What Are They Thinking? Larry Kramer and the Reshaping of Gannett

Posted on June 5, 2015

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Will the new Gannett be like the old Gannett?

The company is completing its split-up process. The goal: by July 1, the broadcast and digital assets investors covet will spin into TEGNA. That division follows in the broadcast/print separation footsteps of News Corp, Tribune, Media General, Belo and Scripps before it. “Gannett” returns to its roots, a newspaper-centered company, now hurtling into the digital age. Gannett now owns USA Today, its flagship ,and 92 dailies, as it completed its acquisition of eleven smaller dailies in New Mexico, Texas and Pennsylvania on Monday, which I had earlier reported was in the works.

What may emerge out of this particular split may be surprising—and set a possible new precedent in the management of the regional and news chains that stretch from coast to coast. The new Gannett is edging closer to singular editorial direction, as it begins to reveal its new organization post-split.

In that reorganization, USA Today Publisher Larry Kramer has already been named chief content officer of the company, while retaining his USA Today responsibilities. In an announcement, Bob Dickey, who soon will assusme the title of C.E.O. of the standalone Gannett, said the he would be “uniting our different news businesses into a single, nationwide news powerhouse.”

What does “single’ mean? The company shouldn’t, can’t and won’t connect the dots for us at this point, given legal strictures related to the split.

We can, though, connect most of the dots ourselves.

Under Larry Kramer’s strategy and management, Gannett has acted as a more singular editorial company than ever. In two phases underway, USA Today editor in chief Dave Callaway, Kramer’s unconventional, digitally savvy pick for the job in 2012, has begun to remake the national-local news relationship. Now, with Kramer assuming the chief content officer title, Dickey talking unification and the requirements for editorial efficiency never greater, Gannett may on the brink of singularity itself.

As Larry Kramer becomes chief content officer, will that mean that Gannett’s editors will report to him, at least jointly? Those editors now report solely, within a traditional newspaper structure, to their paper’s publishers. Gannett senior vice president for news Kate Marymont (“My job is to elevate the journalism across Gannett’s local media sites,” says her LinkedIn job description.) leads editorial planning and strategy. Like her peers in similar positions at newspaper companies, she may act as an editorial advocate, but doesn’t have line authority.

We can look at what may be in the offing, but first let’s run some big numbers. If Gannett’s journalists were to be centrally directed, they would comprise 2,700 journalists, the largest single journalistic workforce globally. To be clear, that number doesn’t include another 2,200 content producers who will be employed by the new TEGNA. (Though, let’s note, for now, that while the two journalistic workforces will be split by the new ownership division, expect a mutual content sharing pact to be signed and operational as the companies become legally independent of each other.)

Twenty-seven hundred does top the charts in 2015. The Associated Press, Bloomberg and Reuters each topped out somewhere under 3,000, and have pruned. Now, after trims here and there, restructuring, reassignment and skill-set hires, Reuters stands at 2,500, Bloomberg at 2,400 and AP at 2,300. We can also place the worldwide circulation leader, Japanese daily Yomiuri (circ: 10 million) in that category with about 2,500.

So there it is. Larry Kramer—who built and sold business news site Marketwatch for $519 million in 2005 to Dow Jones—could become the head of the largest newsgathering complement in the world. What might this mean for Gannett, often characterized, fairly and unfairly, as a journalistic also-ran for its middling, middle of the road, middle-rank journalism?

It’s not a hypothetical question.

Kramer and Callaway have been reshaping Gannett journalism for three years.

First, they raised and released the butterfly. Gannett’s butterfly program (“USA Today’s two-year strategic overhaul gains traction”) is well described by Poynter’s Rick Edmonds. The big idea: Create a separate national news section centrally, out of USA Today, and have Gannett’s bigger dailies (those with enough space devoted to national news) run it daily. The program cuts local copy-handling costs, and takes advantage of that singular approach, aiming at both standardization and higher-quality national news selection and presentation. Today, 35 Gannett dailies run the product, and the company has begun syndicating it to other chains, including Schurz. The company says the project has increased profit overall—largely through circulation subscription retention—by more than $25 million.

