Sunday, December 08, 2013

Digital Divide | Along a journey to transformation, an aging publisher stumbles at a critical crossroads

Gannett's website markets newspapers and other subsidiaries as consumer brands.

In late October, when CEO Gracia Martore briefed Wall Street stock analysts on Gannett's latest quarterly report, she drew a bright line under another rise in digital revenue -- fresh evidence, she said, the company was successfully weaning itself from its legacy newspaper business.

This wasn't the first time Martore had swung the spotlight toward digital. Three months before, she said it had grown to 30% of all company-wide revenue, adding: "We are accelerating our transformation into the 'New Gannett' every day."

In fact, the nation's top newspaper publisher started aggressively retailing this new image last winter during the advertising industry's "upfront" market, where traditional print media jockeyed with TV networks for ad dollars. The chief of national sales, Mary Murcko, told the trade publication AdAge: "We are not the media company -- the 100-year-old newspaper company -- people still think we are."

This was a Madison Avenue milestone, the debut of a made-over publisher long dismissed as a relic sidelined by Internet and mobile technologies. Now it was a "media and marketing solutions company" pitching a portfolio of consumer brands. Gannett was finally running with the big dogs.

But behind the scenes, hundreds of pages of newly examined company documents tell a different story, one sharply at odds with Gannett's energetic public relations campaign to burnish its old school profile.

Although digital revenue did rise last quarter, regulatory documents show the growth rate has been retreating all year. It was 29% in the first quarter, 20% in the second, and 12% in the third. It will narrow even more in the current quarter, Gannett warned investors Nov. 6 in a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

After jumping when Gannett started launching 78 newspaper paywalls two years ago, digital’s contribution rate to company-wide results only clung to 30% last quarter because overall revenue fell, SEC documents show.

Here's why: The paywalls are now running on fumes. They brought double-digit subscription price hikes, forcing readers to pay for digital access whether they wanted it or not. That ginned up untold millions in new digital revenue. But those more costly subscriptions are now fully in force; without another across-the-board price increase, paywall revenue growth could grind to a halt as soon as this quarter. No such increase is in the works.

A forecast boom in digital-only subscriptions aimed at a key audience, younger readers, has become a stunning bust. In the Oct. 21 quarterly earnings teleconference with Wall Street analysts, Martore conceded Gannett had sold fewer than 100,000 nationwide vs. a forecast 250,000 to 300,000 by year's end. If sales remain tepid, the company will be saddled with three million aging subscribers and no clear path to replacing them.

Revenue from Gannett's freestanding digital businesses -- chiefly, the big employment site CareerBuilder -- has been growing at only low single-digit rates after peaking at 13% in 2011. Year to date, it's up just 4% from a year ago, SEC documents show.

The digital squeeze is all the more worrisome because it comes amid an accelerating decline in the company's still-biggest source of revenue, newspaper advertising, which fell 6% in the last quarter. To be sure, revenue growth pulls back as any company's financial base fattens. Nonetheless, a plateau this soon raises concerns about Gannett's drive to become a digital powerhouse amid bruising competition from more fleet-footed publishers like Facebook and Twitter.

It also underscores the importance of Gannett’s takeover of Dallas TV company Belo. The $2.2 billion tie-up, which could close any time now, is crucial to boosting revenue and earnings -- and holding impatient investors at bay. Indeed, analysts are already asking whether Gannett should spin off its fading newspapers into a separate company after Belo is absorbed, essentially sending them to the corporate equivalent of a nursing home. That question may easily resurface Wednesday when Martore's team meets with analysts at an industry conference in New York.

Frank Gannett
How Gannett arrived at this crossroads is a story about a business Frank Gannett founded in 1906 with a single newspaper in Elmira, N.Y., battling for survival in a 21st century economy. The outcome, closely watched by other publishers, is of keen interest to a global constituency: 30,000 employees, 8,000 shareholders, and millions of others served by Gannett's 100 U.S. and U.K. dailies, 23 TV stations and more than 700 other media businesses.

The story is also about an entrenched board of directors, the opportunity they missed at a fateful moment, and two executives who led the company to a financial precipice -- only to pull it back before it tipped into oblivion.

Transforming vs. tweaking
There's little doubt Gannett has taken major strides toward its goal of becoming a more digital enterprise. Seven years ago, before digital got pushed to the fore, it was only 5% of annual revenue. Since then, it’s grown by $900 million, to last year's $1.3 billion. That came as the company reported its first annual increase in full-year revenue, $5.4 billion, since 2006.

Gannett has also reduced its reliance on newspapers; their advertising and circulation tumbled to 65% of all company-wide revenue last year vs. 83% in 2006.

The Belo takeover will almost double the number of TV stations to 43, transforming Gannett into a broadcasting company with a side business in newspapers. It will become the nation's fourth-largest owner of big network affiliates, with a bigger footprint in lucrative markets like Texas and the Pacific Northwest. Under the deal, which includes $1.5 billion in cash and assumption of $715 million in debt, broadcasting will eventually account for more than half of earnings, according to the company. Announced in June, the Belo purchase is a major reason Gannett's stock has surged during this year's second half.

