Requiem for a Newspaper

GateHouse Media’s purchase of The Register-Guard has had reverberations

The bombshell landed on Jan. 26. The Register-Guard announced that the locally owned newspaper had been purchased by GateHouse Media, a company that would take over on March 1.

“People were in dead silence,” Dan Buckwalter, a former copy editor at the RG says. “Within a week and a half, we started noticing people we’d never seen before more or less measuring the drapes, taking dimensions of offices, holding clipboards as they go around.”

Since then, RG insiders and the newspaper’s readers have seen changes: centralized copy editing of GateHouse papers in Austin, Texas; changes to freelance contracts; editorial changes; and layoff after layoff, among other things.

When the company took over, the paper laid off many of its employees, some of whom had been with them for many years. This appears to be the standard. After GateHouse buys a local paper, many of the staffers know their jobs are on the line.

Buckwalter — who is now the Eugene Weekly calendar and copy editor — was laid off when GateHouse took over. His last day was Feb. 28, 2018. But since Buckwalter and his colleagues heard about the acquisition more than a month earlier, they waited for weeks to hear any news about their futures, creating tension in the RG offices.

Buckwalter says that around Valentine’s Day, people from GateHouse interviewed everyone at the RG to get a sense of who would stay and who would go. “I guess I flunked mine,” he says. “A week later, on Feb. 21, I was called back into Dave [Baker]’s office and was told that my last day was going to be the 28th, that they were not going to need me. That would end 27½ years.”

Buckwalter’s story is one of many emotional accounts of a career at The Register-Guard cut short. He — and others in the newspaper industry — feels strongly about what’s at stake when corporate ownership takes over a local newspaper. Individual lives changed as a result of job loss is one element, but when profit becomes a driving force in the news, does the integrity of the paper diminish?

GateHouse Media: A Brief Introduction

GateHouse Media has proven itself to be a controversial name in the journalism community. The company operates in more than 570 markets in 37 states, so it’s not a small operation, and there are differing opinions on what it means when a local newspaper is bought by GateHouse. Some call this vulture capitalism. Others say it’s the only way to save an already-dying local news industry.

GateHouse is a holding company for New Media Investment Group. According to its first quarter results from 2018, the RG was purchased for $14.3 million, just one of five newspapers that the corporation closed an acquisition on in the first quarter. New Media reported its total revenues for the third quarter of 2018 at $380.4 million, “an increase of 19.9 percent to prior year on a reported basis.”

The newspaper could have been purchased for a lot more in its heyday before the internet. In 2018, the Baker family took what it could get.

Researchers on the topic aren’t optimistic. Robert Kuttner is the co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, where he has written about private equity companies like GateHouse and the influence they have on the free press as they buy newspapers from broke owners who are in need of a payday.

“I’ve written a lot about abuses by private equity,” Kuttner says to EW. “They outsource a lot of stuff and strip the newsroom down to basically nothing, and they hope the readers don’t notice.”

Tim Gleason, a professor and former dean at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, has similar thoughts.

“What’s happening with the Guard isn’t unique to the Guard. It’s what’s happening all over the country as these venture capital firms buy newspapers and then largely gut them,” he says.

A source close to The Register-Guard who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity for personal and professional privacy has thoughts on this specific acquisition.

“It’s been frustrating for those of us who have been associated with the newspaper and with the family for so many years,” he says. “Now, it’s not entirely surprising, because the state of the newspaper industry is miserable.”

Unsurprisingly, the RG saw its circulation numbers dwindle alongside many other local dailies with the growth of the internet. According to numbers from the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, the Guard had a circulation of 74,800 in 1999. In 2014, the paper was at 43,663. ONPA did not have updated circulation numbers, and the RG didn’t respond to questions about circulation.

So, although it has been disappointing, our anonymous source says that the family didn’t have a lot of other options. “It began with the internet and with the industry’s failure to recognize both the blessings and the curses that the internet brought to the scene,” he says. “Some newspapers adapted quicker than others. I don’t think The Register-Guard adapted quickly enough, but I’m not sure that in the long run it would have made that much of a difference.”

Kuttner says the private equity model relies on cost cutting in the form of layoffs and other cuts.

“It’s not just corporate ownership, it’s a particularly toxic corporate ownership,” he says. “It’s a terrible loss when you have a newspaper that’s just going through the motions.”

Recently hired RG publisher Shanna Cannon declined to comment on GateHouse Media’s business interests. “I am not authorized to comment on behalf of the company. I can talk about The Register-Guard and what we’re doing in this community, what the vision is for us locally and our ongoing commitment to community journalism,” she says.

As of press time, GateHouse Media has not responded to Eugene Weekly’s requests for comment. But Mike Reed, CEO of New Media Investment Group, defended GateHouse’s role in community journalism in an NPR interview.

“We think we will have longevity in the newsrooms for our journalists,” Reed said in a May 2018 story on NPR’s Morning Edition.

