The future of local newspapers looks bleak, but one local journalist says the advent of the Internet isn’t the only factor to blame.
Peoria Journal Star columnist Phil Luciano was featured in a Sunday special section of the New York Times focused on the future of print journalism.
Advertising revenue has shifted from traditional print media to digital over the last two decades as the Internet has proliferated more into people's daily lives. Overall newspaper circulation is also plummeting at a rapid pace, down to 28 million in 2018 from 62 million 30 years ago, according to Pew Research Center data.
Luciano said downstate Illinois’ largest paper is still operating in the black, but is starving for resources.
“They’re more interested in plundering the newspapers for the benefit of the front offices, stakeholders, shareholders, those types of folks, and they’re using job cuts, to a large degree, to bolster their bottom line," he says of major newspaper companies like the Journal Star's parent company, hedge-fund controlled GateHouse Media.
Luciano says this situation isn’t unique to GateHouse, the country's largest newspaper company by number of publications. Waves of buyouts and layoffs at the Journal Star and other local GateHouse publications like the Pekin Daily Times and Canton Daily Ledger in recent years, as journalists with decades of experience leave their papers, often with no replacements to fill the vacancies they leave behind.
Luciano says the paper is down to five reporters in the newsroom and two in the sports department represented by the Peoria News Guild, the newsroom employees' union. That's down from dozens of staffers in the paper's prime.
Luciano says the paper no longer has a person dedicated to covering Caterpillar, which is still the Peoria area's single largest employer even after the Fortune 500 company moved its world headquarters to Deerfield two years ago.
“It’s not like the paper doesn’t want to have a Caterpillar reporter. It’s just that we’re in flux. And we’re trying to figure out how to do the many, many things that we want to do, and I would say we need to do, but we just don’t have the bodies anymore," he said.
The Peoria metropolitan area on which the paper focuses the most attention is home to nearly 380,000 people. The Journal Star has a wide circulation area throughout much of Central and Western Illinois, but the vast majority of coverage hones in on the immediate Tri-County area as the paper scales back its coverage footprint.
Former Peoria Journal Star Business Editor Steve Tarter recently wrote weekday circulation has fallen below 30,000 copies. That's less than half the 67,000 the paper touted as recently as 2002.
The paper was locally owned for most of its existence, before it and the Galesburg Register-Mail were sold to Copley in 1996. Copley sold most of its papers to GateHouse in 2007.
Newspaper consolidation and the job cuts it often brings aren't likely to slow down any time soon. Recent data released by the Pew Research Center in July indicates overall newsroom employment in the U.S. fell by 25 percent between 2008 and 2018. At newspapers, the dip over that same time span was 47 percent. Newspaper employees now make up less than half of all journalists working in a newsroom in America.
GateHouse parent company New Media Investment Group announced a deal to acquire newspaper chain Gannett on Monday. Veteran media industry watcher Ken Doctor said if the U.S. Department of Justice approves the deal, it could spur other major newspaper companies like Lee Enterprises, Tribune and McClatchy to accelerate efforts to launch their own merger efforts.
On his part, Luciano said he has sought some type of business model from GateHouse Media to adapt to the changing media landscape. He said the company describes shifting to more digital content. While that's a delivery model, he said he doesn't know how that addresses the underlying issue.
"We still need bodies, we still need reporters, we still need journalists to produce the content. You can't just say 'digital.' You need people to cover the news," he said.
We reached out to GateHouse for comments on its strategy in the digital age and layoffs at the Peoria Journal Star, but haven't heard back.
Tarter also recently opined on this topic on his Facebook page, Tarter Source.