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Gannett and GateHouse merger changes the media landscape in Florida - column

Tampa Bay Times is one of the last remaining independent, single-owner newsrooms in the state.
Two of the country's largest newspaper companies announced Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, that they have agreed to combine in the latest media deal driven by the industry's struggles with a decline of printed editions. GateHouse Media, a chain backed by an investment firm, is buying USA Today owner Gannett Co. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
Published Aug. 6
Updated Aug. 6

To read this article in Spanish, click here.

The media universe shifted dramatically this week when the two largest newspaper chains in the United States announced they would merge.

The proposed union of GateHouse Media and Gannett brings together more than 260 daily newspapers, including USA Today, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Austin American Statesman, the Detroit Free Press and the Columbus Dispatch.

It’s a profound example of an industry trend: the consolidation of media companies to achieve economies of scale.

If approved, the impact will be huge in Florida. The merged company would own 20 daily newspapers around the state. They include the Palm Beach Post, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, The Gainesville Sun, the Naples Daily News, Tallahassee Democrat and Florida Today.

What does all this mean? It means that news is becoming more and more homogenized. Expect more newspapers and websites in Florida to look the same. Watch for more clusters of newsrooms to be run by regional editors, in some cases hundreds of miles away and with a distant understanding of each local market. Brace for more announcements about layoffs and cuts.

It also means that independent, single-ownership daily newspapers like the Tampa Bay Times are becoming increasingly rare.

In a chain, newspapers can share costs. On the business side, accounting, administration and technology become more centralized. On the news side, hubs of workers lay out pages for entire groups of newspapers that once featured their own creative design teams. Copy editors — reservoirs of institutional knowledge — are no longer familiar with their audience because they live somewhere else.

A lot of excellent journalism still happens at chain-owned newspapers. And proponents of mergers argue that they extend the lifespan of beleaguered news brands. But you’re also likely to see more important strategic decisions for those newsrooms made thousands of miles away. That includes how many reporters and photographers each can deploy and how many editors will guide the news coverage.

And there you have it: Economies of scale.

Ten years ago, I stopped outside a train station in the San Francisco Bay Area, near where I grew up as a kid in a once vibrant news landscape. I peered into the news racks on the street corner. The Contra Costa Times, San Jose Mercury News and Oakland Tribune — all then owned by the same company — had newspaper boxes next to one another. Their front pages were virtually identical. Same headlines. Same type styles. Same photographs. Only the nameplates differed. The distinctive look and feel of these newspapers had been long sucked away. Later, I worked in a West Coast newsroom where customer service had been outsourced to workers in the South. Their accents, and unfamiliarity with the product, made the newspaper seem more distant to subscribers.

Here’s what you should know about the Tampa Bay Times. Life is not easy. Our financial challenges are real. We need subscribers in print and online. Advertisers, too. We also keep a sharp eye on expenses. But we are locally owned and locally made by people who live here and are connected to our communities. We don’t send our work to distant places. We do it all here.

Nelson Poynter was the last individual to own the Times. He was a visionary who could see the growth of newspaper chains and took pains to keep the Times from becoming part of one. He created a school for journalists — now named the Poynter Institute — that could inherit the Times and keep it independent long after he died. That was 41 years ago.

Nelson Poynter was the last individual owner of the then-St. Petersburg Times.

We call the shots about our budget. We make every decision about the stories you’ll read or hear about. When we make mistakes, there’s no one else to blame.

Our CEO and Chairman Paul Tash works in the building — not thousands of miles away in a skyscraper. Our digital producers and designers are located in a pod of desks in the middle of our newsroom, just a few feet from our newspaper design team. In the next pod over, our copy editors carefully read behind stories about places they know intimately. All these journalists are surrounded by local reporters, editors and photographers on the perpetual hunt to bring you more local news. And when you have a delivery problem, the people who answer your phone calls or emails are right here in St. Petersburg.

It’s not about economies of scale for us.

Mr. Poynter referred to newspaper publishing as “a sacred trust.” To modern ears, that may sound a bit corny, but it still rings true to us. Our mission is to give you complete and lively coverage of this community — the only home we know.

You can reach the writer at mkatches@tampabay.com or follow on Twitter at @markkatches.

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