From the depths of the recession, when shares fell below $2 as competitors went bust, Gannett is now trading in the mid-$20s; it closed Friday at $25.55. Year to date, it's up 42% vs. a much smaller 27% gain in the S&P 500 index. To be sure, shares were treading water all year before the Belo deal. And other publishers' stocks also have jumped during what's been a sizzling bull market.

The board of directors has boosted the dividend twice since slashing it 90% four years ago. The company has repaid billions in once-crippling debt. And Martore has pledged to return $1.3 billion to stockholders by 2015 through dividends and share repurchases.

But Gannett still faces enormous challenges.

The company remains heavily dependent on its most troubled division, newspapers. Their ad sales have fallen every year since 2006, with no end in sight. That includes digital advertising, too. Indeed, after nearly leveling off the end of 2012, losses have grown in percentage terms during each of the past three quarters.

Paywalls are on track to generate $100 million in new earnings. But that's fueled by the big subscription price increases in 2012 that aren't set to be repeated; Gannett says only that it's now selectively raising prices in some markets. The company's publishing partner in Detroit and elsewhere just announced similar paywall plans, but with little enthusiasm. "Let's be clear," John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media wrote last month. "Paid digital subscriptions are not a long-term strategy. They don't transform anything; they tweak. At best, they are a short-term tactic."

Although Gannett's TV stations contributed mightily to last year's year-over-year revenue increase, that stemmed from record political and summer Olympics ads on the core NBC affiliates. That's a revenue roller coaster only occurring every other year. Meanwhile, broadcasters are just steps behind newspapers in losing ads to rival publishers like Google and Tumblr, says media consultant Ken Doctor.

"Think about how much digital targeting could take away political broadcast money by 2016," he wrote when the Belo deal was announced. At best, "Gannett may have bought itself another three to five years of relative revenue stability."

In any case, it will be well into next year before Belo's operations are fully integrated. And it could then take as long as three years to achieve all the forecast savings by slashing overhead and negotiating more lucrative retransmission agreements to hit earnings targets, according to Gannett.

Digital weapons in Gannett's arsenal are in jeopardy, or are too new to make meaningful contributions.

USA Today's iPad app is still free.
The USA Today Sports Media Group underwent a shakeup when its founding president, Tom Beusse, resigned unexpectedly in October -- casting doubts on his promise to deliver more than $300 million in new revenue by 2015. USA Today, the company's most famous brand, has failed to attract a big enough audience willing to pay for digital access. Publisher Larry Kramer says only that paywalls are being studied.

Gannett is redesigning all its U.S. news websites and digital apps to boost readership and ads. But more than two years in, only USA Today and a handful of others have made the switch. That's despite a recent forecast they'd be installed in the top 35 markets by year's end. Indeed, at one point, Gannett said all 105 sites would be relaunched as soon as this past February.

The newly christened G/O Digital marketing services unit, which advises small businesses on using social media, is forecast to generate up to $350 million in new sales, but also not until 2015. Revenue there grew 90% in the second quarter and a smaller 70% in the third. Martore has declined to divulge dollar amounts when pressed by analysts.

To be certain, Martore has made no secret of the fact Gannett's strategy will produce uneven results. "It was never meant to be a quick or immediate fix," she said in July. "Our transformation plan is a complex and multifaceted process, and we do not expect linear growth each quarter."

Gannett's corporate communications department did not respond to my questions for this story.

Barbarians at the gate
Gannett's digital push began in earnest in 2005 when the board of directors was casting about for a new CEO to replace Doug McCorkindale. An attorney with no journalism background, McCorkindale had been a company executive 34 years. He was only the fifth CEO since Gannett's start a century before, one in an uninterrupted line of insiders at the core of an insular corporate culture.

Barron's not long before had put McCorkindale on the cover under the headline, "Gannett's Good News." Wall Street's must-read weekly gushed over his empire building. "I'm potentially interested in buying anything in the news, information, advertising and entertainment businesses," he said. "If the Pearson group wanted to sell the Financial Times, I'd look at it very closely. Dow Jones & Co. is a great franchise, and if it ever came into play, I'd be very interested."

And why not? Gannett had the requisite war chest: Annual revenue was headed for a record $8 billion. Earnings would hit $4.90 a share, just three cents shy of a record. From coast to coast, in Guam, and the U.K., Gannett employed 53,000 at hundreds of daily and weekly publications, magazines and the several dozen TV stations.

But time was running out. Publishers and broadcasters were finally facing real competition from a rising number of new, nimble start-ups. Only one year before, 2004, Google launched its IPO, and Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook from a Harvard dorm room. YouTube was brand new.

