The Tribune’s “Tragedy”

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Eighteen months after GateHouse Media bought the family-owned Columbia Daily Tribune, the staff has been slashed, readers are frustrated and circulation has plunged.

No doubt daily newspapers have retrenched within the last 10 years in the face of market challenges. But the Tribune has been bled dry to achieve financial results. As of mid-February, layoffs and departures had left the newspaper with one fulltime reporter in a city of more than 100,000.

The publishing plant of the Columbia Daily Tribune

“What we are seeing here is a tragedy–a journalistic and civic tragedy,” said George Kennedy, former associate dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “One of the country’s best small-sized newspapers has been gutted.”

Kennedy is the former managing editor of the Columbia Missourian, the journalism school’s teaching newspaper. He knows from experience what developments are going uncovered under the newspaper’s new ownership.

“Apparently the operational approach of GateHouse, unlike other publishers, is to strip as much as they can out of the expense side, the journalistic side, and maximize profit, which is almost inevitably a pretty short term approach to things,” Kennedy said.

Columbia might feel the Tribune’s demise more acutely than other cities, since it hosts the nation’s oldest journalism school, and many readers know the value of a local newspaper. Since the GateHouse acquisition, 3,000 daily subscribers and 4,300 on Sunday have quit taking the Tribune.

The sale has cast a shadow over the legacy of the Waters family, which had operated the Tribune since 1905 before selling to GateHouse in October, 2016. After the Tribune’s downward spiral became obvious, Kennedy sent an email to Andy Waters, the newspaper’s former president and general manager.

“I asked if he had any regrets about selling the Tribune, and he said he didn’t,” Kennedy said. “That leaves it up to the rest of us to have regrets.”

“PRUNED SOME LIMBS”

Waters turned down a reporter’s request to be interviewed for this story. “It doesn’t help me or the family to pick off the scab,” he said. “Hopefully, they will make it work.” Waters has a business relationship with GateHouse, since he still owns the buildings that house the Tribune’s operations.

Hank Waters III, Andy’s father and the 88-year-old former publisher emeritus of the Tribune, still writes a regular opinion column. He declined comment.

“I certainly don’t want to participate in a critical second-guessing of GateHouse as steward of a diminished Tribune,” Hank Waters wrote in an email. “It would not be seemly in any event, and I’m still writing for the paper and hoping management will be able to make progress after an early season of admittedly poor results.”

Charles Westmoreland, the Tribune’s managing editor, also declined an interview request. But he directed a reporter to what he has written to the newspaper’s readers, attempting to explain the dramatic changes.

“It hasn’t been a joyride for us either,” Westmoreland wrote a column last Dec. 1.

Shortly after Westmoreland was appointed in May, 2017, 20 staff members were fired. Since then he has been hearing from people who call to cancel. He gets emailed complaints and critical comments through social media. Last fall, a picket appeared on the sidewalk in front of the newspaper’s rented headquarters.

“They often blame corporate greed as the cause, and many think cancelling their subscription will set things right,” Westmoreland wrote. “It’s true we’ve lost some subscribers in 2017, and for every 100 subscribers we lose there’s a $20,000 hole in the budget to fill. So we fill that hole with more cuts, but more subscribers show their disdain of the new changes by cancelling. So we lose another 100 subscribers, and now there’s another $20,0000 hole needing filled. The cycle then repeats over and over and over.”

When GateHouse bought the Tribune, it was an afternoon paper published seven days a week. It had an unusual in-house, “no jump” style in which stories that began on page one had to be completed there without being continued on an inside page.

Dramatic changes began almost immediately after the newspaper was sold. The entire copy desk was let go, and the newspaper switched to morning delivery. The Tribune’s editing and layout functions are now carried out by a GateHouse facility in Austin, Texas, where the copy is processed for many of the chain’s 125 papers.

Whole sections of the newspaper were cast away. Local columnists, some of whom were part timers, were discontinued. In an explanation to readers in June 2017, then-publisher Rustan Burton explained what was happening to the newspaper was a lot like pruning dead branches from a tree to make it healthier.

