Daily Hampshire Gazette Publisher Blames Pandemic for Newspaper’s Downturn

Says advertising revenue will rebound once “we get the economy rolling again.”


By SARAH ROBERTSON

NORTHAMPTON – Less than one month after the Pioneer Valley NewsGuild held a public forum to discuss the union’s concerns about the future of their newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette hosted a similar set of events with two editors and the paper’s new publisher, Shawn Palmer. While most attendees said they were loyal readers of the Gazette and proud of the newspaper, some criticized a lack of investigative reporting, sparse coverage of some community events, and a general decline in the quality and volume of news over the years. 

“After 35 years of growing up in this town and [the Gazette] being a local newspaper, it doesn’t seem to be local anymore,” said Steve Wales, a former newspaper delivery driver for the paper. “I’m just curious as to why it doesn’t seem local. Nobody seems to catch things before somebody else does.”

Several attendees, some of them columnists and former contributors who felt snubbed by diminishing freelance rates, expressed concern about the sustainability of the industry as a whole. 

“A lot of us on this call are concerned looking at the landscape of journalism in this country,” said attendee Tom Gardner. “I imagine a lot of us would like to hear from you about the financial health of the Gazette.”

Palmer answered that the pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the newspaper’s ad-dependent revenue, but that he is optimistic about the company’s future. He expects the news industry will rebound once we “get the economy rolling again.”

“Advertising volume drives page count, so as advertising volume shrunk we were forced to reduce content,” Palmer said. “Of course advertising will return once businesses reopen.”

The newly dubbed editor-in-chief of the Pioneer Valley Joan Livingston, and Gazette managing editor Dan Crowley, joined Palmer as he fielded questions from attendees, listened to praise for their work, and heard complaints about the newspapers’ shortcomings. They both expressed a desire to get back to normal, working in the newsroom.

“I understand why people are working from home, that’s very important for their health, but I miss that camaraderie,” Livingston said. “I think once we can get back to having a newsroom again people can begin to feel more a part of the newsroom family.”

However, some issues brought up during the NewsGuild’s public forum on February 24 preceded the pandemic. NNE has been outsourcing  work to Gannett since at least 2018, and staffing levels across all the company’s papers have been falling precipitously for many years.

“How can the Gazette continue the role it plays in the community, and especially the role of a watchdog that speaks truth to power, when it’s workers at a community forum last week told us that they were feeling overwhelmed and under-supported by company leadership?” asked one forum attendee, Dane K.

Palmer responded by saying he hasn’t been involved in union negotiations, but every employee he has had time to meet has been “outstanding.”

“No employees have complained to me about the environment in which we operate,” Palmer said. “Every employee that I’ve met since I’ve joined the company has been outstanding…. I think everybody is doing their absolute best for their community.”

Nobody called on to ask questions during the Gazette’s public forums asked why the newspaper’s Conz Street office was up for sale, or whether the company plans to continue outsourcing various aspects of the business to the mass media conglomerate Gannett. This summer Newspapers of New England (NNE) shut down the printing press in Northampton, laying off about half the staff in the unionized workplace when they outsourced print work to Gannett’s facility in Auburn.

“Everyone at the paper is working harder than ever before in this job. Our members are exhausted and demoralized,” the NewsGuild wrote in an email to The Shoestring. “And to suggest we staffers have no complaints about our workplace conditions is misinformation.”

Unprompted, Livingston also made a comment about how some employees need to work on “time management” while working remotely.

“For some people maybe time management is something that needs to be worked on, sometimes it’s not,” Livingston said. “I’m hoping this pandemic is over soon and we can restore back to a newsroom.”

“To question our ‘time management’ — after massive layoffs have us doing more with less — is hurtful,” the NewsGuild said.  

The Pioneer Valley NewsGuild is a union affiliated with the Communications Workers of America representing all non-managerial workers at the Gazette, but not NNE’s seven other publications in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The union was formalized by a 40-29 vote in December 2018. 

