‘Everyone’s just a dollar sign to them’: Gannett journalists reel from new cutbacks

By: - December 17, 2022 5:17 am

David Veselenak, a staff writer at the Observer and Eccentric newspapers and the vice chair of the Newspaper Guild of Detroit. | Courtesy photo

Every Thursday and Sunday morning, David Veselenak would head outside.

Without fail, the Livonia Observer would be waiting for him — one of the papers the 34-year-old journalist and Livonia resident writes for — and he would dive into its pages. He loved that feeling — the one he’d had since he was a child — of seeing the news in front of him: the accounts of school board and city government meetings, the features on local businesses, the political candidate profiles. 

They were pages filled with Veselenak’s first-person account about interviewing a woman who’s serving 40 to 80 years in prison for second-degree murder, the arrival of a massive Amazon warehouse in Livonia, and features on local restaurants that often made their way to the walls of the eateries in the city situated about 20 miles west of Detroit.

Then, on Thursday, Dec. 8, there was no Observer at Veselenak’s home. And there won’t be again.

Gannett, which is based in McLean, Va., and is the largest newspaper chain in the United States, stopped printing the Livonia Observer, along with five other community papers in Southeast Michigan in Westland, Farmington, Plymouth, Canton, and Birmingham. The papers are part of what’s known as the Observer and Eccentric chain. The final print editions of these papers were published on Sunday, Dec. 4.

The final print edition of the Livonia Observer. | Photo courtesy of David Veselenak

“It’s hard; it’s really sad — these are papers that have been around for decades and some more than 100 years,” said Veselenak, a Royal Oak native who has worked for the Observer and Eccentric chain for just over a decade. 

The publications will continue online, and there were no layoffs associated with the print finale, but the quietness with which the papers stopped printing — no other media covered the end of their printed reign — left Veselenak with something of a raw, empty feeling. 

And, like reporters across a country that has lost about 60% of its journalists over the last 15 years, he worries about the future of the papers, the future of his industry, what it means to live in a country where the journalism landscape, particularly when it comes to print journalism, hemorrhages jobs.

When Veselenak first arrived at his job about 10 and a half years ago, there were “probably dozens of people between reporters, editors, support staff, tech and leadership,” he said. 

Now there are five reporters to cover communities that number about one million people. The chain he works for still prints papers in South Lyon, Milford, Novi and Northville.

“We are only five people; there’s a lot of stories we just can’t do anymore,” Veselenak said.

Still, he said, there’s nothing to do but keep going — keep covering as many meetings as they can, keep interviewing sports coaches and business owners and teachers and elected officials.

“We try to do as best we can to cover these towns the way they deserve,” he said. “It’s been hard with less people.

“This year we covered all our school board races, council races, all the state House and Senate races — things we knew people weren’t going to get elsewhere,” the reporter continued. “We still continue to do those. Are they the sexiest things? No, but they’re important.”

‘It’s like operating with a madman’

Veselenak’s story lives in a sea of Gannett newspapers eroded by years of buyouts and layoffs — a world in which the mega-chain has sold and shuttered nearly 130 newspapers across the country over the past two years. The corporation still owns 494 papers in 42 states.

In Michigan, Gannett owns 14 daily print publications: The Detroit Free Press, Lansing State Journal, Holland Sentinel, Battle Creek Enquirer, Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, Monroe News, Petoskey News-Review, Hillsdale Daily News, Daily Reporter in Coldwater, Daily Telegram in Adrian, Sturgis Journal, Evening News in Sault Ste. Marie, Cheboygan Daily Tribune, and the Times Herald in Port Huron. 

The Detroit News is owned by Denver-based Alden Capital’s Digital First Media, but is in a joint operating agreement (JOA) with the Free Press in which Gannett is the majority owner. Essentially, that translates to Gannett running the combined business operations of the newspapers, including advertising, production and marketing. 

While Veselenak’s group of papers is not currently facing layoffs, other Gannett employees in Michigan are after the company announced in November that it planned to cut about 6% of its 3,440-person news division in the U.S. That 6% represents roughly 200 people.

