CAPE COD, AMERICA – Hey y’all, the copy editing and design department of the Cape Cod Times will soon move to Texas. As Texas Governor Rick Perry once famously said, “Oops.”
“I understand the whole bottom line thing,” said former Times reporter Paula Peters who was among a group of people who, on March 29, started a Facebook page, “Keep Local News Local” protesting the Cape Cod Times newsroom job moves to a location 2,000 miles away. “But the news product has been so diminished on Cape Cod…. this is disloyal to their readership.”
According to a summary post by administrators launching the Facebook page, “31 people, including 26 newsroom employees (writers, editors, designers, photographers) have lost their jobs at the Cape Cod Times since the paper was purchased last fall by GateHouse Media.” Gatehouse Media is headquartered in Fairport, New York. The Facebook page had 300 “Likes” in its first six days.
The loss in staff, and coverage, had already concerned many. And then in March, Gatehouse announced it was moving 14 newsroom positions, the copy editing and design department, to Austin, Texas.
“It really hit me with the news that the copy desk is moving to Texas,” said former Cape Cod Times copy editor Diana Kenney, who also is in the group that started the Facebook page. “It just struck me as absurd.”
“I just can’t imagine the first time a copy editor in Texas comes across a story on quahogs,” said James Kershner, former Sunday Editor of the Times, who went on to be a Professor of Journalism at Cape Cod Community College. “They won’t even have the slightest idea what quahogs are. It’s outrageous that someone in Texas is going to edit the Cape Cod Times.”
A source inside the Cape Cod Times newsroom said that, while the department itself will move, four full-time copy editors will stay on in Massachusetts, two in Hyannis and two in New Bedford at the Cape Cod Times sister-paper, the New Bedford Standard Times. Primary copy editing will be done in state, said the source. However, said the source, the paper will be designed 100 percent in Texas. All final copy editing, including headline writing and cutlines for photos will be done in Texas, said the source.
Headlines, of course, are often the only thing a reader actually reads for some stories. Headlines are certainly the first thing they read. Headlines set the tone for the story. Bad headlines, or worse, inaccurate headlines, can destroy an impeccably-reported story. And reporters often get blamed for bad headlines.
In a press release announcing the Design Center, David Arkin, Gatehouse Media Vice President of Content & Audience said, “Austin is really the center of activity in Texas, and we believe it’s a terrific location to attract top talent for our company.”
And, in that same press release, Dave Porter, senior Vice President of Economic Development for the Austin Chamber, said, “The Austin Chamber and Opportunity Austin are delighted that Gatehouse Media has decided to launch its new design center in Austin.”
The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce was not mentioned in the press release. Wendy Northcross, CEO of the Cape Chamber, did not return Cape Cod Wave’s call on this story.
Cape Cod Times Editor Paul Pronovost declined to comment. Times publisher Peter Meyer did not return Cape Cod Wave’s call. Neither did anyone from Gatehouse Media.
I used to work at the Cape Cod Times.
In the 1980s, for about 7 years, I had a desk, a beat, regular hours, and a humor column. I was not on staff, and I did not receive benefits. I was what was known as a stringer, paid by the story.
I still have friends in the newsroom. I reached out. No one currently employed by the paper would talk on the record.
Start with this: You are reading this story on the Internet.
Look around the web and you will find plenty of local information. In fact, the Cape Cod Times has a strong web presence. Most media companies on the Cape, from radio stations to weekly newspapers have updated websites. There are also other web-only Cape media companies offering news, information and content.
I hate the word “content.” I think most journalists do. The commodity aspect of it sickens me. To me, “content” sounds like “widget.” Nevertheless, there are a lot of places to get content about Cape Cod on the web.
With that as my random thought, let me segue back to Kershner, who pointed out, “Anyone can pick any random thought they have and put it online. But that’s not journalism.”
Journalism is true-story telling, actually talking to the people involved in the story. Perspective explains everything, and almost every story has a lot of perspectives.
