The dismantling continues

Tough week for Worcester journalism

It’s happening again! Once a year it seems the media conglomerate that owns the Telegram and Gazette decides to rip off another limb, ensuring for the benefit of its shareholders that there are even less reporters covering Worcester and even less incentive for residents of the city to engage with an institution that at one time drove the civic discourse. 

Let’s take a look at the body count. Thus far, we’ve seen six departures at the Telegram: reporters Nick Kotsopoulos, Elaine Thompson, George Barnes and Bill Doyle and editors Jerry Russell and Lynn Tolman. 

They all took what’s called a buyout—that means the company gives you a certain amount of money for how many years you’ve worked there, and in journalism that’s the closest thing you’ll get to a retirement package, so a lot of the people listed above have chosen to call it a retirement. Buyouts typically precede layoffs so it’s sort of an ‘offer you can’t refuse’ type situation. Take the money now or wait till it’s your turn to get laid off.

Now the newsroom not counting sports and arts staff is down to seven reporters. Seven reporters to fill a paper every day and cover the entire Worcester area. I’m told Gannett, the company that owns the Telegram, has authorized funding for four more reporter positions but whether those will actually be filled is another story. What I heard is apparently confirmed by the Worcester Business Journal,which got its hands on an internal memo stating as much. Having worked for the company that eventually got folded into Gannett, I can tell you that these hedge fund types will say a lot of things that never materialize and they’ll say it with impunity because fuck you if you don’t like it, just quit or cry about it.  

Kim Vasseur, Worcester Magazine’s page designer, told me she’s out too. I texted her and she said she took the buyout because the writing was on the wall and it would be better to go out on her own terms with a decent package than wait to get laid off like just about every other person that worked at Worcester Magazine pre-acquisition, except me, who performatively quit, and maybe one ad saleswoman, I’m not sure, but all the rest of them got laid off. They really and truly ripped Worcester Mag to pieces; I mean they did it quick, too. 

Kim’s goodbye column is a really good read, by the way. 

Between the seven of them at least, it’s a reduction in ranks and a massive reduction in experience and know-how. Combined, it’s just shy of 200 years in the industry. That sort of knowledge does not come easy and it will be hard to replace. 

Buyouts typically come before layoffs, but this can go one of two ways, one less bad than the other but neither of them ideal. 

Here’s the best way it can go. Gannett uses the money saved with the buyout packages to hire a new crop of younger and more diverse reporters (and pay them dismally) with the money saved from having to keep around these dinosaurs with salaries from back when journalism was a real sustainable middle-class job. Lest we forget that all Gannett papers announced a diversity goal over the summer. The idea is to reach racial parity with the cities and towns they cover by 2025. I scoffed when this came out and I joked that in order to hire a more diverse staff you need to actually hire people, so that’s sort of a plot hole. It looks like they may go the route of baiting the longtime journalists they’ve been beating down for years to take the money and run so they can hire a bunch of rookies who were stupid enough to go to college for journalism like I was to make $24,000 a year and work crazy hours for a company that does not care about you or your work at all. But at least the rookies they’ll be abusing will be more diverse! Never you mind that they’ll be stepping into jobs without the valuable tutelage of industry veterans. 

Now, here’s the worst way it can go, and to my mind the more likely. Gannett says they’re going to fill the positions but they don’t. They drag their feet or else they hope editors at all the individual papers tasked with meeting this diversity requirement just sort of forget. They’ll say something about low quarterly earnings and they’ll shift the goalposts. Maybe next year we’ll hire some new people if the numbers look good. Meanwhile, the role of the missing journalists will be filled by two or three people stacking it on top of their normal duties, which they already did the last time the newsroom staff got reduced and the time before that and the time before that and so on and so forth. They’ll be tasked to do more than they can handle and thus they will do nothing particularly well. Hope of the Telegram investing more heavily in serious reporting projects will go even further out the window and City Hall will be subject to less scrutiny and will be able to operate in less and less transparent ways. And then they’ll just straight up lay some more people off in like February or something. 

Suffice it to say that strong local journalism is not the objective of a company like Gannett. Companies like that buy newspapers like the Telegram to slowly drain them of all the value they have—bonus points for real estate—as they report earnings to shareholders that they make off laying off reporters and editors and ad staff while charging the same if not more for the product while the product gets worse and worse. People have a low opinion of the Telegram and of Worcester Magazine precisely because these institutions have been whittled away by venture capital to the point where doing anything of value is hard. 

