GateHouse Media, owner of the New Bern Sun Journal, announced changes to key newsroom positions that sound like progress, and in some ways, is.
An article posted Thursday (and published in Friday’s print edition) announced that Chris Segal, who has been executive editor over the Sun Journal and the Kinston Free Press, has been promoted and will now oversee the Jacksonville Daily News newsroom, as well.
GateHouse moved around some other positions, too, giving managing editors in Jacksonville and New Bern/Kinston more authority over day-to-day operations, and creating a new position over the three properties to lead “digital” growth (what they mean is online, including web and social media).
Segal will find his position further diluted than when I was editor of only the Sun Journal up until a few years ago (and when I had a newsroom almost twice as large). And for the moment, the creation of a new digital leader takes one editor out of the lineup in producing the growing list of products these properties are saddled with.
In short, more work, less staff — the GateHouse way!
But the good news (sort of good news) is gleaned from an article that didn’t appear in the Sun Journal as far as I can find. That article, published by the Wilmington StarNews, reports that Pam Sander, the regional editor based in Wilmington who was really the one in charge of newspaper newsrooms in New Bern, Kinston, and Jacksonville, is herself being promoted.
Sander is being put in charge of GateHouse’s Southeast region, which means she will “lead and coordinate newsrooms in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia.”
Sander has been the actual force behind the New Bern newsroom since 2017, when she was named regional editor; the local editor has influence, but not actual control. In fact, New Bern has seen a steady erosion of local leadership since GateHouse bought the paper in 2015 and laid off Vernon DeBolt, who was publisher over New Bern and Kinston.
After DeBolt was shown the door, Mike Distelhorst was brought in and quickly rose through the upper echelon ranks, going from publisher over New Bern and Kinston, then adding Jacksonville, then moving to the Wilmington StarNews as publisher over all four newspapers.
The publisher office in New Bern is a transient office now. So too is the ad director’s office, which was absorbed during a regionalization a couple of years ago. Even the circulation director based in New Bern has lost clout, being placed under regional supervision.
According to Wikipedia, GateHouse Media published 144 daily newspapers, 684 community publications, and over 569 local market websites in 38 states as of April 2018; the number has changed slightly since then. It is in merger negotiations with Gannett, another newspaper mega-chain, that if it happens will result in one company owning one of every six newspapers in the United States.
All this regionalization and removal of key local positions accomplishes several things for GateHouse:
- It saves money — fewer senior management positions at the local level.
- With print profit declining and lackluster performance from its other products, cutting costs is the only way GateHouse can maintain a healthy ledger sheet and keep its stock prices from further declines.
- It coordinates management from a high level.
- It results in a more consistent product throughout the chain of newspapers.
- It allows high-level managers to make dispassionate staffing decisions based on needs of the company and stockholders.
This regionalization has its drawbacks:
- With fewer local management positions, local newspapers are less responsive to local needs and less in touch with the communities they serve (how often have you seen Pam Sander and Mike Distelhorst in New Bern?)
- It hampers local innovation and responsiveness to local needs and customer preferences.
- It results in cookie-cutter newspapers with very few differences across the chain and less space for local news, despite the diversity of communities where it owns newspapers.
- This lack of diversity and innovation is also true of their opinion pages, which run fewer local editorials and have cut back on letters to the editor.
- It results in high-level managers making staffing decisions and cuts at the local level that ignore local needs and preferences.
Back to Chris Segal, it is unknown where he will base his office; he didn’t say in his article, and he rarely writes columns explaining such things to readers. Over the years, he has been a good corporate soldier and moved where he was ordered: First New Bern, where he was the No. 2 person in the newsroom, then Kinston, where he was put in charge of the newsroom, then Jacksonville, where he was No. 2 and then No. 1, then back to New Bern, where he was No. 1 over New Bern and Kinston. Now he is in charge of all three newsrooms.
The Jacksonville Daily News is the largest of the three dailies, so it stands to reason that it will grab most of his attention. But it will already have a strong managing editor who was previously the No. 2 person in the newsroom there, as well as the newly created “digital engagement role” going to the person who was previously No. 1 in Jacksonville.
New Bern and Kinston will be led by Matt Hinson, about whom we know very little. We know from the Sun Journal article that he was promoted to be New Bern’s managing editor from a newsroom position in Wilmington.
The Sun Journal never published an article announcing Hinson’s appointment to be managing editor, a position once held by the very capable and well known Ken Buday, who now works at East Carolina University. The article about the editor changes gives more detailed biographies of Segal and the new “digital engagement role” person, but very little about the managing editors in the local newsrooms.
“The editor shifts not only align the newsrooms to continue a long tradition of teamwork and sharing but also allows for the creation of a new editorial position in the Jacksonville newsroom to increase the amount of reporting taking place in Onslow County,” the article in the Sun Journal states.
Good for Onslow County! Seriously, I would have cut that part out of the Sun Journal version.
