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Flailing News Chain Gannett Cuts Back on Opinion Pages

Younger readers say they can’t tell the difference between news and opinion

Virginia-based Gannett, the largest newspaper chainin the United States, owns of owns USA Today and also 260 dailies and more than 170 paid weeklies in 46 states.

And it is floundering in red ink.

According to the Washington Post, “Gannett lost $670 million in 2020, and $135 million last year.” As the losses head for a cumulative billion, it has made a seemingly radical decision: Cut back on opinion pages. Here’s some of the reasoning, according to the Post (which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos):

Gannett says its internal research — primarily reader surveys — suggests editorials, guest commentary columns, op-eds and letters to the editor have lost relevance in an age when opinions overflow on social media. Younger readers, according to the company, often can’t tell the difference between news reporting and opinion, especially online, where stories appear outside traditional sections. Worse, readers often mistakenly believe that news stories are dictated by the paper’s editorial side.

“Today’s contemporary audiences frequently are unable to distinguish between objective news reporting and Opinion content,” the editorial committee wrote in an earlier iteration of its recommendations in 2018. “In the old days, content appearing on print pages that were clearly labeled helped alleviate those concerns, along with a society that possessed a higher news literacy. But in today’s digital/social environment, we as an industry have been challenged to make these differences clear.”

The company now recommends that its papers steer clear of making endorsements in presidential, House and Senate races, given their waning influence and potential to turn away some readers.

Meryl Kornfield and Paul Farhi, “Unpopular opinion at Gannett papers” at Washington Post (June 9, 2022)

Some reactions from the field:

“Randy Bergmann warned Gannett that scaling back the editorial pages, which he oversaw for 18 years at New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press before he was laid off in 2020, would be a mistake, telling the Post, “I argued that opinion leadership was one of the most important functions of the newspaper… I saw the impact of the editorials that I wrote at a local level.”” – Joseph A.Wulfsohn, Fox News (June 10, 2022)

“I received tips or complaints from a half-dozen retired editors, who see the changes as a veiled cost-cutting move and abdication of the principle that a newspaper needs to stand for something and say so regularly … But I get that there probably is a generational divide at play. Older readers, who have stuck with print or e-editions, may — like the retired editors I heard from — view editorial pages as an essential (however much the material is read).” – Rick Edmonds, Poynter (June 8, 2022)

“The editors added opinion pieces are among the least read content published by Gannett. Simultaneously, they are the most cited reason when subscriptions are cancelled. While the company recognizes editorial sections are part of traditional models for print publications, the Post reported the company believes they are “repelling” readers.” – Kipp Jones, Mediaite (June 9, 2022)

What to think? Well, first, one of the many changes social media have created is the democratization of publishing. A blog post that costs nothing to read may be the opinion of an expert in the field. A popular blog post by the expert may attract hundreds of comments. Increasingly, sites do require readers to pay to read, post comments or even read comments. But the reader is selecting that content from hundreds of available options.

Now, if we go back to the criticism of opinion pages above, the looming reality is that they’re obsolete. Experts in environment awareness, aging, or criminal justice reform — to take some examples — can all reach a broad public via the internet and social media. If you want to hear about criminal justice reform, you can go right to experts; you don’t need to scan opinion pages hoping that one of the experts will be featured. That’s the fundamental reason that the pages are much less read than formerly.

Then there is the matter of news being indistinguishable from opinion and of newspapers giving offence by endorsing candidates. That’s more complex — it involves trust issues — and we’ll look at it next.

Next: Is there a direction to journalism’s bias? Does it matter?

Note: Some of the papers Gannett owns: “Among the most prominent newspapers Gannett owns alongside USA Today include The Des Moines Register, The Detroit Free Press, The Indianapolis Star, The Tennessean, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Louisville Courier-Journal and The Cincinnati Enquirer.Fox News (June 10, 2022)

You may also wish to read: The cultural changes that destroyed trust in media The critical question isn’t whether traditional media are trusted but whether their model can even survive the tsunami of the internet. It’s difficult for any traditional medium to match the immediacy, personalization, and breadth of social media — consumers create their own news channels now.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Flailing News Chain Gannett Cuts Back on Opinion Pages