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Dear GateHouse: There’s no meat left on the bones

On Monday, Gannett Co. and GateHouse Media announced a $1.4 billion merger that would create one behemoth newspaper company and threatens communities all across America.

In announcing the merger, officials from Gannett (which owns USA Today and my alma maters, the Lansing State Journal and Battle Creek Enquirer) and GateHouse (which owns the Sault Ste. Marie and Cheboygan papers, along with hundreds more across the U.S.) promised to maintain “journalistic excellence,” according to the Associated Press (see the full story here: https://tinyurl.com/y3cdntoh).

They also promised to cut $300 million a year.

It’s hard to see how both of those promises can be kept.

Gannett gave me a start in this business and the company does a lot of good for the world and for journalists.

The company twice gave me and dozens of other Gannetteers scholarships to attend the International Reporters & Editors conference, where we learned from some of the best reporters in the world. The company invests in some of the coolest digital storytelling software out there. And its news leaders have done really well in recent years teaming their local papers around the country with USA Today to complete massive, nationwide investigative journalism.

And being owned by one of the largest media companies in the world has its benefits. In the four years I spent in Lansing, for example, Gannett cut at least two $1,000-plus checks on my behalf to obtain public records through the Michigan Freedom of Information Act, allowing me to provide important information to the public. I have no idea how many thousands were spent on FOIA requests throughout the State Journal’s investigation of the Larry Nassar scandal at Michigan State University.

But Gannett is also a big corporation with hungry investors, and it has hacked mightily from the bones of its newsrooms to feed those beasts.

When I began in Battle Creek in 2006, the Enquirer owned its own building on Van Buren Street, housing more than 100 employees. There was a front-office staff and a classifieds department and telemarketers (where I worked my first job, at age 15). The Enquirer had its own ad sales team and graphic designers and its own press and team of pressmen. In the newsroom, there was a metro editor, assistant metro editor, and a whole copy desk. There were separate reporters for schools, business, county government, and City Hall. There was a Neighbors section (similar to The News’ Lifestyles page). There were multiple sports reporters.

Today, the Enquirer rents office space in a building on Capital Avenue, and it houses just six people.

Six.

More than 100,000 people live in the Enquirer’s coverage area, more than 50,000 in the city itself.

Editors in Lansing read for the Battle Creek reporters (along with reporters in Port Huron, Livingston and, of course, Lansing). The copy desk is gone, the paper laid out by designers in another state who also lay out several other newspapers. The press was sold off a decade ago, and the paper is now printed in another city and trucked back to Battle Creek each day.

I have never worked for GateHouse or known anyone who has, so I can’t say what kind of operation those folks run or what it’s like sitting in their newsrooms. But I do know this: Up the food chain, GateHouse is owned by a company called New Media Investment Group, and that company — perhaps even more so than Gannett — has a reputation for slashing newsrooms to maximize profits.

But I have a message for GateHouse: The fat is gone, and there’s no more meat on the bone.

In an academic way, I guess I understand the logic behind cuts. I understand you can’t print a paper at all if you don’t make money to pay employees and buy ink, that helping the company survive — in theory, anyway — helps journalism survive.

But trimming away not just fat but the very muscle of journalism, as Gannett and GateHouse have already done for years, hurts not only those employees but also the communities they serve.

And, ultimately, I believe, it hurts the companies themselves.

Fewer editors means more typos. Fewer reporters means more missed stories. More missed stories means more opportunity for public corruption to go unchecked, for history to go unwritten.

And papers start to lose their identity amid cost-cutting corporate consolidations. Don’t believe me? Check out the Today’s Front Pages feature at Newseum, and look at the front pages of the Michigan papers owned by MLive (Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Jackson, etc.). The front pages are identical (https://tinyurl.com/y3mvhlxr).

When readers in those communities look down at their newspaper racks, they know longer see themselves.

How long will they keep forking over their hard-earned dollars for that kind of product?

Maybe it’s time to invest, instead of cutting, to give readers journalism they’d proudly support.