Back in January, media types blogged and tweeted their witticisms when a memo sent by Quincy Patriot Ledger and Brockton Enterprise Publisher Chazy Dowaliby leaked. “We will no longer be able to supply coffee service in our newsrooms,” Dowaliby told her employees. “We will not be able to provide paper plates, plastic cutlery, cups or napkins. We will not be replacing general office supplies in the short term.”
No coffee? No notebooks? You call that a newsroom?
But it’s not funny, it’s grim. It’s another worrisome cough from the deathbed of local journalism in Massachusetts.
GateHouse Media Inc., which owns not only The Patriot Ledger and The Enterprise but six more dailies and more than 100 weeklies in Greater Boston, is teetering on collapse. To try and stave off the collapse, it is shedding reporters and editors.
AOL Corp.’s Patch local news websites have stopped hiring an editor for every one of its communities — many local Patch sites haven’t had editors for months.
Tim Armstrong, AOL’s CEO, said March 7 that Patch reaches 9 percent of the population of the U.S. and that he expects, after years of Patch losing money, that it will be profitable by the end of this year. It may indeed become profitable, but only by dramatically reducing the amount of local news it covers.
GateHouse continues to lose about $25 million a year and can’t borrow money because its credit rating was downgraded to below-investment grade five years ago. The company’s stock is trading for 6 cents a share on an over-the-counter market.
The Wall Street Journal reported on March 25 that GateHouse will likely enter into bankruptcy and attempt to restructure, probably within the next month or so.
Here’s what that all means: There’s a good chance both Patch and GateHouse will go out of business within the next two years, and an excellent chance both will continue to cut jobs.
Patch has pretty much abandoned the “hyperlocal” journalism that, when AOL Inc. bought Patch four years ago, was supposed to be its reason for existence and its business model.
I live in Brookline and have been following the Brookline Patch website and its Twitter account since it came to town. Several months ago the editor of Brookline Patch — Patch editors are a one-person news organization — moved to another Patch town and has never been replaced. Most Brookline Patch stories carry the byline of a writer listed as working for the Fenway/Kenmore Patch.
A couple of years ago Brookline Patch did a least some accountability journalism, the coverage of town government for which local journalism is known. With no staff in Brookline, Patch now posts and tweets the police log (which the police department also does), press releases, State House stories, five-paragraph local features that involve one interview, regional stories and lists.
In the month of March, Brookline Patch did not run a single story about town government — no coverage of the Board of Selectmen, the School Committee, or the Town Meeting committees. Instead readers got “Best Places to Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Brookline.”
There’s not much reason to hope Patch can turn it around. The company continues to provide less staff-generated local news and rely more on what is known in today’s lingo as “user engagement” sites — that means readers are expected to provide the content.
Sarah Lacy, the editor-in-chief of the website PandoDaily, wrote in January: “So Patch is going from a bad version of something the journalism world desperately needs to something no one needs — more community message boards.”
GateHouse Media’s paper and website in Brookline has still two full-time staffers covering the town and they do much more substantial coverage of town government than Patch. But how much longer can the company affords two staffers in one community?
Here’s an even more crucial question: How much longer can GateHouse stay in business?
The best those of us in Eastern Massachusetts who care about local news can wish for is that when GateHouse declares bankruptcy, probably in late 2014, either a more financially sound corporation buys the papers or GateHouse breaks up its Massachusetts cluster and sells the papers in smaller groups.
Perhaps some entrepreneurs, when the hole left in the market by the collapse of GateHouse and Patch opens up, will step up and take the substantial risks involved in creating new community news ventures. Warren Buffett believes there’s money to be made in local news.
In a letter to shareholders of his company, Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett wrote: “Newspapers continue to reign supreme, however, in the delivery of local news. If you want to know what’s going on in your town — whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football — there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job.”
Our best hope in greater Boston may be a bunch of Buffett wannabes starting community newspapers and community news websites. When the big corporations fail, the field is cleared for start-ups.