In 2006, Twitter fired off the first tweet; its recent initial public offering values the microblogging service at $24.5 billion vs. Gannett's $5.8 billion. Instagram would not start until 2010, only to be bought by Facebook two years later for $1 billion cash. (And it had only 13 employees.)

Against that backdrop, Gannett's board might have ignored precedent and hired an outsider with real digital chops as the sixth chief executive. But under McCorkindale, who also chaired the board, directors played it safe. They promoted Craig Dubow, 50, from broadcasting president to lead a company still dominated by newspapers. A University of Texas graduate, Dubow had been an employee 24 years, starting at Denver station KUSA.

Years later, after Gannett's battered stock had plunged to less than five bucks a share, an anonymous Gannett Blog reader recalled Dubow's ascension memorably:

"A myopic board of directors placed a man, a great, very likable man, with a brilliant broadcasting career, but a man that had not spent a minute of his professional life inside a newspaper, in charge of a company with 100 or so newspapers at the worst time in the history for print newspapers. It is like putting at the helm of Titanic a great producer of wheat from Indiana, who had never been at sea before. He could sink the ship even without icebergs."

But McCorkindale, announcing Dubow's promotion in spring 2005, thought otherwise: "Craig has all the skills a 21st century media CEO should have, from highly successful management experience and broad-based knowledge of the digital world to the vision and energy of a top-notch leader."

Dubow got a big raise: His first year's pay soared to $2.4 million from $1 million as head of broadcasting, according to SEC documents. Martore, chief financial officer at the time, became Gannett's No. 2 executive. They would work in lockstep when the company entered free fall.

That Wednesday afternoon, Gannett's stock closed at $75 a share.

Charting digital's new course
Dubow immediately set a new strategic plan focused on digital. Newsrooms were now "Information Centers," reorganized to favor websites over print in a bid to ratchet up traffic and ad revenue. Digital ventures would be nurtured within, starting with a "moms" site aimed at female consumers.

Dubow in 2006
Dubow launched the company's first R&D lab and a Gannett Digital division with this goal, according to his 2006 annual letter to shareholders:

"To move Gannett from a newspaper and television company with affiliated websites to a digital powerhouse, capable of capturing a growing share of what pundits believe will be a pool of Internet advertising dollars in excess of $20 billion by 2008."

Of course, Dubow hadn't inherited an analog dinosaur. The company already had that $400 million in digital revenue -- 5% of all. He closed his letter with a prediction: "With our employees, our discipline and our plan, I am confident 2007 will be as transformative as 2006."

He was right, although surely not as he'd imagined.

Financial panic erupts
The housing bubble floating the economy burst. Gannett was badly exposed in four states among the first to be hit hard: Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada. Combined, they accounted for 40% of the decline in the company's U.S. ad revenue.

The real estate bust spawned a global credit crisis and the Great Recession, slamming Gannett. Complicating matters, the company had accumulated $3.8 billion in long-term debt just as the recession deepened, sapping revenue needed to service it. Some of the debt stemmed from $1.8 billion in Gannett stock buybacks during 2005-2008 at prices averaging $64 a share, according to SEC documents. Most of those buybacks -- $1.3 billion -- were in 2005 alone, the year Dubow took over as CEO and Martore entered her third year as chief financial officer. (Based on Friday's $25.55 closing price, those shares are now worth well less than half as much: $726 million, excluding dividend savings.)

Certainly, other publishers -- the New York Times Co., McClatchy, Lee Enterprises -- had made similar blunders during an industry-wide spending orgy.

In the recession years 2007-2009, Gannett's annual revenue plunged 25%, to $5.6 billion. Dubow and Martore, by now his heir apparent, responded with draconian cost-cutting to stave off creditors: Massive layoffs. Furloughs. Wage cuts. A frozen pension plan. A tattered dividend. With newspaper values collapsing everywhere, Gannett wrote off $8.4 billion worth of its assets in 2008 alone.

To be sure, management took big hits, too. Dubow's annual pay fell to $4.7 million in 2009 vs. $7.5 million in 2007. Still, infuriating employees, the board of directors continued awarding large cash bonuses. In SEC documents covering those years, they cited a long list of accomplishments that specifically included whacking 11,000 jobs.

Dubow doubled down on his digital plan, hiring Gannett's first chief digital officer, Chris Saridakis. Gannett expanded the Moms Like Me network, entertainment site Metromix, and other non-print ventures.

But perhaps most important, that fall Dubow wrested razor-thin majority control of employment classifieds site CareerBuilder from Tribune Co.'s pugnacious CEO, Sam Zell. Dubow had an edge over Zell because Tribune was headed for bankruptcy.

With the $135 million CareerBuilder deal, Gannett made a big change in financial reports to Wall Street. It created a digital-only line consolidating all revenues from CareerBuilder and other standalone businesses.

Significantly, CareerBuilder meant Martore could book 100% of its revenue even though Gannett barely owned 51%. The very next quarter, the digital-only line surged to $170 million from $24 million a year before. In the years that followed, the accounting shift helped Gannett sell itself as more of a digital company, and less about paper and ink.

