May 1, 2024

For most of 2023 year and all of 2024 so far, Gannett has promised that it is working to add hundreds of new editorial positions, backfilling the many openings that were lost after a December 2022 hiring freeze, then growing further.

The pledge includes restaffing many of the chain’s smallest dailies, ones that have been languishing with one or no locally based journalists as more profitable metros get attention and resources.

Chief Content Officer Kristin Roberts said of the new approach in Gannett’s quarterly earnings call with analysts:

“Last year, we launched an initiative with the conviction that putting reporters into our smallest newsrooms was critical, but not enough on its own to be sustainable.

We needed to experiment with new ways of engaging hometown readers at a small-site scale. Our reporters combined first-person voice with a newsletter approach that invited readers to join them in experiencing their community firsthand, the results were remarkable and gave us the confidence to boldly expand this strategy.”

There was a notable omission, though.

Roberts didn’t say that the company hit the brakes on hiring for that key small newsroom position three months earlier.

The people already on board in the beta version of what Gannett calls the I-30 Initiative could stay. Authorizations to proceed with other hires stopped.  Some candidates who were expecting to start soon have had the offer rescinded. According to internal communications, the “pause” has now been rolled over through the second quarter.

Roberts declined my request for an interview. The next quarterly earnings report is Thursday, and she may or may not offer an update.

The I-30 jobs (so called because they were approved for 30 markets) are unusual ones, defined after a protracted planning process through last summer. Journalists, well paid at roughly $50,000, are being hired on one-year contracts rather than as full-time employees. They must physically work in the target communities.

Their job is to establish a local news presence in cities that have been getting only a thin trickle of hometown content. A particular emphasis, as Roberts said, is creating newsletters, now a primary way in the industry to get samples of coverage to the target audience and capture email addresses of potential paid digital subscribers.

A community division editor who alerted me to the pause said it has created chaos for people like her. (She asked for anonymity in hopes of keeping her job).

Editors, spread thin and scrambling to oversee several papers at once, are not getting the relief they’d anticipated, she said. Identifying I-30 candidates in October and November proved difficult, given the lack of assurance they would be hired permanently.

Plus, from the management perspective of regional editors who hire one level down, they cannot be sure that a position that comes open as an editor moves on or is fired can be filled.

With approvals on hold, “the solution for all these ghost newsrooms is put off indefinitely,” my source said.

Though the number of hires involved is modest, and Gannett continues to spend on growing news staff at its metros, I think there is a context that makes it a bigger deal.

For the better part of a decade, Gannett has been open about bigger newspapers, particularly in an era pivoting from print to digital, being the  best prospects for revenue and profit growth.

The metro division used to hold its annual planning retreat at Poynter and  allowed me to sit in to better understand the company’s editorial strategy. I was told on background by one of the participants that even papers with no news staff contributed welcome revenue and a little profit

Continuing to publish papers with next to no local content has seemed like a sham to analysts like me and market-by-market data expert Penny Abernathy. I first wrote specifically about a Gannett ghost newspaper four years ago — this one in Ithaca, New York, a town with two major universities, that was down to a single local reporter. I got the explanation that metros proportionately generate more revenue and profits.

So, it seemed welcome evidence of journalistic commitment when Roberts’  extensive package of initiatives for her first year at Gannett included a good faith effort to put a better news report in front of its small and midsized town readers.

I’m hoping, even betting, that the I-30 program and other reinvestments resume. But for right now, the community papers have again taken their position in the back of the line for Gannett.

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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…
Rick Edmonds

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