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Mon Jan 28, 2019, 10:29 PM

Why Gatehouse's Boston 'Megacluster" is a Threat to Democracy

In last week’s Apparent Horizon, “GateHouse Editorial Flacks for Mass Retailers,” I dissected an editorial, “The benefits of a teen minimum wage,” calling for a subminimum wage for Bay State teenage workers that turned out to have run in over two dozen eastern Mass newspapers owned by news industry behemoth GateHouse Media. Focusing on the article’s masked conservative slant—built, as it was, around a single report by a Koch-funded think tank—I walked readers through the political problems with that position and GateHouse’s support of it.

In this column, I’ll take a look at the structural crisis of media consolidation—and why it makes the GateHouse teen wage editorial even more disturbing than it looked at first glance.

Since the 1980s there have been a number of profound shifts in the economics of the American newspaper industry. One of them was the phenomenon of large companies treating news publications more and more like any other profit center—buying them up in larger and larger numbers, eliminating as many of their full- and part-time staff positions as possible while slashing wages and benefits for those that remained, increasing their use of contractors, and consolidating business operations among outlets in the same geographic area. These groups of newspapers came to be called clusters. Which differed from traditional chains in the physical proximity of their constituent outlets. And made their new owners a great deal of money.

In the interim 30 years, according to the excellent ongoing work of former Knight Ridder editor Ken Doctor in his “Newsonomics” columns for Nieman Journalism Lab and other publications, companies like GateHouse, Tribune Publishing, and Digital First have bought so many papers that those clusters have turned into something new: megaclusters, as they were dubbed by “major newspaper business broker Dirks, Van Essen & Murray.” They function the same way clusters do. But operate over larger geographic areas with ever more daily and weekly newspapers (and specialty publications) under their control. As of 2017, about 50 percent of all local papers in the US were part of a cluster or megacluster.

Those newspapers bear only passing resemblance to their namesakes. Mainly because the wage and staff cuts that began in the 1980s never stopped. To the point where a local paper like the Cambridge Chronicle—in which I first noticed the editorial under discussion—owned by a media giant like GateHouse (and in turn by other companies and investment groups) is now down to one lone staff person.

To really understand the significance of this development, it’s necessary to turn back the clock. Fifty years ago, the Cambridge Chronicle was an independent newsweekly. It had several staffers—including reporters, editors, salespeople, and a production crew. It was the go-to news source for coverage of all issues and happenings in Cambridge, and it was read regularly by most literate city residents, from teenagers to pensioners.

Read more: https://digboston.com/why-gatehouses-boston-megacluster-is-a-threat-to-democracy/

Cross-posted in the Media Group.

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