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Just My Luck (Gwen Moritz Editor’s Note)

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Last week was a very bad one in the news industry, and you should care about that. Gannett, one of the largest newspaper chains in the country, cut newsroom jobs across its footprint.

“The cuts were not minor,” Tom Jones wrote for the Poynter Institute, the venerable Florida journalism think tank. The layoffs included local celebrities, like columnist Tim Swarens at the Indianapolis Star; journalists whose work is captured in family scrapbooks, like The Tennessean’s high school sports reporter, Michael Murphy; and talents that have been recognized with the highest honors, like the Arizona Republic’s Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Steve Benson.

The Knoxville News Sentinel laid off veteran sportswriter Dan Fleser, who covered women’s basketball at the University of Tennessee. “On and on it continued,” Jones wrote. Six at The Record in New Jersey, where nine took early retirement earlier this month. Four in Westchester, New York; four in Ventura County, California; three in Asheville, North Carolina.

And that’s just part of the damage at Gannett, and Gannett is just one company struggling with the bottom line. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week renewed buyout offers to some older journalists — and there are some roles in which there’s no substitute for time on task. BuzzFeed, originally a clickbait website that has tried with uneven results to become a serious news source, announced that 15 percent of its reporting staff would lose their jobs.

The Trump administration has been a journalistic and financial gift to The New York Times and the Washington Post, which have ramped up their federal government coverage in response to the president’s — how should I put this? — desire to blow up every presidential norm. But that reporting niche, which has supercharged revenue from readers, is not going to save local newspapers in flyover country. The vast majority of daily local newspapers are cash-starved — the first industry to starve to death when consumer demand for its product is at an all-time high.

Walter Hussman, owner and publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is one of the sharpest business minds in the industry, but his early warnings about devaluing news by giving it away free on the internet were not heeded. Now he’s using the internet as the sole delivery mechanism for his daily news product to a growing portion of the state. His iPad subscription offer is mighty appealing — and I hope it works, because the Democrat-Gazette is vital to me personally and professionally.

So I definitely am worried about the future of daily newspapers and the problem of having enough revenue to support robust reporting staffs, regardless of the method by which they deliver their stories. But I do have some good news to report: The news niche occupied by business journals is still healthy. I know this is true generally because I am an officer of a national organization of local business journals, the Alliance of Area Business Publishers. And I know it is true at Arkansas Business; we have not laid off reporters nor traded expensive experience for cheaper potential.

What we have done is adjust our online policy so that subscribers — those who actually pay for our product — get to see the news they are paying for before the freeloaders. It was a scary change to make, back in May 2017, since we had also ignored Mr. Hussman’s counsel. Since then, our paid circulation has reached an all-time high, which I take as a compliment to our staff and confirmation that our content remains compelling to the audience we seek to serve.

I stumbled into the business journal niche in 1991 in Nashville, Tennessee. Back then, business journals were the stepchildren of local print news, but the job appealed to me because I needed hours regular enough for a working mother. I had no idea then — or even eight years later, when I took the job as editor of Arkansas Business — that the internet would completely disrupt the old news hierarchy. I’m not prescient, just lucky.

My favorite beat at the Nashville Business Journal was banking. Arkansas Business already had a solid banking reporter in George Waldon when I arrived, but I’ve been able to keep a hand in. In addition to a healthy product, George and I have had the pleasant duty of covering a banking community that has thrived beyond anything I could have imagined. Our three publicly traded banks — Bank OZK, Simmons Bank and Centennial Bank — earned a combined $933 million last year.

Meanwhile, the local banks I covered in Nashville a quarter-century ago are all gone, while Simmons — which issued my first credit card with a $300 limit back in the mid-’80s — has two offices there now.

Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.
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