When the Times Herald-Record lands on Jim Ottaway Jr.’s doorstep in New Paltz, New York, it’s a daily reminder of what once was.
Memories flood back of the newspaper his family once owned in Middletown, New York. It was a time when newspapers thrived in an environment unchallenged by the disruptive forces of online news, social media and smartphones.
For about a decade, his family chronicled Middletown’s story, taking on important local issues, celebrating community moments, keeping a watchful eye on government and building the company’s reach and influence before selling it to Dow Jones in 1970. The paper ultimately was acquired by GateHouse Media.
Now, GateHouse – operating under the ownership of New Media Investment Group (NEWM) – and USA TODAY owner Gannett Co. (GCI) are said to be considering a deal that would create the largest American media company through its combination of online and print readership.
The proposed consolidation comes at a time when news providers, particularly on the local level, face daunting challenges for survival. Analysts say the merger could provide broader national scale for the new company, along with potential cost savings, that could buy longevity and strengthen its position to compete with Google and Facebook for critical digital ad dollars.
The combined company would operate more than 260 daily news operations in local markets across the United States – more than any other U.S. news publisher — as well as USA TODAY. And it would vie for claiming the largest online audience nationally of any news provider.
Ottaway said he’s rooting for the journalism industry to succeed, and he recognizes that strategic alliances may be a key to the survival of community journalism. He’s concerned about the effect of the industry’s decline on American democracy. He remembers being a young reporter for his family’s paper, hustling between government meetings to provide the type of public service and watchdog reporting that he believes is vital to communities and is the lifeblood of journalism.
“Most hand wringing about journalism is worrying about big-city newspapers,” he said. “I worry about the … local daily newspapers that are struggling to survive.”
Faced with the loss of ad dollars to companies like Google and Facebook, many news companies have been gasping for air. Newspapers lost about 57% of their advertising and circulation revenue and about 49% of their weekday print circulation from 2000 to 2018, according to the Pew Research Center.
The biggest risk to media companies is that revenue contracts until they don’t have the cash to maintain significant news operations, as they continue to work on strategies to deal with industry challenges.
Gannett’s revenue fell to $2.92 billion in 2018 from $3.15 billion, a year earlier.
At GateHouse, revenue rose in its most recent fiscal year to $1.53 billion from $1.34 billion, a year earlier. However, it increased primarily due to acquisitions, the company said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Gannett owns USA TODAY and more than 100 local news operations in the United States, including the Detroit Free Press, Arizona Republic, Indianapolis Star and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The news operations work collaboratively on journalism efforts as the USA TODAY Network.
GateHouse owns 156 daily publications, including the Austin American-Statesman in Texas, Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, Florida’s Palm Beach Post and Oklahoman, as well as many smaller publications.
Ken Doctor, a media analyst at Newsonomics, a website and brand where he publishes analysis of the news industry’s economics, said the two news organizations may need to team up to shed overlapping costs and give themselves more time to pursue financial stability through reader-driven revenue. He said the organizations need to find ways to invest in journalism efforts to attract readers and cash.
“That’s what’s needed in terms of actually turning their fortunes around,” he said.
Gannett declined to comment for this story. GateHouse has not responded to requests seeking comment.
As they search for alternative revenue sources – through digital marketing services, for example, and additional online subscriptions – Gannett and GateHouse must answer to shareholders. In the 12-month period leading up to May 30, when reports first emerged that the companies were in talks to combine, Gannett shares declined about 24%, while stock in New Media Investment Group, which operates GateHouse, declined about 39%.
This deal might make sense to give both companies time for that search, said Chuck DelGrande, a Chicago-based managing director in the tech, media and telecommunications group of investment bank Alantra, who has decades of experience in the news industry.
DelGrande said “the holy grail” for Gannett and GateHouse would be to get big enough to “live to fight another day,” giving them sufficient time to continue to invest in a digital transformation.
Wall Street may agree. As of the close of trading on July 31, New Media Investment Group’s stock was up 20% since May 30 to $10.77, while Gannett’s stock was up 35% to $10.25.
Google, Facebook duopoly
Google and Facebook, which critics have called a “duopoly” because of their grip on digital advertising and data, have controlled an estimated 52% of digital display advertising revenue in 2019, according to eMarketer, which provides companies with research and analysis on digital advertising and marketing.
But there’s still room for news companies to compete with them, said Lauren Fisher, principal analyst at eMarketer.
“For advertisers, the reality is the duopoly offers great scale, they offer great targeting, they offer great measurement,” she said. “But sometimes that’s not enough. And it’s often not enough when advertisers are looking for very specific audiences. They’re looking for very specific types of branding opportunities and branding associations, which I do believe some of the newspapers still can provide.”
In an online world littered with misinformation – such as intentionally misleading news stories, false memes and fabricated video – trust is currency, and local news companies can capitalize on their reputations.
“There’s that legacy, there’s that reputation, and I think for a lot of advertisers and brands there’s still a lot to be gained by having that positive association with some of these brands,” Fisher said.
What’s more, national brands may welcome the chance to work with a combined Gannett-GateHouse because the newly combined company would provide a central funneling point for placing ads, said Jaime Spencer, who leads the media strategy group at research and consulting firm Magid.
“There have been, quite frankly, frustrations from national advertisers for a long time about the differences in the models of different print organizations, in terms of how they bill, how they’re structured, their workflow,” said Spencer, who formerly served as general manager of Gannett’s Iowa City Press-Citizen.
“Bringing this level of scale could answer a lot of those questions for advertisers and create a higher degree of consistency so that they can buy more national advertising and inserts in a more consistent fashion and actually improve the profits and improve the return from their perspective.”
