A half year has passed since the Democrat and Chronicle’s unionized newsroom last asked for public support. From the reporters’ point of view, not much has changed—at least not for the better.
Last week, a new cri de coeur came from the D&C editorial staff in the form of a Jan. 9 Zoom event staged by the NewsGuild-CWA, the union that has long represented the paper’s reporters and photographers, who have been working without a contract for roughly four years.
Billed as a Town Hall to Strengthen Local News, the 53-minute event was presented by longtime D&C reporters Gary Craig and Justin Murphy along with D&C photojournalist Tina MacIntyre-Yee.
Murphy, whose main beat is education, outlined areas that due to newsroom staff reductions—from 86 in 2011 to 21 today—the D&C now is unable to cover or fully cover. Such areas include routine police-blotter listings, government meetings and sports other than the Buffalo Bills.
Reprising a complaint he aired last June when NewsGuild reporters staged a second one-day walkout in six months to dramatize the union’s lack of a contract, Murphy said that while he was initially tasked only with reporting on the Rochester City School District, he is now expected to cover the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology as well as the RCSD, the county’s 20 other suburban school districts and other non-education assignments.
Referring to the higher-education beat, which he was handed after the departure of the reporter who formerly covered it, Murphy confessed: “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t cover it all. No one person could cover it all. Functionally, we don’t cover that anymore.”
Where the D&C once sported a business section staffed by several reporters, Murphy said, local business reporting is now left to restaurant and food reporter Tracy Schumacher, who “does a good job on restaurant and food-related things, but that’s about it.”
The D&C’s readership has followed the same trajectory as its newsroom staff size. Less than two decades ago, the D&C’s circulation Monday-Friday topped 160,000, Saturday circulation was nearly 175,000 and Sunday circulation fell just shy of 220,000. Now, according to figures D&C parent Gannett Co. Inc. most recently reported to the Alliance for Audited Media, the paper’s average weekday circulation as of Sept. 30 was 23,501, down from 27,569 one year earlier. The daily’s Saturday and Sunday circulation respectively were 31,977 and 35,098, down from 38,090 and 42,355 in September 2022.
During the NewsGuild town hall, MacIntyre-Yee outlined the effect of Gannett’s 2019 takeover by New Media Investment Group, the parent of GateHouse Media.
The $1.2 billion merger between the formerly Pittsford-based GateHouse and Virginia-based Gannett created the largest U.S. newspaper chain, whereupon, MacIntyre-Yee charged, “the new company slashed half of its staff to service its massive, self-incurred $1.8 billion debt, robbing newspapers of the resources they need to cover their communities.”
Pre-merger, Gannett and GateHouse together employed 21,255, MacIntyre-Yee said. The company today, an owner of 200 newspapers nationally, employs 11,200. Since the merger, she added, it has shed 117 locally focused websites and 127 weekly newspapers.
Upon acquiring Gannett, GateHouse/NewMedia CEO Mike Reed, took the helm of the merged company. Though he promised not to cut local news, several Gannett-owned dailies today have actually slashed local reporting staff to zero, MacIntyre-Yee said.
As examples, she named two California papers, the Salinas Californian and the Mount Shasta News, a weekly. Three Ohio papers—the Ashland Times-Gazette, the Alliance Review and the Port Clinton News Herald—are similarly unstaffed as is the Cambridge Chronicle in Massachusetts, she added.
Such “ghost” papers’ editorial content, said MacIntyre-Yee, consists of recycled, homogenized news culled from Gannett’s flagship publication, the Virginia-based national daily, USA Today, “giving readers the appearance of local news” while in fact “their local communities are not covered at all.”
To underscore MacIntyre-Yee’s point, Murphy held up a D&C front page, noting that it had no local bylines.
Two community guests—former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson Jr. and Thomas Warfield, RIT director of dance and senior lecturer, who at one time wrote a dance column for the D&C—joined the panel.
Johnson lamented the decline in Gannett’s local news coverage since his time as mayor in the 1980s and 1990s, when the chain operated two dailies here: the D&C and the Rochester Times-Union, which Gannett shut down in 1997 after merging its editorial staff with the D&C’s newsroom.
Though as mayor he sometimes took issue with the coverage he got, Johnson said, “when I look (at) how stories and how particular public figures were covered by the Gannett news in the ’80s and the ’90s and even into the early 2000s and look at it today, … what poses (as) news coverage today is a sham.”
