D&C news staffers report on their own plight

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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.”

Plunging numbers

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.

In its most recently filed quarterly report, Gannett reported continuing companywide financial losses. In the three years ended Dec. 31, 2022, the company lost nearly $900 million.

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.

Community impact

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]

11 thoughts on “D&C news staffers report on their own plight

  1. I’m a long time subscriber of the Democrat & Chronicle and also a recent critic. Unfortunately, the Democrat & Chronicle has become a leftist publication. This contributes to reduced circulation. Their national and international stories are primarily from USATODAY, Associated Press, New York Times, etc. The reporters from these entities consistently have a leftist slant. Many of the local reporters also have a leftist slant. I have hundreds of examples of this. I’m going to continue to hang on as a subscriber hoping that Mike Killian and the other higher ups will take my constructive criticism to heart.

  2. I was a longtime D&C subscriber–print, then digital. I even delivered both the D&C and Times Union back in the day.

    What qualifies as news these days in the D&C? Some days it seems like they were hired by Wegmans to be their publicist.

    Local coverage is terrible. As noted by others, you can get more extensive coverage from the local broadcast network website, Rochester Beacon and City Newspaper.

    But print journalism is more in depth, and helps keep a democracy honest.

  3. It’s hard to objectively tell what’s happening to print journalism while citizens are like the proverbial frog lounging comfortably in the pot, slowly reaching a boil. Rapid-fire technology revolution, AI, inadequately educated young people, and politicians are doing everything possible to manipulate “content.” At the same time, billionaires buy and sell newspapers like their only value is as investments with a rapid return on investment. These are just some of the challenges citizens face. Add in the swirling vortex of “citizen” journalism, with no editorial oversight, leaving readers already stunned with information overload, then adding the task of sussing out the veracity of a story almost begs that traditional journalism be protected and expanded.

    Ultimately, local news gathering will fall to local TV web pages, and national and global news will be the sole purview of three or four historically prominent publications, like the NY Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and several others. I suspect that the folks who now own Gannett and all the other local publications in their portfolio have a strategy that includes folding them all into their USA Today publication as an online daily, employing stringers in all the small and middle markets to fill a page or two with just enough local content to keep an ever-shrinking market connected to their publication.

    Make no mistake: a free and unfettered press is vital to a democratic society. But if citizens aren’t reading and participating in their democracy, why would they care about the fate of print media ac, curated reporting, or verified content?

    I’m not pandering, but online publications like the Beacon will become much more crucial, keeping an eye on local government and politicians, perhaps over time expanding watchdog reporting and writing the kind of editorials that olde time, cigar-munching, hard-bitten editors of yore used to pull the curtain back on nefarious deeds. The only issue is to create a funding stream to hire the reporters and photographers discarded by the D&C.

    Journalists are democracy canaries in the coal mine. Still, if citizens eschew the truth and equate showmanship by reality TV hosts as “alternate facts” as information to act upon, we are in the most dangerous time since our nation’s founding.

  4. There is a simple solution. Make the Rochester Beacon the foundation of our global and community news. Much better reporting. Then hire a few of the D & C reporters to enable them to secure their future.

  5. Another excellent article Will, echoing much of what we heard at last night’s Rochester Beacon Annual Meeting.
    I’ll share my personal experience in addressing this issue in a series of emails with Michael Kilian, the D&C Executive editor, about 1 year ago. My main point in initiating a conversation with Mr. Kilian was my criticism directed at the lack of substantial local reporting. I did, however, praise the quality of the excellent reporting by Justin Murphy in particular. As perhaps to be expected, Mr. Kilian defended the local reporting and the ‘overdue’ attempt to be more responsive to the local community, specifically the underserved black and brown community.
    We had several subsequent emails. In one of those, I shared a reference to a newspaper that I believe serves its community extremely well. I don’t know who owns it, how it is funded, or who makes the decisions about coverage. The name of the newspaper is The Island Packet, published on Hilton Head Island, SC, where I spend a couple of winter months each year. They publish a daily print and digital newspaper, followed by a daily online afternoon/early evening update. The price for a 6 day print+ digital access subscription is currently $9.99/week. The online e-edition subscription is $1/month for the 1st month, followed by an automatic renewal of $15.99/month, with free cancellation at any time. I encouraged Mr. Kilian to look into this newspaper and to learn how they manage to do so well. It was at about this time that he & I stopped our email exchange while agreeing to disagree over the D&C’s local reporting coverage.