“We understand that you may be unhappy that we pruned some limbs, but we hope you will be glad that we are still here with deep roots,” Burton wrote. Six months later, Burton was “pruned” when he was replaced as publisher.

“A GUT PUNCH”

According to a Winter, 2018, account in The American Prospect magazine, “The ruthless miserliness of GateHouse management has two effects: It destroys the newspaper’s capacity to do its fundamental job of covering the news, and it makes for miserable employees.”

Journalist Jodie Jackson Jr. can attest to both. When he started at the Tribune in 2008, it had ten reporters and eight editors, including the copy desk. When he left last April there were five reporters.

“How can you even begin to quantify the amount of institutional knowledge, connection with the community, and earned trust among readers?” Jackson said. “Gone.”

Before the sale, in the spring and summer of 2016, Jackson said there were weekly newsroom meetings among reporters and editors. He said there were requests to get executives to provide an update on the paper.

“There had been layoffs and downsizing in other areas, and we were journalists and inquisitive by nature,” Jackson said. “But the requested meetings never happened.”

Jackson said in August, 2016, he went into Andy Waters’ office and asked if the paper was up for sale.

“I had a couple of offers I was reviewing,” Jackson said. “Andy assured me the Tribune would be family owned and independent and not affiliated with some larger publication.” Five weeks later, the newspaper’s employees were assembled and told GateHouse had acquired the Tribune.

“It was a gut punch,” Jackson said. “Those sale negotiations had been going on since March or April of that year. I was obviously disappointed to know that.”

Within 24 hours of the announcement, Jackson’s apprehension was verified. Unsolicited, six individuals, current or former GateHouse employees, contacted him through social media and email messages.

“Every one of them said ‘polish your resume. GateHouse will come in and say everything is fine, and then they will gut the newsroom.’ I had been there longer than anyone in the newsroom. I knew I was on life support.”

After the section of the newsroom that contained the copy desk was vacated, the lights were no longer turned on in that area. “It became a black hole,” Jackson said. “It had an incredibly demoralizing effect on the newsroom, like you were taking one of the organs out of our body.”

There were problems when the pages were laid out in Austin. He said the stories that jumped to the inside sometimes appeared on the wrong pages.

Jackson covered Boone County government. He attended a lot of County Commission work sessions, where each department in county government–public works, the auditor, the treasurer–would meet with the three commissioners.

“You sure got a whole lot better understanding of things going on by attending those meetings,” Jackson said. “I built an incredible rapport with the folks making the news. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

At age 53, Jackson left the newspaper of his own accord. He now writes as part of a three-person marketing team for a health care consulting company.

“IT BECAME ‘MCPAPER’”

When GateHouse announced the Tribune’s acquisition, Jason Taylor, its western division president, said: “We believe in the newspaper, we believe in its people, and we are excited that, by leveraging the national resources of GateHouse Media, we can take this local company to greater heights than ever before.”

Many readers say that hasn’t happened. After John Darkow, the Tribune’s popular editorial cartoonist, was let go along with nineteen other staffers, there was a wave of complaints and cancelations.

“How could they get rid of Darkow?” wondered Roy Fox, who had subscribed since 1991 but cancelled last year. “I considered him a world class editorial cartoonist. That created doubts about the new ownership.”

John O’Connor and his wife, Joan, quit the paper along with two of their children who also had subscriptions. “The main reason was they lost touch with the community,” John O’Connor said.

The Tribune had carried a local column, “The Power Couple,” written by O’Connor’s son, Tom, and his wife, Diana Moxon. The column focused on the challenges a couple faced when trying to modify their home to conserve energy.

When GateHouse took over, the company wanted to retain the copyright to the articles, something the couple would not surrender. The paper dropped the column.

“I missed ‘The Power Couple’,” said Georgia Morehouse, who cancelled her subscription after 53 years. “It lost the feel of a hometown paper. It became ‘McPaper’.”

Dr. Robert Blake, a retired family physician who had served on the UM Medical School faculty for many years, cancelled his subscription last September.

“The quality had steadily declined after the change in ownership,” Blake said. He and his wife, Cokie, were owed a $52 refund. He said he was told they would be reimbursed in a couple of weeks. But the check never came, despite repeated telephone calls.