But it wasn't enough.

Just as the recession eased, some of the most high-profile digital efforts started fraying. In spring 2010, Saridakis quit as chief digital officer after only two years, complaining about the Dubow team's indecisiveness. In a prescient parting letter, he ripped paywall plans. Dubow took a full year to replace him with David Payne.

Payne shuttered the once-celebrated Moms Like Me consumer network after concluding further investment would be a waste. Entertainment site Metromix slumped. Other digital ventures collapsed. The ad services subsidiary PointRoll started churning through CEOs, threatening its hugely profitable pipeline. More recently, an online coupons site, DealChicken, has been retrenching.

A new Crystal Palace chief
In October 2011, with revenue still falling and plagued by back problems, Dubow quit. Reviled for the slash-and-burn tactics that ultimately cost 20,000 jobs on his watch, he retired with an estimated $32 million payout. The board promoted Martore, then 60 years old, to become Gannett's first female CEO.

Like Dubow, she also was an insider, always working at the corporate offices now housed in a glittering complex outside Washington that employees call the Crystal Palace. Martore arrived in 1985 as assistant treasurer, later rising to chief financial officer in 2003. Her bio reads like a classic American bootstrapper story, according to The Washington Post.

"Granddaughter of Italian immigrants," wrote Post correspondent Paul Farhi. "Father died when she was a kid. Held down three jobs to get through Wellesley College. Learned a skill and worked like the dickens."

The much-hated "Blue Ball" sculpture.
Martore quickly sought a less imperious image before employees traumatized by waves of layoffs. She ended reserved parking for top executives. And she ditched an executive suite sculpture dubbed the Blue Ball of Death for its role in the infamous firing of three USA Today employees in 2001. A big Red Sox fan, Martore soon enlivened dry analyst meetings with sports metaphors and even jokes.

One of her first, most important jobs was shepherding eagerly awaited newspaper paywalls into 2012. With newspaper ad sales still falling, milking circulation was a must. Management forecast those $100 million in additional annual earnings by 2013 with the paywalls and new apps. With relatively little investment in hiring and marketing, it was like found money.

By then, Gannett had been testing paywalls for two years. Dubow had said early data showed "very interesting results," although he was never more specific. Based on how the company eventually marketed them, however, the pilot tests didn't uncover much demand among the company's bread-and-butter customers: predominantly older, less technology-driven print subscribers.

Gannett gave its paywalls an ungainly name, all-access content subscription model, and sold them in just two flavors: a print subscription including Web and app access for up to around $25 a month. Or digital-only for $12-$15 monthly. Using a "metered" approach, non-subscribers could read a limited number of articles for free before getting prompted to pay.

But the paywalls arrived with an unpleasant surprise: those double-digit subscription price hikes at renewal. Trying to spin the bad news, Gannett said the substantially higher prices included digital access, ignoring the obvious: until then, digital had always been free anyway.

'Free is better than not free'
The roll out revealed a sobering truth. The only way Gannett could really ramp up digital circulation revenue was to force it on three million legacy readers as an embedded cost in their print subscriptions. The vaunted paywalls boiled down to an old-fashioned price increase with a digital veneer. No surprise to Paton, the Digital First CEO, who wrote early this year: "Most paywalls in the U.S. are simply initiatives in subscription price hikes -- bundling digital with print with no clear path for sustainable growth."

Yesterday's Register, Newseum.
Whatever their future, Gannett's jacked-up subscriptions didn't sit well with readers at papers like The Des Moines Register.

In June 2012, they groused during an online chat when Publisher Laura Hollingsworth tried to justify them. "My team and I are prepared to stand by our value and ask our communities to invest in the best news and information and reporting that can be offered," she said.

One reader's quick comeback: "Actually, free is a better value than not free."

Then another: "While I support the paper's move to a paywall for digital content, I calculated my increase at over 40%. It seems that the paper is punishing its print subscribers. Will the Register offer a print-only subscription?"

Hollingsworth said no.

To be sure, paywalls created a second, especially attractive revenue stream: digital-only subscribers. They skewed younger, the very market advertisers covet because they spend lots on electronics, dining, entertainment and home furnishings. Plus, digital subscribers were nearly Gannett's only hope to replace those millions of aging print customers.

At first, Gannett relied almost entirely on word-of-mouth sales. Early results were promising. "The good news," said Bob Dickey, the newspaper division's president, "is our new digital subscribers index younger, male, married with children and more affluent than we first realized, filling an important audience gap for us."

Crawling out on a limb
At the start of this year, Gannett had sold 46,000 digital subscribers across 78 markets. Then in early February, Martore made a strategic mistake: She forecast 250,000 to 300,000 by the end of this year, once Gannett started spending a "not inconsequential" amount on promotion. To be sure, it was a modest goal, averaging fewer than 4,000 per market. Plus, the company already had that running start.