At the Free Press, employees were told on Monday that the paper was looking for 13 people to take voluntary layoffs, including five reporters, five assistant editors (including one part-time position), one web editor, one photographer, and one editorial assistant, according to the Newspaper Guild of Detroit. 

An empty newspaper dispensary in downtown Lansing, May 17, 2020 | Susan J. Demas

Those numbers could change, according to Peter Bhatia, editor and vice president at the Detroit Free Press.

If the voluntary layoffs don’t occur, forced layoffs are expected to be announced on Dec. 27 — right after Christmas, according to a Monday memo sent from Bhatia to Free Press reporters and obtained by the Advance. Bhatia confirmed to the Advance that he sent the memo.

In addition to the layoffs, every Free Press employee, including management, is having to take one week of unpaid leave in December.

There have been no layoffs at the Free Press in the past five years, according to employees and the Newspaper Guild of Detroit.

“Since the beginning of 2020, we have made 30 hires (not counting interns, but including grant-funded staffers),” Bhatia wrote in the Monday message to staff. “Of those 30, 27 are people of color or women. This staff reduction will cut into what the diversity and skills gains achieved during that time.”

Gannett would not comment on any specific layoffs in Michigan, nor did the company answer a series of questions the Advance sent about its operations in the state. Instead, a spokesperson — who did not provide their name in an email to the Advance — issued the following comment:

“While incredibly difficult, we are implementing significant efficiencies across the company and responding decisively to the ongoing macroeconomic volatility to continue propelling Gannett’s future.” 

“Macroeconomic volatility” is essentially corporate speak for: Gannett is losing money. In November, the company announced a net loss of $54.1 million in the three-month period ending Sept. 30, compared to a $14.7 million net income in the same time period last year. The company reported a 10.3% decline in revenue year over year to $717.9 million in the third quarter. The company said it expects a total net loss of $60 million to $70 million this year.

Gannett CEO Mike Reed earned $7.74 million in 2021, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. That is approximately 160 times the median salary of a Gannett worker, according to the national union representing communication workers, the NewsGuild-CWA.

It’s the blind leading the blind. It’s madness. Earlier this year they were talking about how great everything was. Two quarters later it’s like, ‘We’re in the toilet.’ It’s like operating with a madman. We don’t know what they’re doing; they don’t know what they’re doing.

– Stevie Blanchard, the administrative officer at the Newspaper Guild of Detroit

Stevie Blanchard, the administrative officer at the Newspaper Guild of Detroit, called the layoffs “a huge cut that’s going to be felt.”

“It’s a shame, because there were a lot of new hires who diversified the newsroom and brought in new skills,” she said. “It’s a great loss to lose this many people out of the newsroom.”

Such a loss, however, is not out of character for Gannett, Blanchard said. 

“It’s the blind leading the blind” at Gannett, she said. “It’s madness. Earlier this year they were talking about how great everything was. Two quarters later it’s like, ‘We’re in the toilet.’ It’s like operating with a madman. We don’t know what they’re doing; they don’t know what they’re doing.

“They have such influence over people’s lives, and they just don’t care,” Blanchard continued. “Everyone’s just a dollar sign to them.”

That Gannett’s layoff plans at the Free Press arrive just before the winter holidays has left journalists at the Detroit paper feeling particularly discouraged — particularly in the wake of having to take a week of unpaid leave. Reporters are also worried about the paper being short-staffed after their colleagues are laid off, potentially leaving them with another beat.

“I didn’t see a lot of other places hiring at the level that the Free Press did over the last two years – if that’s not sustainable, why was that choice made?” Blanchard asked of Gannett. “And we don’t know. We really don’t know. It doesn’t make sense to us.”

Detroit Free Press journalists ratified a two-year contract with Gannett in November. | Photo courtesy of the Newspaper Guild of Detroit

‘Actually investing in newsrooms’

Jordyn Grzelewski, secretary of the Newspaper Guild of Detroit and the vice chair of The Detroit News unit at the guild, criticized Gannett for its layoffs and said the company needs to figure out a way to support the papers it buys, not decimate them.

