It’s the companies, stupid

August 06, 2015. Photo by Fred Solis.

Editors note: We’ve made this article open to the public because of the general interest it generated outside of our coverage area.

A journalist I got to know in passing made a visit to the office last week on a way to a job interview.

He got a raw deal, offered an escape by a massive company to a newspaper where he had more control, only to be laid off a year later.

Such is the lot of being a number in a ledger to a huge company.

He was part of a larger string of layoffs at papers in the state.

When a massive media company acquires more properties, people who dedicate their lives to local news—the copy editors, the designers—become redundant.

Managing editors of smaller papers become a financial burden when those working at a slightly larger paper in the region can be forced to cover a town, St. John or Kiowa, Kan., remotely.

Why take care of a local employee when you can pay someone in Austin, Texas, or out of the country far less to do shoddier, but much cheaper, work?

The cycle is again beginning to happen, as one of the largest newspaper chains in the country, GateHouse, added a family-owned group of Kansas papers to its crowd of 500 or so publications. Hutch News, Salina, Hays and Ottawa now all answer to corporate in New York, who in turn,  answers to the managers of the hedge fund Fortune Capital that owns GateHouse.

GateHouse accounts for a tiny amount of that hedge fund. The hedge fund managers then answer to the fund’s owner, a bank in Japan, and that bank’s owner, billionaire Masayoshi Son.

Now what do Masayoshi Son in Japan or New York hedge fund managers or media suits care for Kiowa or Hutchinson or, for that matter, Newton, Kan.? They are tiny financial specs in a universe of budgets.

I’d be willing to guess it’s far less than those city’s residents or the journalists who try their best working for such papers.

Those journalists are heroes and make due with awful resources, sub par corporate leadership and an absolute apathy to quality journalism outside of making revenue margins.

Long before I came to Newton, I was familiar with the term “GateHousing.” The word was used by people I knew in the business to describe the practice of a large company buying and gutting local newspapers. The move, firing long-term employees and cutting back coverage, increases the margins in the short term before the paper’s eventual decline. Compare it to someone having a flock of chickens, killing them to eat, and starving a week later for lack of eggs.

Many of we media followers worried that when the Hutch News would be purchased, it would get “Gatehoused.”

How do you identify Gatehousing? Look for press releases that use the phrases words “finding new synergies,” “new innovative sharing strategies” and the best, “less with more.”
That’s company talk for layoffs.

Journalism quality and what makes a paper isn’t some sort of special sauce. It’s not a crazy formula that you need a $20,000 consultant to do.
Just write news people will pay to read. Plain and simple. If people read it, advertisers recognize the value of being in there as well.

And how do you write news people care to read? That’s simple, too: care about the community and have ownership that cares enough about the community to invest resources to cover it.

Journalism means far more to a community than a 12-percent margin in a company ledger.

That sort of apathetic management approach to a community’s voice, watchdog, friend, entertainment and chronicle all but guarantees the publication’s decline.

Journalism isn’t dying in Kansas.
Journalism is dealing with a parasite, a many-headed creature, made up of coastal suits that have never sold an ad or picked up a notebook.
When the corporate creature has gorged on the last drop of margin from a papers’ emaciated carcass, it kills it, or lets it linger as a thrall to protect against market encroachment from other companies. The creature leaves in its wake a more ignorant, less informed populous without a well-maintained watchdog for their governments.

We’ve benefited in part from that, but we hate to see it happen. It shouldn’t happen.

News of more Kansas layoffs will no doubt filter out eventually, and someone will put together yet another piece about the decrease of local papers and journalism jobs in Kansas.

That might be true for those lacking local control, but all of our friends and area groups we work with are doing just fine. Robb Reeves up the road, he’s doing all right with his Harvey County papers. Down south, you have Chris Strunk keeping it going in Valley Center. Travis Mounts and crew are doing just fine with their Sedgwick and Sumner County papers.

If journalism was dying, how have we started a paper and grown subscriptions and advertising enough to have long-term viability in less than two years? Why have we had to hire?

And at least three papers have started up in Kansas in the last few years and continue to operate.

There are always tough times, of course. The state’s economy isn’t exactly booming, despite its stellar leadership.

But don’t buy some of the dire doom and gloom about papers.

If you hear from someone in the future of how Kansas journalism is dying, send them over to our office or some of the state’s other independent papers.
Papers aren’t dying; poor company management is killing them.

 

Adam Strunk is the managing editor of the Newton Now and can be reached by email at adam@harveycountynow.com