Feb. 1, 2020  

Column: For a change, some good news about newspapers

When I graduated college and became a newspaper reporter in 2017, I knew what I was getting into. In fact, I got laid off 19 months later from the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Reporters told me it was a “badge of honor.” I don’t want another.

Now I’m approaching one year at the Florida Times-Union, and my faith in this business has been renewed – all in seven hours. 

As a reporter in a climate largely focused on restructuring and downsizing, I was skeptical when told I’d be sent to company training.

When your newsroom is less than half the editorial size it used to be, it’s easy to feel disenchanted with the corporate side of the industry you love. 


But Gannett’s two separate, free training sessions — where about 70 reporters from across the state met in Melbourne and Sarasota newsrooms — were different. Not just for what they did, but for what they didn’t do.

Neither analytics, metrics, nor clicks were mentioned once during an eight-hour training session on investigative reporting. A refreshing change of pace in an industry that so often harps on click-performance. 

And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. 

“The training was a breath of fresh, energizing air,” Nikki Ross, a Daytona Beach News-Journal health reporter said. “What really made the entire experience was that instead of pushing content that would get the most page views, the focus was on quality, in depth reporting that could lead to a great investigative piece.”

Sessions were led by company powerhouses including USA TODAY Executive Editor and VP of Investigations Chris Davis and Gannett Managing Editor of Regional Data and Investigations Emily Le Coz. Senior Vice President of News Bill Church sat in the audience amongst the reporters and spoke during a lunch panel. 

The heart and soul of impactful journalism is storytelling that resonates with our intended audience,” Church told me via email. “Training that helps journalists understand the science and art of their craft seems the natural path.” 

Mackenzie Warren, Gannett’s senior director of news strategy, organized the training. 

“Our mission is to improve our community. We think that’s through telling the truth, telling it completely and putting it into context,” Warren said. “In order to tell the good and the bad we need to ultimately decide what’s true and that’s where investigative journalism is so vitally important.”

Gannett’s training focused largely on merging storytelling tactics with new technology to make reporters’ lives easier, using Google Toolbox programs and graphic generators like Flourish.

A Google News Lab trainer gave reporters and editors pointers for data reporting at both sessions. 

“Investigative journalism is in a new and different phase through some of the new tools and tech we went over,” Warren said. “But on the other hand, when we went over a story line-by-line and paragraph by paragraph … those were methods used years ago.”  

Warren, who designs curriculum for Gannett employees across the country — including technology training and Leadership Academies — said the watchdog program we experienced last week came about at the end of 2019, around the time of the Gannett-Gatehouse merger. 

“I was thinking I’d be asked to come up with a more modest plan. Instead, what I got from our top executives was ‘let’s invest more,’” Warren said. “It turned into a series of investigative and watchdog workshops, not over webinars, but in person where people can roll up their sleeves and meet one another.” 

The plan is reportedly to expand these workshops nationally with at least 12 additional sessions planned across the country this year. 

In recent months, messaging about the company merger has noted buyouts and layoffs, with hundreds of newsroom and non-newsroom jobs (like IT and advertising employees) lost since December. According to Florida Times-Union reporter and Times-Union Guild President Andrew Pantazi, more than 400 Gannett or Gatehouse employees were laid off in the last two months. 

And it’s not just Gannett. Across the country, newsrooms are shrinking with publishers that own Florida papers, like Tribune and McClatchy, offering buyouts. According to the Pew Research Center, 25 percent of newsroom employees were laid off between 2008 and 2018. 

These numbers aren’t lost on the reporters that attended training, which ranged from entry-level reporters to seasoned editors. 

“Though yes, it was refreshing to be able to spend a day away from the daily grind to focus on bettering myself as a reporter, at times it felt removed from the realities of our newsrooms, where — at least at The [Palm Beach] Post — we have had unexpected layoffs, stagnant salaries and no mention of bonuses,” Palm Beach Post Breaking News Reporter Olivia Hitchcock said. “[Thursday] encompassed many of the reasons why I got into journalism.”

Currently, no company-wide pay study is available for Gannett or formerly Gatehouse employees. That said, based off an admittedly small pool of Florida Gannett and Gatehouse employees who publicly disclosed their salaries, editorial employees in Florida are making as little as $26,000 in some situations. 

But for at least a day, we didn’t have to think about them — or frankly, anything else. 

“Everybody in that room got to think of nothing but them for the day and I thought that was really remarkable,” Warren said. “I didn’t see people checking their email and having to juggle five things. I saw people completely locked in.” 

A word reporters I spoke with kept using about the training was “refreshing” because of its focus on storytelling. That includes TC Palm Education Reporter Sommer Brugal. 

“I’d be kidding myself if I said page views weren’t something I looked at. And sometimes, how many people read my story impacts my overall feelings toward it,” Brugal said. “[Thursday’s] event reminded me that powerful storytelling is and continues to be why I became a journalist and I’m grateful to be surrounded with reporters who think the same.” 

Of course, this isn’t to say page views aren’t important. What good is a strong product if no one’s seeing it? Warren said the fact that training didn’t touch on metrics wasn’t on purpose, but happened organically, saying it reflects the company’s value in strong journalism first. He added that he plans to actively continue to separate the two in future watchdog training sessions. 

“I think where you spend your time and your money is where your priorities are,” Warren added. “It demonstrates where the truth lies. We’re all really happy about what the answer is.” 

Takes like this on view for all to see leave young reporters like myself hopeful. 

So as staffs across the country are sitting on pins and needles, wondering who company buyouts and looming layoffs will affect, it’s encouraging to see an emphasis on taking care of the employees that remain. 

Emily Bloch is the president of SPJ Florida. She covers education, government and internet culture for The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. 

One of SPJ Florida’s missions is to provide Florida journalists with free, accessible training. If you want training like this, or for something specific (like Facebook or media literacy) for your city, contact spjflorida@gmail.com. 

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