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Will Merger Mean More Cuts at the ABH?

Photo Credit: Michael Rivera

The Athens Banner-Herald could be facing more cuts if, as the Wall Street Journal reported last week, owner GateHouse Media takes over another major newspaper chain, Gannett.

It’s no secret that newspapers are in big trouble and have been for the past decade, and the Columbia Journalism Review reports that a merger could buy the resulting behemoth—which would own 265 dailies with a combined circulation of 8.7 million—a few years to figure out how to make its digital operations profitable. The best-case scenario is readers don’t notice a difference.

Until we know more, at least, it’s perhaps most useful to think of the prospective deal as another worrying symptom of an industry in an increasingly dire state. Readers of the combined company’s papers might not notice any difference, because vaulting editorial ambition is not really the point. “This isn’t about building a digital news juggernaut ready and eager to blaze a new chapter in American journalism… Simply put, these companies’ leaders think a megamerger buys two or three years—‘until we figure it out,’” the “it” here being how to profit off of digital, [Nieman Lab’s Ken] Doctor writes.

While Doctor focuses on the financial aspects of the deal, Rick Edmonds at the Poynter Institute wonders how the merger would affect local journalism. The hedge fund-operated GateHouse, which bought the ABH from Augusta-based Morris Publishing in 2017, has a reputation for ruthless cost-cutting, as local readers saw earlier this year when it laid off award-winning crime reporter Joe Johnson, bringing the newsroom ranks down to eight. That figure includes just two news reporters to cover a circulation area of six counties and a population of over 300,000. Johnson’s ouster followed several previous rounds of layoffs under Morris that included selling off the printing press and moving the copy desk out of town.

Business-side folks could lose their jobs, too. Smaller papers like the ABH are likely to see any cuts that come, while the combined chains protect their larger metro dailies, according to Edmonds.

Both [companies] have sliced operations at smaller titles to the bone, often with newsrooms that number in the single digits. So my hunch is that further deep newsroom cuts as a result of a merger sometime later this year may not be in the offing. But there are important qualifiers. GateHouse, by reputation, does operate more leanly than Gannett. And even once the chains combine, if revenues per property keep declining so will news staffing.

And if news staffing keeps declining, eventually it will disappear entirely.