MY TURN: 'OK' is a loaded term for those in news business


In the business world, it has been said that there are two great lies.

At the top, of course, is the timeless assertion that "the check is in the mail."

A very close second, employees around the globe have sadly discovered, is the promise that "everything will be OK after the merger."

As someone who has survived (somewhat barely) several newspaper mergers, I can attest to the fact that "OK" is a relative term, framed mostly by a desire to immediately trim payroll and assorted other expenses for the sake of enhanced profitability.

Employees at several northern Michigan newspapers recently found out the hard way about this basic business reality when word came from on high that their printing and production facilities would be shuttered by the end of January. The announcement, which came fresh after the holidays, spells the end of various printing and production jobs at The Petoskey News-Review, The Charlevoix Courier, and The Gaylord Herald Times. Their printing and production work soon will be done in Detroit.

The three newspapers were part of the GateHouse Media group, which acquired publishing giant Gannett for a reported $1.13 billion two months ago. Gannett, of course, is the owner of USA Today, The Detroit Free Press, and more than 100 other dailies across the country. The merged companies now operate under the Gannett name.

"Together, we will be stronger, with a more viable path to growth for our shareholders and employees, while sustaining journalism in hundreds of markets across the country and enhancing the services we provide to small and midsized businesses nationally," said Michael Reed, then chairman and CEO of the Gatehouse group, in announcing the merger in mid-November. "We are extremely excited upon this new chapter together as the new Gannett."

The folks on Wall Street may have been cheering, but it's doubtful that anyone in the newspaper trenches was celebrating the fact of an as yet undetermined number of jobs going bye-bye.

Some 20 years ago when I headed a group of five weekly newspapers, I was assigned the task of laying off a dozen production and circulation workers in the first of many cost-saving moves. Most of those pink-slipped were part-time employees working nights and weekends. Virtually all held full time jobs elsewhere and moonlighted in the newspaper business to help pay the monthly bills.

The parting was especially painful to those who had labored long and hard at the company, watching it grow from a mom-and-pop operation to a publishing and printing success story in the five communities that it served. On that day, as we assembled to dole out the bad news, tears were shed, tales from happier times were told, and many left the meeting wondering "Will everything be OK?"

That, of course, is a question that has been dogging the newspaper business since the digital age arrived, laying waste to hundreds of papers across the country and eliminating thousands of once secure jobs.

Those community weeklies where I once worked are all long gone, victims of penny-pinching conglomerates that took pride in cutting staff to the bone and then sucking the marrow out of the papers instead of reinvesting in them.

Will the "new" Gannett do the same? In announcing the consolidation of its printing and production operations from Petoskey to Detroit, company officials relied on the time-honored bromide that the "associated cost savings" will "allow papers to preserve vital journalism jobs and invest in new products."

Please watch as that story unfolds.

Published: Fri, Jan 17, 2020