Martore said: "Our focus is to take on new digital-only subscribers, and that's where our focus is going to be in 2013."

The campaign has bombed. By the end of September, the company had netted only 80,000, after some upgraded to print -- leaving Gannett far short of the forecast. All but abandoning the year-end goal, Martore tried moving the goal posts to the number of print readers who had activated digital accounts included with their print subscriptions: 1.5 million, about half of all.

She has called them "paying digital subscribers," comparable to The New York Times' 730,000 digital-only subscriptions sold after erecting its paywall in 2011. Inexplicably, Martore calls that an "apples-to-apples" comparison. (The number of Times digital subscribers has yet to plateau, soaring 28% in this year's third quarter alone.)

Pivoting 180 degrees, Martore dismissed young digital subscribers as barely consequential to measuring paywall success. "Frankly," she told the stock analysts Oct. 21, "that's probably one of the least significant and important metrics that we have used."

But analyst Craig Huber of Huber Research Partners pressed her to confirm Gannett had sold so few. Martore's reply: "If you're just specifically looking at that one small metric, yes, that's exactly what I'm saying."

As these typically deferential meetings go, this was close to taking off the gloves. And it may not be the last time.

Pushing for Gannett's breakup
Wall Street has started nudging Martore to spin off the newspaper business from broadcasting post-Belo. This would create two publicly traded companies, freeing the more nimble TV business plus the CareerBuilder stake and other purely digital businesses from the sluggish publishing division. USA Today and the U.K. Newsquest division, with 17 dailies plus hundreds of weeklies, could be sold separately.

Current shareholders would get stock in the new standalone newspaper company, allowing them to better gauge the relative worth of one business over the other. (In the argot of Wall Street, it's called unlocking shareholder value.) In an alternate scenario, Gannett could sell the papers piecemeal, but that would be a more drawn-out process subject to the vagaries of regional and local markets. In any case, the newspapers, unmoored from the financial resources but also the bureaucracy of a larger enterprise, would need to provide for themselves.

This has been done before. Belo itself split newspapers and TV stations in 2008. News Corp. did the same last July with The Wall Street Journal and dozens of other papers. Tribune Co., also bulking up on TV, has similar plans for the Los Angeles Times and seven others.

Martore isn't sold on the idea. Gannett's U.S. dailies and TV stations occupy a combined 111 markets, offering economies of scale no one else can match, she says. Still, if newspapers become an even bigger drag on growth, analysts will surely push harder for a breakup. Their next scheduled meeting with Martore's team is Wednesday morning at the annual UBS media conference in New York.

Even as she demurs, Martore leaves herself wiggle room, as she always does when analysts ask about future strategy. She and her fellow board members will never say never, she said in October: "We're always looking at different alternatives. . . . What we're in this business to do is to create additional shareholder value. And that's what we're focused on doing."

This much is certain: Martore now has fewer than three years to see her strategy to fruition; she faces mandatory retirement age when she turns 65 in September 2016. The president of the broadcasting division, Dave Lougee, is a logical successor. He's 54 and came to Gannett six years ago from Belo after a long TV career, a professional pedigree that doesn't show tremendous interest in newspapers.

Martore's October analyst teleconference ended, the meeting's mood far less ebullient than the one last March when Gannett mounted its spirited push to sell Madison Avenue on the "New Gannett."

Marketing chief Banikarim, right, with Kennedy at the "upfront."
The public relations campaign unfolded in midtown Manhattan with an elaborately orchestrated presentation to ad agencies and marketers during Gannett's first-ever upfront sales meeting. The venue was an auditorium at the AXA Equitable Center where Gannett staged a mock TV talk show it videotaped before an audience of 400.

The company's chief marketing officer, Maryam Banikarim, kicked off the meeting, where Gannett introduced itself as a company not just about newspaper brands, but also social media, video and leading-edge "rich media" ad services. At 44 years old, Banikarim is the more youthful face of the refashioned company, a job she got in 2011 as the first-ever marketing chief. (Martore, scheduled to be there, was home with the flu.)

On stage, the host-for-hire, comedian Andrew Kennedy, threw one of many scripted softball questions: "I thought Gannett was a newspaper company?"

Banikarim feigned a gasp. "Well," she said, "a lot of people think that. There's lots of interesting things about Gannett people don't know."

The Oracle of Omaha
Soon, she told the audience about Warren Buffett's just-published annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, where the Nebraska industrialist talked up newspapers in the digital age.

There are good reasons to quote him. As one of the world's top investors, the "Oracle of Omaha" has snapped up more than 65 dailies and weeklies. In his letter, Buffett painted a rosy portrait of the industry's future. (This was before Berkshire dumped all its Gannett stock five months later.)

"My favorite line," Banikarim told the audience, "is where he says, 'wherever there's a pervasive sense of community, a paper with a viable Internet strategy . . . serves the special informational interests of that community and will be indispensable."

She added: "It's like I wrote it myself."