Take for example the editor of Worcester Magazine now, Victor Infante, who amazingly produces interesting editions and colorful features every week. Worcester Magazine is sort of like a side job for him, he also does the Telegram arts section or what’s left of it and a million other things. That’s what happens when you lay people off every year, you make the people that are left do the job of two people, then three people, then four—you get the idea. Big ups to him and the rest of the crew for winning distinguished newspaper of the year by NENPA by the way. Well deserved and pretty incredible considering the circumstances. But this is a story about media ownership and how to pay for journalists. This is not about individual journalists and the work they do. 

So while the Telegram and WoMag are going through this extremely hard time, business is booming for the parent company. Earlier this month the company’s stock soared 23 percent, hitting a five month high. This from Marketwatch and you’ll notice there isn’t a whole lot of talk about local journalism here in fact it isn’t referenced at all. 

Shares of USA Today-parent Gannett Co. Inc. GCI, +5.15% soared 23.0% toward a five-month high in midday trading Tuesday, after the media and marketing company provided an upbeat outlook for the fourth quarter, and announced the refinancing high-yielding debt. Chief Executive Michael Reed said in a release that as Gannett improves its capital structure with the refinancing, "we are also seeing continued improvement in our revenue trends, which we expect will drive strong fourth-quarter results." The company said it refinanced $500 million of its 11.5% term loan that matures in 2024, with 6.0% convertible notes due in 2027. That reduces the outstanding term loan to $1.118 billion. In comparison, three-year Treasury notes yielded 0.24% at Monday's close. Reed said the refinancing reduces annual interest expenses by about $28 million. Gannett's stock has tumbled 66.5% year to date, while the S&P 500 SPX, +0.17% has gained 12.0%.

I like reading that the company’s stock has tumbled 66.5 percent year-to-date, though, that’s cool.

This whole situation brings to mind that scene from The Wire in which the managing editor of the Baltimore Sun is announcing a round of buyouts and the protagonist reporter/fictional David Simon asks, “How come there’s cuts in the newsroom when the company is still profitable?” About 3 minutes in here.

And the editor ignores the question, he goes “There’s nobody who feels worse about this than I do.” 

And if he were to answer the question honestly it would probably go something like this: Well, son, you’ve been in the business long enough to know that the journalism is not the product, they really don’t give a fuck what we can or can’t do as long as we can fill the space. 

In fact really good adversarial journalism probably runs counter to the goal of the company so if you want to get conspiratorial about it maybe buying up every small paper in the country and cutting every good entry level journalism job is a good idea. Then you make sure the only people entering media are the progeny of the wealthy who skipped the slog of covering 5-hour city council meetings for years and went straight from Columbia Journalism School to a full-time job posting Drump Covfefe takes at MSNBC. 

That’s not so much a conspiracy as it’s just sort of what’s happening by nature of our society being unfair and cruel—it’s not the design of any one particular person or group of people.

Local journalism is simultaneously disappearing and becoming a squarely working class job. But it’s a working class job you need to go to college for so it’s a particularly bad deal and the smart ones are the ones running from it and the dumb ones are the ones like me here trying to Figure Out A New Model. Please subscribe haha!!

And I want to caution against going too much into the “journalists are the troops for the news” thing; it’s not like that and I find that whole mindset to be obnoxious. Journalists are not by default some righteous arbiter of democracy, they do shit things all the time and for every good one there’s three or four bad ones coasting by on their laurels. The Telegram routinely publishes things that are terrible like op-eds from anti-LGBT hate groups and articles on economic development that Chamber of Commerce President Tim Murray may as well have dictated to them. But without the Telegram and the reporters and editors they employ, what framework do we have for eyes on city government? Who is going to pay reporters to sit in endless City Council or School Committee or Planning Board meetings and pull out the interesting nuggets that sometimes turn into large scandals? Who will be there—in the structural sense I’m not saying journalists always do this and oftentimes they don’t honestly—to hold elected leaders to account?