Dr. Robert Blake, with the sign he used to picket the offices of the Columbia Tribune

After 10 weeks and no refund, Dr. Blake made up a sign that read “The Tribune Owes Us $” and “Where is our Refund?” He began picketing on the sidewalk in front of the newspaper. “That got their attention,” Dr. Blake said. A check for $52 arrived a few days later.

Beth Pike had subscribed to the newspaper since graduating from MU in 1986. She dropped the paper last summer after the mass firing.

“I felt a little guilty at first as I have friends who still work at the Tribune, and they need to stay employed,” she wrote in an email. “Plus, my father worked at the Columbia Tribune for 20 years in circulation, so long ties.”

Pike said when Burton’s message referred to the firings as pruning trees “that just did it for me. I picked up the phone and cancelled my subscription. I also subscribe to the Columbia Missourian, so I don’t miss out on my local news, and have adjusted to not reading the Tribune each day.”

A TWO-NEWSPAPER TOWN

The Missouri Press Association’s newspaper directory for 2016 showed the Tribune’s average daily paid circulation was 14,862, and 17,662 on Sunday. According to third quarter numbers for 2017, the Alliance for Audited Media reported the Tribune’s average daily circulation had dropped to 11,873, a decrease of 20 percent, while Sunday’s was down to 13,368, a drop of 24 percent.

For years the Tribune has promoted itself as a newspaper “run by professionals.” The unspoken dig was that the city’s other daily newspaper, the Columbia Missourian, was staffed by journalists in training–MU journalism school students–under the direction of faculty editors. The Missourian has a morning edition published five days a week.

It promotes itself as “locally owned.” Darkow’s editorial cartoons now appear in its pages, and editors are trying to capture the Tribune’s lost subscribers. A study conducted late last year and presented to Missourian editors Dec. 7 showed that the Tribune had alienated local readers.

The research, undertaken by an MU journalism class as a capstone project, showed the Missourian benefitted from the connection to the community while its weakness was the turnover among the student reporters. The project was designed to create a marketing plan for how the Missourian could increase subscribers and draw readers to its digital pages.

“Our news product is far superior to the Tribune’s on a day-to-day basis,” said Scott Swafford, the Missourian’s senior city editor. Swafford said the Missourian’s circulation, about 1,100, was “puny” but twice what it was a year ago.

Swafford had worked at the Tribune as a reporter and editor from 1990 to 2003, before coming to the Missourian 14 years ago. He teaches journalism classes and supervises reporters covering city and county government.

In an interview, Swafford ticked off the topics the Missourian has tackled such as disclosures about the opioid crisis and untested rape kits. “Our public safety beat has done some good investigative reporting that the Tribune isn’t in a position to touch.”

In Westmoreland’s appeal to readers, written last December, he said, “Columbia will get the newspaper it’s willing to pay for. It’s that simple. Quality journalism is an investment. And like any investment, you don’t always see your return immediately.”

Swafford said Westmoreland’s approach “is exactly backward.

“To think people are going to subscribe to a newspaper in hopes that someday it will get better is a fallacy,” he said. “You’ve got to put out a product that people want and feel like they need if they are going to stay on top of things.”

VACUUMING PROFITS

The Tribune experience can be compared to that of another newspaper, once family-owned, just 30 miles south of Columbia. In 2008, the Weldon family heirs sold the Jefferson City News-Tribune along with two other nearby papers to WEHCO Media, Inc., based in Little Rock, Ark.

The News-Tribune did not go through the turmoil the Columbia paper has encountered. It now has seven full-time and two part-time reporters. According to the Missouri Press Association, the Jefferson City paper has an average daily paid circulation of about 15,000, and Sunday sales of 18,000 in a city with a population of about 43,000.

The difference in the operations of the two papers is the fact that GateHouse Media operates one of them.

“The thing to know is that all of the GateHouse properties continue to turn a profit,” said Shannon Duffy, the business representative of the United Media Guild headquartered in St. Louis. “But none of the profit gets put back into the property, the employees or the community. All the profits are vacuumed up and sent up the food chain to the few people at the top of the food chain in midtown Manhattan. There, Michael Reed, the CEO, and other executives, they pay themselves all these nice bonuses. Anytime there is a layoff, they get bonuses for finding efficiencies. It is a business model of extraction.”