Not quite. Here's a key passage Banikarim left aside:

"We do not believe," Buffett wrote, "that success will come from cutting either the news content or frequency of publication. Indeed, skimpy news coverage will almost certainly lead to skimpy readership. And the less-than-daily publication that is now being tried in some large towns or cities -- while it may improve profits in the short term -- seems certain to diminish the papers’ relevance over time."

And: "Our goal is to keep our papers loaded with content of interest to our readers and to be paid appropriately by those who find us useful, whether the product they view is in their hands or on the Internet."

*  *  *

A postscript
Two months ago, Gannett tore a page from Buffett's playbook, starting a closely watched pilot test of the Butterfly Project. It has restored hundreds of pages of weekly news drained in recent years from four newspapers in New York, Florida, Indiana and Wisconsin. The test includes a new daily local edition of USA Today.

Gannett hopes it will shore up advertising and print circulation when digital subscriptions have failed to gain traction. In the months ahead, it appears likely the initiative will extend to about three dozen of the company's biggest U.S. newspapers. Their combined circulation exceeds 2.3 million weekdays and 3.5 million Sundays.

USA Today, still recovering from a steep dive in ads and circulation, could claim an enormous increase in circulation as well.

It is a huge, surprising bet on print, a sharp turn even as Gannett continues its journey to a digital future that's anything but assured.


  1. Every so often, I like to step back and write about the forest -- instead of just writing about the trees. This is one of those times.

  2. Dubow isn't getting a $32 million payout. This has been pointed out a number of times.

    Jim is an aging blogger who has stumbled at a lot of crossroads.

  3. No one stages a mock event, Jim. Either you stage the event, or you conduct a mock event.

    Bad writing. Bad blogging.

    1. 6:25 PM - Huh? Comment makes no sense.

    2. Sure it does. You just need to have some writing and reading ability.

      It's redundant to say someone staged a mock event. They staged a talk show. They didn't stage a mock talk show.

      But it's good to hear from Jim Persona #1!

    3. Nope. Stage in this case means to produce or mount. It connotes nothing about mockery.

      With that out of the way, however, it must be noted that the average schmo would find little to differentiate a faux talk show from the other kind. After all—they chatted while an audience observed. That sounds real enough to us.

    4. You might be right. But, we were certainly MOCKED for the EVENT.

  4. The subtitle for this novella should be "Jim bashes on female Gannett executives -- again."

  5. It says much about those individuals who are attacking Jim while ignoring what he is writing about.

    1. Hello, Jim Persona #2!

    2. You are so right....only male executives should be criticized. Female execs get carte blanche to screw-up at will.

  6. Ignore those haters, Jim. This is a great read. Business school professors could share this with their students when they teach about "transformation." In the case of GCI, it would be a lesson in how not to manage one.

    Today's GCI is suffering from poor decisions made a decade or more ago. Your piece appropriately spotlights some of the executives who left Gannett in the mess it is today.

    Can Gannett find its way out of this? I hope so. But the company needs some big wins - and quickly. It will take sure-footed leadership, smart long-term strategy and top-notch execution.

    Can GCI deliver? We will see.

    1. This one has more of the elements of a Jim Persona. We've heard some of this before -- how this will be a lesson for business schools, how "sure-footed leadership" is needed.

      The poor decisions were hiring people like Jim and the others here -- if there are any, outside of the Persona -- who have showed their weaknesses.

  7. You could be on to something. Note how Gannett's problems, along with the start of Dumbow's fall from grace, coincide with Jim's blog making its appearance.
    Jim could be the cause of Gannett's downfall.
    The bright news is, he might just still be here soon to write Gannett's epitath.

    1. obituary

    2. You're delusional. Jim is a toilet bug.

    3. The corporate hacks and apologists are out in droves today. Notice how they don't take issue with the message.....only the messenger.

    4. Nope, 12:39. Wrong as usual.

      Some of us are just tired of the chronic venters who can never move on to anything else. Get therapy; buy some adult diapers; but please spare us the bitching that some of you did non-stop when you were still employed. Your workplaces don't miss you.

  8. Yes, Jim is to blame for 20,000 people getting canned, stockholders losing 90% of their value. Naming highly ineffective leaders with misguided plans and subsequent hires. A business model destined as a stop gsp measure. And the purging of the most seasoned content providers, resulting in watered down products. It is all Jim's fault.

    1. You mean the seasoned content providers who have now had at least 5 years -- maybe twice as long -- to compile what seems to be a mountain of proof and to make a case against Gannett for the dismissal pattern? They've spent that time venting.

      You need different idols, son. Some of those people couldn't find their butt with their hands. And they still can't.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    3. Son??? What a sexist assumption.

    4. You must be one of the 5-year venters, 9:17. Has Jim sent you a card? Are you one of the seasoned content providers?

    5. Addressing someone as son does not suggest that an actual filial relationship exists, so it seems there should be no reason to suppose that it refers to the person's actual sex either. Hence, not sexist. In this context, a gal can be "son" (or better yet, "bub").