We need to start seriously asking this question, because the Telegram isn’t going to go away, but it’s slowly going to become less and less the institution we need it to be if we’re going to have any real citizen engagement in the processes of city government. We have a lot of outlets in Worcester but the media economy of the internet is such that none can wield too big a stick. Reporters are tasked with keeping up with a content flow that renders them for the most part unable to do the kind of digging that we need them to do. Instead it’s all get it online right now I don’t care if this is the same exact press release rewrite the other outlet did and serves no purpose. We need the clicks. 

So how do we build a media ecosystem in Worcester where real truth can be spoken to power with the weight of an institution that actually matters? We’re going to have to start from scratch, I think, and I don’t know what it will end up looking like. This isn’t just a problem in Worcester, it’s a problem everywhere and Worcester doesn’t have it even close to the worst. There are whole swaths of this country without any media coverage at all. The nonprofit model is a decent one but it has its drawbacks. Dependency on large funds and organizations for an operating budget is a risky proposition. The funding could be there one day and gone the next. Obviously publicly funded journalism would be great but have you taken a look around? PBS and NPR are relics of a bygone era and in our right-wing neoliberal hell the idea of directing public money to a new journalistic venture seems ridiculous. It’s not going to happen. In an ideal world every public library would have a small independent newsroom charged with chronicling city government and investigating abuses of power. Obviously we do not live in an ideal world and that will never happen.

Direct payment models, like this newsletter, work well for generally leftwing media on a national level—look at Defector Media and all the newsletters I’m ripping off and podcasts like Chapo Traphouse and TrueAnon—and I’m pretty much paying my bills off Worcester Sucks and I Love It but I’m not at a point where I can start paying other writers. Full disclosure because I think the secrecy around money in American culture is whack, I’m currently on pace to make about $35,000 a year off of this newsletter before taxes, which was my salary when I left WoMag. It’s not enough to live on, really, but I’m used to it. I’d be comfortable quitting my second job and going full time when I reach the $50,000 mark. After that, I want to start paying other writers to use this platform. Sort of have my own budget to pay freelancers and if things go really good I’d like to have another full-time writer. Wouldn’t that be great?

I know times are tough for everyone right now but if you think growing this newsletter and its influence in Worcester is important please consider subscribing. Here, I’ll knock a couple bucks off for a full year.

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But slowly building this newsletter out is still thinking pretty small in terms of a healthy media economy in Worcester. Even after all the cuts, the seven reporters at the Telegram make it far and away the largest newsroom in Worcester. We have not found a model better than the daily newspaper for paying journalists to do what journalists do. Print advertising is still a much larger source of revenue on the local level than anything digital has proven to be. And that’s a big problem because the daily newsletter is obviously a sinking ship.

Much to think about! Let me know in the comments if you have any ideas or thoughts on this. Let’s get a discussion going. 

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I’m sure you’ve seen by now that the Greendale Mall may be repurposed or else torn down and replaced by an Amazon Fulfillment Center. I’m going to write about how bad an idea this is over the weekend but for now look at this picture of a fulfillment center and tell me it doesn’t look like a prison. Not to mention the fact working conditions in these places are often called prison-like.

This tweet of mine got a lot of traction and it’s been a while since I substantively wrote about urban design and planning and Worcester’s long track record of mistakes. 

I think that’s something journalists do not spend enough time on so I’m going to spend some time on it soon. Worcester’s weird downtown is a long and complicated story full of failures and light on vision.  

Friendly reminder that the Worcester Regional Transit Authority would do well to make the buses free for a number of reasons including the long track record of urban planning mistakes mentioned above and there is a strong coalition pushing for this and it might actually happen. If it happens, it will be the most left-wing policy decision Worcester has made in a very long time and I hope I didn’t just jinx it by saying that. 

Defund WPD, everyone’s favorite local abolitionists, are going back in time to address the fight outside the Beer Garden and the fact the cops lied about it and instigated it. They’re looking for first hand accounts if anyone’s got one. 

Thank you for reading! If you made it this far you’re a hero this was a long one. Please consider sharing this post to get the word out! 

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And now some news unrelated to journalism in case you care. 

My friends in High Command which is Worcester’s best band right now if you ask me are putting out an EP today on Southern Lord and Triple B Records. I did a few little synth and noise things for it when I was hanging with them at the studio one day.

Also my other band The Honeybees which mostly plays Tom Petty covers recently did a session at the Milford cable access TV studio lol so here’s a video of a song I wrote for that band.