As Peters said, “The light of day is getting dimmer and dimmer. We’re not illuminating that which is critical. We’re missing the whole watchdog. Even though community members may go to the planning board meeting, the objective journalist is supposed to be there to sort it all out.”
Peters and others pointed out that the Cape Cod Times over the years has shrunk significantly. Because of the cuts in staff, said Peters, “They don’t have the beats. How can you run a daily newspaper and literally miss so many beats.”
Complaints about the Cape Cod Times, as it currently exists because of budget cuts that have already happened, run deep. “When I was Sunday editor,” said Kershner, “We had ten color section fronts, sections A to J.” On Sunday, April 6, 2014, the paper had six color section fronts, A to F. “I’m very, very sad and discouraged about the state of journalism on Cape Cod,” said Kershner.
And yet the paper has been astonishingly resilient.
In the midst of the nationwide implosion of the newspaper industry, and through two excruciating pawn-like ownership changes at a corporate level, the remaining editors, reporters and photographers have done their best to stay the course. They have been bought and sold as part of a package of “products” in a way that must make the newsroom feel like it’s part of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s PBS series, “Cosmos” – just some far away tail flying from some rich guy’s investment’s gravitational pull… more insignificant than they could possibly imagine.
But back on Earth, on Cape Cod, there is a different story entirely. This is how perspective explains everything. The kind of shoe-leather journalism once routinely done by the Cape Cod Times is still being done. There is just less of it.
But it is good journalism. Still. Right now.
For instance, the annual New England Press Association Awards event in Boston may as well be re-branded as a Cape Cod Times company party, as the paper has annually, for decades, brought home awards in many categories, including General Excellence.
Yet this reader can’t help but notice the prominence of puff contests and such, like the recent popular “Pet Selfies,” combined with a decrease in actual Cape Cod news.
“The bottom line is the average person on the street can no longer rely on that one source, their daily newspaper, to get all the information they need,” said Kershner.
The daily newspaper, said Kenney, is “the fabric of a community. I know a lot of people who read it every day.”
From 1966 until 2007, the Cape Cod Times was owned by Ottaway Newspapers.
According to a Cape Cod Times story from September 2013 when Gatehouse purchased the paper, “Ottaway maintained ownership of the times through its 1970 merger with Dow Jones & Co., and its chairman, James Ottaway Jr., remained active as owner until Dow Jones was sold to News Corp in 2007.”
“We’re talking about Rupert Murdoch,” said Pat Wells, Features Designer from 2002 until her recent retirement. “He bought the whole shebang because he wanted the Wall Street Journal and we just happened to come with the product.”
Under Ottaway, said Wells, things were good. “For a period of about five or six years, I was delighted to get up and go to work in the morning,” she said. “Everything sailed along until Dow Jones sold to Rupert Murdoch and the Cape Cod Times got tossed into maelstrom of whatever was going on.”
“The first thing that happened when we were taken over by News Corp was our entire what we called our Member Services Department was let go and customer service was outsourced to India,” said Wells. “If you called to complain about your paper being thrown in your rose bushes, you got re-routed to India. It was a total disconnect from the local community.”
“It was noticed,” said Wells. “You can’t have an entire department, an entire room in the building vacated without people noticing.”
Wells said people in the newsroom realized the Cape Cod Times was a minor Dow Jones holding in part of a much larger sale. The company was put up for auction and then taken off auction, said Wells. “We spent a year or two waiting to see what was going to happen. The atmosphere was, please don’t let Gatehouse buy us. Gatehouse has a reputation as a bottom-line company.”
According to the Cape Cod Times story from September 2013, Dow Jones announced it would keep the Ottaway papers in 2008, one year after purchasing them. Still, the newsroom had begun to change, said Wells. “There were cuts, but at first they were like surgical cuts.
In the newsroom we thought, holy crap, why?”