An avid consumer of print journalism since his days working on his high school newspaper and editing his college newspaper, Johnson warned that the local Gannett paper’s decline has greatly reduced the degree to which public figures and high-profile private figures are held accountable. If current trends continue, he predicted, newspapers “will become as extinct as the dinosaur,” leaving future generations sadly and dangerously ill informed.
Said Warfield: “We like to think of ourselves as a city of arts (and) there is some truth to that. But I think the underlying concern is that if we don’t support and nurture the arts, then we won’t be a city of the arts. Part of that nurturing and cultivating is from the media, from the information that we as citizens get. If we don’t get information, it’s almost like it doesn’t exist.
“I’m very concerned about this,” he added. “My students will say, ‘We can find the information on Google.’ I always tell them that facts are not knowledge. If we don’t begin to expect and cultivate knowledge, I don’t know where we’re going to go. When I think about how the critics and reporters have been let go, the trickle down of that is that there are no jobs for critics and reporters and therefore students are not going into those fields and we then we lose a whole generation of educated people who know about the fields they’re talking about.”
Performing arts, Warfield added, do not stand on their own. Reviews, prewrites and interviews with performers help inform the public and bind local arts to their communities.
In an online forum prior to the town hall, RIT communications chief Bob Finnerty, a onetime D&C reporter and metro desk editor, recalled “a time when the D&C gathered more news than all the TV stations, radio, and other news outlets combined.” Today, he wrote, “I would rank the D&C about 9th place (behind 4 TV stations, WXXI, CITY, RBJ, and the Beacon) in local coverage.”
Finnerty wondered: “Why does Gannett even care anymore? What are their business objectives? Where do they see themselves in 3 years? How will they get there? If this were a new start-up company, what would be the (value proposition) for the customer? Is the product even ‘journalism’”?
Speaking at the Zoom event, Johnson diagnosed the D&C’s problem as a doom loop in which continuing cuts to reportorial staff and diminished local coverage prompt readers to fall away, which in turn spurs more cuts.
Said Johnson: “The problem with today’s (D&C) is there is no reason for you to subscribe to it. They raised my subscription rates to $60 a month. I told them that I’m not going to pay $60 a month for the Democrat and Chronicle when I can get the New York Times for $15, the Washington Post for $10. With no disrespect for anybody that works at the D&C, I just don’t see paying $60 a month for that paper. You know what they did? They cut it to $6 a year, but there’s nothing to read.”
Reporters like Murphy and Craig produce high-quality journalism, Johnson conceded, but in his view that is not enough. As an avid baseball fan, he laments that the D&C no longer posts Rochester Red Wings box scores.
“I think that the people who put this product out need to ask themselves fundamental questions,” Johnson said. “What is the business that we’re in? Who is the audience that we’re targeted to and what is the best product and what is the highest quality product?”
Decline of older news media
Gannett’s ills are not unique.
“Audiences are shrinking for several older types of news media—such as local TV stations, most newspapers and public radio—even as they grow for newer platforms like podcasts, as well as for a few specific media brands,” a recent Pew Research Center report notes.
Nationally, daily newspapers’ circulation fell from 60 million in 2000 to 20.9 million in 2020, while advertising revenue over the same span tumbled from $50 billion to $9.8 billion, Pew notes. And while print media traditionally counted on ad revenues to generate profits, by 2020 circulation and advertising dollars were even—with the total much lower than in the past.
Some NewsGuild town hall attendees asked in the Zoom chat for comment on alternative models such as nonprofit journalism.
“Certainly, other models are very appealing; nonprofit community supported things, they are certainly on the rise,” Murphy said. “All that we’re really asking that our corporate overlords open their minds a little bit to any idea beside we just need to cut a little bit more.”
Craig, a more than 30-year veteran of the D&C, noted that Gannett’s cuts began decades ago—long before the GateHouse/New Media acquisition—when the chain’s and the D&C’s profits were solid and circulation high.
Twenty years ago, Craig said, “I thought the first round of layoffs would be it, (but I have) seen them continue and continue and continue.”
Nevertheless, he added, “we have a marvelous staff of hard workers—young, intermediate and old. It’s not that they’re not doing the job. They’re doing the job the best they can. But the fact is there’s too darn few of us and we see nothing on the horizon that makes us think the company’s going to take a different approach going forward.”
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].