Greg Reibman describes the demise of the weeklies in Boston’s western suburbs this way: Local newspapers aren’t dying. They’re dead.
Or they will be in early May, when three weekly papers that cover the area served by the Charles River Regional Chamber, which Reibman leads, publish their last print editions. They are among more than 20 print publications that parent company Gannett plans to merge or shutter in Massachusetts. With some 89,000 residents, Reibman’s hometown of Newton will become the biggest city in the state without a local newspaper.
What’s worse, said Reibman — a former editor and publisher at many of these papers — is Gannett’s expected approach for the 40-plus weeklies that remain. Rather than having reporters covering City Halls and town squares, many reporters at Gannett’s Massachusetts weeklies and their Wicked Local online counterparts will be assigned to regional beats such as climate, transportation, or racial justice.
“They’re saying they are going to have local content, but they’re not going to have local reporters,” Reibman said. “It’s devastating. ... They’ve been documenting the history of these communities for more than a century.”
Gannett, formerly known as GateHouse Media, has been reducing page count and personnel for the past decade. But civic leaders and loyal readers alike worry this moment represents an inflection point, with a third of Gannett’s local weeklies disappearing overnight, along with essential community journalism.
In Newton, Reibman and city councilor Emily Norton are often at odds. But on this they agree. Readers used to turn to the Newton Tab for everything from school sports to local editorials to coverage of the council’s committee meetings. Lately though, Norton said she’s noticed the Tab is filled with out-of-town stories.
“It’s awful, especially for a city our size,” Norton said. “People behave better when there’s someone paying attention.”
There are other implications: State law requires many government legal notices to run in a print newspaper. With many towns losing these outlets, municipal officials are scrambling to find alternatives that qualify. Acton officials, for example, announced last week that the town’s legal notices would move to the Lowell Sun, a daily with minimal readership in Acton, after Gannett said it will stop printing The Beacon, Acton’s local paper.
Gannett has faced the same pressures as just about every print newspaper — including The Boston Globe — as readers and advertisers gravitate online. But the series of deals that created present-day Gannett is unusual in its scope.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Fidelity Investments gobbled up local newspapers across eastern Massachusetts to create the Community Newspaper Co. Then, in 2006, Liberty Group Publishing combined CNC with its own papers and a group led by Quincy’s Patriot Ledger. Dubbed GateHouse, the newly public company embarked on a national expansion, often scooping up newspaper chains at top dollar.
The Great Recession slowed that down, as did a bankruptcy filing. Then the investment firm behind GateHouse, Fortress Investment Group, took the company public again in 2014, with ambitious plans for another $1 billion in acquisitions. One stated goal: increase efficiency by sharing stories and centralizing functions such as page design.
Then came GateHouse’s biggest acquisition: the $1.4 billion purchase of industry giant Gannett. The 2019 deal cemented the company — which adopted Gannett’s name — as the country’s biggest publisher of local news.
All that deal-making came at a cost. “New Gannett” took on $1.8 billion in debt, and promised investors $300 million a year in savings. And so a lean company got leaner. Last year, Gannett sold more than $100 million in real estate, to help pay down that debt. Gannett has shed about one-third of its workforce since the megamerger, shrinking to under 14,000 people. In Massachusetts, Gannett has already gone from 75 weeklies to 65. And it ended Saturday print editions at more than 100 dailies, including many of its 10 in Massachusetts.
“Gannett is a special circumstance,” Poynter Institute media analyst Rick Edmonds said. “They did this merger. They borrowed a lot of money. ... That turns up the heat on operating it profitably. [It gets] harder to justify going through the trouble of printing and delivery for smaller weeklies.”
Gannett CEO Mike Reed has been clear: The future is digital. In a recent earnings call, Reed bragged that Gannett passed the $1 billion mark for digital revenue last year, representing about one third of all sales. The company grew digital-only subscribers by 49 percent, year over year, to 1.6 million.
And that’s how Gannett framed its moves in Massachusetts. In an email, a spokesperson said the print cutbacks “are not closures” but a transition “from delivering print editions to providing subscribers with unlimited access to our digital platforms.” Gannett, the spokesperson said, remains committed to local news, and does not expect an impact on editorial staffing levels. As for its coverage strategy, the spokesperson said Gannett is aligning “our resources to maintain strong local reporting across our nationwide network ... and to accelerate our digital future.”