In September 2013, the Cape Cod Times reported that the paper and other papers in the Dow Jones Local Media Group were sold to an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group Inc., and the papers would be managed by Gatehouse.
“We did not expect great things from being bought by Gatehouse,” said Wells. “Companies do have reputations and Gatehouse’ reputation is not good as a company that nurtures quality news.”
“After I left the Cape Cod Times,” said Kershner, “I spent some time as executive editor of a of a group of papers that were bought by Gatehouse and they began to cut coverage. I saw it happening to the weeklies and now it’s happening to the Cape Cod Times.”
“Part of the journalism enterprise is to question everything,” said Kenny. “But it’s very hard to question your own employer.”
if you live on Cape Cod, you are most likely familiar with one of Gatehouse’s products.
Even if you don’t read the Cape Cod Times, there is a good chance you’re read one of their weeklies. There are only two privately-owned local newspaper groups left on the Cape, Falmouth Publishing, which publishes the Falmouth Enterprise and three other Enterprise papers, and the Cape Cod Chronicle. If you read any other weekly newspaper on the Cape, you are reading a Gatehouse paper.
And here’s the thing: Don’t judge the journalists by their employer. No matter the reputation of their employer, the journalism by individuals stands on its own merits. And there are good journalists working at the weekly Gatehouse newspapers, just as there are at the weekly locally-owned papers. This is not about individuals, but rather the philosophy of a company far removed from Cape Cod.
Gatehouse itself would certainly claim that their reputation is great. “They are proud of their journalism,” said Jon Chesto, managing editor of the Boston Business Journal. Chesto, former business editor of the Quincy Patriot Ledger, which is owned by Gatehouse, has written several articles about Gatehouse. “There are a number of talented hardworking people at Gatehouse newspapers,” he said.
But Kershner said, “Gatehouse has always been more concerned with the bottom line rather than journalism.”
Chesto noted, “It is interesting” that Gatehouse, which was $1 billion in debt and filed for bankruptcy at about the time of the Cape Cod Times purchase, is now looking to acquire more newspapers. During the restructuring, according to Chesto’s reporting, the new parent company of Gatehouse is called New Media. According to Chesto’s reporting, New Media “wants to acquire $1 billion worth of newspapers and directories over the next three years.”
The strategy seems to be to buy newspapers, cut costs and coverage so they can buy more newspapers and cut costs and coverage in more communities. Streamline the widgets, as it were.
“There has been a long line of actions taken from a corporate standpoint that don’t make sense from a journalistic standpoint,” said Peters.
“The Cape Cod Times has always been profitable,” said Wells. “I know that. We used to have yearly meetings with (publisher) Peter Meyer and he clearly stated that the Cape Cod Times was profitable.”
Kenney remembered the same meetings and talk of “double digit profits.”
Peters remembered the paper being called “the crown jewel of the Ottaway chain.”
But that was then. Profitable in a declining industry may mean less than the double-digit profitable the former employees recall. There are forces far removed from Cape Cod that are at work.
Think about this: 20 years ago the New York Times purchased the Boston Globe for $1 billion, thinking it was an investment that would grow. The New York Times recently sold the Globe to Boston Red Sox owner John Henry for $70 million.
Chesto pointed out that the New York Times made out fine and that “the Globe was very profitable.”
Still, this is like buying something for $100 and selling for $7 and saying you did great. This is the state of the news media in which Gatehouse purchased the Cape Cod Times.
Kenney suggested that the Cape Cod Times needs its own version of John Henry, a local owner investing in journalism.
Remember, perspective explains everything. There is a Gatehouse side to the story, even if they don’t feel like telling it to Cape Cod Wave. If you got to their website, it sure appears like the company prides itself on good journalism. Still, there are those who argue the real strategy is a bottom-line approach without regard to the actual point of the product.
But maybe Gatehouse is doing what a lot of journalists refuse to do: acknowledge economic reality and the future.
According to Chesto, a lot of major chains have gone to a centralized desk in the past five years.
