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.