National newspaper chain Gannett plans to cease print publication of 19 weekly papers in eastern Massachusetts and merge another nine papers into four, beginning this month. Tufts’ host communities will have their papers — the Medford Transcript and the Somerville Journal — merged into one. The combined paper will still be distributed in print weekly.
Following these transitions, Cambridge will remain one of only three cities in the state to have its own Gannett reporter, while the nearby towns of Arlington and Winchester will see their papers merged into one weekly publication.
This announcement by Gannett — the largest newspaper publisher in the country and parent company to USA Today — follows a national trend of corporate debt accumulation and local newspaper closures. Newsroom employment across the country declined by 26% between 2008 and 2020. In Massachusetts alone, 27% of newspapers folded between 2004 and 2019, with overall circulation decreasing by 44%.
According to Gannett, the closures and mergers come in response to a transformed media landscape.
“Strategies for reaching our audiences have evolved significantly, as well as the capabilities of our enhanced digital platforms,” a Gannett spokesperson wrote in an email to the Daily. “We remain committed to the future of local journalism, and encourage our readers to continue supporting our reliable, accurate, and community-focused news sources across all of our platforms.”
How did we end up here?
Jon Chesto, who covers business for The Boston Globe, described the transitions in corporate ownership that, along with the digitalization of classified ads and rise of social media, have contributed to this series of closures in an interview with the Daily.
In the 1990s, Fidelity Investments owned many Massachusetts papers under the Community Newspaper Company publisher. After being sold to Pat Purcell of the Boston Herald, the newspapers were acquired by Liberty Group Publishing in 1998. Fortress Investment Group bought Liberty in 2005, renaming the company GateHouse Media.
“The investment thesis then was that GateHouse would keep buying papers and would consolidate corporate functions and [would] use that better buying power to negotiate better rates for newsprint and other expenses,” Chesto said.
Mass newspaper acquisition was only sustainable for so long. The Great Recession led to bankruptcy, after which point GateHouse was rebranded to the publicly traded New Media Investment Group. Finally, GateHouse acquired Gannett in 2019, taking the latter company’s name.
Chesto explained that this transition made publishers answerable to investors, forcing them to pursue higher profit margins.
“It’s unfortunate that these machinations at the corporate level have an impact downstream at local news, but that’s exactly what happened,” Chesto said.
Erica Perel, director of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that private investment companies do not see news as their primary mission.
“[Investment companies] are making a bet that this industry is not a growth industry,” Perel said. “But they’re gonna try to squeeze as much money out of it as they can while there’s still money in it.”
Perel also described the cyclical nature of newspaper turnover. As companies starve newsrooms of resources, the quality of the papers decreases, contributing to declining readership, she said.
Executive Director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life Evan Horowitz added that newspapers were never just about the news.
“It’s not like old people used to really care about local policies,” Horowitz said. “The story is that they used to care about movie times, and they still care about movie times but they don’t need to get the local politics bundled in with the movie times.”
Local journalism and civic engagement
Perel said that the loss of local journalism has been linked to lower voter turnout.
“When a community loses its newspaper, especially if that newspaper was high quality, … there is a loss of civic engagement. … People are less likely to vote,” she said.
Chesto said that the wider community loses when newspapers close, a trend he feels is concerning for democracy.
“You lose the broader public. The activists will always be engaged, … but as time will go on, the broader public will become less and less interested in civic affairs,” Chesto said. “The community affairs will be dominated by groups that have a certain slant.”
According to Horowitz, local papers have a vital role in oversight and tracking.
“[Lack of local journalism] does seem to increase corruption,” he said. “The big function [of newspapers] really is oversight of politics in your town.”
Despite these observations, Perel said it is important to consider journalism’s flaws, citing the institutional racism embedded in midsize city legacy papers. Moreover, she explained that other forms of news — local radio, cable, broadcast television — can make up for some of the lost content.
Chesto said he believes the model of local journalism can still have potential if given the right funding sources.
“The model can still work,” Chesto said. “It’s … when you layer on the need to have a profit margin that goes to a larger corporate entity that it becomes problematic.”
Chesto sees promise in a nonprofit model for journalism, whereby contributors can get a tax benefit from donating, although he acknowledged the model is not without challenges. Chesto added that the subscription model — which The Boston Globe uses — provides a more reliable funding source.
Perel supports a “news ecosystem” model for its emphasis on collaboration and diverse perspectives in media.
“I do think very highly of this idea of a ‘news ecosystem,’ … where instead of having a monopoly player in a market, you have multiple news outlets that are working together in some way and all taking a piece of the story of the community,” she said.
Creating a successful ecosystem model requires a mindset shift, Perel said.
“Local media organizations have traditionally thought of themselves as competitors, and that’s not actually helpful because the competitor is Facebook and the competitor is Netflix and the competitor is Amazon … in terms of advertising revenue and attention and time,” she said.
The Tufts community
The Medford Transcript and the Somerville Journal are not the only weeklies that cover Tufts’ host communities. The Somerville Times has been a free, locally owned, weekly newspaper since the late ‘60s.
Bobbie Toner, the publisher of the Somerville Times, said she understands why local papers have had to close, citing rising printing costs and salaries.
“Sometimes we would go without our paycheck just to do it because … if there’s no advertising, then how do you pay printers and everybody?” she said.
Toner — who manages the paper largely on her own — works closely with her editor and a team of committed columnists. She said the Somerville Times had a full-time staff of at least 10 people when she began, a number that has dropped to just two today. The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard for the paper, which cut down its page count and distribution capacity in response.
Despite the challenges of working in local journalism, Toner said she is grateful to have the community’s support and continues to pursue the highest quality content possible.
“Whether we have one paper [or] 10 papers, I’m still going to have my mindset of trying to do the best I can,” Toner said.
In addition to the Somerville Times, residents of Somerville and Medford can read Tufts’ many student publications, which occupy a range of news, literary and pop cultural niches.
Chesto and Horowitz agreed, however, that cities the size of Medford and Somerville deserve professional reporters. They said that student journalism alone cannot sufficiently close the gap in local news created by closures and mergers.
“The way a student newspaper traditionally functions is that it’s serving as a kind of apprenticeship for people who want to be journalists,” Horowitz said. “And that’s an extremely valuable, important thing.”
Perel added that student journalism has a unique opportunity to determine the news needs of young readers, encouraging student journalists to “[give] people what they need in a format that they want.”
She said that successful student journalists will focus on their local communities instead of emulating national publications like The New York Times.
“[Have] a relentless focus on what your community needs,” Perel said. “For too long student media has tried to be a mini version of big media, and big media is failing, so we need to reinvent it.”