“I believe that the challenges in the for-profit business model for local news would be better addressed by actually investing in newsrooms and people rather than by continuously cutting,” Grzelewski wrote in an email to the Advance. “Local communities in Michigan deserve news outlets with the resources to provide them with quality coverage, and Gannett’s workers deserve an employer that treats them fairly.”

There has been no announcement of involuntary layoffs at The Detroit News, though there were three staff members who accepted voluntary severance offers this past fall. In October, Gannett’s CEO announced in a staffwide email that all employees would be required to take one week of unpaid leave in December. The company has also paused hiring and temporarily suspended matching contributions to employee 401(k) accounts. 

Just months before that, in August, Gannett laid off about 400 workers, or 3% of its U.S. workforce.

“Gannett is the largest newspaper chain in the country, so its business decisions have hugely significant effects not only on local journalists but on the quality and strength of local news across the U.S.,” Grzelewski wrote. “Just in the last several months, they have announced a number of moves — including hundreds of layoffs — that negatively affect their workers as well as local communities.

“Journalism is a public service that is vital to a healthy democracy, so it’s disappointing to see such an influential company make decisions that often appear at odds with that mission,” she continued. “Here in Michigan, there are so many great journalists working day in and day out to inform their readers and hold powerful people and institutions accountable. Many of those journalists already are doing their jobs under less than ideal conditions, such as working long hours for less pay than they deserve.”

That pay recently increased for employees at The Detroit News, the Free Press and Observer and Eccentric; workers at each of the publications recently ratified new two-year contracts after working for years on an extension. The Detroit News employees ratified their new contract earlier this month, and the Free Press and Observer and Eccentric workers ratified theirs in November. Each of the contracts include an annual $1,250 bonus. The Detroit Free Press and Observer and Eccentric contracts added Juneteenth as a holiday, but The Detroit News’ contract did not.

“We would have liked to see The News agree to add Juneteenth as a holiday,” Grzelewski wrote.

I believe that the challenges in the for-profit business model for local news would be better addressed by actually investing in newsrooms and people rather than by continuously cutting. Local communities in Michigan deserve news outlets with the resources to provide them with quality coverage, and Gannett's workers deserve an employer that treats them fairly.

– Jordyn Grzelewski, secretary of the Newspaper Guild of Detroit and the vice chair of The Detroit News unit at the guild

Rise of the ‘ghost newspapers’

Regional and national chains, such as Gannett, typically begin to cut costs by outsourcing operations like printing and delivering the paper when they first purchase a paper, said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and the primary author of, “The State of Local News.”  

But once they’ve outsourced all they can, the companies then turn on their newsrooms, often replacing publishers and editors at local papers with regional publishers and editors, Abernathy explained. And, as Gannett is doing now, they lay off reporters, photographers and editors, among other staff.

“As a result, we’ve seen the rise of ghost newspapers: newspapers that used to have dozens of people employed are down to as few as one or two people assigned to that community,” Abernathy said. “You have many, many stories of huge impact to that community that just can’t be covered.”

Over the past 15 years — from 2006 to 2021 — the number of newspaper journalists plummeted by 60%, “The State of Local News” reported in June. In 2005, there were about 75,000 journalists in the U.S. By 2021, that number was 31,400. Staff photographer positions declined even more than reporters and editors — by about 80% in the same timespan. 

“Think of the number of government meetings that won’t be covered; think about the number of investigative pieces that won’t be written,” Abernathy said.

Buddy Moorehouse | Courtesy photo

Buddy Moorehouse, who worked as a journalist at what is now the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus in Howell for 26 years before being laid off by Gannett in 2009, said he has watched the paper into which he poured countless hours become a shell of its former self. It’s a ghost paper, as Abernathy would call it.

“They do not care about the community,” Moorehouse said of Gannett. “They’re not invested in the community, and that shows itself in a lot of different ways. In Livingston County now there’s no local editor. Decisions about what they’re covering are being made by people who never even set foot here and don’t know anything about the local community. The paper is four pages, maybe one local story — if that.”