In fact, the Gatehouse weeklies on the Cape and other weeklies in Massachusetts have been edited at a design center in Framingham. That center, along with another in Rockford, Illinois, will be closed when the new design center in Texas opens.
Chesto called a centralized copy desk being used by many newspapers, “an unproven model.”
“I have worked very remotely on all kinds of stuff,” said Wells. “I used to do design and layout for the Sierra Club newsletter. I did it out of Yarmouth. But it’s not the same as a local newspaper.”
Kenney said editing a newspaper takes place over “a very short time frame. This would cause an operational difficulty. The more complicated you make it, the harder you make it for people to work together. It’s easier for people to give up… ‘Whatever, we’ve got to get it out.’ ”
But a potential attitude of resignation doesn’t seem to be the real problem with someone from Texas editing the Cape Cod Times. Even facts, like quahogs aren’t the real problem. After all, anyone can look up any specific fact on Wikipedia or elsewhere.
What can’t be looked up as easily from Texas is how we Cape Codders live our lives, and actually run our government. With New England town meetings, town managers, selectman, various committees, 15 towns and the Cape Cod Commission all operating some form of government here on the Cape, editing on deadline is sure to be a high-wire act for a recent college graduate trying to learn journalism in something like a factory setting from 2,000 miles away.
Still, major chains seem to think more and more that a centralized desk is an economic necessity.
A Poynter Institute case study case study written by Adam Hochberg, “The Challenges, Benefits of Consolidated Editing & Design Centers,” concluded, “Except at large papers or independents, the days of turnkey operations where the staff picked the stories to run in all categories of news and did layout in-house are rapidly disappearing. That’s a luxury, or inefficiency, depending on your viewpoint, most print newspapers can no longer afford.”
“Maybe the problem with newspapers,” said Kershner, is that they’re trying to make profits. That’s certainly the Gatehouse model.”
Kershner said the idea of profitable journalism is difficult. “I don’t see a business model out there where a business can pay reporters.” He thought one possible solution are public/private groups like Propublica, which is both capable of creating great investigative journalism, but also is not daily community journalism.
Who cares about the Cape Cod Times? Who cares about journalists?
Doesn’t everybody hate the media?
“People no longer trust the media,” said Wells. “That’s really creepy. It’s beyond sad, it’s creepy.”
Media, schmedia. This is the age of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We’re all citizen journalists now, right?
“A trained journalist knows how to look and get a better version of the story,” said Kershner.
This can easily sound like self-congratulatory inside baseball. And besides, there are plenty of places to find news not produced by professional journalists. We’re pretty arrogant to think we know what we’re doing, right?
“I still highly regard journalism and the mission of the newspaper,” said Peters.
So do I. But does anyone else?
“The real problem with newspapers is that people are willing to settle for whatever gets put up online,” said Wells.
“It depends on the friggin’ public pulling itself together and realizing the difference between whining and journalism,” she said. “If people can’t do that, I wouldn’t say journalism is a lost cause. I’d say our country is a lost cause.” She laughed, and then added, “I’m starting to sound like a conspiracy theorist.”
Of course, it is easy for a journalist to agree with the conspiracy, even a knucklehead like me just whining and putting whatever up online.
If you care about an informed citizenry, support local journalism, in print, on air and online – and not just the look-at-this-pretty-house journalism, the kind that seems to get the most support from businesses on Cape Cod.
Don’t get us wrong. We love that stuff. Here at Cape Cod Wave, we do plenty of look-at-this-pretty-beach journalism. We get it, even though we’re not much for the pretty house thing when there’s a prettier beach to see. But that’s just another example of perspective explaining everything.
The point is, your advertising dollars, and for some of you, investment dollars, have perspective. You live here and your money is powerful. There’s a lot more than “pretty” going on.
Cape Cod needs real journalism and you can decide to support it, or not.
As Peters said, “It would be really nice if there were something restorative to happen for journalism on Cape Cod.”
– Brian Tarcy