The newspaper market hasn’t recovered—but a mega-deal might help some local papers stay afloat.
The two biggest newspaper companies in the U.S.—Gannett and GateHouse Media—are consolidating to create one media behemoth, with an eye to reducing overhead and preserving their papers’ profits.
Both companies have vast portfolios. Gannett publishes USA Today, in addition to many well-known local newspapers. GateHouse Media operates in 612 markets in 39 states.
Gannett shareholders will own 49.5% of the new company, and New Media shareholders will own 50.5%, the press release announcing the merger said.
The move will probably do little to reverse local newspapers’ downward trend.
The newspaper industry has been in a downward spiral for years as the internet has upended its business model. Readers have moved online and get their news from social media, eroding print advertising sales. Much of the online ad market, meanwhile, is being gobbled up by Facebook and Google. And many newspapers have seen their quality erode by ordering deep cuts to their newsrooms, making it increasingly difficult to convince readers to pay for online subscriptions.
Newspaper executives see few options other than combining with each other to cut even more costs, from sharing printing operations to eliminating local copy editors and designers. The number of newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 47 percent between 2008 and 2018, from about 71,000 workers to 38,000, according to Pew Research Center.
What does the consolidation mean for PR pros? The companies’ leaders say the move will help preserve the future of journalism, but given the expressed goal of decreasing overhead, don’t expect local newsrooms to grow.
Executives from both companies extolled the deal in a news release as an opportunity to slash up to $300 million in annual overhead costs within 24 months while “continuing to invest in newsrooms” – creating journalism they hope can attract more digital subscribers and advertisers at a time when America employs thousands of fewer journalists than it did a decade ago.
But the efficiencies wrought by the merger may also result in publications that rely less on local reporters and more on USA Today-type stories produced or edited remotely and published in dozens of the company’s publications. Journalists across the country fretted over whether the deal would mean a wave of layoffs.
Andrew Pantazi, a reporter for the Florida Times-Union and president of the newspaper’s guild, said journalists in his newsroom were anxious about any cuts, particularly the elimination of editor roles. Pantazi said the Florida Times-Union has lost its own editors who are reorganized into hubs.
“We’re afraid of that big number: $300 million,” Pantazi said. “We’re afraid of what happens when you have fewer journalists working in the state of Florida.”
The move is also likely to trigger a trend for other newspaper concerns, such as Tribune Publishing and McClatchy’s.
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, said other media companies will be looking to cut costs and consolidate. Edmonds specifically noted talk of deals between McClatchy and Tribune Company. “Even if it’s a tough climb, you’re better off with more scale and particularly with some of the savings of not having to do human resources and all of that in two separate companies,” Edmonds said.
Frank Blethen, publisher of the family-owned Seattle Times, called the Gannett-GateHouse deal “another nail in the coffin of our once vaunted Free Press System.”
“Hedge funds and distressed asset buyers have been destroying the system with unnecessary disinvestment and are now picking over the carcasses,” he said. “These are two of the worst. Inexplicable that there isn’t public outrage.”
Tech companies and websites have tried to fill the void left by shrinking coverage of local news, but many ventures, like DNAinfo, have either failed or been shuttered over disagreements between employees and management.
However, the ability to drive a local conversation has never been more important for PR pros.
Local search is powerful for small businesses: four out of five consumers use search to find local information, which means if your business isn’t optimized for local search, you could be missing out on 80% of your potential customers. In short, local SEO is critical if you want your business to stay relevant.
What can PR pros do to overcome the trend of smaller local newsrooms? Here are some tips:
- Get real about your media pitching strategy. The handful of journalists that still cover your local area are inundated with media pitches, and it’s going to take a lot to get their attention. Help them out by pitching only truly newsworthy stories. Also, make sure your pitch includes multimedia content, because they probably won’t have sufficient design staff and photographers to capture their own visuals.
- Invest in an online newsroom. If you can’t get someone else to tell your story, start telling the story yourself. Hire a former journalist or editor to find stories from your organization, and use your website to highlight the good work you do in the community.
- Create local events with strong social media integration. Drive the conversation in your area; word-of-mouth promotion now hinges on social media content. Find ways to incorporate user-generated content on your social media channels, and ask stakeholders to participate in an online conversation. Make sure your leaders are transparent and accessible; don’t wait for a local news profile to humanize your organization for you. (It probably won’t happen.)
- Build your local SEO. Think search engine optimization isn’t part of your role? You’re only going to cede more ground to marketers. In today’s media landscape, PR pros must know how to make their clients visible online, and that means knowing the ins and outs of SEO. Choose keywords that appeal to local consumers, and optimize for “Google My Business.”
- Embrace the PESO model. The integrated messaging model for PR pros isn’t a new concept. However, its importance in your overall strategy isn’t going to wane. Make sure your paid, earned, shared and owned media efforts work together to amplify one another, and create an ecosystem of online content that builds an audience for your organization.
PR pros can no longer wait for journalists to pick up their press release. As local media outlets continue to consolidate and cut resources, it’s never been more important for PR pros to tell their own stories.