The Pueblo Chieftain got another haircut recently when new owner GateHouse Media clipped two more people from its shrinking newsroom staff.
The Chieftain wasn’t the only paper hit: Media giant GateHouse sidelined about 200 of its 11,000 workers across the country on May 23 in what the company called “a small restructuring,” according to the Poynter Institute. It was just GateHouse’s latest layoff.
Chieftain publisher Lee Bachlet referred questions to GateHouse’s parent, New Media, which didn’t respond to questions in writing by the Independent’s press time. But Mike Reed, CEO of GateHouse’s parent New Media Investment Group, wrote a memo to staffers obtained by Poynter saying the layoff would “give us resources to invest in doing more, not less, quality local journalism and investigative journalism” and that “the cornerstone to our company is our employees and strong local journalism.”
Tell that to Chieftain newsroom employees, who number 18 today, compared to 30 when GateHouse bought the state’s oldest surviving daily newspaper in May 2018. Staff reduction came through layoffs and voluntary departures over the last year, says Luke Lyons, bargaining unit chair of the Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America union.
- Courtesy Luke Lyons
- Luke Lyons will soon expand his role.
The latest reduction swept away business editor Dennis Darrow, with the Chieftain for more than 12 years, and Mike Spence, who covered the Olympics and sports for the Colorado Springs Gazette for years and wrote religion and feature stories for the Pueblo paper for 12 years. Spence, 66, took a “deal to retire now,” though he didn’t want to leave, Lyons says.
While the loss of two people doesn’t sound like much, Lyons notes “The newsroom is down to nine [reporters].” Nine others work as editors, photographers and clerks.
Fed up with cutbacks and layoffs, the union, which represents about 40 workers in news, advertising, circulation and sales, is fighting back. While it’s barred from a “work stoppage,” it plans to stage a demonstration at noon on June 13. “We’ll picket and have other local unions come support us,” Lyons says.
But the union is fighting back against one of the largest newspaper conglomerates in the country, at a time when massive cutbacks are the norm in newsrooms.
The news business continues to suffer nationwide, due largely to a shift toward digital news sources. Newsroom employment took a dive from 114,000 in 2008 to 88,000 in 2017, a drop of 23 percent, driven largely by newspaper declines, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 45% over the period, from about 71,000 workers in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017,” Pew reports.
Over the years, major layoffs have struck the Colorado Springs Gazette and The Denver Post. The latter is now owned by Alden Global Capital, which is known to practice vulture capitalism with its newspapers, pumping profits and driving down costs until a company is no longer viable. Denver’s oldest newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, closed in 2009.
GateHouse, which owns 156 daily newspapers and 464 community publications in 39 states, is considered one of the largest publishers of locally based media in the country.
In Colorado, besides the Chieftain, GateHouse owns the daily La Junta Tribune Democrat, and three weeklies, Ag Journal (La Junta), the Bent County Democrat (Las Animas) and the Fowler Tribune.
It purchased the Chieftain in 2018 from the Star-Journal Publishing Corp., controlled by the Bob Rawlings family, whose ownership dated to 1918. Bob Rawlings died in 2017 at age 92.
Based in Pittsford, New York, GateHouse has gobbled up dozens of newspapers in recent years. The May 23 layoff is the company’s second this year; 60 people were laid off company-wide after GateHouse paid $30 million in January for 33 publications owned by Schurz Communications, according to media reports.
On May 2, GateHouse’s parent company reported a 2019 first quarter net loss of $9.1 million on total revenue of $387.6 million.
Now, GateHouse is eying a merger with Gannett Co., according to The Wall Street Journal. Gannett also is in talks with others, including Tribune Publishing Co. and McClatchy Co. The Journal reported a merger could help the companies “bulk up and trim costs to better weather the brutal environment for local newspapers around the country.”
A merged GateHouse-Gannett would be first in the nation for number of titles and circulation. GateHouse stands second behind Gannett in U.S. circulation, The Journal reported.
At the Chieftain, staff loss has been steady. On May 31, Peter Roper, with the paper nearly three decades, retired. That slot will be filled with an entry level reporter, at $13.41 per hour, Lyons says.
The union has worked without a contract since a year ago, because GateHouse rejected the existing pact, Lyons says.
GateHouse has refused to accept scheduled pay hikes, which Lyons says increased reporters’ pay by 60 cents an hour every six months, instead favoring a shift to merit pay — a point Lyons predicts will be the most contentious issue in the ongoing contract talks. Under the previous deal, reporters earned up to $20.50 per hour, though some negotiated higher pay in years prior to the sale to GateHouse, he says.
GateHouse has stated in internal communications with employees it’s committed to continuing and improving local and community news, Lyons says, noting he hasn’t seen a long- or short-term plan to accomplish those goals.
A graduate of Colorado State University-Pueblo with a degree in mass communications, Lyons, 32, covers arts, entertainment, health and fitness. “Now, with those [two reporters] leaving,” he says, “I’ll be doing business and religion. My beat just got a bit bigger.”
Lyons says he’s heard from readers that the paper isn’t the Chieftain they’ve read their whole lives — its page count has declined slightly — but that doesn’t quell his enthusiasm for his job.
“I love Pueblo and still want to cover Pueblo and very much am committed to journalism,” he says.
An employee put the paper’s circulation at approximately 30,000. Lyons reports the paper publishes about 25,000 copies a day and has about 7,000 online subscriptions.