They were among the last journalists of their newspapers. Then came the layoffs.

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The Daily Jeffersonian’s only full-time reporter cared until recently. Kristi Garabrandt traveled Guernsey County, Ohio for three years, covering local council meetings and Eagle Scouts, photographing community events and writing a series on drug addiction.

The Daily Jeff, as it’s known locally, has been around since 1824. “The reality is, the community newspaper is pretty much what keeps your community together,” Garabrandt said.

Then came the layoffs. Earlier this month, The Daily Jeff’s parent company Gannett reported a dismal second quarter. The company reported a $53.7 million loss on $748.7 million in revenue as it faced inflation and soaring printing costs, the CEO said. Employees were warned in an email of “necessary but painful staff reductions”.

A week later, Garabrandt became one of at least dozens of Gannett employees who lost their jobs. It caught her off guard. “When you’re the only reporter in the paper, you don’t consider yourself non-essential,” she said.

Gannett will not disclose how many journalists were fired or which newspapers were affected. Non-profit media institute Poynter and employees’ union NewsGuild have tracked at least 70 to 90 newsroom positions cut this month, a fraction of Gannett’s total workforce of around 13,000. In some newspapers, dismissed reporters were the sole sportswriter, photojournalist, customer service representative or, like Garabrandt, a full-time reporter.

In the past, such reductions meant that work was divided among remaining staff, freelancers or reporters from other Gannett newspapers. The Daily Jeff, for example, ends up with a sports journalist, in addition to freelance contributions.

Gannett communications director Lark-Marie Antón said in a statement that the company was forced to take “quick action” in a tough economy. “These staff reductions are incredibly difficult, and we are grateful for the contributions of our departing colleagues,” she said. “Out of respect for our colleagues, there is no further comment.”

Newspaper companies are struggling to find their financial footing with the decline of print advertising. A recent study by Northwestern University predicted that a third of newspapers that existed around two decades ago will disappear by 2025. Another study by the Pew Research Center found that some 40,000 jobs in newspaper newsrooms disappeared between 2008 and 2020.

Gannett — the nation’s largest newspaper chain with more than 200 daily newspapers and its flagship publication USA Today — had already cut jobs. Its workforce fell 35% between 2019 and 2021, though it’s unclear how many of those reductions affected newsrooms and whether they were due to layoffs, attrition or other reasons. The company also resold newspapers to local owners.

Gannett’s local reporters nonetheless produced consistent journalism, such as a recent child rape case in Ohio that made national headlines.

“It’s really important because they own a fifth of local newspapers,” said Rick Edmonds, business analyst at Poynter Media. “The potential loss here if this situation were to get worse is huge.”

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In reporter and editor Darrel Rowland’s 31 years at the Columbus Dispatch, he worked on stories that led to the resignation of an Ohio attorney general; two wrongfully convicted men released; and the state falsely admits withholding $40 million in child support payments for single parents.

“I can cite laws that have been changed because of our reporting,” said Rowland, who lost his job this month. “How do people know what their elected officials are doing? How do they know where their tax money is being spent? Tome, [these] are the fundamental questions and one of the fundamental reasons why journalism exists.

Rowland also saw his newspaper grow from 200 employees to 70, and eliminate its state bureau and instead rely on a centralized Gannett bureau that feeds stories to all Ohio newspapers, making newspapers local less local. He also said a job offer was rescinded by an intern who went to a non-Gannett newspaper in Utah and won a Pulitzer Prize two years later.

Now Rowland worries whether newspapers have the resources and expertise to dig through millions of records like he and others have done on consequential stories, like inflated prescription drug prices. “We need good journalism and good journalists. I would like to be part of it for the newspaper I worked for for so long. I still want this newspaper to succeed and readers to have the benefit of good journalism.

Newspapers continue to eliminate printing days. They say it’s for the best.

During this month’s earnings call, Gannett CEO Michael Reed cited a tough economic environment and more and more readers abandoning more expensive print subscriptions. Cutbacks and the sale of his real estate, he said, were necessary for Gannett to create a more sustainable business. The company also carries $1.3 billion in debt from a merger in 2019.

Some staff say more should be done to invest in newsrooms. Unions in particular have criticized a new share buyback program; Gannett spent $3.1 million in the second quarter to buy back stock.

While Gannett’s digital business has grown — paid subscriptions grew 35% last year — it hasn’t been enough to offset the loss in print revenue, Edmonds said.

Gannett fired other longtime reporters in the latest round of cuts, such as photojournalist Don Shrubshell, who has worked at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri since 1998. He was inducted into the Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame the day before he was fired, according to the Maryville Forum.

According to the Record-Courier News Guild, their newspaper’s editor was fired; the Times-Reporter lost its only sports editor/writer; and the Chillicothe Gazette lost its only photojournalist.

As of May, 24-year-old Zachariah Chou was the only Gannett employee managing opinion content full-time for all of Georgia. Before losing his job this month, Chou checked letters to the editor and helped residents get their opinions on local, state, and national issues published in a newspaper.

“It was the community’s bulletin board,” he said. “There are a lot of very, very good opinion papers on community issues, and I think those will continue to some extent. It’s just that no one is going to devote themselves to it.

Gannett also downsized his opinion pages nationwide, with executives saying they alienated readers and were not widely read.

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Community leaders worry about the fate of their local newspapers. In his 15 years as mayor of Cambridge, Ohio, Tom Orr watched the Daily Jeff cut staff, reduce print consumption and publish photos of distant communities. “I love this city and I don’t like to see it suffer, and that’s what it makes it do, suffer,” he said.

In nearby Byesville, Ohio, village administrator Brennan Dudley said that while their council meetings are public, “we rely on the Jeffersonian to provide as much information” to the community.

Some laid-off journalists immediately started looking for new jobs, like Garabrandt, 50, who is the main breadwinner in his family. She has been in journalism for about 10 years and particularly enjoys upbeat stories. “A lot of us, as you know, live for the job,” she said. “In a world gone mad, I consider myself good news. I think there needs to be more good news out there.

Chou, who worked remotely while living with his parents in Texas, was offered a reporting position at Gannett after his position was cut, but that would have required him to move to Savannah, Georgia, which he said was not feasible.

And Rowland, the longtime journalist from Ohio, always wants to write stories of accountability that lead to lasting change. At 67, he is approaching retirement age. But, as he said, “I just feel like God has more stories in my fingertips.”

Paul Farhi contributed to this report.

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