Jeff Jones, president of the Western Mass Area Labor Federation, brought up NNE’s ongoing negotiations with the NewsGuild, now ongoing for almost two years.

“At what point does the Gazette’s ownership intend to finish contract bargaining with the NewsGuild?” Jones asked. “That would go a long way to demonstrating the commitment to the stability of the paper, which I think everybody at tonight’s event here wants to see.”

According to NewsGuild members, the company has so far resisted contractual protections against outsourcing more work, and are reluctant to agree to scheduled cost-of-living increases. Seyfarth Shaw, a top-tier union busting law firm known for representing management against Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, as well as sexual predator Harvey Weinstein, has represented the company in the negotiations.

Other attendees at last month’s public forums asked whether the company has considered other business models, such as community ownership, worker ownership, or nonprofit status.

“Maybe the best way to sustain a newspaper isn’t by private ownership or advertising,” said Gazette reader and contributor Claudia Lefko. “When I was Googling independent newspapers that depend on grants and foundations, they are not driven by revenue from advertising.”

Palmer replied that he would present proposals from the community to NNE president and CEO Aaron Julien, who did not attend either the Gazette’s public forum or the NewsGuild’s.

On February 24th, the Pioneer Valley NewsGuild hosted a public forum titled “Saving Our Local News” attended by Congress member Jim McGovern and state representative Lindsay Sabadosa, among other guests. The NewsGuild invited the publisher and the newspaper’s CEO Aaron Julien to attend but received no response. In contrast to the live-streamed event hosted by the NewsGuild, the Gazette’s Zoom forums had the chat function turned off. 

This reporter attended both community forums and submitted a list of questions to the publisher beforehand, but was not called on to ask these questions during the public forums. After repeated requests for comment, we still haven’t received a response.

Several attendees accused the paper of running news stories that read like press releases with little critical follow-up on local politics. One attendee pointed to The Intercept’s reporting on the attempted smear campaign against Alex Morse that unfolded over the summer as the young mayor of Holyoke challenged Richard Neal for a seat in Congress. The Intercept beat the Gazette to a story that should have been spearheaded by local news, they said.

Dan Crowley is in charge of curating news and assigning stories to reporters at the Gazette. He told attendees that he receives around 100 emails a day from readers with story tips, ideas and requests for coverage. “The phone calls and emails and letters that we’ve gotten during this last year have really been appreciative,” he said. “I got a real sense how valued this newspaper is to the community.”

When asked how many reporters the newspaper has on staff, Crowley said there were seven counting the sports and arts writers. The Gazette covers a region of over 200,000 people, including all of Hampshire County, Holyoke, and some southern towns of Franklin County.

Newspapers of New England acquired the Daily Hampshire Gazette in 2005.

“The company is doing okay right now. We are looking at having a much better year in 2021,” Palmer said. “As the advertising increases and the paper gets bigger, there’s room for more content, and there’s room for more journalists.”

In December NNE laid off the Gazette’s last editor-in-chief Brooke Hauser, a move that surprised newspaper staff and left the paper without a lead editor. Livingston, then editor of the Greenfield Recorder, was promoted to “Editor-in-chief for the Pioneer Valley” the next day. 

Several attendees at Tuesday night’s forum mentioned that they missed the arts coverage and events listings in Hampshire Life, a magazine that ceased publication before Palmer took over as publisher.

“I have to be honest, I had to look it up,” Palmer said of the magazine. (The “Contact” page on the Gazette website still provides information on how to submit news and events to Hampshire Life.)

“Since Hampshire Life disappeared I’ve taken over the job of reporting on classical music events in my own publication, Good News About Classical Music email newsletter,” said attendee Peter Jones. “More of this type of thing is going to happen where individual people, whether affiliated with the Gazette or not, are going to take on jobs of reporting…. You have to maintain journalistic integrity. Everybody needs an editor, and too many people don’t have one.”


Sarah Robertson is a staff writer at The Shoestring and a regular contributor to the Montague Reporter.

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