To understand media mergers like the proposed one between Gannett and GateHouse Media, Nancy Whitmore says “you need to understand the state newspapers are in. And it is a sad state.”
Whitmore, a Professor of Communication at Butler University, explains that mergers are often meant to help papers hold on long enough to figure out a more permanent business model for surviving the digital age. In the time when local print papers provided the main source of information, advertising dollars were key. Now, as most of that money goes to big technology companies such as Google and Facebook, more newspapers have tried to hold their ground with funding from subscriptions. Whitmore says this model mostly works for larger national outlets, but local newspapers struggle to convert readers into digital subscribers.
So mid-sized and smaller papers are “really in a tight spot.” Gannett and GateHouse both focus on these sorts of local outlets.
Horizontal mergers between similar companies can help save money, often by combining and sharing human resources, editing, design, and printing teams. The combined company would also be able to boast a more widespread audience—a draw for advertisers looking to reach the most people.
But good journalism will still be expensive, and combining companies usually means cutting jobs. Whitmore says it’s hard to tell how many layoffs a Gannett-GateHouse merger could cause, since most local newsrooms are already spread thin, but some job cuts would be likely. And there would be consequences.
“I think we are almost at a crisis point here,” she says. “If you’re not getting local journalism, you are losing the independent voice that is monitoring those in power.”
According to Pew Research Center, the number of Americans working in the newspaper industry has been slashed almost in half since the early 2000s. Wages are down, closures are up, and many of the papers that survive have started to publish less frequently.
While mergers and acquisitions can keep some struggling outlets on their feet, about 1,300 communities in the United States have lost local newspaper coverage altogether.
Whitmore says ethical concerns sometimes surround the idea of big companies owning so many media outlets, but a financial need to merge for the survival of local journalism might start to outweigh those worries. Plus, since GateHouse and Gannett own mostly local papers that aren’t in direct competition with one another, Whitmore says combining the two companies might not raise regulatory concerns.
“But mergers are expensive,” she goes on to explain, “and they don’t always work out well. You’ve got different cultures—different ways of doing things. It’s not always smooth sailing.”
Whitmore predicts that, if anything holds back a merger between Gannett and GateHouse, it will probably be the financing. Given the already-dismal state of local outlets, she’s not sure a deal can be done. But for the sake of local newspapers, she hopes it works.
Because without journalism, even at the most local level, Whitmore says communities will be left vulnerable to “people in power doing unseemly things.”
Nancy Whitmore (Professor of Communication at Butler University) specializes in research and teaching about the laws, ethics, and economics surrounding the media industry.
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