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How America's largest newspaper company is leaving behind news deserts

The country's largest newspaper company, Gannett, is once again forecasting it will sell off more of its daily newspapers.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
The country's largest newspaper company, Gannett, is once again forecasting it will sell off more of its daily newspapers.

Welcome to the NPR series where we spotlight the people and things making headlines — and the stories behind them.

Local newsrooms haven't survived the cuts in the modern shift to digital media. Now, the country's largest newspaper company is feeling the squeeze again.

Who is it? Gannett publishes newspapers like USA Today, as well as many local weekly papers. Despite managing many local outlets, it has been cutting down for years.

  • At the end of 2019, Gannett merged with GateHouse Media and between them the two companies had roughly 25,000 employees. Less than four years later, the current workforce is around 11,000.
  • Since that 2019 merger, Gannett has reduced the number of papers in its circulation at a steady rate.
  • According to reporting from Nieman Lab, Gannett owned 261 daily and 302 weekly newspapers in 2019. By the end of 2022, those numbers had dropped to 217 dailies and 175 weekly newspapers, a reduction of 171 in total.
  • What's the big deal? You might not need us to tell you this, but any reduction in a free press is cause for concern.

  • Gannett has once again forecast in the last few weeks that it plans to sell off more of its daily newspapers.
  • While part of its business model is to focus on larger metropolitan areas, smaller communities with few news sources could be left as "news deserts," says Joshua Benton, who has covered this phenomenon for the Nieman Journalism lab at Harvard University.
  • Benton describes this trend as another aspect of the now decades-long struggle for print media to keep up financially with digital options. Converting one method of news coverage to another has proven to be so difficult, that he says, "It's often much easier to start from scratch."

  • Want to learn more about news and the media? Listen to the Consider This episode: TikTok vs. Everybody

    It's no secret newspaper sales have faced challenges for years now.
    Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
    Getty Images
    It's no secret newspaper sales have faced challenges for years now.

    What are people saying? Here's some more insight from Benton, who spoke with NPR about the future of Gannett and print media.

    On why Gannett continues to slash staff and paper numbers:

    The Gannett that we have now is the result of the merger of two very large companies. The idea was [that] an individual newspaper might struggle on its own, but if you buy enough of them, you can extract as much of the cost of producing the newspaper from the local community as possible. You cut down on print days. You have the page layout and editing done elsewhere. The thought was you could achieve these economies of scale and make a profitable business. The problem is, as part of the merger, Gannett took on a lot of debt, and they have to pay off that debt. So they need revenue. And the way that they have been doing that is by cutting costs to the bone. That means cutting staff and cutting the quality of their newspapers.

    On how smaller communities are getting left behind:

    Gannett CEO Mike Reed has said that he sees in the future, the company will be focusing on its larger newspapers in communities like Phoenix and Indianapolis. But Gannett owns a lot of very small newspapers, a lot of weekly newspapers, a lot of very small daily newspapers. Those larger weeklies and smaller dailies are in a really tough position economically. It's very difficult to manage the cost while emphasizing digital subscriptions and getting enough of them to make things work out. There are also communities where there often isn't as much of an alternative in terms of a local television station or a local digital news outlet that's covering the area.

    On what less local press might look like:

    I see a lot more uncovered city council meetings. I see a lot more corruption that doesn't get noticed. I see a lot more uninformed voters, more people who take their cues for how they view their government from national media and the politicized world there as opposed to their local government. There certainly are bright spots. There are green shoots going up, but the challenge is just very difficult.

    Gannett's chief communications officer, Lark-Marie Antón, in a statement published in Axios:

    Our local markets are critical to Gannett's strategy. We plan to invest in better serving our readers with content initiatives that expand our audience and drive growth to ensure the sustainability of local news.

    So, what now?

  • Gannett had 563 newspapers in 2019, and now has less than 400, according to the Nieman Lab. That number is now expected to shrink further.
  • And other journalists are taking initiative to make their own news outlets, says Benton: "There are communities across the country where smart digital outlets are growing to the point where in some cases, they have bigger newsrooms than the local daily newspaper does. It is possible, but it's a challenge."
  • Learn more:

  • Twitter labels NPR's account as 'state-affiliated media,' which is untrue
  • With layoffs, NPR becomes latest media outlet to cut jobs
  • Fox News stands in legal peril. It says defamation loss would harm all media
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.