Longtime readers of the Register-Guard were shocked earlier this year to learn their hometown, family-owned newspaper was sold to GateHouse Media. KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert wanted to find out more about how the new corporate owner operates and what other changes may be in store for The Register-Guard.
Gatehouse publishes 144 daily newspapers across the country. In the name of “efficiency” they outsource the work of editing and page and ad design to a center in Austin, Texas. Shortly after GateHouse bought The Register-Guard, the company began laying off copy editors. So far, eight have left.
I wanted to know the impact of these layoffs but none of the former Register-Guard editors felt safe to speak on the record. In order to receive their severance pay, each employee had to sign a “non-disparagement” agreement. As one copy editor told me, “I’d love to talk but I need to get paid.” So, I decided to take a look at my home town newspaper in Columbia, Missouri and found a fellow with plenty of experience with GateHouse Media.
”Hi, I’m Chip Price. I used to be the Copy Chief at the Columbia Daily Tribune. I worked there for 25 years and copy chief for 18-19 years of that. My work involved everything from editing to writing headlines to designing pages.”
The Columbia Daily Tribune was a family-owned paper for over 100 years. The Waters family sold it to GateHouse in 2016.
“They announced the first cuts. The first round was the copy desk, which I was in charge of,” Price says. “There were 6 of us, basically 5 of them were let go. And I remained, I was salaried and so I took on the work of everybody who left.”
Price says his daily paper was “put through the Gatehouse templates” meaning it was changed to look like all the other papers they own—including The Register-Guard. Price considered page design to be an art form and he was good at it. Efficient. Clean.
“And now all of a sudden I had to send my instructions for the page to Austin,” says Price. “The designers were largely young fresh out of school. No knock on them. But often times the pages didn’t look like I was hoping they would look.”
Back in Missouri, Price knew that the Texan designing his pages on any given day might also be working on pages for a paper in Alaska or Michigan or Colorado. He says typos were common, which is the definition of frustration for a copy editor. Price says he was working 12 to 14 hour days.
“It was just miserable.”
After 5 months, Price quit. He says attrition comes with GateHouse acquisitions.
After multiple rounds of layoffs at the Columbia Daily Tribune, the community started noticing the changes in the paper.
“The loss of local content,” Price says. “That was the most obvious change.”
Subscriptions fell. GateHouse installed a company man as Managing Editor and in June of 2017, he wrote a column to Daily Tribune readers.
“I could read you a couple excerpts from it, Price offers. “He said, ‘Columbia will get the newspaper it’s willing to pay for, it’s that simple. Quality journalism is an investment and like any investment, you don’t always see your return immediately.’
And Price says,“to that I would say he was talking to people who had been investing in the Tribune for years and years, maybe decades. And they were seeing a sharp decline in their return.”
Price stopped taking the paper and says he now watches TV news.
GateHouse Media most recently filed for bankruptcy in 2013. They restructured their debt and went back to acquiring locally-based newspapers at a rapid rate. They also dissolve papers, or assets as they are called.
If Price has any advice for Register-Guard readers if would be to hope for the best.
“Maybe hope that GateHouse has learned from this, says Price. “Somehow I think Columbia might have been their worst experience. But maybe it’s been this bad in other places.”
Price says he’s not a business savvy guy but having experienced an acquisition much like The Register-Guard’s, he has strong opinions about GateHouse Media.
“They are there to create value for the shareholder,” he says, “and not there to provide value for the community.”
Before we hung up the phone, Chip Price told me “you wouldn’t recognize your hometown paper now. And that’s too bad.”