Gatehouse makes a move
It was little surprise that a potential deal involving Gannett emerged. After the company defeated a hostile takeover attempt by hedge fund-owned MNG Enterprises in May, industry observers agreed that more attempts at consolidation were just a matter of time. Gannett is said to have considered other deals, including a tie-up with Tribune Publishing Co., whose holdings include the Chicago Tribune.
What caught some industry observers off guard was the prospect of GateHouse, the smaller company by revenue and stock market value, acquiring Gannett, the larger of the two. Gannett’s market capitalization is currently about $1.17 billion, compared with New Media Investment Group’s roughly $652 million.
What GateHouse brings to the table is backers with deep pockets who might be willing to finance the deal, which could be difficult for Gannett to pull off on its own, DelGrande said.
GateHouse owner New Media Investment Group is operated by Fortress Investment Group, which is owned by Japanese tech conglomerate SoftBank. With more than $53 billion in assets as of March 31, SoftBank has the wherewithal to make long-term bets. For example, the company has made heavy investments on self-driving cars, which are years away from turning a profit.
While Gannett, based in McLean, Virginia, could theoretically turn the tables and make an offer to buy GateHouse, based in Pittsford, New York, Gannett would have to line up independent financing to do so since the company’s cash balance at the end of the first quarter was only $89.4 million, according to a quarterly filing with the SEC.
With net debt of about$211 million already, as of the end of the first quarter, Gannett would likely have to take on significant new debt to buy GateHouse. DelGrande said it’s unlikely Gannett would do so because it could potentially compromise the combined company’s ability to “do future investment along the lines of what’s required” to diversify its business model, DelGrande said.
Gannett has taken significant steps in recent years to add digital revenue by broadening its assets through businesses like ReachLocal, a marketing services provider, and data-based business listings adviser SweetIQ. GateHouse has made similar moves through a division called UpCurve, which provides marketing services to small businesses.
Both companies will need to do more, together, in that direction, DelGrande said.
“You’ve got to come up with ways to increase revenue in order for it ultimately to win — and this is where the patient capital comes into play,” he said, referring to the potential Fortress-SoftBank backing.
Time to invest
If they combine, Gannett and GateHouse must balance the need for cost cuts with the need to invest in journalism efforts, said Jim Friedlich, CEO of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, a nonprofit that promotes local journalism innovation and owns the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“There is understandable rationale for this deal including the potential for meaningful cost savings and revenue synergies in a very tough environment for local news,” Friedlich said in an email. “Bigger is not necessarily better, nor is it necessarily bad. If these savings are used to reinvest in local newsrooms and the communities they serve then we should all applaud.”
That may be the only way for Gannett and GateHouse to continue building their digital audiences.
To be sure, Gannett has much larger digital readership. Gannett’s USA TODAY Network averaged just under 127 million monthly unique visitors in the first six months of 2019, compared with just over 20 million at GateHouse, according to audience tracker Comscore. If combined, the new company’s audience would rival top-ranked CNN Network’s 146 million monthly uniques.
Both Gannett and GateHouse have been making progress attracting paid digital subscribers to make up for the loss of print subscribers in recent years.
Gannett’s digital-only subscriptions rose 39% year-over-year to 538,000 in the first quarter of 2019.
GateHouse’s digital-only subscriptions rose 44% to 174,000 over the same period.
“Subscription revenue is one of the biggest levers, and there is potential there. The challenge is with so many sources to get information these days, the bar for paying is higher than ever,” Magid’s Spencer said. “And the only way you’re going to substantively drive increases in those subscriptions is by delivering a level of value I can’t get anywhere else.”
To build paid online readership, Gannett and GateHouse need to pursue a “reader-first” model that favors stories that prompt readers to revisit and subscribe, said Michael Silberman, senior vice president of strategy at subscription commerce and tech provider Piano.
“For those audience members who you do have a relationship with, what are the stories that are getting them to come back and engage or, even more so, volunteer information and pull out their credit card?” said Silberman, a former general manager of digital media at New York Media, the parent company of New York magazine.
Cost cuts are important, but investing in newsgathering may be key to growing the digital subscriber base, Doctor said.
“Without substantial reinvestment at the same time, this is going to end poorly,” he said.
Gannett has invested in investigative reporting across its USA TODAY Network, expanding the impact and frequency of that work on both the national and local level while also amplifying other areas such as video storytelling and podcasts. USA TODAY’s national investigative team has tripled in size, for instance, to more than 20 journalists. They work closely with local investigative reporters and editors employed throughout the USA TODAY Network. GateHouse similarly has launched an investigative group of 30 reporters, editors and producers.
Friedlich said Gannett and GateHouse “seem compatible” from a corporate culture and business standpoint.
“Like Gannett, Gatehouse is a highly efficient and cost-conscious operation but not a slash-and-burn cost-cutter,” he said. “Hopefully both organizations recognize that there is an irreducible minimum in providing their communities with the local news resources they need and deserve.”
Ottaway, whose family once owned GateHouse’s Times Herald-Record, said the stakes are high for Gannett and GateHouse to get this right.
Without local news organizations, “suddenly you don’t know why your taxes went up, why your local school isn’t doing a good job for your kids, when they’re going to fix the potholes on your street,” he said.
“Most people don’t realize how dangerous this is to our democracy.”
He said he understands the rationale for the deal.
“I think if they can find some kind of savings from joining together and keep the papers going for longer, that’s a good thing,” he said. “Whether they can, I don’t know.”