Stuart Warner Commentary

No Matter How It's Sugar-Coated, Gannett Merger Won't Be Sweet for Journalists

Sweets are abundant in the Arizona Republic newsroom when bad news is afoot.
Sweets are abundant in the Arizona Republic newsroom when bad news is afoot. Coyote Oaties

This tweet from an Arizona Republic staffer on Friday was ominous:

“Today the … newsroom has featured pizza, donuts, cookies, sheet cake and ice cream bars, with a happy hour to follow.”

So if you’ve spent any time at the Republic or Gannett, as I have, you knew bad news was coming.

It’s the spoonful of sugar theory. And sure enough, Monday morning, Gannett announced that it was being acquired by GateHouse Media and its hedge-fund owner, New Media Investment Group.

Combined, NettGate will be the largest newspaper conglomerate in history, with more than 250 papers and 25,000 employees. Gannett is the larger company, yet it will be controlled by GateHouse, whose CEO, Michael Reed, will lead the merged operation, which will keep the more-recognizable Gannett name.

Now comes the sugar coating:

“The Merger also affords an opportunity to realize run-rate cost synergies of $275-$300 million annually across the combined company in a judicious manner, while continuing to invest in newsrooms,” the company promised in a news release.


I doubt this deal will be the salvation of the troubled industry to which I’ve devoted almost 50 years of my life. Most analysts figure "The Merger" is just buying time while the new company tries to find a path to profitability, most likely by firing more journalists.

Certainly, I don’t wish that any more of my brethren lose their jobs. I’ve seen too many friends pushed out the door already. I’ve worked at the Lexington (Ky.) Leader, the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, AOL News, and The Daily (the ill-fated iPad-only publication). At AOL, I watched as more than 200 positions were eliminated in a single day. The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the Akron Beacon Journal, two more of my former employers, are still standing, but each has fewer than 30 journalists remaining in their newsroom unions. The PD once had a newsroom of more than 500, the BJ almost 200.

Yet, I wouldn’t be troubled a lot if a number of Gannett executives have to sweat out their future employment as they made me, my wife, and thousands of others do in the hellish summer of 2014.

That’s when I first experienced the company’s sugar-saturation strategy.

For several days that August, bowls of candy filled the Republic newsroom. There were also sandwiches, chips, cookies, you name it, everywhere you turned.

No, they were not trying to reduce the workforce by killing us with carbs.

It was more diabolical. The sugar was there to mask our collective anxiety.

Everybody in almost every newsroom in the company had to apply for their jobs. Or apply for a colleague’s job. Except for the top newsroom managers, of course. They got to apply the screws.

It was all part of what Gannett trumpeted as “The Newsroom of the Future,” i.e., we’re going to cut expenses by 15 percent.

Yeah, how’d that work out?

If they were so concerned with keeping expenses down, though, why was it necessary to make us beg for our employment in front of editors from all over the country? They flew them in, put them up in hotels, fed them, and then sat them in front of us with our resumes and our futures in their hands.

This was particularly galling for my wife and me. We were both in our 60s, having already served distinguished journalism careers. My wife, Deb Van Tassel, was one of the top features editors in the country. Her section at the Plain Dealer was named one of the top three in the U.S. by the Society of Features Journalists, along with the Washington Post and the Tampa Bay Tribune. She also had won numerous awards as a business editor in Cleveland and at the Seattle Times and was a key editor on two Pulitzer Prize-winning projects in Akron.

I worked with her on both those Pulitzer efforts in Akron and edited Connie Schultz’s Pulitzer-winning columns and three other Pulitzer finalists in Cleveland.

The Republic recruited us to come to Phoenix, where we landed in 2013. Just over a year later, after leaving our home, family, and friends, far behind, we were told that we had to reapply for our positions along with everyone else.

It was awful for us, so I can only imagine how bad it was for people who had been loyal employees for decades.
One longtime employee expressed his frustration at the process in a blog:

“Gannett folks shrug, say it’s a byproduct of the modern newspaper as a ghost. Yet who created that ghost? Who stripped down the products, then stripped them again and again? Who ripped the hearts and souls out of newspapers? Who ended investigative reporting? Who did this to the newspaper business?

“Answer: Gannett.”

Then, he lamented the loss of a man who had worked in the Nashville sports department for more than 20 years with this closing epithet:

“Fuck yourself, Gannett.”

That’s pretty much the way I felt then, even though my wife and I both survived the interview process and kept our jobs. Others, including some talented veterans, weren’t so lucky.

Soon after that experience, I began looking for another job and jumped at the chance to leave when Phoenix New Times began advertising for an editor in 2016. My wife wasn’t so fortunate. Coincidentally, perhaps, she was let go a few months after I defected, one day after her team completed an award-winning investigation of HOAs in Arizona.

So, yeah, while I won't wish ill on any journalist these days, if a couple of those responsible for "The Newspaper of the Future" become part of the company's past, I might think that it was, well, sweet.
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Stuart Warner was the editor of New Times from 2017 to 2019. He has been a journalist since the stoned ages of 1969, playing a major role on teams that won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is also the author of the biography JOCK: A Coach's Story.