    6. Girlfriend, please.

  9. Good work on this story, Jim. Thorough, objective and enlightening. Ignore the crackpots.

  10. Dubow and his team had the right idea: Digital is the future and that's where the resources should go. The problem was that almost all of the digital initiatives were failures.

  11. Replies
    1. Jim, this was a great look at a troubled company. I can understand if people disagree. Opinions are like you-know-what. Everybody has one. But I don't understand the personal attacks and the plain weirdness of some of these anti-Jim posts. What sick thrill/satisfaction do people get from attacking a person?

    2. I'll field that one. The thrill comes from Jim allowing you and others to attack people.

    3. Hi 12:52 p.m., your post is an example of posts cited by 11:47 a.m. How about contributing to the discussion instead of getting kicks by sniping at individuals?

  12. There is not 1 print subscriber that knows they are paying for digital as part of their subscription. Isn't that fraud? The digital is not free with print subscription. There is a daily charge for paper & digital. Just letting every print subscriber know they are paying more for digital the the paper on daily basis.

    1. Gannett doesn't tell readers digital access is "free" with their paid print subscriptions. It simply says digital is included in that price.

      That might sound like a distinction without a difference, but it's still there. In any case, Martore has told Wall Street analysts that subscribers are "obviously paying" for their digital access, whether they are told directly or not.

  13. Well done, Jim. It's quite clear that the poor executive leadership has made Gannett bereft of both gutsy, entrepreneurial thought and a meaningful acquisition strategy. Since the directors are too cozy with management to order an executive house-cleaning, they should at least put the company up for sale, either wholesale or piecemeal. Looking at Gannett's various websites serves as a painful daily reminder of the company's shortcomings.

  14. This is an odd posting by Jim.

    In arguing Gannett is missing the digital boat -- a valid point but be interesting to know if ANYONE in "publishing" is making money online -- Jim for some reason finds it necessary to once again empty his notebook and retell the history of Gannett, according to his blog.

    Which also might be OK, but so much of it is just b-matter Jim has stored for reuse over and over again. It's repurposed here even though it has nothing to do with his main thesis. What does Dubow really have to do with decisions being made now? Or decisions that need to be made.

    If Jim was working in a newsroom, two-thirds of his post was be cut as off point and unneeded background.

    Plus, he's wrong on several counts. Pay wall subscriptions ARE being raised (ask readers in Gannett communities like Indianapolis and Rochester), and the so-called Butterfly project is a far bigger deal than the throwaway paragraph he includes at the end.

    Finally, Jim ignores basic tenets of journalism. Dubow's $34 million "package" has been debated continually. But because it hasn't been completely disproven, Jim continues to use the figure as if it is the unvarnished truth.

    In a newsroom, an editor would question the number. "Jim, aren't there people who dispute this number? How can we say it is $34 million?" And it would be hedged to ":what in some accountings could amount to..."

    But it's Jim's blog, so Jim's facts. "An estimated $34 million'' sounds pretty definitive. Period.

    Despite that, this post is full of the precision that marks Jim's reporting skills. But he needs n editor badly. This is simply a roundup of "things I wrote while doing this blog.''

    Most of it is history without context. When and where precisely was the "stumble.'' Failing to make gold out of pennies faces every digital publisher. Where was the wrong turn Gannett made? Bad leaders, sure? But what's the point here?

    And I believe Jim when he says he doesn't post anonymous postings. That is absurd.

    1. Those are great points. But more than two-thirds of that post would be cut. Only a small portion of it is new or relevant.

  15. I never said subscription rates aren't being raised. What I said was they are being increased in a few markets -- but not in an across-the-board manner that would generate a significant increase.

    Also, the figure for Dubow's estimated $32 million payout comes from the last proxy report Gannett sent to shareholders; there won't be any more updated figure, so this is the official estimate by the company. In my reporting, public documents such as these carry the most weight.

    1. And in that proxy, it indicates very clearly that some payouts are based on stock values far above the current price. Read the proxy, Jim. We've covered this before. You keep reporting an inflated figure.

  16. This is the most enlightening piece I have read on this blog. Thank you, Jim, for the research you did while putting it together and the concise manner in which you summarized how this company has approached its digital development.

    I, too, am mystified by the vitriol and personal attacks that have come out in the comments section of this blog. Opinions are always subject to debate of course, but the ugliness expressed by some of your readers is inexcusable in any civilized society. One can only assume that you have touched some nerves that some individuals are trying futilely to guard.

    You are doing a good job here and most of us appreciate your efforts.

    1. And Jim promotes that ugliness. Until he and others figure that out and do something to change it, the ugliness will continue. If you are mystified by that, then you have some issues to work out.

    2. How does Jim promote this ugliness? well, for one thing, he tolerates snide remarks like yours. He should be tougher on posters who just like to admire their own nastiness by putting something online.

