The Gannett Company, owners of USA Today and 107 other daily papers in the U.S., became the proprietors of the Memphis Commercial Appeal last Friday. The CA purchase was part of a $280 million deal that included the Milwaukee Journal, the Knoxville News Sentinel, and 30 other dailies and weeklies. Gannett now owns the principal newspaper in many major cities, including Louisville, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Detroit, Des Moines, Phoenix, and Nashville.
Over at 495 Union, the official response was upbeat. CA publisher George Cogswell wrote: "Please know The Commercial Appeal, commercialappeal.com, and our digital apps are still your locally produced, hometown sources of news. Same staff. Same leadership. Same focus on issues important to Memphis. Still part of this city's heartbeat. Only stronger."
I hope he's right, but Gannett's track record says otherwise.
Writer Jim Hopkins worked for Gannett for 20 years. Since he left the company in 2010, he's reported extensively on their methodology and corporate culture. Last summer, Hopkins told Milwaukee journalist Bruce Murphy that between 2008 and 2012, Gannett reduced total employment at its newspapers from 45,000 jobs to 25,000 jobs.
More from Murphy's story: "Gannett ... uses large scale and centralized operations to cut costs. ... It buys newsprint and office supplies in bulk for all papers, has a few regional customer service centers to replace all the newspaper circulation departments, has giant page production hubs which include centralized copy editing, has cookie-cutter websites for each newspaper (for ease of selling ads nationally), and installs a similar editorial approach at every newspaper.
"Typically a newspaper's publisher and editor are replaced to facilitate all the change." Ouch.
I hope that doesn't happen. I think the CA has improved greatly under editor Louis Graham. And after weathering several rounds of layoffs over the past decade or more, it's again become a reliable and readable paper, with a number of excellent columnists and reporters.
Gannett papers use USA Today stories for national and international news, which will be a departure from the wire services the CA currently uses, but the big issue is how much of a commitment the new bosses will make to sustain local coverage.
Will they keep the voices readers have grown familiar with? Will they refrain from further reducing reporting staff? Again, I fervently hope so. Every city needs a strong and vital daily newspaper.
The Flyer wouldn't be the same without our familiar bylines: Jackson Baker, Bianca Phillips, Chris Davis, Toby Sells, Chris McCoy, Chris Shaw, Susan Ellis, to name a few — even that editor guy who writes this column. Readers want continuity and familiarity; they learn to trust writers and columnists whose names they know.
We are committed to being relentlessly local in our focus, and we appreciate the support we get from our readers — those who pick up our papers (at a 93 percent rate) each week, and the hundreds of thousands who visit memphisflyer.com each month. We also owe a huge debt of gratitude to those advertisers who use us to fuel their businesses, and who support us (literally) and keep this locally owned alternative voice alive and kicking. It takes a village (or a medium-sized city) to make it all work, and we're truly grateful.
Meanwhile, let's hope the CA's corporate overlords handle their Memphis acquisition with respect for its traditions, culture, institutional knowledge — and its "heartbeat" — namely, its readers and employees.