  6. The death by inches of the Democrat and Chronicle is particularly sad given that Frank Gannett, the founder of the newspaper chain, was a local boy, born and raised in South Bristol near Canandaigua Lake. A pity that the Beacon doesn’t allow the posting of photographs as there’s a dead on meme with a photograph of Frank and the caption, “Frank Gannett could not have dreamt how big his chain would become, nor how far it would fall”.

  7. Afraid I’m unclear as to why anyone is confused about Gannet’s game plan for the Dimbulb & Comical.

    Gannett has made it clear that the only paper they care about is USA Today. This became obvious years ago when, after adding a USAToday section to their daily papers, Gannett then petitioned the Powers-That-Be at the industry group governing circulation counting procedures for permission to begin adding the circulation numbers for their daily papers to those of USAToday. This permission was forth coming which allowed Gannett to artificially inflate USAToday’s numbers so as to be able to claim that that paper now had The Largest Circulation of Any Newspaper in the United States.

    The only reason that the corpse of the D&C has been kept animated after massive staff layoffs, the abandonment of the State Street HQ in favor of a cube farm, the decapitation of the paper’s management structure, and the elimination of the paper’s local printing plant, was to retain their circulation numbers to reinforce those of USAToday. Now with the D&C circulation crashing and burning, there’s little reason to maintain the fiction that they give a damn about the paper, its subscribers, or of Rochester. It doesn’t take a swami mind reader to see that the goal is to turn the D&C with its USAToday section into a regional USAToday with a page or two of Rochester news.

    The clock is ticking for the demise of the D&C. I suspect that clock will run out in a matter of months. At best a year or two. The remaining staff’s time would be better spent getting their resumes out rather then trying to retain their seats on a this journalistic Titanic.

  8. Let’s not forget that they stopped printing the D&C in Rochester last April, and delivery issues skyrocketed. I know this because we had to cancel for lack of them NOT delivering our Saturday and Sunday newspapers since then. I talked with the distribution man from our area and he confirmed this. I am not sure what they are paying the delivery people, but I’m sure that’s part of the problem.


  9. As long as the top earners get their paycheck, the paper will be forced to limp along. The staff is dedicated to not only their paycheck, but to be able to provide a quality newspaper. Their pride in their work is being snuffed out by upper management who is totally out of touch with the mission. This is clearly a case of the senior staff not listening to their boots on the ground. Even worse I don’t believe they even care. Until they get summoned into the office and receive their pink slip.

  10. While media literacy (or lack thereof) is very much at issue here, people have many choices in our community to access information. We have City Newspaper (WXXI) for the arts and culinary information and we have the Rochester Beacon for hot topic issues. However, there is a necessary role for “news as it’s made”, whether that’s transmitted by print copy or electronically. This is a role that the Democrat and Chronicle needs to play with news that matters to us, both personally and as a community. It can also provide a forum for that all-important “opinions” piece from citizens with differing points of view. In full disclosure, I am a devoted reader of all three. I would only ask for journalistic rigor and timeliness so that what I see and read is not last week’s news. I wish to be kept abreast as an informed citizen and community member.

  11. Good job by the Beacon for being on top of this. Its virtually the same situation with other Gannett City newspapers. (only most of the other papers keep a lid on their labor strife) . I know of another Gannett publication that mirrors the same format as the D&C yet they editorialize how much they serve the local community (not). Ironic that for years their editorial pages criticized Corporations for downsizing, stock buy backs, mergers etc, then they simply do it all themselves? In addition most of them are largely left-wing editorial bents, so much so they elected not to endorse candidates so as to not further aggravate their dwindling subscriber base. I’ve noticed a similar trend for local TV news. Another deleterious effect of this is normally well read folks are simply being fed inside the Beltway news, to the point they can name Hunter Biden’s lawyer, but can’t name anyone on their local City Council? Somebody once said “the Media is the only business where the customer is always wrong”. Having worked briefly as a contractor in the old Gannett Building in Rochester in the 70s, where it was the epitome of a big city paper (w/ 2 editions daily via the Times Union) this is a incredible fall from grace.

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