest Alliance for Audited Media publisher’s statement from September shows 32,500 paid print-plus-digital subscribers and 24,582 daily subscribers. As recently as 2015, those totals were 73,848 Sunday and 55,611 daily.

Those declining numbers and the non-local front also take me back to one of the first media business stories I did for Poynter in the early 2000s. With audited paid audience numbers and reported newsroom totals for the American Society of News Editors diversity survey, I evaluated roughly 200 papers by the then-prevalent standard for news effort — journalists per 1,000 circulation.

At the top of the list was The Journal News, created relatively recently when Gannett had relatively recently merged three separate papers. It needed higher than usual staffing to produce distinct daily editions for different parts of the three-county region (as did the also well-staffed Daily Herald of suburban Chicago).

That was before a blenderized version of local news was a thing.

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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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