Then came the layoffs. Earlier this month, the Daily Jeff’s parent company, Gannett, announced a sad second bedroom. The company reported a $53.7 million loss on revenue of $748.7 million as it grappled with inflation and rising printing costs, the CEO said. Employees were warned in an email about “necessary but painful staff reductions.”
A week later, Garabrandt became one of at least dozens of Gannett employees who lost their jobs. He caught her off guard. “When you’re the only reporter on the paper, you don’t consider yourself non-essential,” she said.
Gannett will not reveal how many journalists were laid off or which newspapers were affected. The nonprofit media institute pointer and the NewsGuild employee union have tracked at least 70 to 90 newsroom positions eliminated this month, a fraction of Gannett’s total workforce of about 13,000. At some newspapers, the laid-off journalists were their newsroom’s sole sports editor, photojournalist, customer service representative or, like Garabrandt, a full-time news reporter.
In the past, such reductions meant that the work was shared between the rest of the staff, freelancers or journalists from other Gannett newspapers. The Daily Jeff, for example, keeps a sports reporter, in addition to freelance contributions.
Gannett’s director of communications, Lark-Marie Anton, said in a statement that the company was forced to take “quick action” in a challenging economy. “These staff reductions are incredibly difficult and we are grateful for the contributions of our colleagues who are leaving,” he said. “Out of deep respect for our colleagues, there are no further comments.”
Newspaper companies have been struggling to find their financial footing with the decline in print advertising. A recent Northwestern University study predicted that one-third of American newspapers that existed roughly two decades ago will be extinct by 2025. Another study from the Pew Research Center found that some 40,000 newspaper writing jobs disappeared between 2008 and 2020.
Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain with more than 200 dailies and its flagship publication USA Today, had already been shedding jobs. Its workforce decreased by 35 percent between 2019 and 2021, though it’s unclear how many of those reductions affected newsrooms and whether they were due to layoffs, attrition or other reasons. The company has also sold some papers to local owners.
Nonetheless, Gannett’s local reporters have produced consistent journalism, such as a recent child rape case in Ohio that made national news.
“This is really important because they own a fifth of the local papers,” said Rick Edmonds, a business analyst at Poynter Media. “The potential loss here, if this situation worsens, is huge.”
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During reporter/editor Darrel Rowland’s 31 years at the Columbus Dispatch, he worked on stories that led to the resignation of an Ohio attorney general; two wrongfully convicted men walking free; and the state unduly chains withholding $40 million in child support payments to single parents.
“I can point to laws that have changed because of our reporting,” said Rowland, who lost his job this month. “How do people find out what their elected officials are doing? How are you finding out how your tax money is being spent? me, [these] They are the basic, fundamental questions and one of the fundamental reasons for journalism to exist”.
Rowland has also seen his newspaper shrink from its peak of about 200 employees; he is now 95, according to Gannett. And he said he rescinded a job offer from an intern who went to a non-Gannett newspaper in Utah and won a Pulitzer Prize two years later.
Now Rowland is concerned about whether newspapers have the resources and expertise to review millions of records the way he and others did on big stories like inflated prescription drug prices. “We need good journalism and good journalists. I wish I was part of the newspaper I worked for so long. I still want that newspaper to be successful and for readers to have the benefit of having good journalism.”
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During this month’s earnings call, Gannett CEO Michael Reed cited a challenging economic environment and more readers ditching more expensive print subscriptions. He said the downsizing and sale of its real estate holdings were necessary for Gannett to create a more sustainable business. The company also has $1.3 billion in debt from a 2019 merger.
Some say more employees should be made to invest in newsrooms. Unions in particular have criticized a new share buyback program; Gannett spent $3.1 million in the second quarter on share buybacks.
Although Gannett’s digital business has grown — paid subscriptions were up 35 percent last year — it hasn’t been enough to make up for lost print revenue, Edmonds said.
Gannett fired other veteran journalists in the latest round of cuts, including photojournalist Don Shrubshell, who has been with the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri since 1998. He was inducted into the Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame the day before he was fired from his job, according to the maryville forum.
According to the Record Courier News Guild, the editorial director of his newspaper was fired; the Times reporter lost his only editor/sports writer; and the Chillicothe Gazette lost its only photojournalist.
As of May, Zachariah Chou, 24, was the only Gannett employee managing opinion content full-time for all of Georgia. Before I lost his job this month, Chou verified letters to the editor and helped residents publish their views on local, state and national issues in a newspaper.
“It was the community billboard,” he said. “There’s a lot of very, very good opinion journalism out there on community issues, and I think it will continue to some extent. It’s just that no one is going to do that.”
Gannett has also been cutting back on its opinion pages nationally, which executives argue has alienated readers and hasn’t been widely read.
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Community leaders are concerned about the fate of their local newspapers. During his 15 years as mayor of Cambridge, Ohio, Tom Orr has seen the Daily Jeff downsize his staff, downsize print newspapers and publish photos of distant communities. “I love this town and I don’t like to see it suffer, and that’s what this is causing it to do: suffer,” he said.
In nearby Byesville, Ohio, village manager Brennan Dudley said that while his council meetings are public, “we count on the Jeffersonian to provide so much information” to the community.
Some laid-off journalists immediately began looking for new jobs, like Garabrandt, 50, who is the main breadwinner for his family. He has been in journalism for about 10 years and especially loves upbeat stories. “A lot of us, as you know, live for work,” he said. “In a world gone mad, I consider myself a good news girl. I think there needs to be more good news.”
Chou, who had been working remotely while living with her parents in Texas, was offered a reporting position at Gannett after her job was eliminated, but it would have required her to move to Savannah, Ga., something she said was not feasible.
And Rowland, the longtime Ohio journalist, still wants to write stories of accountability that lead to lasting change. At 67, he is nearing retirement age. But, as he said, “I feel like God has more stories in these fingers of mine.”
Paul Farhi contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the state office of the Columbus Dispatch was removed. He also said the newspaper employed 70 people. The newspaper team has actually merged with the state bureau of the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the Dispatch employs 95 people. The article has been corrected.