The nation’s largest newspaper chain may be about to get a lot larger.
Gannett’s ongoing pursuit of Tronc and its dominant daily newspapers in Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, Orlando, Baltimore and elsewhere follows the industrywide trend toward corporate consolidation of news.
For Gannett, that included the purchase of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and 14 other dailies that used to be part of Journal Communications and E.W. Scripps, papers in Texas and Pennsylvania formerly owned by Digital First Media, and the Bergen Record and sister publications in northern New Jersey.
With the Tronc papers, Gannett is unlikely to depart from its formula of reaping profit by quickly hacking away at acquisitions. In the most recent example, the national chain cut 130 local journalism jobs — more than one-third of the total news staff — at the New Jersey papers it purchased.
The company is likely to find even more room to cut at big metro papers that have more resources remaining than the smaller suburban titles from which Gannett has typically squeezed pennies. And the publicly traded corporation is under more pressure to do so because of escalating bids that drove the price up.
What comes next is up to the reporters and editors likely to be laid off, the communities who rely upon their work and the broader journalism community. A grassroots resurgence of local journalism is already filling the gaps left by many newspaper cuts. This growth will only accelerate as newspapers are consolidated into a few giant national companies focused on quarterly profits.
The news vacuum will be filled by dedicated journalists committed to local, independent, and primarily online coverage.
The experienced and committed journalists and revenue-side staff who will likely lose their jobs in the coming months could use their severance packages to support their own efforts to become local news entrepreneurs. And people who care about journalism, democracy, and the health of local communities should do everything they can to support these pioneers.
Hundreds of people have launched their own local news organizations across the country as newspapers have declined, and a group of them gathered in Tronc’s hometown of Chicago over the weekend to share ideas and celebrate their successes. The 2016 LION Summit was the group’s largest-ever conference, with attendees sharing a pro-active sense of optimism about their place in the industry that is foreign at many other journalism events.
Some LIONs are journalists who were laid off in past rounds of cuts at papers owned by Gannett and other chains. Some are former newspaper advertising executives or community-minded local businesspeople who launched their own local news organizations because they saw the gap left in their communities.
Some sites are nonprofit, some are for-profit. Some cover a single town, others a rural region, city neighborhood or entire state. Some have as broad a news coverage mission as a traditional newspaper, others focus on a set of public policy topics or investigative reporting. Some focus on a single topic in a defined geographic region and are providing better coverage than newspapers ever did. Some rely almost entirely on advertising revenue. Others are supported by reader membership programs or fundraising campaigns. Local foundations are recognizing how crucial strong local journalism is to their communities and are increasing their support of some sites.
Despite the diversity of their communities and coverage, those new media entrepreneurs share the knowledge that in the indie sector, news outlets are healthy, strong, and growing. LION members are launching new websites, hiring more journalists (and business-side staffers to ensure the newsroom gets paid), and increasing their impact. They are invested in their communities for the long term, rather than merely seeking to profit from them to meet the next quarterly report target.
And the world of local independent online news lacks the barriers of institutional media. Half of LION’s member publishers are women, and many sites are covering communities that never had a real voice with traditional newspapers, no matter how large those newsrooms used to be. There are no glass ceilings when you’re laying the foundation for something entirely new.
There could be many headlines about the newspaper industry being consolidated into the hands of a few if Gannett acquires Tronc. On the flip side, local news is being revived because it’s being democratized. While newspapers become controlled by an ever-smaller handful of giant publishers, the future of local journalism will lie in the hands of thousands of truly local publishers making up a diverse and decentralized ecosystem.
Dylan Smith is editor and publisher of TucsonSentinel.com, a nonprofit local independent online news site in Arizona, and chairman of the board of directors of LION Publishers. Matt DeRienzo is interim executive director of LION Publishers.