No New Guard to Replace the Old

Under Gannett ownership, The Register-Guard finds itself overworked and understaffed

“I just tried my best to keep it afloat, keep it together as best I could have, given how much [the opinion page] was cut,” says Brendan O’Meara, the last opinion desk editor at The Register-Guard. “I was just trying to give the readers something to hold onto. I felt like the ice floe was just melting underneath my feet.”

GateHouse Media merged with Gannett Co. in 2019, becoming the largest U.S. newspaper conglomerate by total daily circulation. Gannett currently owns more than 200 daily papers across the country, including USA Today and the RG’s sister paper the Salem Statesman Journal.

Since the GateHouse acquisition four years ago, the RG has lost its opinion desk, stopped printing on Saturdays, lost its office building and most of its paid staff.

When O’Meara began working at the RG in 2019, the paper employed 20 full-time staff members in the newsroom. “I was watching from my own little desk and saw one person gone and then another and then another,” O’Meara says. Currently, the paper only has seven staffers, including Chris Pietsch, longtime RG photographer and current photo and multimedia editor, who is the only local manager left. Pietsch did not respond to Eugene Weekly’s request for an interview.

The newsroom maintained a supportive and collaborative environment despite the constant buyouts and layoffs, O’Meara says.

The RG has not had a physical newsroom since March 2020. The paper had planned to move its office to downtown Eugene but was too bogged down during the process to successfully find one, O’Meara says.

Some recent editions have lacked local reporting entirely, with the RG running clips from USA Today and the Statesman Journal. According to the masthead on its website, the SJ employs a 21-member staff and has an office building. According to O’Meara, the RG staff meets weekly with the daily news editor of the Statesman Journal, Jonathan Williams, who is listed on that paper’s masthead but not the RG’s.

O’Meara was only one of several recent departures from the RG. In a Facebook post published Nov. 3 announcing her resignation from the RG, Editor-in-Chief Michelle Maxwell explains that her leaving is not a reflection of the kind of work done at the paper. 

“We’ve [persevered] through a lot in the past few years amid super challenging circumstances,” Maxwell writes. “This staff puts in the time to provide fair, accurate coverage that has context, answers the questions people wonder about and hold public officials accountable…. They’re the heart and soul that make the difference.” EW reached out to Maxwell for comment, but she did not respond.

“Leaving is bittersweet and I’m really going to miss the talented reporters I’ve gotten to work with here,” former reporter Louis Krauss says in a Nov. 4 tweet. Krauss did not respond to a request for an interview but posted on Twitter that he was leaving to take a position at the Minnesota Star Tribune as a general assignment night reporter.

Adam Duvernay, environmental politics reporter, and Zack Palmer, prep sports reporter, also announced their departures via social media last month.

Shortly after the November 2019 merger, Gannett dissolved the RG’s editorial board. O’Meara, while on the board, was not among those who were laid off, offered a buyout or who quit. He says he believes he wasn’t let go because his labor was “cheap.” During his time there, O’Meara says, he was not offered a single pay raise from his starting hourly wage of $18.50 an hour.

O’Meara worked at the RG under Gannett ownership for a little more than three years, joining in June 2019, and quitting his position on Oct. 7, 2022. Originally, the opinion desk published seven days a week, but it shrank to three days before being cut entirely from the paper three weeks after O’Meara’s resignation. 

The opinion desk was able to publish columns from local writers, letters to the editors and other voices from the local community. However, O’Meara says that since Gannett decides what to spend its resources on from analytics gathered from new subscriptions and page views, the opinion desk — unable to generate the amount of internet traffic Gannett wants — shrank.

Under Gannett, the RG had a high staff turnover, and O’Meara saw firsthand how the amount of work being piled onto the already overworked staff caused people to quickly burn out. “I was one of the longest-tenured people there,” O’Meara says. “I could just see the frustration and the life drain out of people’s faces over the course of their time there because they come in pretty energetic and excited, and then they’re just bled dry by being overworked.”

He continues, “We had these little pockets of inclusivity — then you cut that down and are left with a fairly overworked and somewhat sterile environment devoid of any opinions that might upset the readers and new subscribers.”

Gannett papers have been encouraged to focus less on opinions and feature content and instead devote their time and energy to bite-sized digestible content designed to generate page views. “They don’t want to challenge the readership, and that’s kind of insulting to their intelligence too,” O’Meara says.

RG alumni have been disappointed by the way Gannett has been operating the paper. Donovan Mack, an RG reporter from 1972-1980 and advertising manager from 1991-2010, says, “I care a lot about maintaining journalistic standards, so it’s been sad to see the demise of not just The Register-Guard but midsized daily newspapers across the country.” 

Mack worked for the RG during its heyday when it had satellite offices in Florence and Cottage Grove. Unlike today, the RG was able to publish feature writing on a more regular basis, Mack says. 

Another former reporter and editor, Mike Thoele, who worked for the paper for 24 years, hopes but is unsure if the RG will ever be able to return to its former glory. “I grieve every day for what’s happened to The Register-Guard,” Thoele says.

According to the most recent report published by the RG, the paper printed 15,350 papers on Friday, July 22. In 2017, before being sold to GateHouse, the paper circulated 43,663 copies from Mondays to Fridays, 47,427 on Saturdays and 49,682 on Sundays. In 1999, the paper’s Sunday circulation was close to 80,000.

Media nonprofit Poynter reported Dec. 1 that Gannett began its second round of layoffs this year — around 6 percent of its news division staff of 3,440 was cut, and 200 open positions were cut as well. This comes just four months after 400 layoffs in August.

“When Gannett offers buyouts to more tenured reporters and editors (or lays them off altogether), what’s lost is institutional knowledge,” O’Meara notes in an email. “Gone are the reporters who spent 20 years in a community, know the cycles of election, have had beers with city council members off the record, built sources, know what district every school belongs to, they remember when certain ballot measures caused a ruckus, etc. When you bring in a cub reporter without the older guard around, you start from zero.”