It is unclear, however, which journalists he is referring to. It’s likely that the journalists who were laid off from The Register-Guard would beg to differ.

Layoffs and Cuts

Ownership change at a newspaper can mean a lot of different things. For many people employed by these newspapers, the question is simpler and more fundamental: Where will my next paycheck come from?

“What we’re seeing in all of these companies, in all of these acquisitions, is a radical downsizing of news operations,” Gleason says. “If it’s not universal, it’s close to universal.”

Before GateHouse took over, the editorial and news staff at The Register-Guard was much larger. In the staff directory from December 2017, 42 people were listed in the news section. Today, there are 26, though based on bylines in the paper, the number may not be accurate.

Michelle Nelson is a former RG copy editor who also did design and digital work. She worked at the paper for 10 years from 1998 to 2008, coming back in 2016.

Nelson worked at the RG under GateHouse for just a few months before she was laid off Aug. 1, 2018. After GateHouse took over, Nelson noticed more errors in the paper.

“The copy desk is pushing through so much copy and having to do so much that there isn’t enough time in the day to make sure things are accurate,” Nelson says. “For the most part you’re hands-off, you’re not seeing the stories at all.”

Lack of copy editing has repercussions. Nelson says that the more errors in the newspaper there are, the more readers will start to question the paper’s credibility.

Nelson says while she was still there, copy editors’ jobs were reduced to listing stories to send to the Center for News and Design in Austin.

Centralizing copy editing off-site reduces accuracy, she thinks, especially in local news. “Being a member of this community, you know if something is right or wrong. We used to really have conversations about that,” she says. “We knew the nuances of our community.”

In recent issues of the RG, the newspaper’s longtime way of referring to people from Eugene as Eugeneans has been misspelled as Eugenian and even Eugeneian.

“When you have all your copy editing being done many states away, you’re going to lose something in local knowledge,” the UO’s Gleason says. “Copy editors who, in what is now becoming distant past, weren’t just people who line edited. They were people who read stories and based on their knowledge, were able to ask questions of the reporters, to fill holes.”

Another recent spelling mishap from a house ad in The Register-Guard that led to public ridicule exemplified what happens without a careful attention to copy editing. In November, the paper ran an announcement about its new columnists in which “community,” “contributors” and “columnists” were spelled “communicty,” “contrubutors” and “colunmists.”

Freelance Contract Changes

The RG has made changes to freelance contracts as well. Leigh Anne Jasheway is a former humor columnist for the paper who wrote her column, “Laugh With Leigh Anne,” for 10 years before she was presented with a new freelance contract.

If Jasheway signed the contract, she would be agreeing to let GateHouse own the rights to all of her stories, possibly using them in syndication in other papers “in perpetuity, without any payment to the Journalist other than as specified in this Agreement.”

Payment for freelancers would be reduced, too.

Jasheway says that after reading the new freelance contract, she quickly decided not to sign it. “They’re getting more rights to use my work for less money. It was a no-brainer.”

This new contract shows a lack of respect for journalists, Jasheway says, and she considered its impact on writers with less experience.

“I’m always trying to be aware of how this sets a bad precedent for other writers,” she says. “I have been writing for a long time. If I allow them to do this to me, that says to the younger people coming up that this is the norm.”

Many people with experience at The Register-Guard look back with nostalgia, especially given the current operating system at the paper. Don Bishoff is a former RG employee who worked as a newsroom columnist, along with other positions over the 38 years he worked at the paper. He thinks highly about his time at the RG, especially at the beginning.

“Shortly after I got here, I realized I’d died and gone to heaven. It was that kind of an operation. The newsroom didn’t have any kind of budget — we spent what we had to cover the news,” Bishoff says. “That feeling prevailed for at least 25 to 30 of those years.”

Bishoff sees these changes as unavoidable under GateHouse.

“I think what was once a wonderful paper and a wonderful place to work has obviously fallen on hard times,” he says. “It’s a shame, but I don’t know if there could have been another outcome — absent a wealthy benefactor here in town who would buy the paper.”

It’s difficult to know how many people left the RG on their own accord after the GateHouse acquisition as opposed to being laid off for budget cuts.

“People started to protect themselves with language,” Buckwalter says. He says that some retirements, including that of former Managing Editor Dave Baker, may not have been completely voluntary.

“I will always wonder if they just got the word on high from GateHouse Media that we don’t want anything from the past here,” he says.

The Death of the Opinion Section

The Register-Guard used to be known for its editorials and large quantity of letters to the editor. The amount of opinion content has been vastly reduced since GateHouse took over, and insider reactions are mostly negative.

Some of Bishoff’s discontent with the newspaper comes from this lack of editorial content. “The only theory I can come up with is that they are so inept and so focused on cost-cutting that they are gutting some of the parts of the paper that shouldn’t be gutted,” he says. “You have to figure that most of the decisions aren’t being made here, they’re being made at corporate headquarters.”

