Hundreds of journalists for Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain walked off the job on Monday, accusing the company’s chief executive of decimating its local newsrooms, and demanding a change at the top.
The walkout was the biggest labor action in Gannett’s century-old history, the union representing the journalists said. It included workers from about two dozen newsrooms, including the Palm Beach Post, the Arizona Republic and the Austin American-Statesman. The demonstrations were expected to continue on Tuesday for some newsrooms.
The collective action was timed to coincide with Gannett’s annual shareholder meeting on Monday. The NewsGuild, which represents more than 1,000 journalists from Gannett, sent a letter to Gannett shareholders in May urging a vote of no-confidence against Mike Reed, the chief executive and chairman.
In the letter, the NewsGuild criticized the company’s merger with GateHouse Media in 2019, saying it “mortgaged the future of our company” by loading it up with debt.
The letter also criticized Reed, who was previously the CEO of GateHouse Media and took over Gannett after the merger. The union said his compensation – $7.7 million in 2021 and $3.4 million in 2022 – was far too high for a company shedding jobs and paying what the letter said were “depressed wages” to the remaining journalists. Gannett’s share price has fallen about 70% since the GateHouse merger.
“Gannett has created news deserts everywhere you look,” said Peter D. Kramer, a reporter for the USA Today Network. “That’s Mike Reed’s Gannett.”
Kramer, who is based in Westchester County, New York, said that some Gannett reporters had to take second jobs to supplement their salaries, or they simply left the profession altogether.
Lark-Marie Anton, a Gannett spokesperson, said in a statement that while the company disagreed with the recommendation to oust Reed, “Gannett remains committed to our shareholder engagement process and takes all feedback seriously.”
“During a very challenging time for our industry and economy, Gannett strives to provide competitive wages, benefits and meaningful opportunities for all our valued employees,” Anton said. “Our leadership is focused on investing in local newsrooms and monetizing our content as we continue to negotiate fairly and in good faith with the NewsGuild.”
Anton said there would be no disruption to Gannett’s news coverage during the work stoppage this week.
At the meeting on Monday, shareholders voted to retain Gannett’s board of directors, including Reed. Susan DeCarava, president of the NewsGuild of New York, described the result as a “slap in the face” to the striking journalists.
Anton declined to comment on the meeting.
Gannett became the largest newspaper publisher in the United States after its merger with GateHouse, a deal that the companies said at the time would result in annual cost savings of up to $300 million and help them survive the headwinds battering the news media industry.
The merged company, which took the Gannett name, owns USA Today and more than 200 daily newspapers in 43 states, though it has closed dozens of publications since the 2019 deal.
Like many other publishers of local news, Gannett has struggled with declining revenue from advertising and print circulation. The debt load from its merger with GateHouse has also weighed on the company. When reporting its first-quarter earnings this year, Gannett said it had $1.2 billion in outstanding debt.
It has tried to service the debt with a string of widespread cost-cutting measures in the past year, including laying off about 6% of its roughly 3,440-person media division in December. According to securities filings, Gannett’s workforce has been almost halved since November 2019.
The NewsGuild said the Austin American-Statesman’s newsroom had 41 employees this year, down from 110 in 2018. In that same period, the Arizona Republic’s newsroom in Phoenix had shrunk to 89 workers from 140, while the Milwaukee Sentinel had been cut to 82 from 104. (Anton from Gannett disputed the NewsGuild’s accounting for the Arizona Republic and said the newsroom currently had closer to 125 workers, “including positions we’re recruiting for.”)
“You have communities that go uncovered, and when things go uncovered it allows people to abuse their positions,” said Kaitlyn Kanzler, a reporter for NorthJersey.com and the Record in northern New Jersey.
Jon Schleuss, the president of the NewsGuild, said in a statement that Reed “doesn’t care one bit about a long-term strategy to invest in the company by investing in journalists.”
“They need support and resources to make sure our communities have the local news needed to keep our democracy thriving,” Schleuss said. “Instead, Reed’s singular focus has been on stuffing his own pockets.”
Gannett said this year that it had surpassed 2 million digital-only subscriptions. In its first-quarter earnings report for 2023, Gannett said it had generated $10.3 million in profit, compared with a loss of $3 million a year earlier, and projected revenue of $2.75 billion to $2.8 billion for the year.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.