The Livingston paper, as well as the Observer and Eccentric (O&E) publications, were once part of HomeTown Communications Network, Inc., a group of 64 community newspapers in Michigan and the Upper Midwest. Ann Arbor businessman Phil Power owned the group of papers until he sold them to Gannett in 2005. 

A year later, Power founded the Center for Michigan, a centrist nonprofit that now publishes the digital news publication Bridge Michigan. Power did not return requests for comment for this story.

Moorehouse emphasized that it’s not the remaining Press & Argus reporters he blames for the slimmed-down product — he knows they’re overworked attempting to cover a county of about 200,000 people. Gannett, he said, is at fault.

The mega-chain, Moorehouse said, is a “bottom-line company” — a sentiment shared by the majority of those interviewed for this story. 

“My hunch is the only reason the paper still exists is legal ads,” he said. “That’s a guaranteed revenue stream for them.”

Moorehouse expects that, one day, the paper will go the way of so many others: shuttered, the memory of it residing in digitized archives. As with the Livonia Observer and papers across the country (360 of which have been lost from 2019 through May 2022), the decline of Moorehouse’s former paper and other Gannett publications has happened for so long that there seem to be no screams as it sinks, only silence.

“It’s become routine for newspapers to publish their own obituaries,” Abernathy wrote in “The State of Local News.” “… Some passings are announced with big headlines while others — usually those owned by larger chains — slip quietly away, merged with a sister paper often in cities and counties many miles away.”

“Meanwhile, the number of digital-only local news sites — once considered potential saviors — has remained stubbornly constant over the past five years, fluctuating between 525 and 575, unable to fill the void in most communities that lose a newspaper,” Abernathy continued. 

It is in that silence of a newspaper’s decline that Moorehouse said his heart breaks. It’s in that silence that he remembers years now long gone, when he was still a journalist and his paper was flush with the chaos of news — the deadlines and the tips being called in and the reporters rushing to break a story.

Ann Arbor businessman Phil Power owned the group of 64 community papers until he sold them to Gannett in 2005. A year later, Power founded the Center for Michigan, a centrist nonprofit that now publishes the digital news publication Bridge Michigan.

“Gannett’s not going away,” Moorehouse said. “When I’m in a town, I’ll look at the paper in a gas station. If it’s owned by Gannett, they all look exactly the same. They all have nothing in them; they’re laid out by people who’ve never been there before. They’re doing in Michigan what they’re doing around the country. My hunch is they’ll keep going until the situation changes with legal ads. If the state ever changes that, I think Gannett will close up all its papers.”

Until then, Moorehouse said, the few remaining reporters at the county’s only daily paper will try to cover a community situated between Lansing and Detroit. As of last Friday, that roster of newspaper employees no longer includes a photojournalist, Gillis Benedict, who worked for the paper for a little over two decades and has now been laid off. 

“A photographer is the one person at the newspapers who’s out there literally every single day, the person who can’t do their job from home at a desk,” said Moorehouse, who now works at Michigan’s Charter School Association. “Everybody knows him: They’ve seen him at parades and sporting events and every other community event going on. … It warms your heart to see Gillis. You think, ‘OK, the paper is still hanging on’ when you see Gillis.”

When Moorehouse saw Benedict’s announcement on social media that he’d been laid off (which the Advance confirmed with Benedict, who declined to comment further for the story), he turned his rage into a column in the Livingston Post, an online publication launched by another former Livingston Daily Press & Argus editor, Maria Stuart.

“Livingston County’s longtime local ‘newspaper’ has been on life support for years now, but it officially died today,” Moorehouse wrote in reference to Benedict’s layoff.

Editions of the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus in 2005, when the paper had multiple sections and far more employees | Susan J. Demas

A threat to democracy 

The evisceration of newspapers by Gannett and other mega-chains, like Alden Capital, and widespread layoffs of reporters have led to a weakened democracy, Abernathy said. 