The departure of Jackman Wilson, former editorial page editor, last summer was particularly controversial. Wilson wrote a final editorial to mark his departure, focusing on the importance of community activism and hoping that his editorials had contributed to action and understanding. The RG did not publish it. With his permission, former Mayor of Eugene Kitty Piercy posted his final editorial on Facebook, and from there EW ran it online.

Piercy’s post garnered hundreds of comments, many from community members sharing their thoughts on the reduction of the editorial pages and opinion columns. Alison Bath, the recently hired RG editor, did not respond to EW’s requests for comments, but she did publish a Sept. 2 editorial about the reduction of opinion content in the RG. 

“Today, regular Register-Guard readers will notice there are fewer pages of opinion/editorial content that what we’ve traditionally offered on Sundays,” Bath writes. “The changes are part of an overall strategy to better improve the opinion/commentary we offer readers. That effort includes broadening topics, encouraging more diverse voices and reaching out to the community in ways we previously haven’t.”

Bath writes that more is to come, though she doesn’t specify what.

“We’re not ready to reveal all of what is in store. But what we can say is the mission behind the effort is to provide all members of our community with a welcoming venue by which to express a diverse selection of thoughts, ideas, comments and opinions.”

The aforementioned anonymous RG insider says this change is not positive.

“There has been this strong bond between many residents of this community and their newspaper, and it’s hard for see these folks to see this newspaper in what they consider a state of decline based on the amount of space devoted to opinions,” he says.

The RG did publish a short letter responding to Bath’s Sept. 2 editorial that had some pretty scathing things to say about the editorial changes, calling them “Orwellian.” The main consensus was confusion — how would reducing the editorial content help encourage more diverse voices?

“So, you are reducing the opinion section by 50 percent so you can include more topics and different voices,” Eugenean Carolyn Wade says in her letter to the editor.

In September 2018, EW reported about speculation that the “Our View” editorials the Guard was running — seemingly without an editorial staff — were being outsourced to Portland-based company Opinion in a Pinch, a service that, according to its website, can “help you produce the right editorial, column, white paper or press release to achieve your goals” if you tell them the “topic, your opinion and how many words.”

Chris Trejbal, the founder of the company, would not disclose client information at the time, and he says he has nothing to add now. But EW was able to confirm with several sources who did election endorsement interviews with the RG editorial board that Trejbal phoned into the interviews.

Meanwhile, the paper has added four new community columnists to the opinion pages. Alaí Reyes-Santos, Juan Carlos Valle, Ryan Radloff and Connor Gabor, who vary in age, gender and race, will be writing monthly opinion columns. None are professional journalists. It is unclear, however, whether they will be getting paid or if they’re working pro bono.

“I’m actually not authorized to talk about that (I don’t know why) but if you want you can talk to Shanna Cannon,” Gabor writes in response to an interview request. Neither Bath nor Cannon responded to questions on the subject.

Since Wilson’s departure the opinion pages have been without an editorial page editor. Anna Glavash, a recent UO journalism graduate student, has worked since September as the associate editor of the editorial section, but the RG has been advertising to hire a superior.

“We have a job posting for our Opinion Page Editor and filling that position is a priority,” Cannon emails. “Once we have him or her in place we’ll be better positioned to answer what changes will be implemented as we intend to have the Editor fully involved in that process.” As of press time, this position does not appear to have been filled.

Future of Local Journalism

Nobody knows what to expect for the future. Kuttner says that it is up to readers and community members to restore local ownership by pushing on GateHouse’s bottom line.

“Put pressure on GateHouse to sell it to local ownership,” Kuttner says. “They’re not sentimental about it, it’s just a business.”

Finding a newspaper angel has worked for some newspapers — Jeff Bezos’ ownership of The Washington Post is one example. But if, as Bishoff puts it, a wealthy benefactor isn’t interested or can’t buy the paper — which seems to be the case in Eugene — GateHouse will maintain ownership.

“If you look at the national level, if you look at what’s happening with The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post, they are all sustainable operations,” Gleason says. “There are ways to make this work. We just haven’t figured it out for local journalism.”

Newspapers have had a difficult time sorting out how to profit from digital advertising. To get well-written and researched articles, readers need to pay for the news they consume, whether its online or in print.

While GateHouse and the RG may defend themselves against criticism of their journalistic intentions, people whose jobs were affected by the sale tend to disagree. Experts suggest that outsourcing material and centralizing editing is probably not the best way to maintain the quality and local flavor of a local paper.

There may be hope. The Mail Tribune in Medford was purchased from GateHouse by local Rosebud Media in June 2017 after about four years of GateHouse ownership.

So, who wants buy back The Register-Guard? If you value keeping local journalism local — and keeping corporations and their uncertain agendas out — that may be what needs to be done.

This story has been updated.