Incompetence and greed” is how a source described corporate, out-of-state management at the Peoria Journal Star, now owned by GateHouse Media headquartered in New York.
Within just the last few months, the newsroom’s already devastated staff was cut by another third.
Two decades ago there were about 35 news reporters; today there are about six, and virtually all of them are on edge waiting for the next announced layoffs. The reporter with the least seniority, next on the layoff list, has more than 20 years in the newsroom and a cache of journalism awards.
The long-term strategy of GateHouse, according to a newsroom source, extends only to the next financial quarter, and there is no concept of quality journalism or sense of responsibility to the community.
Dozens of calls come in to the newsroom everyday from subscribers complaining their newspapers have not been delivered, a source said.
When people in the community ask how the paper is doing, they are universally shocked by the dire response, the source said.
“No, it’s not the internet that’s killing us. It’s incompetence and greed,” the source tells them.
The most recent staffing twist was the layoff of political reporter and city desk editor Chris Kaergard. His job was covered by the Newspaper Guild contract, and his layoff was according to seniority requirements spelled out in the contract.
Recently, managing editor Dennis Anderson announced Kaergard was rehired doing essentially the same job but in a management role not covered by the union.
“That is definitely an end run around a legally enforceable contract,” a source said.
“If Peoria ever wants to be more than it is today, improvement will require a local media presence. TV long ago abrogated its watchdog role, and they (corporate management) are stealing the community’s only remaining watchdog, and the paper is becoming a ‘shopper’ with obits and ads.”
Research bears out the assertion that cities do better when there is a vibrant press playing a watchdog role. A healthy newspaper helps government operate more efficiently, and voters are more informed about candidates’ positions on public policy issues.
Penelope Abernathy, University of Northern California journalism and digital media economics professor, calls these diminished papers “ghost newspapers” because they have divested their watchdog, investigative roles and become primarily advertising supplements.
Today, huge TV screens, set up throughout the newsroom at the Journal Star, monitor second-by-second hits to the paper’s web site. It is a reminder to everyone that the most “eyes” view the most sensationalized police news or features like the one on “Chocolate” a Peoria prostitute – not on policy analysis, city council votes or decisions by the county board.
“We’ve abrogated our role as arbiter of the news,” the source said, predicting that current corporate management will “whittle away at the Journal Star. They’ll continue to squeeze the life out of the paper,” and the Journal Star “is so messed up on all levels. An organized competitor could put the Journal Star out of business, and it wouldn’t take long.”
After a decade without any pay raises, the newsroom staff received a 1 percent increase in September and was promised another 1.75 percent in September 2019 – for anyone still standing.