By Thom Fladung/Hennes Communications
Ohio’s biggest political scandal also has become the prime opportunity for Ohio’s newest, biggest newspaper company to show its stuff.
Gannett Ohio was formed last November with the completion of the $1.2 billion merger of newspaper companies GateHouse and Gannett, forming the country’s largest newspaper company by far and creating a media organization with unprecedented reach in Ohio.
You may not be familiar with either parent company. But if you live in Ohio, there’s a more than decent chance you’re familiar with the work of its journalists. Gannett Ohio controls 21 daily and 30-plus weekly newspapers, including mainstays like the Akron Beacon Journal, the Repository in Canton, the Columbus Dispatch and the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Now, with the FBI bribery investigation involving former House speaker Larry Householder and utility giant First Energy, Gannett Ohio is flexing its statewide reporting muscle. This could support the theory behind the merger that marshaling the resources of reporters and editors spread across one state and now joined in one company can better serve readers – and provide a ray of light and hope in the financially beleaguered news industry.
It also means that if you or your organization become the subject of news coverage – a concern for many of our clients – stories that may once have been isolated to one community are more likely to get widespread exposure. And if that sounds like bad news to you, remember that clients who embrace the opportunity to tell the truth and have their side of the story heard may be able to get that story to more people.
“We can cover a lot of ground,” said Alan Miller, executive editor of the Columbus Dispatch and regional editor for Gannett Ohio’s 21 dailies. “And we do.”
To be sure, the merger brought with it more pain in a shrinking industry. As of 2018, Ohio had 32% fewer newspapers than it did in 2004, according to University of North Carolina researchers. From 2012 to 2018, Ohio’s newspaper journalists declined by 43%, according to Policy Matters Ohio. That means fewer reporters covering city council meetings and school boards or taking photos at high school games.
And with the merger, Gannett Ohio almost immediately announced $300 million in annual additional cuts. More journalists lost jobs – to say nothing of the people who worked to print and deliver the newspapers. That now decades-long trend has been well chronicled, as newspapers have struggled with a shattered business model that once relied on advertising revenue from retail stores that no longer exist and help wanted ads taken over by websites like Indeed, Monster and dozens more. Reliable readers who once automatically signed up for subscriptions now get their news by going to Google, Twitter or clicking links on Facebook – none of which employ reporters or do any original news reporting. The news outlets paying the reporters who write the stories behind those links still struggle to figure out how to make that translate to revenue in the new media world. The term “news desert” became familiar as newspapers closed and communities were left with no local news outlet.
Gannett Ohio offers a glimpse of a different future – for the surviving journalists and the readers who need reliable reporting more than ever. The Ohio Statehouse scandal provides an object lesson in how it’s supposed to work.
Miller talks about how the reporting pieces fit for the story. The statehouse reporting teams of the Columbus Dispatch and Cincinnati Enquirer are in prime position to cover the politics. First Energy is based in Akron, home to the Beacon Journal, covering the business angle. And Miller points to the “community aspect” of Householder living in Perry County – with three Gannett Ohio papers in close proximity.
So, readers across the state got the story when the Gannett Ohio editors decided that Beacon Journal reporter Amanda Garrett should anchor a four-part series that dug into the 81 pages of charging documents produced by the FBI investigation of Householder and his cohorts’ alleged efforts to enrich themselves and get First Energy a deal that would save the company’s two nuclear energy plants.
In the old newspaper world, at least several of the different newspapers now in the Gannett Ohio fold would have taken on that same story, each assigning its own reporter. In the new world of Gannett Ohio, one reporter covered it and then it was shared with potentially hundreds of thousands of readers on the company’s websites and in print editions.
In the early days of the merger, Miller described the goal: “We are stronger and better when we work together in reporting topics that have broad appeal and a significant effect on the lives of most Ohioans,” he said.
It isn’t easy, though, marshalling those resources, particularly among newspapers that once competed for stories and still have newsrooms filled with headstrong editors and reporters.
“It’s hard to let go of that,” Miller said. “But there’s also tremendous mutual respect. I heard one of the editors say they’re really glad they don’t have to compete against all these guys because they’re really good.” Still, he said, editors retain local control. “We don’t dictate somebody has to run a story. Those editors know their markets.”
But he also added, “It’s a delight to know we don’t have to write the same story in three or four different markets.”
Competition also remains. Even as Gannett Ohio has thrown waves of reporters at the Statehouse story, cleveland.com, which includes The Plain Dealer, and the Toledo Blade broke big news out of the scandal, including identifying the man who wore the FBI wire.
The Gannett Ohio approach is in its very early stages. “On a business level, we’re still knitting together two companies,” Miller said. Important steps like getting all the Gannett Ohio newsrooms on the same computer system remain. Simply keeping everyone across the many newsrooms aware of what each is doing is a challenge. “We talk every day with editors from all the newsrooms,” Miller said. “We share information on an hourly basis when news is breaking.” The idea, he said, is that “a story from any paper can show up on every website when news is breaking.”
And that includes the nationally distributed USA Today – the flagship Gannett newspaper.
That fact should be invigorating for journalists whose potential readership is expanded exponentially. It’s intriguing for news junkies who worry how reliable, independent news can survive. And it should be sobering for anyone planning to sit on bad news and depending on three fallacies: the bad news will go away; there won’t be a journalist to report on it and even if one does nobody reads any more.
Bad news rarely goes away; if it’s interesting news, someone will find it and report it; with print and digital readership combined, most news outlets have many more readers. And approaches like Gannett Ohio mean that story could be more widely read than ever before.
Thom Fladung is managing partner of Hennes Communications. Over a 33-year newspaper career, he worked at some of the newspapers mentioned here, including the Akron Beacon Journal, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and The Repository in Canton. He can be reached at [email protected] and 216-213-5196.