Home>Media>Citing lack of readership and negative effect on revenue, Gannett moving away from editorial content

Decommissioned Gannett newspaper vending machines. (Photo: Facebook.)

Citing lack of readership and negative effect on revenue, Gannett moving away from editorial content

Ex-Asbury Park Press editorial page editor calls move ‘journalistic malpractice’

By David Wildstein, June 10 2022 11:58 am

Gannett is severely decreasing and reimaging their editorial sections, scaling back on political endorsements, letters to the editor, syndicated columns and editorial cartoons because they think its opinion pages are “alienating readers and becoming obsolete,” the Washington Post reported on Thursday.

The Post cited an internal document they obtained from a presentation on the future of editorial pages made in April by a committee of editors.

“They don’t believe we have the expertise to tell anyone what to think on most issues,” the committee said.  “They perceive us as having a biased agenda.”

The report noted that Gannett believes “editorials, guest commentary columns, op-eds and letters to the editor have lost relevance in an age when opinions overflow on social media.”

Randy Bergmann, who was the editorial page editor of the Asbury Park Press until his job was eliminated in 2020, said in a Facebook post that newspapers have an obligation to provide readers with “opinion leadership.”

“From my earliest days as a journalist, I believed that opinion leadership was an essential ingredient in a newspaper’s mission,” Bergmann said.  “Today, I believe that more than ever.  It is the one place people can go – or at least could go — to find a mix of informed viewpoints on important topics — informed being the operative word.”

Former Asbury Park Press editorial page editor Randy Bergmann. (Photo: Randy Bergmann).

The Gannett committee said editorials and opinion content were “among our least read content,” and that a “frequent” reason readers offered for cancelling their subscriptions were the opinion pages of the newspaper, the Post reported.

Bergmann called that “journalistic malpractice.”

“Gannett began cutting back on editorials, commentary and letters to the editor largely for two reasons: they weren’t generating enough page views and, in this highly polarized climate, strong opinions were sure to alienate half their readers or more,” Bergmann stated.  “So much for opinion leadership and editorial courage.”

He acknowledged that editorials and op-eds produce lower page views than some other stories but noted that “they are viewed in disproportionate numbers by public officials and decision-makers.”

According to Bergmann, the move by the Gannett chain, which owns nine daily newspapers in New Jersey, has “contributed to the political polarization and ill-informed views on issues” and “diminished newspapers’ watchdog function.”

“Editorial writers and editors are an important piece of the watchdog responsibility of journalism, often going beyond the reporting of the story and providing context sometimes missing from important news stories,” said Bergmann.  “For weeklies and small and mid-sized dailies, editorials on local topics can have a significant impact.”

Recommendations made by Gannett’s committee of editors are not mandatory for now, the report said.

The (Bergen) Record, one of the Gannett properties, appears to have already implemented the plan.  Their editorial and opinion page now appears in print editions only on Sundays, and their website shows just one New Jersey editorial so far this year.

Six editorials appearing online since May 2021 include endorsements for Gov. Phil Murphy and a random endorsement of two Teaneck ballot initiatives, and two editorials in support of themselves: a pitch for a federal law that would curb the role of technology companies and social media platforms in distributing their news stories without compensation; and a second that asks the New Jersey congressional delegation to vote for that bill.

Most of their op-eds appear only in their digital edition and not in print.  That’s probably not a big deal, since Gannett’s own leadership admits that most people don’t read them.

The executive editor of The Record and NorthJersey.com, Dan Sforza, did not immediately respond to a 9:21 AM request for comment.

“Good editorials and editorial pages do have an impact,” Bergmann noted.  “In our digital age, where misinformation is pandemic, newspapers’ obligation to provide opinion leadership is greater than ever.”

The (Bergen) Record editorial and opinion page on Sunday, June 5, 2022. (Screen Shot: The Record).
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