“We see that readers are seeing and accepting both brands—the local newspaper and USA Today—in their paper,” Kramer told a World Association of Newspapers audience Monday in Washington, D.C. “It’s the combined value that works.”

USA Today led about a dozen investigative projects last year, fueling Phase 2 of the networking. Do police departments really need military equipment? USA Today led the data-rich reporting and then local papers (and broadcasters) did the localization, as here in Cincinnati. “Inside America’s secret biolabs” followed the same path. Two weeks, ago a binge drinking project amassed both national data on the trend and tailored it for local markets. A new project, partnered with ProPublica, is in the works.

These projects have grown more numerous, and according to Gannett editors, better executed. Such national–local collaborations are nothing new, and their execution requires a high level of nuance and organization. Over the years, chain-led national projects—no matter how well done—often haven’t given local editors enough time to prepare their own work; Gannett’s editors see progress on that score. The company has just launched an internal Facebook page to improve such communications.

Yet, all of that is likely prologue.

The next big idea, or Phase 3 of the networking: An everyday alignment of national and local resources. That’s a Rubik’s cube with changing colors thrown in, given the complexities and pace of daily journalism—and it’s a goal no big chain has before set.

Technology must serve as a linchpin to any such plan. Presto, Gannett believes, is the answer. That’s its new content management system, which has within recent months rolled out across all its newspapers. Such a C.M.S. is a gating factor, and that gate has been opened.

USA Today, post split, will employ about 350 journalists, after the now-common rounds of buyouts, layoffs and re-skilling. That newsroom now serves as much as a national bureau and a wire service as a group producing a single title. Within a grander vision of networked, through-the-day cooperation, we can begin to see how—on paper—a new system may work.

Take election coverage. Now that you have take your socks off to count all the Republicans running for President, Gannett will want to make holistic use of its far-flung journalists. USA Today could direct coverage. The Des Moines Register again finds itself in the thick of the Iowa caucuses. Tallahassee and Fort Myers have been tracking Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio for years, and the Louisville Press Courier knows a thing or two about Rand Paul.

On immigration, Gannett’s Arizona Republic knows the regional issues. In automotive, there’s the Detroit Free Press.

Editors have been melding national and local journalism, as they can, for a long time, of course. The difference here may be twofold.

Increasingly, the main news output skews digital, and in digital publishing the mixing and matching of stories, infographics, videos, photos and more is far more flexible than in print.

Secondly, Gannett, like many newspaper companies, has already been through the hell of cutback. Whether we can say that local operations would simply be more receptive, or have been beaten down, the ability to force a more singular approach to news looms easier in 2015 than it would have been in 2005. Theoretically, the national-local network produces more efficiency—and more usable content from the same resources. That would, once again hypothetically, free up diminished local reporting resources to do local reporting.

Anyone who’s led or worked in a newsroom can be properly skeptical about this would-be singular approach. Will it really allow the local papers to do more local reporting, which is what their communities most need? The plan could also be dismissed as just one more in a line of Gannett “newsroom of the future” would-be pronouncements.

If, and as, it does come to pass, let’s remember a couple of things.

First, technology and the economics of the business inevitably push change in this direction. Second, Larry Kramer and Dave Callaway can’t be dismissed as the usual Gannett change agents. Both are well respected, seasoned journalists, steeped in digital change. Further, Kramer brings both a journalistic and consumer orientation to his post. He’s an editor who mastered the internet business and then took a job he didn’t need, as I noted (“Newsonomics: 10 Top Snapshots on Larry Kramer’s USA Today“). when he was appointed. That’s a rare, maybe unique combination of experience and skills for someone heading a large journalistic workforce.

Should Kramer be given direct authority for Gannett’s 2,700 journalists, the act would be precedent-setting. Even short of that, though, the new company—still the largest newspaper company in the U.S. by revenue—will see unprecedented efforts to re-weave national and local news together

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