Whenever you see the phrase “Gannett announced”, you always hold your breath.
Because what follows those two words is always… shall we say, interesting?
On Thursday, the company announced plans to reduce the size of its opinion sections, reducing the number of editorials and columns in the belief that those parts of the newspaper, in the words of The Washington Post, are “alienating readers and becoming outdated.” ”.
From the post:
“Readers don’t want us to tell them what to think,” the editors, who hail from Gannett newsrooms across the country, declared in an internal presentation. “They don’t think we have the experience to tell anyone what to think about most issues. They perceive us as having a skewed agenda.” Editorials and opinion columns are not only “among our least read content,” the committee said, but they are “frequently cited” by readers as a reason to unsubscribe.
Matthew Pressman, Professor of Journalism at Seton Hall, and a short but good Twitter thread about it:
this Gannett move represents a big change in news values and practices, but it’s wrong… (1/5) https://t.co/xYyNoEdyaP
—Matthew Pressman (@matt_pressman) June 9, 2022
So, there is a good discussion about the role of newspaper columnists in the digital age, that digital and social media have removed the control role that newspaper columnists played, that the democratization of voices and opinions has made the need for an outdated columnist. At best, the role of a columnist has changed, and the best in the business (the Mike Vaccaros and Mike Sielskis of the world) have adapted to this new world.
But this is not that discussion.
Look at Gannett’s reasons
Columns and editorials alienate readers. They make them cancel subscriptions.
This is an economic decision. This is about money. This is eliminating a historic function of newspapers and daily journalism because Gannett is afraid of angering people and causing them to cancel their subscriptions.
That’s why this feels so gross to me.
There were similar rumors in Buffalo a few years ago, when Jerry Sullivan and Bucky Gleason were fired as columnists for The Buffalo News, that management did not want to anger sports fans by running columns criticizing the home team and had them not subscribe to the digital edition.
In truth, this is one of the interesting and potentially dangerous side effects of the subscription model. Think of it in terms of incentives. If people are paying for your product and you make most of your income through those subscriptions, the incentive will be to provide the type of coverage people want to pay for. And that means not providing the kind of coverage people DON’T want.
It makes business sense, looking at it from an economic point of view.
But getting rid of the paper of columns and opinion pieces simply because you don’t want to upset your readers seems antithetical to the purpose of journalism and the goal of a newspaper.