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Opinion: Community papers are worth saving

Truth Be Told

Posted online

From 2008 to 2018, newspaper newsroom employees have been cut by 47%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

You’ve surely heard the sentiment that journalism is dying, and the numbers are grim. The fact is some media companies are doing well, while others are suffering. Community papers have been hit especially hard.

As journalism is my profession, I clearly have a stake in the game. But the health of media outlets is an issue that affects us all.

Reporting is an essential tenant of our democracy. It shapes our business decisions. It informs us. It entertains us. It provides analysis that helps make sense of this fast-moving world. It helps us decipher fact from propaganda.

In November 2019, the nation’s largest newspaper chains approved a merger of their parent companies. GateHouse Media Inc. purchased Gannett Co. Inc. for $1.1 billion.

Now, research from The Brookings Institution finds this conglomerate, which kept the Gannett name, owns one out of every six newspapers, including the Springfield News-Leader.

Media watchers and journalists at these papers have been bracing for impact ever since. The Nieman Foundation reports the companies have estimated an annual cost savings of $400 million, and observers expect one out of every eight of the operation’s 27,600 positions will be cut.

Our local community paper already has lost a position since the merger. Last month, Amos Bridges took over for Cheryl Whitsitt as the News-Leader’s editor after her rushed retirement – a move that cut a full-time position from the newsroom. Whitsitt worked at the paper for 32 years.

I began my journalism career at the News-Leader in 2013. At the time, the newsroom had roughly 34 employees. Today, it has 17.

The looming dread of layoffs marred my time at the paper. And it continues to hang a shadow over my friends and fellow journalists who remain there.

In an effort to regain some local control and stability, every nonmanagement and full-time newsroom staffer called for a vote to unionize last week through the Springfield News Guild.

Here’s why they say they’re taking this step:

“We hold governments, businesses and schools accountable. We capture and measure progress as it happens. We tell the stories of the incredible people who live here. But that work has gotten harder and harder as faraway executives have ordered cut after cut to our staff and our service to the community.

“Negotiating a contract with Gannett that includes fair wages and benefits will allow us to create more stable reporting jobs and keep experienced staffers from leaving.”

These local reporters have joined the ranks of thousands who have rushed to unionize in the last few years. The Columbia Journalism Review recently detailed a history of journalists and unions, and it found similar reasons why the profession has turned to unions: poor wages, long hours, skimpy benefits and worries about layoffs.

NewsGuild and Writers Guild of America East, unions geared toward media workers, represent 30,000 members. Collective bargaining contracts have established better compensation and benefits, and guaranteed severance pay, if layoffs do occur.

Of course, a union alone cannot solve the challenges faced by today’s media companies.

Springfield Business Journal recently posted its most successful quarter on record because of our strategic business plan, diversification and quality of products, valuable advertising opportunities, remaining true to our niche, and valuing employees. We’ve grown our subscriber base, expanded our digital presence and have set sights on another record year for 2020, our 40th year in business.

Our success is a testament that journalism is not dying. But it’s begging for savvy business plans and a new way of thinking.

Part of that is investing in the newsroom. At last year’s Alliance of Area Business Publishers conference in Atlanta, this was a concept I heard over and over. It’s an idea that crosses industry lines, as an engaged workforce who is valued and empowered can and will solve problems faced by their employer or profession.

Perhaps that’s a key for companies like Gannett. Sure, it’s the largest newspaper corporation in the country. But gaining some local control and shoring up commitment to reporters and editors could be what keeps community papers afloat.

They are certainly worth the fight.

Springfield Business Journal Features Editor Christine Temple can be reached at ctemple@sbj.net.

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