Big fish eat little fish. That is the law of the sea as well as the law of business. Smaller companies get bought up by bigger companies. It’s happened in the telephone and cable business, and in many retail markets—giant box stores like Loews and Home Depot have put nearly all of the Mom-and-Pop hardware stores out of business. Big businesses keep getting bigger, until the government steps in and breaks them apart into a bunch of smaller companies again.
Publishing is a business like any other. Local newspapers and magazines were once family-owned businesses serving residents and business owners of a certain geographic area. Eventually those small weekly or monthly publications are bought up by a regional daily newspaper. Then the regional newspaper gets bought by a state newspaper, and, ultimately, the state newspaper gets consumed by a large publishing conglomerate.
As a reader, this may seem beneficial at first. Your local newspaper is suddenly filled with a broader range of writers and articles than ever before! But, before long, readers find what’s gone missing from their local newspaper is local news. Big companies don’t want to pay a bunch of small-time, small-town journalists to cover local news. They’ve already got plenty of writers cranking out content under their corporate umbrella. Why waste money on more?
I’ve been a bystander to corporate buy-outs before. As an employee of the “little fish,” you’re made to feel about as important as an old office chair or outdated computer while the “new boss” assesses your functionality and worth. What does it do? Does it still work? Do we need it? Ah, let’s keep it around for a while until we either upgrade or scrap it altogether. My post-employment record after a buy-out is usually a year or two before the new boss cleans house. The big boys (and girls) at Gannett Media brushed me out the door in ten months.
I’m not alone. Last month, Gannett fired me, Nancy Rubenstein, and a slew of other longtime writers from its “weekly” division—TODAY Newspapers, Dateline Journal, and the South Bergenite among other publications. I’ve been writing my column “Hmm…” twice a month for the last 25 years, covering issues and events that affect Wayne, Totowa, Little Falls and beyond. Nancy’s written “Believe Me” every week for 55 years!
When Gannett bought The Record in October 2016, its didn’t just buy a bunch of newspaper publications to use as advertising vehicles. It bought a staff of writers that embody the voice of hometown news, and a readership that appreciates and trusts those voices. With those local voices gone, I expect the readership will soon follow. Why read a local newspaper that no longer features local news and opinions?
I knew I was in trouble when my contact person at Gannett was a “print planner” and not an editor. The “print planner” was more concerned with how I submitted my articles than what was in them. I’d occasionally submit story ideas to my print planner, who was supposed to pass them on to an editor, but I never heard back from anyone. I never got any editorial feedback from Gannett other than the email informing me of my dismissal. Are there still real, live people who assign, shape, and publish stories (aka “editors”) somewhere inside the giant Gannett machine?
By cutting local writers from its local newspapers, Gannett lost one of the major assets that made its weekly division valuable. Without real writers, weekly newspapers become nothing more than “shoppers,” advertising circulars without substance, and readers will view them as such, using them to wrap fish, line birdcages, and not much else. The readers will leave and the newspapers will die. Writers like me, Nancy, and the rest will try to find new markets for our work in the few remaining print publications or on the digital publishing frontier.