Local newspaper owners have a stake in their communities. Even professional managers who operated large chains in the past made decisions that placed good journalism high on the agenda. But the private equity newspaper buyers of today focus only on performance.

“Private equity has been gobbling up newspapers across the country and systematically squeezing the life out of them to produce windfall profits, while the papers last,” reported the American Prospect. “The cost to democracy is incalculable. Robust civic life depends on good local newspapers. Without informed dialogue that a newspaper enables, the public business is the private province of the local commercial elite, voters are uniformed, and elected officials are unaccountable.”

The word in Columbia journalism circles is that the Tribune’s managers will eventually settle on a core reporting staff of four. But for now, the only local reporter is veteran Rudi Keller, whose career has been distinguished by significant investigative journalism.

Twenty-five years ago, he reported the major developments in a series of mysterious deaths at the Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital in Columbia. Keller scored a significant beat on Feb. 14, when he reported exclusively that a Russian “troll farm” had aggravated the protests that had taken place on the University of Missouri campus in 2015.

“Russian Twitter trolls pounced on the University of Missouri’s woes in 2015, using the same techniques they applied to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, a U.S. Air Force officer wrote in an article published recently in Strategic Studies Quarterly,” Keller’s story said. Other local and national publications chased Keller’s story.

Since the acquisition by GateHouse, Keller goes wherever the big story of the day is breaking. In recent weeks, his byline has appeared over stories about Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ extramarital affair with his beautician, MU budget cuts, and a dispute over a permit for a large animal farm in neighboring Cooper County.

 

“Rudi is one of the best reporters in the state,” Kennedy said. “But as formidable as Rudi is, I don’t think he’s capable of covering the full spectrum of what’s new and important.”

The headquarters building of the Columbia Missourian

(Terry Ganey is a former reporter for the Associated Press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Columbia Daily Tribune.)

  • sarahdohack

    ““They often blame corporate greed as the cause, and many think cancelling their subscription will set things right,” Westmoreland wrote.” Ex-subscribers know corporate greed is the cause, and are cancelling their subscription because the product stinks

  • al germond

    In a legal notice the newspaper is required to publish every Fall, the average daily paid circulation (Monday-Saturday; no Sunday publication) for the 12-month period ending September 30, 1952, was 9411. The affidavit was signed by H.J. Waters, Jr. (1901-1975), listed as “editor” and attested to by M.D. Jett, the newspaper’s business manager. Columbia’s population at the time was around 33,000. The newspaper’s area of influence also included Cooper (Boonville) and Howard (Fayette-New Franklin-Glasgow) County. Reported circulation as recently at ten years ago was as high as 24,000 though coverage and presumably circulation in the adjoining counties was considerably reduced. A number of interesting historical morsels to consider including the family’s control of KFRU, Inc. between 1948 and 1989 (H.J. Waters, Jr. 55%; Mahlon R. Aldridge, Jr. 45%. Acquisition price $85,000. H.J. Waters III acquired Aldridge’s share in 1984 two years before the latter died.); failure to secure an FM adjunct for KFRU (1948-89); apparent complacency about commercial television while MFA, Inc. and MU opposed each other for the Channel 8 construction permit (1952-3); decertification of ITU Local 160 and NLRB sanctions when the newspaper introduced cold-type technology (1971-2) in lieu of hot-metal and the cable television imbroglio in Columbia that dragged out for 20 years (1957-77) in part due to city council opposition and delay because Waters-Aldridge held minority positions (about 11% total) in the local franchise application proposed by International Telemeter, the firm best suited technically to provide cable TV service via microwave importation of stations from St. Louis and Kansas City. Destructive forces are at play here including the collapse formerly lucrative revenue streams (classified ads, run-of-press display advertising) and the consolidation of retail activity nationwide into fewer and fewer clients to call on to sell advertising space to.