  17. A good read, must just wondering Jim, why, you didn"t try to sell, this story, to a business's publication.?(WSJ,etc,]

    1. Because no one would buy it. Because more than three-fourths of it is a cut-and-paste job.

      There are no directly quoted sources, at least in terms of asking people to respond. I'm not sure anyone at Gannett would even talk to Jim. He has no quoted sources from any outside organizations.

      In addition, he touts silly statements like the reader who said: "Free is better than not free." Well, of course.

      Are you serious with this question, Richard? Do you understand how journalism is supposed to work?

    2. When did sherman make you the sheriff?

  18. Gannett G(aaaa)nitt again is unawares of the value of content. It appears they believe it is something that is worth the "paper" it is not written on...they just don't get it.

    When "the paper" finally realizes that the world has rendered them irrelevant, they might eek out a meager existence, but it will not involve wine, champagne or the kicker of them all - employment without accountability any more... they will find themselves irrelevant wantoning for the days of yore.

  19. Tell me what value some recent hires have brought? Banikarim? Beusse? Their cohorts? This is a company that continues to stumble from top to bottom. You can point fingers at the blog, but tale a look at what management tells its employees and Wall Street on a continued basis. The transcripts of Martore's talks are on the website. Read them and see the dance she does. Dubow was even worse. Remember the big pr campaign he did led by Pence? A frigging joke. wether he got $32 million or $10 million, it was far more than he deserved after destroying the company.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    2. Your snarky post says more about you than about the subject of your criticism. Sad.

  20. Whether Dubow received $12 million, $34 million, 12 cents or $350 million, can we agree on one thing: That smirking, smarmy SOB robbed us all and left the company in a far worse place? I can remember him coming to Jackson and meeting with us at the Clarion-Ledger and the entire time he had this creepy, smirking grin while talking about all his great new ideas. How can anyone who cares/cared about this company say that it has had even half-way decent leadership over the last decade? How can anyone say they've had good ideas or made good hires? Please, will someone give me a list of those hires and ideas that they consider good ones over the last 10 years?

  21. I can only tell you of how he totally fucked up Usa Today with Hunke's hiring as publisher. Hunks overloaded the place with senior vice presidents and one bad editorial choice after another. It will never recover.

    1. Hunke was an unmitigated disaster.

  22. Geez people. Jim runs the blog on a $7 a month budget and you expect him to be 60 Minutes. He's doing a tremendous job connecting current and former Gannett employees who find this blog a necessary outlet to vent their frustrations and hear information the company will never tell us. Thanks Jim.....keep on truckin!

    1. Venting: Always the main goal of the now 5-year unemployed. Way to move forward! We laugh at you -- hard and long.

    2. 1:50,
      And yet somehow you seem to show up here just as often. Hmmmmm.....

  23. Why is Heather Frank still employed?

  24. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  25. At least there is someone in an executive capacity who says the emperor isn't wearing any clothes! John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media wrote last month. "Paid digital subscriptions are not a long-term strategy. They don't transform anything; they tweak. At best, they are a short-term tactic."

    1. Oh? What, pray, then is the long-term answer, O great oracle?

    2. Isn't the answer obvious? Layoffs and the Butterfly Project will save Gannett! Ta-da!

  26. Jim: An excellent job of reporting and analysis. A few thoughts:
    Who wants to start a pool to guess how much Gracie's golden parachute will be? She looks like an overachiever compared to Craigy-poo and that's not saying much.
    If this company wants people to pay, whether it is digital or print, you have to give them a quality product. GCI has hit customers with an "Emperor Has No Clothes" scenario too often. The ranks of content providers gets trimmed and customers are expected to believe managements contention that quality hasn't been diminished. Right. And I can put you in this new Lexus for no money down. Underestimating your customer is the fastest way to corporate extinction.People are willing to pay for quality, such as the NYT and WSJ. GCI is nowhere close in Quality.
    Paywalls should have been rolled out while the company still had a good local product to sell. The websites and newspapers are shadows of their former selves, who would pay for this anemic product? But wait-here's Piacasso to save the day, which is just another rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic by hacking up a few lifeboats.
    Why is it that the banking industry started charging for ATM use a few months after introducing them, but the news industry sat on the fence for 15 years?
    And finally to you, dear 1:50 pm, I laugh at you. I'd love to see your face when your corporate overseers lay you off and you realize how wrong you were about them, this company and Jim. The truth hurts like a mutha!

    1. @TruthSquad: "People are willing to pay for quality"

      No, they are not. They don't give a fig about your precious journalism. They never have paid more than a trivial fraction of what it costs to produce, and they never will.

    2. I can tell the truth hurts. You came running to respond to the mention of the 5-year venters.


Jim says: "Proceed with caution; this is a free-for-all comment zone. I try to correct or clarify incorrect information. But I can't catch everything. Please keep your posts focused on Gannett and media-related subjects. Note that I occasionally review comments in advance, to reject inappropriate ones. And I ignore hostile posters, and recommend you do, too."

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