In communities that lose news publications, there’s a decrease in voter participation in local and state elections, increased corruption in government and business, and the “malignant spread of misinformation and disinformation,” the journalism professor wrote in “The State of Local News.”

“Strong local news organizations nurture both grassroots democracy and societal cohesion by providing critical information that helps residents in communities — large and small, urban and rural — craft solutions to their most pressing issues and make wise decisions that will affect the quality of their lives and that of future generations,” Abernathy wrote. “Local journalists cover the mundane, but often consequential, school board and county commissioner meetings, as well as celebratory community events that nurture a sense of belonging.”

This, Abernathy said, is especially alarming in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. Former President Donald Trump — who frequently called journalists the “enemy of the people” during his presidency that ended with an attempted coup and is himself a purveyor of disinformation and misinformation, including the lie that the 2020 election was stolen — has announced he will run in the 2024 election.

Strong local news organizations nurture both grassroots democracy and societal cohesion by providing critical information that helps residents in communities – large and small, urban and rural – craft solutions to their most pressing issues and make wise decisions that will affect the quality of their lives and that of future generations.

– Penelope Muse Abernathy, a journalism professor and author of, “The State of Local News”

“There is much at stake for our democracy, as the nation looks ahead to consequential and contested elections this year and in 2024,” Abernathy wrote. “Without a concerted and coordinated effort at national, state and local levels, many more vulnerable newspapers and sites will likely disappear, leaving their communities at a loss for news.”

In addition to the approximate 360 papers that disappeared during the pandemic, the country has lost about a fourth of its newspapers — 2,500 — since 2005 and is on track to lose one-third by 2025, according to “The State of Local News.”

Most communities that lose a newspaper do not get a digital — or print — replacement, Abernathy pointed out. Over the past two years, there have been 64 new digital-only state and local news sites — which slightly outnumbers the sites that went dark. As of 2022, there are 545 digital-only state and local sites, most of which employ six or fewer full-time reporters and are located in larger cities instead of more rural news deserts, according to Abernathy.

Still, Abernathy said she is more optimistic now than in years past that the journalism landscape can, and will, change.

“We have people in various disciplines in the scholarly/researcher range — political science, history, economic, sociology — beginning to talk about how the local news is really tied to the future of democracy,” Abernathy said. “We also have politicians stepping forward and saying we need to do something about this.”

A bipartisan group of federal lawmakers, for example, reintroduced the Future of Local News Act in 2021. The bill — which has seen no action since being introduced — would create a 13-member committee to study the state of local journalism and recommend actions to Congress to support the industry.

Members of the Newspaper Guild of Detroit. | Photo by Stevie Blanchard

There was also the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, introduced by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) in 2021, which would have provided tax credits to news organizations that hire journalists; that failed to pass in this session of Congress.

“What is immediately important is we have a growing commitment to do something about it,” Abernathy said of the loss of news publications and journalists. “Whether we’re looking at bills proposed in Congress or whether it’s local groups ranging from the League of Women Voters to college researchers looking at solutions, we’ve begun to think creatively in a lot of ways about what we need to do.”

In addition to political support and college-level research, there also needs to be a variety of funding models for journalism outlets in order for them to thrive, Abernathy said, including for-profit, nonprofit and “some sort of public funding.” To truly address the fallout from disappearing papers, Abernathy said, there must be funding for publications outside of wealthier communities to address the news deserts that currently exist in lower-income areas that have not been able to bankroll new publications after a newspaper dies.

These efforts, Abernathy hopes, will lead to a decrease, or at least a more robust alternative, to disinformation and misinformation — and a country in which reporters are not receiving layoff notices at all, let alone just before the holiday season.

“Strong local news helps us understand those whose experiences and attitudes are different from us, and, in the process, brings us together to solve our most pressing political, economic and social problems,” Abernathy wrote in her report on local journalism. “It binds our vast nation of 330 million people together, nurturing both democracy and community. Everyone in the country has a stake in the future of local news, in whatever form it is delivered.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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