Why can't Gannett put the 'net' into news gathering?

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that Gannett Co., the largest newspaper company in the country, will lay off another 1,000 (1,400 according to Gawker) of its 41,500 employees to help combat declining revenues.

In the scheme of things, that's about 2%, an insignificant number, but it's one more piece of bad news about an industry that just can't seem to pull itself out of a hole.

Lots of things have been said about the failing newspaper industry, in large part because so many of us word wranglers have newspaper backgrounds and can't restrain ourselves. It's frustrating to see the business we know and love go down the drain.
One of the best things about working for Gannett, as I did for 20 years, was the joy of being shoulder to shoulder with so many smart people. During my years as an editor there, I always felt lucky to be able to hire the kinds of editors and reporters who would make me look good. So it surprises me that all these competent, brilliant people haven't been able to figure out how to make money hand over fist from the biggest communication opportunity since Gutenberg invented the printing press.

Since I got out of the newspaper business, I've discovered a few things that weren't obvious to me when I edited community newspapers for Gannett. I wonder if these basics also have escaped other Gannett editors and publishers who are equally busy.

People will pay for information if it saves them time or money. Look at Angie's List . She's selling a service directory with an added twist, reviews by users. The annual subscription is $59, plus a $15 sign-up fee, for a grand total of $74. On top of that Angie sells ads. That's a lot of money for what compared to a daily newspaper is a tiny little bit of information. And it's information that most newspapers already have in their computers.

Ads are news too. The things I miss most about the Sunday newspaper isn't the great photography or the comics or the in-depth stories, it's the K-Mart circular and the Macy's mini-catalog.

Information doesn't have to be Pulitzer-prize material to be usefu
l. Construction began on the vacant lot near my house months ago and nobody seemed to know what they are building. The road to my favorite grocery store was closed for months with no information available about when it would reopen. The elementary school around the corner apparently had a large number of students flunk the state competency tests. How they did on the retake will affect my property values. And speaking of property values, the sale price of the foreclosure down the street is of vital interest to other homeowners in the neighborhood, but the property transfers are months old by the time I find them online. If newspapers collected this info, people like me would pay to get it.

Reliability is important. Sure, Craigslist is free, but using it is a pain and occasionally scary. Give me homegrown classifieds monitored by people who know the territory.

People used to refer to "my newspaper," but not today
. Twice a year, I call the newsrooms of the 50 largest newspapers in the country. If you want an exercise in frustration, give that a try. Most of the time, nobody is home. Finding the correct number is next to impossible and all you get by calling the general number is voice mail. I could be calling to place an ad; I could be calling with the news story of the century. But nobody knows because they are too busy to answer the phone.

I sold the last of my Gannett stock at $75 a share, down from close to $90 a share and I felt like I'd lost money. Today, Gannett is hovering around $3.50 a share and I'm feeling like an investment genius. But as an information consumer, I'm definitely a loser. I'd like to be buying more news, but Gannett isn't selling.

When you pronounce the word Gannett, the emphasis is on the second syllable -- the NET. To produce the NET, an information company sells the NEWS. I always thought Gannett knew that, but maybe it's forgotten.
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