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They were some of the last journalists at their papers before layoffs

Aug. 29, 2022 Updated Mon., Aug. 29, 2022 at 8:05 p.m.

Gannett – the largest newspaper chain in the country with more than 200 daily newspapers and its flagship publication USA Today – will not disclose how many journalists it laid off earlier this month or which newspapers were impacted.  (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Gannett – the largest newspaper chain in the country with more than 200 daily newspapers and its flagship publication USA Today – will not disclose how many journalists it laid off earlier this month or which newspapers were impacted. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
By Elahe Izadi Washington Post

The only full-time news reporter at the Daily Jeffersonian kept busy until recently. Kristi Garabrandt drove around Guernsey County, Ohio, for three years covering local council meetings and Eagle Scouts, photographing community events and writing a series on drug addiction.

The Daily Jeff, as it’s called locally, has been around since 1824.

“The reality is the community paper is pretty much what holds your community together,” Garabrandt said.

Then came the layoffs.

Earlier this month, the Daily Jeff’s parent company, Gannett, announced a dismal second-quarter.

The company reported a $53.7 million loss on $748.7 million in revenue, as it dealt with inflation and soaring print costs, the CEO said. Employees were warned in an email of “necessary but painful reductions to staffing.”

A week later, Garabrandt became one of at least dozens of Gannett employees who lost their jobs.

It took her off guard.

“When you’re the paper’s only reporter, you don’t consider yourself nonessential,” she said.

Gannett, which also owns the Bremerton-based Kitsap Sun in Washington, will not disclose how many journalists were laid off or which newspapers were impacted.

The nonprofit media institute Poynter and the employee union NewsGuild have tracked at least 70 to 90 newsroom positions eliminated this month, a fraction of Gannett’s total workforce of roughly 13,000.

At some papers, the journalists let go were their newsroom’s only sports editor, photojournalist, customer service representative or, like Garabrandt, full-time news reporter.

In the past, such reductions have meant the work gets spread among remaining staff, freelancers or journalists at other Gannett papers.

The Daily Jeff, for instance, is left with one sports reporter, besides freelance contributions.

Gannett’s chief communications officer, Lark-Marie Antón, said in a statement that the company was forced to take “swift action” in a challenging economy.

“These staffing reductions are incredibly difficult, and we are grateful for the contributions of our departing colleagues,” she said. “Out of deep respect for our colleagues, there is no further comment.”

Newspaper companies have been struggling to find their financial footing with the decline of print advertising.

A recent Northwestern University study predicted one-third of newspapers that existed roughly two decades ago will go extinct by 2025. Another study from the Pew Research Center found some 40,000 newspaper newsroom jobs vanished between 2008 and 2020.

Gannett – the largest newspaper chain in the country with more than 200 daily newspapers and its flagship publication USA Today – had already been shedding jobs.

Its workforce decreased by 35% between 2019 to 2021, although it’s unclear how many of those reductions hit newsrooms, and whether they were because of layoffs, attrition or other reasons.

The company has also sold some papers back to local owners. Gannett’s local reporters have nevertheless produced consequential journalism, such as a recent child rape case in Ohio that made national headlines.

“This is really important because they own a fifth of local papers,” said Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds. “The potential loss here should this situation get worse is enormous.”

During reporter and editor Darrel Rowland’s 31 years at the Columbus Dispatch, he worked on stories that have led to the resignation of an Ohio attorney general; two wrongly-convicted men walking free; and the state admitting to improperly withholding $40 million in child support payments to single parents.

“I can point to laws that were changed because of our reporting,” said Rowland, who lost his job this month. “How do people find out what their elected officials are up to?

“How are they finding out how their tax money is being spent? To me, (these) are the basic, fundamental questions and one of the fundamental reasons for journalism to exist.”

Rowland has seen his paper shrink from 200 employees to 70, and eliminate its statehouse bureau and rely instead on a centralized Gannett bureau that feeds stories to all Ohio papers, effectively making local papers less local.

He also said a job offer was rescinded from an intern who went to a non-Gannett paper in Utah and won a Pulitzer Prize two years later.

Now, Rowland worries whether newspapers have the resources and expertise to dig through millions of records the way he and others did on consequential stories, like inflated prescription drug prices.

“We need good journalism and good journalists. I wish I were part of it for the paper I worked at for so long. I still want that paper to succeed and the readers to have the benefit of having good journalism.”

During this month’s earnings call, Gannett CEO Michael Reed cited a challenging economic environment and more readers dropping pricier print subscriptions.

Reductions and selling off its real estate holdings, he said, were necessary for Gannett to create a more sustainable business. The company carries $1.3 billion in debt from a 2019 merger.

Some employees say more should be done to invest in newsrooms. Unions in particular have criticized a new stock buyback program; Gannett spent $3.1 million in the second quarter repurchasing stock.

While Gannett’s digital business has grown – paid subscriptions increased by 35% in the last year – it hasn’t been enough to make up the loss of print revenue, said Edmonds.

Gannett laid off other longtime journalists in the latest round of cuts, such as photojournalist Don Shrubshell, who has been at Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri since 1998. He was inducted into the Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame the day before he was laid off from his job, according to the Maryville Forum.

According to the Record-Courier News Guild, their paper’s managing editor was laid off; the Times-Reporter lost its only sports editor/writer; and the Chillicothe Gazette lost its only photojournalist.

Since May, Zachariah Chou, 24, had been the only Gannett employee managing opinion content full-time for all of Georgia.

Before he lost his job this month, Chou fact-checked letters to the editor and helped residents get their opinions on local, state and national issues published in a newspaper.

“It was the community’s billboard,” he said. “There’s a lot of really, really great reported opinion journalism about community issues, and I think those will continue to an extent. It’s just that no one is going to be dedicated to it.”

Gannett also has been paring back its opinion pages nationally, with executives arguing they alienated readers and weren’t widely read.

Community leaders are worried about the fate of their local papers.

During his 15 years as mayor of Cambridge, Ohio, Tom Orr has seen the Daily Jeff shrink its staff, cut back on printed papers and publish photos from faraway communities.

“I love this town and I don’t like to see it suffer, and that’s what this is causing it to do, suffer,” he said.

In nearby Byesville, Ohio, village administrator Brennan Dudley said even though their council meetings are public, “we count on the Jeffersonian to provide that much information” to the community.

Some laid-off journalists immediately began looking for new jobs, such as Garabrandt, 50, who is her family’s primary income provider.

She has been in journalism for about 10 years and especially loves upbeat stories.

“Many of us, as you know, live for the job,” she said. “In a world gone mad, I call myself a good-news girl.I think there needs to be more good news put out there.”

Chou, who had been working remotely while living with his parents in Texas, was offered a reporting position at Gannett after his job was eliminated, but it would have required him to relocate to Savannah, Georgia, something he said was not feasible.

And Rowland, the longtime Ohio journalist, still wants to write accountability stories that lead to lasting change. At 67, he’s nearing retirement age.

But, as he said: “I just feel like God has some more stories in these fingers of mine.”

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