  • SCF

    Compare a newspaper to say a grocery store, especially those two industries in the 1990s. Grocery stores where fighting over pennies for profit per unit. Most newspapers then that were even somewhat decently run could make 20 percent profits (pre-Internet). There is evidence that most newspapers today can still net 5 to 10 percent profits, but those are the aggressive marketers who don’t rest on finding any revenue stream they can get their hands on. Missouri has a strong a history of family ownership. The Mexico Ledger was one of the strongest small market family run papers in the nation before it went through a series of chain ownerships that left it soul-less. There where stories (rumored or true) that in the mid-1990s, the Jefferson City News Tribune company was one of the most profitable and desirable takeover targets of any newspaper group in the nation (were they making 30% profit margins?). The Columbia Tribune lasted in family ownership longer than either of those papers, so that by itself is commendable. So ask yourself this: When does a family have the right to sell a business that has deep community ties? No one who was born into a family business will quite understand this, and its not as simple as a money grab. Industries change, just like the times. Should we hold the Waters or Weldon families any differently than those industries who went from the same way from family to corporate ownership? What Gateway is doing is deplorable and in no way should anyone be supporting their lackluster “commitment” to journalism. We should be demanding engaged ownership from all the businesses we patronize though, regardless of where the owners, partners or corporations reside.

  • The biggest benefit, I suppose, of such ruinous management of newspapers, is the owners don’t have to deal with real journalists eventually. I remember the Tribune when I was in journalism school in Colombia. It was always fun to compete with them. We can only hope that the profits stop, they sell it off to a family with some integrity. Obviously, not the ones who sold out Colombia for a quick buck. Even back then (late 80s) the owners of the Tribune were not held in very high regard.

  • Granny Jan

    I quit subscribing to the Trib before the sale. The liberal slant was so heavy that they insulted a goodly portion of their audience who weren’t lefties. They used to have a few good conservative columnists like Walter Williams, but those were discontinued because “they weren’t part of the package” the paper bought. The new format was hard to read and the ink came off on your fingers. When it comes to classified ads, they seem to have made themselves irrelevant. These days my sister takes the paper only for its TV guide and the obituaries.

  • Andrew

    I got to quit, not be laid off, two different newspapers that Gatehouse bought. First time I lasted about 2 years before their torture tactics nearly ruined me. The second time, I almost walked out the day of the purchase, instead for the sake of money I stuck around for 4 months before realizing the money wasn’t worth it.

    Everyone has a knife over your head the minute Hatehouse buys your newspaper. I’m totally out of the journalism industry now, but where I work is a happy environment and the pay is WAY better. I miss writing a bit, but I wouldn’t trade my new near rock bottom stress level for anything.

    There won’t be print media in 10 years, and it won’t be the internet’s fault. It will be Hatehouse’s leech tactics for short term profit.

  • Same story, told a hundred times it seems. Once they purchased the Boonville Daily News it was a fast death cycle. How that paper is even still in business is beyond me.

  • Michael Martin

    Gatehouse is in everybody’s dog house, and the discussion of corporate
    derring-don’t in this piece is in keeping with most of what I’ve read,
    heard, and observed.

    But the idea that Gatehouse alone planted the seeds of downfall rings hollow to me. The previous ownership ceded a great deal of its moral and journalistic authority by getting too cozy with power; letting conflicts of interest intrude; peddling and profiting from influence; and bullying people, with ink by the barrel, who tried to change the inequitable community dynamics they spent generations fostering.

    If anyone should have expected anything, it might have been that these same folks disposed of their enterprise the way Jodie Jackson and others have described: non-transparently, and with little regard for any but themselves.

  • sociologact

    Gatehouse seems to have no interest in quality journalism. It seems more a predatory corporation that is milking the assets of the Tribune. My guess is that when they have sucked it dry, they will discard the husk. The demise of what was once a high quality paper is a tragedy for Columbia and a threat to local democracy. Sadly, we will not be renewing our subscription. We have been subscribers since 1971.

  • Roger Vaughn

    Tribune subscribers and Columbia got what they should have expected. Gatehouse does this to every newspaper they purchase. It’s not about news…. it’s about how much profit can they make from as little investment in the paper as possible.