Still, at least 19 weeklies will end print editions this spring, according to a count by Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy, and nine other weeklies will be combined into four. (Gannett did not confirm the number of affected papers.)
Only three Gannett weeklies, Kennedy said he has learned, will still have dedicated reporters: Cambridge, Plymouth, and Provincetown. Not Newton. And apparently not Somerville, where the weekly is being merged with Medford’s.
“To eliminate local beats at all but three of their weeklies is really unconscionable,” Kennedy said. “The loss is really to civic life. The loss is to accountability journalism that all of us need to know about what’s going on at City Hall or Town Hall, the school committee, even connecting with our neighbors.”
This prompted Kennedy to compile a database of independent, local news sources in Massachusetts. So far he has tallied them in more than 230 communities, from Abington to Wrentham. Some are “legacy” community papers. Others are startups. They’re not profit machines, as local papers used to be. (Kennedy’s roundup doesn’t include Patch Media, which regional editor Dave Copeland said has eight full-time journalists producing stories for 88 news websites in Massachusetts.)
Some rising stars Kennedy cites are nonprofits, such as the Bedford Citizen and New Bedford Light, or have a nonprofit fundraising arm, such as the Provincetown Independent.
The New Bedford Light has raised more than $1.3 million in donations since its founding last year, including from former Standard-Times publisher Jim Ottaway. Editor Bobbie Roessner said the newsroom has grown to eight newsroom staffers with two more coming in June. They aim to cover some of the territory ceded by the Standard-Times, the local Gannett daily, and provide in-depth stories on big issues facing the city, from health and housing to its fishing and offshore wind industries. An anonymous donor gave $100,000, Roessner said, and the Light received hundreds of smaller donations from people in the community.
Former Standard-Times editor Bob Unger will be cheering from the sidelines. Unger laid himself off rather than cut two or three reporters in 2014; he figures those jobs are gone now.
“GateHouse was a victim of spending a lot of money buying newspapers at a time when the bubble was bursting,” he said. “They’ve had to do some very tough things economically. However, the cost to these communities is high.”
That cost can be seen in Newton, which was once served by the weekly Tab and the Daily News Tribune of Waltham. The News Tribune switched to twice a week in 2010 and dropped Newton coverage; it became a weekly in 2011. Now, both papers will stop printing.
The city has already paid a price. During her campaigns in 2017 and 2021, former mayoral candidate Amy Mah Sangiolo said she warned that property taxes would need to go up to maintain city services. Now, parents in the wealthy city are wondering why the school system is bracing for layoffs.
“If you don’t make the case clear consistently to the public, the public is going to forget,” she said. “There was no investigative reporting, in-depth reporting.”
The layoff situation has sparked fireworks between the school committee and Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, former committee chairman Matt Hills said. But you wouldn’t know it, he said, from Gannett’s coverage. Hills called the loss of the printed Tab the “unfortunate and sad final step in what has been a contraction and near elimination of local news” in Newton during the past decade. (Amid this contraction, the Globe in recent years has expanded its coverage of the city.)
“I don’t begrudge Gannett from making whatever decisions are in their best financial interest,” Hills said. “It’s not Gannett’s responsibility to subsidize money-losing operations on behalf of the body politic of Newton. But what it means is there’s almost no accountability left for city government, other than on blogs, which by definition are opinions of whomever is writing it, not actual news coverage.”
There’s been some effort to address the situation at the state level. An economic development bill signed by Governor Charlie Baker in early 2021 included a measure that would create a commission to study how to address “news deserts,” but it hasn’t started meeting yet.
To Reibman, the Charles River chamber president, the nonprofit model might be the only solution remaining for Newton and Needham, which is losing the Needham Times. He said he is having “active conversations” with other civic leaders to launch nonprofit news ventures in both communities.
“It’s heartbreaking to know we’re going to lose our papers that arrived on our lawns for decades,” he said. “[But] at the end of the day, I expect this is a wake-up call to start thinking about an alternative.”
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.