Meanwhile, Sander, in the lengthy article reporting her career success, had this to say about her departure from the coastal region role:
“The lead editors at our newspapers in Coastal North Carolina are phenomenal,” Sander said. “They are top performers for our company, and many times, are better when I get out of the way.”
Sander will report to Bill Church, who is based in Austin, Texas, and who is in charge of all GateHouse Media newsrooms.
GateHouse’s fixation on a company-wide chain of command leaves very little room for local decisions, so when Sander says she will “get out of the way,” she probably doesn’t mean it.
Posted in Journalism
GateHouse Media reportedly refused to run a column titled “Media Under Siege” that, among other things, criticized the company. The piece was written by Randy Miller, who retired from the Hawk Eye in Burlington, Iowa, a few years ago. He continued to write a column for the paper but – due to the “Media Under Siege” piece — it appears his contributions are no longer welcome. GateHouse Media owns the New Bern Sun Journal. Miller’s column appears below. Used with permission of the author.
By Randy Miller
“Freedom of the press ensures that the abuse of every other freedom can be known, can be challenged and even defeated.”
— Kofi Annan
Late last week, The New Yorker ran a story titled “Does journalism have a future?” That follows by several weeks the naming of journalists worldwide as the “Person of the Year” by Time magazine, a truly thoughtful and insightful choice.
I, too, fear for the future of those in my chosen profession. With our president calling any news outlet that publishes anything that portrays him in an unfavorable light “fake news” and “enemy of the people” and the proliferation of truly fake news on social media sites, is there still a place in the world for true journalists?
The New Yorker piece notes that “between 1970 and 2016, the year the American Society of News Editors quit counting, 500 or so daily newspapers went out of business; the rest cut news coverage, or shrank the paper’s size, or stopped producing a print edition, or did all of that, and it still wasn’t enough.”
The piece mostly covers the changes wrought by online media, like the Huffington Post and Brietbart News and BuzzFeed News, and their impact on large daily newspapers, but notes offhandedly that local papers through the years have often produced the best shoe leather journalists who went on to bigger and better jobs with the larger publications. That pipeline is drying up.
Ironically, since the president began calling the big national media companies “enemies of the people” most have seen a surge in readership and subscriptions, notably The New York Times. So there’s another of the president’s lies exposed when he repeatedly Tweets “the failing NYT.” No, it’s not failing. Saying it doesn’t make it so.
Attempting to control and demean traditional news sources is straight out of the playbook of autocratic rulers around the world, including Vladimir Putin in Russia. Control the message and you control the people. It’s that simple.
So we now have an autocratic president who lies about as often as he takes a breath. If this president isn’t removed from office soon, it will only get worse.
Americans today are inundated with media of all kinds and thus are becoming increasingly skeptical of all sources of information, which is bad for traditional journalists who are still committed to fact checking and obtaining their information from reliable sources.
Meanwhile, the more disturbing trend is that of big media companies buying up newspapers around the country and milking them for profits. Most could care less about covering the local communities they serve.
This newspaper is a good example. When I retired three years ago, there were more than 90 full-time employees with benefits on staff. Today, there are less than half that number, just two years after the paper was bought by Gatehouse Media. Do the math on how much that is saving the company.
Several rounds of buyouts and layoffs have decimated the staff. The newsroom had 24 full-time employees, as well as a host of part-timers, when I retired. That included four dayside editors, four nightside editors and six full-time reporters.
Today, there are eight full-timers in the newsroom, including two editors and two reporters, who also fill in on desk duties when needed. Although they make a valiant effort every day, there is no way they can adequately cover southeast Iowa and west-central Illinois with such limited resources.
I’m told they have hired another reporter who will begin work soon, but that’s putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.
As city editor, I often took random complaint calls from the public about something we covered or didn’t cover. Even fully staffed, we couldn’t be everywhere all the time. So I can’t imagine how many complaint calls they’re getting now.
In its Person of the Year edition, Time noted that 52 journalists were killed worldwide last year just for doing their jobs, the most notable Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Turkey by agents of the Saudi government, a truly atrocious act.
The cover photo of the edition featured the remaining news staff at the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland. Five of their colleagues were shot and killed by a crazed shooter who walked into their newsroom one day and opened fire. Amazingly, they still put out a paper the following day.
So the question is, does journalism have a future? It damn well better have. Press freedom is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution for a reason. It is essential to a functioning democracy.
But true journalism is under siege today, attacked by fringe elements on both the right and left, by fake news sites online, and by our current president. Reporting and commenting on news of the day is an evolving process, and especially so these days. But good journalism still matters, perhaps more so today than any time in recent memory.
Journalists know that on a daily basis they are going to get more criticism than praise for what they do. It’s just the nature of the job. So if you know a reporter or editor, regardless of the size of publication they work for, like veterans, thank them for doing their jobs to keep the public informed. What they do every day is that important.
Posted in Journalism, New Bern